The only Stanley Kubrick films I reviewed are A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). If you are at all familiar with these films, you will understand the tone of most of the famous director’s work. In short, he seems to have had a penchant for violence. It is not the random kind, either, which in many respects is scarier. Though I have yet to cover it, one can see its apotheosis in his calmer movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this one, the spaceship computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) coldly determines that humans are the problem and efficiently murders the living crew. The deliberateness of the violence is something you can see in many of Kubrick’s films. He seems to suggest that in order to be a killer, one has to become something other than a person. This brings me to his penultimate film, Full Metal Jacket (1987).
The process by which the men become killers in Full Metal Jacket starts with a new class of Marines to go through their training center on Parris Island in South Carolina. The first step in dehumanization comes in the opening shot as all the new recruits are given the same buzz haircut, stripping away one layer of individuality. There are a few characters on which the film focuses during the basic training phase of this Vietnam War era movie. The first one is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), whose job it is to mold these relative boys into fighting men. His methods are, to say the least, harsh. A particular target of his ire is Private Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose dopey, good-natured attitude earns him the nickname “Gomer Pyle.” The nickname, by the way, is a further departure from their identity because Sergeant Hartman does not refer to them by their actual appellations. This brings me to another person that initially draws Sergeant Hartman’s intense scrutiny, and that is Private J. T. Davis (Matthew Modine). When he cracks wise in their first moments in the bunkhouse, it earns him the nickname “Joker.” As their training continues, it becomes evident that Private Lawrence is ill-equipped to be a Marine. He often confuses his left from his right, cannot make it over or through obstacle courses, and is often cited for not having certain aspects of his kit up to snuff. Private Davis is given the task of helping Private Lawrence, but even he gets frustrated with the ineptitude. Such is Private Lawrence’s bumbling that it leads Sergeant Hartman to punish the rest of the class instead of Private Lawrence whenever he errs. This leads to further bullying, and isolation for Private Lawrence. Miraculously, though, he makes it on the strength of his marksmanship. Unfortunately, the trials of basic training proved too much of a strain for him. The night after their graduation, with all of them about to ship out for their first duties, Private Davis finds Private Lawrence with a loaded rife in the restrooms. Private Lawrence appears to be in an agitated state, and begins shouting what he had been instructed about the importance of his weapon. This brings Sergeant Hartman to the restrooms. When he arrives, Private Lawrence turns the weapon on the drill instructor, firing, and killing him before putting the gun in his own mouth and pulling the trigger. With this stunningly tragic scene, we then shift to Vietnam where now Sergeant Davis is working with Stars and Stripes magazine as a reporter, his assignment fresh out of bootcamp. At first, the war is more of an abstract for him, with more time spent well behind the front lines than in fighting. And then the famous Tet Offensive of 1968 occurs, and his fellow Marines/journalists at the Da Nang Marine base have to pitch in to beat back an incursion by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). This taste of combat only whets the appetite for such mayhem for Sergeant Davis’ photographer, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). When Sergeant Davis gets assigned to cover the taking back of the city of Hué, he tries to get Rafterman to not come with him. They go as a pair anyway, and are soon imbedded with a platoon that includes his bootcamp bunkmate, Sergeant Evans (Arliss Howard), otherwise known as “Cowboy.” It is clear that they have been in combat for longer than a person should be, and have been changed by the experience, caring about little else than staying alive and having sex with prostitutes. The war gets even more up close and personal for Sergeant Davis when they are sent on patrol. After getting lost, which leads to three deaths including Sergeant Evans, Sergeant Davis helps take out the lone sniper responsible for the ambush. In fact, it is him who finds the perpetrator first, who also happens to be a woman. Of course, at the critical moment, his gun jams and will not fire. Luckily, he is saved by Rafterman, who gloats over his accomplishment. The rest gather over a mortally wounded, slowly dying Vietnamese woman who is praying with her final breaths. Sergeant Davis says that they cannot leave her, while the seemingly amoral, presumptive squad leader “Animal Mother” (Adam Baldwin) tells Sergeant Davis to finish her off. With her pleading to be shot, Sergeant Davis puts bullet in her with his pistol, and they move on to the next mission. The film closes with the rest of the platoon marching through the Vietnamese night singing the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Club.
Full Metal Jacket is a difficult movie to watch because of the subject matter, and you do not have to be a Catholic to feel this way. As a Catholic, I cringe when Private Davis gets savagely dressed down by Sergeant Hartman when the trainee says that he does not believe in the Virgin Mary. That is a cornerstone of Catholicism, though, for now, I will spare you the lecture about how we do not worship Mary. Veneration and worship do not mean the same thing, people! It gets worse when they sing happy birthday to Jesus on Christmas, and when Sergeant Hartman says that God has a “hard on” for Marines. Again, the film is about taking men and molding them into killers, not calling out moments of sacrilege. The military would put this in more positive terms, which makes sense. One does not join the armed forces in order to remain the person you have always been. Instead, they want to make you into who they want you to be. What I think is more broadly applicable to this situation, and this is something that stems from Faith, is the disregard for life. It is not just in the killing that goes on in battle. Aside from the Crusades, which is arguable, the Church has almost always come out as being against war because every single life is precious to God. In this light, I do not approve of the disgusting mental gymnastics Sergeant Hartman goes through to justify killing. Yet, these are the more obvious criticisms. The more subtle ones come with the scenes of prostitution. Again, dehumanization is at work. The sex workers have to sell their bodies like meat, and their customers are always trying to undercut the amount they are seeking. This is, perhaps, the saddest aspect of the movie.
There is not much that is uplifting about Full Metal Jacket. It is well shot and acted, as you would expect from a Stanley Kubrick film. If that is what you look for in a movie, then there is definitely quality in it. My cinematic eye tends to be more geared towards the philosophical aspects of a film. If it does not have a good message in it, then I will not recommend it. This one seems to be about men coming to grips with the notion that they are no longer people, and being fine with it. This is all without even mentioning the awful, racialized language throughout the film. For these reasons, I cannot recommend it.