Society and Human Nature in the Films
of Stanley Kubrick,
by Gordon Banks
To the creator of films as well as other forms of literature, the dark side of human nature has often proved more rich and interesting than the bright. Films and books on the lives of saints have not been as popular as murder mysteries and works of horror. While we may have no desire to experience them in our own lives, terrible deeds and evil people exert their perverse attraction on our psyches. We who consider ourselves moral and upright are often fascinated by the behavior of the pitiless, merciless, and guiltless psychopath. Like a magnificent black panther: powerful, dangerous, and alien, the psychopathic character can have a dark, perfect beauty that simultaneously attracts and repels us. We will explore the use of such characters in the films of Stanley Kubrick, the 20th century film auteur as it relates to his view of the nature of both individuals and human institutions. But first, we will review the clinical view of psychopathy as assembled by students of brain and behavior over the centuries
While it was not until the nineteenth century that doctors began to elucidate the nature of that disturbing category of human beings that we now call psychopaths, history and literature show that they have always been with us. Scientific study of the psychopath is difficult because of the skewed view we obtain from those psychopaths available for study: prison populations. The psychopath recognizes no flaw in his psyche, no need for change. Those who are successful in avoiding brushes with the law do not present themselves for treatment or study. While some psychopaths undoubtedly correspond to the popular view of the brutal killer, criminal, or rapist, many, if not most, do not. Often this entity is referred to by the term sociopathy or antisocial personality, emphasizing their chaotic relationships with other people and society, but while this aspect of these personalities is most readily apparent, there are many other features of this character disorder having nothing to do with other people which also show considerable deviation from normal behavior. For this reason, I prefer the older term psychopath. In recent years, there has been a growing realization that there are many psychopaths who successfully avoid trouble with the law, and estimates of the percentage of psychopaths in the population (formerly thought to be about 3%, based on studies of prisoners) have been revised upward.
As is common in medicine, and especially in psychiatry, where there is often no "litmus" test which can be applied, diagnosis is a matter of nosology and categorization. This is bound to lead to disagreements between various authorities as to which manifestations warrant inclusion or exclusion of an individual from a given diagnosis. Naturally, this has led to various schools of thought on the subject of psychopathy.
Historical OverviewThe first writings by doctors on the subject seem to originate around the beginning of the 19th century[1,2], but the earliest formal description of what he called "moral insanity" is given by Prichard in 1835. The 19th century physicians recognized that there were some walking among other men who were of sound reason and intellect, but when it came to the moral realm were "deranged". They described individuals who had no sense of right and wrong, no feelings of guilt or shame for wrongdoing, and had a marked propensity to lie, cheat, and engage in other activities which normal society considered reprehensible. During the last 40 years, psychopaths have been more intensively studied and recent research seems to indicate that they actually represent a variant of human beings with abnormal brain function.
DemographicsDemographic studies of psychopaths are somewhat suspect because they rely so heavily on the institutionalized segment of the population of psychopaths, but they show that males outnumber females by at least 5:1, and that they almost always come from severely disturbed families The deviant behavior is manifest even as young children. The period from adolescence to mid-thirties is marked by the most severe deviance. As they age, many psychopaths seem to "mellow", at least in their more aggressive antisocial behavior.
In describing the clinical features of psychopaths, I will rely heavily on the most complete description in the literature, the monograph which constituted the life-work of psychiatrist and neurologist Hervey Cleckley entitled The Mask of Sanity.
GuiltlessnessWhile the psychopath often recognizes that other people have a "conscience", and will feign remorse to avoid punishment, as Cleckley explains, "he shows almost no sense of shame. His career is always full of exploits, any one of which would wither even the more callous representatives of the ordinary man. Yet he does not, despite his able protestations, show the slightest evidence of major humiliation or regret. This is true of matters pertaining to his personal and selfish pride and to esthetic standards that he avows as well as to moral or humanitarian matters."
