Weekly Classics: Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987, and is hailed as one of the best war movies ever made. It was released around the same time as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” which won the Oscar for best picture that year, and both films, along with Apocalypse Now (1979) are well known for their unique artistic and cynical portrayals of the Vietnam war.
One of the reasons that Full Metal Jacket is unique is Kubrick’s celebrated and ingenious visual direction. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, and a man of many eccentricities, but great focus. Full Metal Jacket was shot mostly in East London because Kubrick was afraid of flying (even though he had a pilot’s license) and generally hated traveling very far from his home in any direction. He was a task-master when it came to making movies and possessed a focus that was almost unbreakable.
Actor R Lee Ermey recalls an incident before the shooting of the film when Kubrick drove his wife’s SUV distractedly into a ditch while pointing out a shooting location in the distance to the rest of them. As the car lay on its side off the road, Kubrick climbed out of the window and stood on top of the car continuing to point and talk about the location to the startled passengers without even breaking his flow.
This degree of focus is not just an empty quirk however, because when you see any of his movies, the perfection of the visuals and attention to detail is vividly apparent in every shot.
Full Metal Jacket begins with a montage of fresh-faced young marine recruits having their heads shaved to the calming sound of slide guitar and Johnny Wright’s country drawl singing “Hello Vietnam”.
America has heard the bugle call
And you know it involves us one and all
I don’t suppose that war will ever end
There’s fighting that will break us up again
Goodbye my darling, Hello Vietnam
A hill to take a battle to be won
Kiss me goodbye and write me while I’m gone
Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.
This serene into is then followed by one of the most jarring dialogue sequences you can find in American film. The same recruits are lined up in their barracks at Parris Island, South Carolina, which is a US Marine Corps Training Camp. They are being prepped for boot-camp for the first time by the brutal Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey). He barks viciously at them, hurling sharp insults that are at once obscene, violent, and sometimes comically intense.
As he goes along verbally tearing each recruit apart, he gives them the nicknames by which we will know them for the rest of the film. In this introduction we are witnessing a kind of brutal rechristening. Taken as fresh, doe-eyed youngsters, these men are being given new identities, and their old ones will be taken apart with the sledgehammer that is Hartman.
Among others there is The “Joker” (Matthew Modine), who earns his name from his attempt at trying to talk behind the sergeant’s back. Another is the lumbering, dull-witted Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is renamed “Gomer Pyle”, because his original name is apparently not manly enough. He cannot stop grinning at the sergeant’s endless string of obscenities and receives a shocking physical reprimand that takes away the last smile he will smile for the rest of his stay.
With this brutal intro we too are then prepped for the kind of thing we are about to witness. This sequence itself is as loaded with meaning both on and off-screen. R Lee Ermey, actually earned his acting career from playing the sergeant’s character. Initially he was not even cast for the role, instead was supposed to use his military background (he was a retired drill sergeant) to serve as a technical adviser and help with accuracy and realism. He would train the actors to act like soldiers and was also helping out in the casting process during auditions for the roles of extras.
Actor Tim Colceri was originally cast in the role of Sergeant Hartman, but Ermey knew that he could play the role better. So in the pre-production days, when Colceri would get hoarse and tired from shouting and playing sergeant opposite the hundreds of auditioning actors, Ermey would take over and deliver a performance that to him, was perfectly natural. He explains himself in an interview for the documentary Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil: “I interviewed all the background extras, and I interviewed these people as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, knowing that that has to go to Stanley Kubrick. I worked it out so that Stanley had to watch me being his drill instructor whether he liked it or not.”
It is said that when Ermey went back to Stanley Kubrick and asked for the part, Kubrick was reluctant again. At this Ermey instantly barked an order for Kubrick to stand up when he was spoken to, and he instinctively obeyed. Of course after this the part was his.
It is often observed that though the movie doesn’t officially have two sections, it almost seems like the first and second half are two different chapters. The first half of the film basically deals with the training of the recruits, a process that is portrayed shockingly and with a touch of black humour; The young men are essentially being dehumanized. They are turned into monsters by a method that inculcates a mentality of pure violence. We witness especially, the breakdown of “Gomer Pyle”, as the sergeant ruthlessly undertakes the task of humiliating him and pushing him very hard to a point that is too far. In true Kubrick style, this part of the film rendered brilliantly and jarringly – and many would say that it is in fact this first half of the movie that really sticks in their memories
The second part of the film begins when the group graduates and is sent into Vietnam. Most of the riflemen are sent to combat positions, but Joker is assigned a position as a journalist working for the Military Newspaper “Stars and Stripes”. He is the main protagonist. He is humorous, intelligent, and perceptive – most of the time he stands out from his peers as he seems to be two steps ahead of the way that the army wants him to think. However he is a young soldier, and is still mesmerised by the dark fire stoked by the system. He is torn between his natural passive nature, and his youthful desire to establish his bravado and exercise his killer instinct. He wears a peace sign on his shirt and writes “Born to Kill” on his helmet.
Using his masterful sense of satire and irony, Kubrick has peppered this film with a sense of the darkly absurd. From the internally conflicted Joker, to everyone he meets and everything that is surrounding them. We now see a portrait of the war through the eyes of this apt protagonist and throughout the film, there are many examples of this duality. There is a sense of schizophrenia incited by the horrifying nature of the conflict and the concept of waging war in the name of humanity melts in the fire of Kubrick’s portrayal.
At one point during the film, Joker and Private Rafterman – his photographer played by Kevyn Major Howard have to come to the city of Hue, in Southern Vietnam to get a good story at the front-lines. On the helicopter flight they stare shocked at a gunner who is indiscriminately shooting civilians on the rice-fields. “How can you shoot women or children?” asks Joker in shock, “Easy!” replies the door gunner, with a manic look in his eye “Ya just don’t lead ‘em so much! Ain’t war hell?”
When they finally arrive, they meet with a group of soldiers who call themselves the “Lusthog Squad”. One of them named, “Crazy Earl” calls Rafterman to the side saying “Hey photographer! Want to take a good picture? Come here. This, is my bro.”
With that he uncovers a dead Viet-cong soldier seated next to him on a chair. He takes off the soldier’s hat that is covering his face and proceeds to give this speech: “These are great days we’re living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.”
The bizarre sequences and behavior, combined with Kubrick’s reputation for portraying extremity may lead one to think that the film is exaggerating many of these people and events for dramatic effect and caricature. But in many cases that is alarmingly untrue. The screenplay of this film was mostly written by Michael Herr. Herr himself had been a reporter in the Vietnam war. The helicopter machine-gunner who was shooting civilians for instance, is taken directly from his book titled “Dispatches”, a memoir of the things Herr personally witnessed during the war.
“He was doing this film as his answer to Rambo” says, Dorian Harewood, who played the role of marine ‘Eight-ball’ in the film. “Marines come up to me all the time, especially marines, and they say this was the movie, this is really how it was.”
The Vietnam war was the first in history to be subjected to the glaring eye of the media, but now of course, we are not left in any doubt about the kind of horrors that take place during most warfare. It is worth noting however that though American wars are not the only ones where criminal activities take place, since the days of Vietnam their artistic and activist community has regularly exposed and analysed these wrongdoings in a self-critical manner that is not very common in other countries.
Full Metal Jacket is not for the faint-hearted viewer, the movie has its share of blood and gore, and a lot of foul language and shocking dialogue. However ff anyone wants to see a film that captures the dark persona of the Vietnam war, and the twisted psychological mechanics that sometimes go into building soldiers in an army, then this is definitely a classic worth watching.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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