Lack of insight and judgementIt is in this realm that the psychopath comes closest to the psychotic. While seemingly in full possession of his reasoning ability, by all the means of clinical psychology to test and assess them, the psychopath demonstrates an inability to comprehend the meaning and significance of his behavior for other people, and to judge their probable reactions to his behavior. He is often astounded to find that people are upset by his exploits. Although he knows intellectually what punishment is decreed for certain crimes, when caught, he puts up elaborate rationalizations and defenses, and seems surprised when he is actually punished. Mark Hofmann, an ingenious forger of rare documents and murderer, included among the victims of his: many scholars, the Library of Congress, the U.S. mint, the Mormon Church, private collectors, and several forgery experts. His career began as a child with the alteration of mint-marks on coins. He recently revealed his thinking on the subject of his forgeries: "It's not so much what is genuine and what isn't as what people believe is genuine. When I forged a document and sold it, I was not cheating the person that I was selling it to because the document would never be detected as being a fraud. Obviously if I would have known they would some day be detected, I wouldn't have done it. I didn't feel like I was cheating them." This statement shows not only a lack of guilt and remorse, but a semantic lack of understanding of the concept of authenticity. Psychopaths can be thought of not as being hypocrites, but as actually not understanding or using language in the same way other people do.
Lovelessness and lack of empathy
While the psychopath has likes and dislikes and fondness for the pleasures that human company can bring, analysis shows that he is completely egocentric, valuing others only for their enhancement of his own pleasure or status. While he gives no real love, he is quite capable of inspiring love of sometimes fanatical degree in others. He is generally superficially charming and often makes a striking impression as possessed of the noblest of human qualities. He makes friends easily, and is very manipulative, using his ability with words to talk his way out of trouble. Many psychopaths love to be admired and bask in the adulation of others. With the lack of love, there is also a lack of empathy. The psychopath is unable to feel sorry for others in unfortunate situations or put himself in another's place, whether or not they have been harmed by him.
Disordered interpersonal relationshipsWhile psychopaths are notably sexually promiscuous, their inability to love or to show any but the most superficial kindness to others prevents them from forming meaningful relationships with others, including parents and spouses. The promiscuity seems more related to their lack of restraint than to an exaggerated sexual drive. Bizarre and indecent liaisons are common. Dominance and power are recurring themes in the social relations of psychopaths. They enjoy being in a position of power over others, especially women. The psychopath often plays jokes and tricks on others to humiliate them or to assert dominance. Psychopaths are often found in positions of imposture. They are attracted to certain vocations having great opportunity for exerting power such as politics, the law, or medicine.
FearlessnessThe psychopath is remarkably free of both the psychological and physiological manifestations of anxiety. They often pass lie detector tests (as did Mark Hofmann), and are well known for their valor in war, risking their own lives, and often recklessly endangering their entire units and disobeying orders in the process. It is said that the decision often comes whether to award a man the Medal of Honor or to court-martial him, and the "Rambo" stories of former war heros in trouble with the law have basis in reality. The famous psychopath, Aaron Burr, directly disobeyed the orders of his superior in winning a battle and fame during the American revolution. It is this "bravery" that often helps the psychopath win the affection of followers and accord him a respected place in society, which is later disillusioned by his subsequent exploits. Another aspect of the fearlessness, is the obliviousness of the psychopath to punishment. Not only does the threat of future punishment have no power to deter him, but actual punishment does not reform him. Most psychiatrists consider psychopaths untreatable.
Irresponsibility, Insincerity, and UnreliabilityWhile the psychopath is charming and makes friends easily, those who come to rely upon him soon painfully find out that he has no sense of responsibility. Continually promises are made and broken without regard for the gravity of the consequences, for which the psychopath will then deny responsibility. He can solemnly lie while looking the victim in the eye, showing no anxiety whatever.
ImpulsivenessThe inability to restrain his impulses is what often leads to the downfall of the psychopath. While he theoretically knows what is considered proper behavior, and can even provide sage advice, it is in carrying out the actual process of living that the psychopath runs into trouble. There is a tendency toward continual excitement and stimulation. This impulsiveness may lead to a scandal or to the commission of a theft, rape, or other crime. It is this obliviousness to the consequences of risk taking that often leads to the uncovering of a "successful" psychopath who was previously well esconced as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, politician, or some other respected person in the community.
EtiologyPrior to the past 30 years, psychiatry operated largely apart from the tools of modern biological investigation, and most theories of abnormal behavior were based on moral and later psychoanalytic notions, which largely were grounded in the belief that the individual was shaped by the environment. When it comes to explaining the psychopath, psychoanalytic theory has been speculative and not very credible[10,11], and recent investigators have turned to studies in genetics, electrophysiology, and language in an attempt to explain why such a constellation of character defects crops up so frequently and consistently. Opinion now seems to favor a defect in the function of the brain, probably involving the non-dominant hemisphere which may well be innate. Studies of very young children have revealed that contrary to the theories of Piaget, empathy appears at a very early age and is probably an innate characteristic.
The Psychopath in Film
That the psychopathic character often finds his way into films (as well as other forms of literature) is not surprising. The ambiguous mixture of strong emotions that are aroused in "normal" persons while examining such characters make them strange and fascinating subjects. We are charmed by their craftiness and allow ourselves to be inveigled by their manipulativeness from the safety of our theater seats. We secretly admire their disrespect for convention and guiltless flaunting of rules and laws in a manner that we find almost impossible to do. We enjoy their brave exploits and fearlessness. While we fear their predatory nature, yet we find in them a mixture of beauty and danger.
The criminal psychopath is probably the most common form to appear in films. Often, the characters are based on actual psychopaths such as James Wood's character in The Onion Field, Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song, Peter Lorre's character in M, and Charles Starkweather (the basis for Kit, played by Martin Sheen in Badlands). Notable examples of fictional criminal psychopaths in films are Michael Corleone in the Godfather films, Scarface in the De Palma version of that gangster film, and Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet. Psychopaths may occur in a film with a moral heart to serve as a contrast to the upright protagonist (Richard Rich vs. Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons) and appear in other films as an evil double or antagonist to the main character (Harvey Keitel's character in The Duellists, Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train). As in reality, film female psychopaths are rare, and when they are used, they often serve as scheming manipulators whose main weapons are sexual (Matty in Body Heat, Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Jessica Walter's character in Play Misty for Me, Glenn Close's character in Dangerous Liaisons). Other interesting psychopathic portrayals in film are that of Robert Mitchum as "Preacher" in Night of the Hunter, that of Eric Roberts as Paul Snider (Dorothy Stratton's husband) in Star 80, Keith Carradine's character in Nashville, and Robert Duvall's Bull Meecham in The Great Santini.
The most obvious psychopath in a Kubrick film is Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange. In Clockwork, we find ourselves listening to Alex's narration as he tells the story of his career. In Alex, Kubrick has created a character who is simultaneously attractive and repellant. He is bright, witty, handsome, self-confident, brave (plays "chicken" in motorcars), adventurous, splendidly fashionable in dress, lover of Beethoven, and has a highly developed esthetic sense which is demonstrated in the following narration describing the sensations of driving in the country at night:The Durango 95 purred away real horrorshow; a nice warm vibraty feeling all through your gutty-wuts. And soon it was trees and dark, my brothers, with real country dark.But at the same time, Alex is totally devoid of any empathy for other human beings. He has no moral scruples or conscience. He is sadistic, narcissistic, sexually promiscuous, a liar and deceiver, and is driven by fantasies of power and dominance. He and his hoodlum droogs prowl nightly beating up drunks, fighting with rivals, and looking for opportunities to rob, rape, and pummel their victims. Alex sees his crimes almost as a peculiar form of artistic expression. The victims are usually chosen randomly (those unfortunates who happen to be driving the other way when they play "kings of the road", or the writer and his wife). Alex and his droogs are masked and the violence is theatrical, accompanied by strange touches such as Gene Kelly song and dance numbers ("Singing in the Rain"). When Alex returns from his depredations, during which we have observed him rape a woman in her home and kick her husband until he is left paraplegic, we see him deposit a watch and cash taken from his victims into his nightstand drawer, which contains hundreds of other watches, indicating the length of time over which this kind of behavior has been occurring. He then remarks:It had been a wonderful evening and what I needed now to give it a perfect ending was a bit of the old Ludwig Van (Beethoven).Whereupon he proceeds to masturbate to the music of Beethoven's 9th Symphony while entertaining fantasies of rape and violence. Alex is well satisfied with this life and has no plans to change it, unlike Droog Georgie, who aspires to a more conventional criminal career going for the "big, big, money". He tells Georgie:
And what will you do with the big, big, big, money?" Have you not everything you need? If you need a motorcar, you pluck it from the trees. If you need pretty Polly, you take it.
Alex's home environment is a dreary contrast to his exciting night life. He lives in "municipal flat block 18A linear north", a drab concrete housing project with non-functional elevators and graffiti-defaced wall murals painted in the style of "socialist-realism." His parents embody all of the bad stereotypes of the British working class: stupid, gullible, unambitious, all leisure time spent watching the tele and reading sensational newspapers, with garish taste in decor and personal attire. In contrast to the decor in the rest of the cramped flat, Alex's room is very mod and artistically appointed.
Manipulation is another tool of the psychopath often used by Alex. He lies to his parents and to his truant officer in order to manipulate them. When Alex is caught and charged with murder, he typically tries to shift blame to his droogs and to deny responsibility. Once he is imprisoned, he adopts the role of model prisoner, "sucking up" to the chaplain by pretending to study the Bible (secretly finding more material for his sadist and sexual fantasies therein). During his conditioning he attempts to manipulate the scientists. Once in a position of dominance, his manipulation takes on a bullying tone, as exemplified by his behavior following the suicide attempt when, despite having lost the use of all four limbs, simply by opening his mouth, and demanding food as if he were a baby bird, he asserts his dominance over the government minister as the minister feeds Alex.
As might be expected, the choice of such a protagonist for an important film by such a well known director as Kubrick resulted in a storm of critical controversy. Kubrick was accused of pandering to violent behavior if not outrightly promoting it. In an interview in the New York Times, Kubrick explained that although he is fascinated by violence, he is not advocating it (or anything else) in the film, but merely portraying it: "Part of the artistic challenge of the character is to present the violence as he sees it, not with the disapproving eye of the moralist, but subjectively, as Alex experiences it." From this standpoint, in my view, Kubrick has succeeded masterfully in letting us see into the mind of a psychopathic personality. But Kubrick goes further in the interview in explaining his reasons for his fascination with Alex: "I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it's a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.... The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man."
Kubrick is expressing an idea here that accords with Sowell's description of the "constrained" view of human nature which posits that it is flawed and largely fixed, and that efforts to build utopias will invariably founder on the rocks of human failings and will reflect the imperfections of their builders. Variations on this view have been held by such historical figures as Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. The opposing view, that man is (at least somewhat) perfectible, or that the evil in the world is mainly the result of bad social institutions has been the view of Godwin, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Voltaire, Ronald Dworkin, and John Kenneth Galbraith. The constrained vision has been characterized as cynical, conservative, pessimistic, as opposed to the romantic, liberal, optimistic, idealistic unconstrained vision of man. Sowell points out that the person's view of human nature often serves as a litmus test that can predict which side of a given controversy the person will come down on, with holders of the constrained vision opposing holders of the unconstrained view across a spectrum of religious, social, and political issues. Often, people at opposite poles have great difficulty communicating with and understanding each other, since their basic premises are so different.
Kubrick expands on his view of the man's futile hope of salvation through social institutions in Clockwork by showing the natural man (psychopath Alex) in his encounters with characters representing other archetypes.
The liberal is represented by the writer Frank Alexander. Alex and his droogs gull him into opening the door to them by playing on his compassion with a sob story about an accident on the road, whereupon they brutally rape the wife and beat Frank so severely he is left a paraplegic invalid. Significantly, Alex vandalizes Frank's study, sweeping his writings and his typewriter onto the floor, and pulling down the shelves scattering asunder the books representing man's accumulated wisdom and knowledge. When Alex has come full-circle, and once again encounters Frank, he now is in Frank's power. How does the liberal deal with him? He drugs him and submits him to torture, gleefully enjoying his screams, thus demonstrating that at the heart of the liberal lurks the same primitive brutality that motivates Alex.
The moralist is represented by the prison chaplain. Alex fools the chaplain into thinking he has a true love for the Bible in order to gain privileges. The chaplain, significantly, recognizes the hypocrisy of the conditioning, and that it has made no moral change in Alex. But he is told by the minister of the interior (another type of psychopath):
Padre, these are subtleties. We're not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics, we're concerned only with cutting down crime and with relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian...
Cynical characters in the film who appear to share Kubrick's gestalt are the prison guard and warden who see through Alex's manipulation, but have not sufficient power to prevent the minister and the scientists from using Alex for his own ends.
Kubrick's view of societal institutions is shown by his general portrayal of the drab conditions of the future England as well as through the psychopathic characters of the representatives of state authority shown in the film. The truant officer, Mr. Deltoid, is hardly concerned for Alex's well being. He barely can conceal his joy that finally Alex has killed someone and now can be punished severely. The psychopathic police interrogator enjoys torturing Alex. The government minister is also a psychopath, having no true concern for the welfare of either the prisoners or the society. The minister sees the Ludovico technique as a tool for accomplishing his political ends, and Alex as a perfect candidate: "He's enterprising, aggressive, outgoing, young, bold, vicious--he'll do". And besides, "Soon we may need all our prison space for political offenders." He and Alex understand each other well and the last scene shows them scheming to place the blame for Alex's "misfortune" on the scientists and the minister's political opponents:
We tried to help you. We followed recommendations which were made to us that turned out to be wrong. An inquiry will place the responsibility where it belongs.... We never wished you harm, but there are some who did and do.... There is also a certain man...a writer of subversive literature, who has been howling for your blood...but you're safe from him now...we've put him away. He was a menace--we put him away for his own protection and also for yours.
At the end, Alex is "cured" of his conditioning under government auspices and begins a new career in government service ("we always help our friends, don't we"). It is clear from his power and sex fantasies which close the film that he is not cured of his psychopathy, and that he will now continue his exploits from a position of even greater power than before. The final fantasy of him reveling in a sexual orgy while being applauded by many figures in Victorian garb may be symbolic of the forthcoming social sanctioning of his libertine behavior.
In Clockwork, government, technology, and other social institutions are seen as only worsening the problem of man's barbaric nature rather than helping. It is small wonder that liberal critics decried Kubrick's vision, as this also runs counter to their notions. Malcomb McDowell said in an interview, "Liberals, they hate Clockwork because they're dreamers, and if someone shows them realities--cringe, don't they, when faced with the bloody truth."
Kubrick's view that the psychopath is an apt model for the natural man is one of the more bleak and cynical castings of the constrained vision. His casting of society as basically sharing the psychopathic bestiality of the natural man makes it no surprise that he has been vehemently attacked by some critics. It is interesting that many of those critics generally failed to perceive Kubrick's fundamental antagonism to their own views until the release of Clockwork. We will now examine the earlier Kubrick films to see how his use of psychopathic individuals and societies developed.
In Kubrick's earliest work we encounter psychopaths only as villains or peripheral characters, in the persons of the dance hall manager in Killer's Kiss, and Val in The Killing, although all of the main characters in the latter film are criminals. Kubrick's first use of full psychopaths as major characters comes in the form of the scheming generals Broulard and Mireau in Paths of Glory. Here we find them as pitted against hero Kirk Douglas, a liberal officer. Douglas' Colonel Dax character was the last use of an unambiguously liberal protagonist in a Kubrick film, and it can be argued that the producer, James B. Harris, and/or Douglas may have had some influence on his interpretation of this character.
Kubrick probably delivered a jolt to the world view of the average film viewer in 1957 with his portrayal of the Generals. In those days, many were fond of thinking of the leaders of countries (especially allies) as being intelligent, competent, and even humanistic, and they were usually so portrayed in film. General Mireau, despite his feigned concern for his troops (sparring with Gen. Broulard and trying to avoid a difficult assignment) orders his gunnery officer to murder them by impetuously turning his own artillery on them after they fail to carry out his impossible orders. He is incapable of accepting blame for his mistakes, and remorselessly sacrifices three of his own troops to deflect attention from his failure. General Broulard even more clearly exemplifies psychopathic amorality. He uses Dax against General Mireau and seeks to reward him with the latter's command after Mireau's final downfall, assuming Dax to be a man like themselves who was playing his cards for his own benefit and not for that of his men. When Dax responds indignantly, General Broulard is surprised at this "naïvete" and tells him he is "wallowing in sentimentality". Because the self-serving psychopath does not think as other men and has no feelings of guilt or conscience, his ability to wreak chaos upon the rest of mankind is immense as he executes his power schemes without regard to who gets hurt.
General Mireau's indignation at ultimately being held accountable for his battlefield behavior illustrates another interesting facet of psychopathic behavior: their peculiar sense of justice. Being deficient in empathy and thus failing to recognize his own behavior as immoral, Mireau can see his fate only as the result of the scheming of brother officers, both superior (Broulard) and subordinate (Dax), in the power game. He was at least half right with respect to Broulard, whose moves also were governed by psychopathic logic. In the end, Kubrick's dark vision prevailed in this film, as the liberal Dax is incapable of either saving his men or changing the rules of the game in which he is enmeshed. Liberal film critics could acclaim Paths of Glory because the psychopaths were militarists and the film was seen as anti-war, with a liberal hero, Dax.
The Roman senators in Spartacus play power games, and Imperial Rome is portrayed as a corrupt and scheming society, but the central character, Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas), is a somewhat liberal man of scruples.. Spartacus ultimately fails (as did the real Spartacus, who has in modern days become somewhat of a ideal of the left). In Lolita, Clare Quilty has some aspects of psychopathy (he is as much a pedophile as Humbert Humbert, a trickster, but brave in the teeth of death), but his character is not well enough developed to make any definitive statements. Likewise, in Dr. Strangelove, we get glimpses of characters who seem to be rather devoid of morality (Strangelove, General Buck Turgidson), but their personas are not explored in detail. Again, it is deranged human systems and institutions that seem more Kubrick's target in this film. Strangelove was perhaps the favorite film of liberal critics as they saw it as indicting one of the great evils of the cold war: the arms race. What they may have failed to perceive was Kubrick's cynical attitude toward the efficacy of liberal politics, as he portrayed the impotent president Muffley as an Adlai Stevenson clone. In 2001, A Space Odyssey, the central character, HAL, is a computer. While he does some terrible deeds, killing the human members of the crew, he does it out of dedication to his mission and self-preservation instinct. HAL also apparently becomes mad because of conflicting instructions given to him by his human programs, and thus does not qualify as a psychopathic intelligence. It was at this point that some of the critics began to become uneasy with Kubrick, for he portrayed man as violent and bestial by nature, incapable of solving their problems on their own and with their only hope of salvation being intervention by god-like extraterrestrial intelligences. Because they could see it as primarily an indictment of technological solutions, many of the Luddites among them could still approve.
Kubrick's work following Clockwork Orange has continued to display the pessimism and even misanthropy of that film. Barry Lyndon depicts a society bound up in formality and ritual which people used to pretend to civilization while basically totally corrupt, decadent, and immoral. The central character is a picaresque rogue. Apart from the fact that he seems to be capable of love (at least in the case of his friend, Captain Jack Grogan, and son Brian), Barry seems to fit the picture of a manipulative, although not murderous (if one ignores duelling) psychopath. As his career progresses, he becomes more skilled at lying and cheating under the tutelage of a phony marquis. His major goal is to lead the life of an aristocrat and he attempts to attain his goals by marrying a rich woman he does not love and then bribing his way into a title. With each film, Kubrick's settings seem to cycle from present to future to past, but all of his visions show humans as base and loathsome.
Jack Torrance in The Shining has many psychopathic features. He is a bully to his wife, a child abuser, and has a history of alcoholism. He has difficulty keeping a job. He shows little love for his family, but he is quite capable of being charming and manipulative when it suits his purposes. Psychosis plays more a part in his final downfall than does psychopathy. Again, characters representing the more liberal side of man (the pediatrician and Dick Halloran) are impotent to ameliorate the situation when push comes to shove.
In some ways, Full Metal Jacket can be seen as complementary and inverse to A Clockwork Orange. In Clockwork, Alex wreaks havoc because of his love of violence and sex and his lack of empathy for his victims. Society tries to change him by aversive conditioning against the sex and violence (leaving the lack of empathy untouched, however). In Full Metal Jacket, the system takes young men and puts them through a conditioning program to attempt to extirpate any feelings of empathy that they might naturally have, leaving them in the end, psychopaths, suitable for animalistic warfare. It does so first by stripping them of the characteristics they use to identify themselves and order their lives. They are shaved bald, removing any individual hair styles. Their names are taken away from them and denigrating nicknames applied. Their home regions and towns are ridiculed. Their physical characteristics (shortness, obesity) are used to mock them and tease them. Their manhood is denied. Any morality that they learned at their mother's knee (don't fight, don't say bad words, don't have promiscuous sex, etc.) is deliberately inverted and aggression, sexual prowess, and profanity become the valued qualities. Any empathy the soldiers might have for one weaker or less fortunate is mercilessly driven out of them. The fat Pvt. Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence is continually harassed and ridiculed by the DI. Some of the more sympathetic men, such as Joker, attempt to help him get through basic training by showing him how to do things and keeping him out of trouble. The real purpose of making Pyle the goat, however, becomes clear when the DI begins to punish the men for Leonard's mistakes. Then they begin to hate him. In the incident when they pummel him with bars of soap slung in their towels, even Joker takes part, showing that the breaking down of sympathy and empathy has succeeded, and the men are ready to be killers. Thus, Kubrick demonstrates that, as in Clockwork, the society gives lip service to law and order, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, it is psychopathic and will use whatever system of values (or lack of them) that it needs to in order to accomplish its purposes.
Once in Viet Nam, the men put into practice the psychopathy they learned in their training. They swagger, curse, kill, and screw, and do little else. On the helicopter trip to the front, Joker and Rafter Man observe the psychopathic door gunner as he machine guns peasants at work in their rice fields while laughing and joking, asking them to write a news story on him. The Vietnamese are also corrupt, or have become corrupted by the contact. Whores walk the streets with their pimps auctioning them off. Youths on motor scooters steal using hit-and-run tactics. Respect for authority is almost non-existent. Cowboy, although he is technically in command, can not enforce his orders, and the men do pretty much as they please.
The protagonist in this film is Joker. The psychopathic conditioning is not fully successful on Joker's personality. He retains some empathy, although becoming hard and cynical. Although he participates in pummelling Pyle when egged on by his peers (with a vengeance), he cringes to hear Pyle's cries and weeping afterward. He tries to prevent Pyle's suicide. In Viet Nam, he wears a peace button to symbolize his ambiguous feelings about the endeavor he is engaged in. His opposite number is Animal Mother ("You talk the talk but do you walk the walk"), in whom the conditioning has produced a perfect specimen. Animal Mother carries a huge Browning Automatic Rifle and joyously screams war cries as he kills. His reaction on viewing the bodies of dead comrades is "better you than me." Finally, Joker's empathy forces him to put the wounded female Viet Cong sniper out of her misery, when Animal Mother and the others oppose it and want to see her suffer.
Certainly Full Metal Jacket can be seen as an anti-war film (as was Strangelove and Paths of Glory). Since war is the human institution which most highlights the brutality of man's animalistic nature, it is natural that a pessimist such as Kubrick would return to it again and again.
One of the questions asked of Kubrick in the aforementioned interview was "how did a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx acquire such a dark view of humanity?" His answer was "From observation, knowing what has happened in the world, seeing the people around me." He specifically denied that it was because of being Jewish (and the holocaust), and said that such a view was historically primarily Christian, anyhow.
Does this mean Kubrick is a fascist, as some have suggested? Kubrick does state that there should be social constraints on behavior, and believers in the constrained vision have often been politically conservative, believing that authority is necessary to check the propensity of individuals to do evil. At least in his films, Kubrick puts forth no vision of a social order (as Fascism is) as a solution to the evil he portrays. He seems to equally indict all attempts to impose order as futile. His main interest, it appears, is to portray the dark side of human nature and institutions without offering solutions (if one ignores the deus ex machina solution of the monoliths in 2001). While Kubrick disclaims advocating violence, he probably would not be surprised (or disturbed) to learn that many viewers vicariously enjoyed the violence portrayed in his films. This would simply accord with his views of the nature of man.
Is Kubrick correct in his pessimistic view of the natural man as a psychopath? I think most psychologists and psychiatrists would not agree with him, and not just because of their liberal biases. There is ample evidence that while the common garden-variety man is no angel, empathy is a fundamental human characteristic. Most persons do have consciences, and feel guilty when they violate their own moral standards, although specific moral rules vary from culture to culture. Cultures that exalt psychopathic ideals are rare, but even in our own society, there are subcultures which espouse frankly psychopathic ideals. Examples are the fringe right-wing groups such as "The Order", skinheads, left-wing terrorist groups, "Soldier of Fortune" devotees of Ramboiana, and the urban street gangs of tough young males. While all of these groups may contain idealistic individuals who are merely following a different morality, and are not true psychopaths, these subcultures attract psychopathic leaders who often see the group as an opportunity for adventure and power.
If the majority of individuals are not psychopaths, what about governments and societal institutions and their leaders? To give my answer to that, I must first indulge in some speculation and try to answer the question, why are there psychopaths? While we are a social species, the engine of evolution is variation. The psychopath is common enough, with uniform enough characteristics, that he might be thought of as a variant upon normal. Variants that survive and are genetically passed on must carry some advantage for at least a significant portion of the variant organisms. While many, if not most, psychopaths seem to be misfits, spending much of their lives incarcerated in penal institutions, it has been recognized that many are clever enough or restrained enough, to avoid being "unmasked." It is easy to think of fields of endeavor (politics, business, even science) where a lack of ethics might present a decided advantage, provided the unethical behavior can be shrouded from the scrutiny of associates and society. Even when the misdeeds are uncovered (often through the psychopath's poor judgement), the psychopath may succeed in maintaining the respect and admiration through his charisma, talents, and abilities. (Does the world in general respect Nixon or Carter more?) Many of the "greatest" politicians and businessmen have made their fame and fortunes living according to their own rules and full-speed-ahead-damn-the-torpedos, with their own agendas. Those who succeed, have their faults forgotten. Perhaps the psychopaths then, even serve a social purpose in our species. The negative side to all this, however, is that when psychopaths govern, their policies can lead to a great deal of inhumane behavior, such as intrigues, "dirty tricks", arms races, assassinations, and wars. Thus while I disagree with Kubrick's severe view of individual human nature, I somewhat agree that humans acting collectively under leaders tend to act with less conscience than individual persons would. In part this might be explained by the gravitation of bright psychopaths into high government positions.
Although we can describe the psychopath, we do not understand him. What we do know, for me at least, does not reduce but expands the wonder at the beautiful complexity of brain and behavior. One of the values of literature (of which film is a part) is vicarious experience. We can experience persons and situations that we would never meet in the flesh. We can absorb some of the wisdom of dead men and vanished cultures. Films such as Kubrick's, which seek to portray man and his experience, even in some of its darker aspects, are superior to those which tend to deliver an obvious "message" or to preach or moralize. One can never definitively explain a work of literature or art. Because such explanation would not only embody every thought put into it by its creator, but every thought which will be evoked in every reader, even those not yet born, every work is infinite.
 Pinel, P. Traité médico-phiosophique sur l'aliénation metale, 2nd edn., Paris: J. Ant. Brosson, 1809.
 Rush, B..Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind. New York: Hafner, 1962.
 Pritchard, J. C. A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1835.
 Goodwin, D. W. and Guze, S. B. Psychiatric Diagnosis. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979.
 Cleckley, H. The Mask of Sanity. St. Louis: Mosby, 1976.
 Cleckley, p.343.
 Excerpts from the Mark Hofmann Interviews. Sunstone 11: 40-41. 1987.
 Hare, R.D. Psychopathy: Theory and Research. New York: J. Wiley, 1970. Chap.4 "Autonomic Correlates of Psychopathy".
 Burr also demonstrated the psychopath's typical lack of judgement and obliviousness to consequences in pursuing his duel of honor with Alexander Hamilton. Burr was vice-president of the United States at the time of the duel. He was planning to run for president with the support of the Federalists when he shot and killed Hamilton, a beloved founding-father of the Federalist Party. Almost immediately he became a pariah and was forced to flee the country.
 Cleckley, pp. 395ff.
 Grünbaum, A. Foundations of Psychoanalysis. Berkeley, Univ of Calif, 1985.
 Hare, R.D. "Twenty years experience with the Cleckley psychopath." In Unmasking the Psychopath, Reid, et al, eds. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.
 The most famous "psychos" in films are not psychopaths, but psychotics. Well known examples of these are found in the films Psycho (Norman Bates), Taxi Driver (Travis Bickel), and Halloween (Michael). These characters are in varying ways disconnected from reality and suffer from delusional ideation.
 We imagine such a world to be the failed socialism of the future Britain toward which policies of the 1960s Labor Party were leading.
 McGregor, C. Interview with Stanley Kubrick. New York Times, January 30, 1972.
 Sowell, T. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
 Whereby criminals undergo operant conditioning to extinguish violent behavior and sexual behavior.
 New York Times, January 30, 1972.
 Kubrick did not have artistic control of Spartacus. Joker in Full Metal Jacket did display some ambiguity and there are some parallels to Dax.
 A similar real-life example can be found in the failure of Richard Nixon to this day to understand the moral significance of the Watergate affair, and his continual insistence that it was all blown out of proportion by his enemies.
 Indeed, there is a strong current of Christian thought that emphasizes original sin, the depravity of man. It has been more prominent, however, since the holocaust, and usually is considered a feature of neo-orthodoxy.
 Nazi Germany is the most oft cited example. While studies of Hitler have shown that he probably was not a psychopath but a fanatical eccentric, the Nazi party attracted numerous psychopaths into leadership roles at all levels.
Copyright ©1990 Gordon Banks, All Rights Reserved