Regarding Full Metal Jacket
Clay Waldrop: I would love to see someone -- anyone -- make a case that Full Metal Jacket is a better movie than Paths of Glory. It might be superior as far as concerns photography, editing and other technical matters; after all, it was made some 30 years later. But it seemed to me that Kubrick lost his "focus" (for lack of a better term) during the second half of Full Metal Jacket, something he maintained in abundance throughout Paths of Glory. Perhaps Paths of Glory is 'simpler' film, and I just don't 'get' Full Metal Jacket.
John Morgan: Curiously, I often find that when I ask people what Vietnam film they like best, they generally say, Apocalypse Now, claiming its "realism." While I love Apocalypse Now too, I've never heard a single Vietnam vet claim that it was even remotely what the war was like! Apocalypse Now is more of a myth that happens to be set in Vietnam than a film about the war. How many battles were fought to the sound of Wagner, with M-16s in one hand and surfboards in the other? Not too many, I'll bet. Full Metal Jacket is mythological too, but it's far more subtle, thus seems less 'realistic'.
Brian Siano: The "big three" Vietnam War films tend to be Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon, and all three take very different approaches to what is a pretty complex subject. Apocalypse Now has some extremely realistic touches (the large number of black troops, the use of drugs, etc.), and the nightmare quality of the film's fantastic elements certainly squares with what a lot of vets report as their own, subjective experience. Platoon was a pretty conventional film in terms of technique, but it did succeed in providing to the audience a gut-level sense of what is was like to serve in a combat unit in Vietnam -- and given that Oliver Stone is the only filmmaker I know of who actually served in Vietnam, it's not surprising.
Full Metal Jacket seemed to me to be after something different than the other two-- to make some kind of analysis of what makes people into killers. The original book, The Short-Timers, is very much of the Vietnam experience: realistic, frightening, and written in an amazing kind of language that echoes the uniqueness of Viet-speak -- the slang, the jargon, the sense of world-weary cynicism; I don't think one can make a case that any of these films is any more or less "realistic" than the other, though Apocalypse certainly goes into its own fantastic territory. Full Metal Jacket and Platoon were written and/or directed by men with extensive experience in Vietnam, and from what I've been able to pick up, both of them seem to be fairly realistic representatioons of service in Vietnam.
Ernest S. Tomlinson: My problem with Paths of Glory is that it lacks much of the moral ambiguity that is central to Kubrick's more mature work. It's very difficult to say anything bad about the humanistic, upright Dax; it's impossible to say anything good about Generals Mireau and Broulard.
Full Metal Jacket, on the other hand, is much more resistant to such a view. Joker is the protagonist throughout, and as such as the most sympathetic character. He distances himself, and gives the impression of somebody who has avoided being "taken in", by cracking jokes. He sums up Sgt. Hartman's noisy, blustery act with his "is that you, John Wayne?" aside. He takes the theft of the camera in stride, saying "it's just business." He attempts to deflate the "combat correspondent" mentality with numerous wisecracks. Joker seems to know that the whole thing is a stupid game, that he chooses to play along with in grandly exaggerated manner (his John Wayne persona, his loud proclamation that he wants to "get back inna shit", his sparring with Animal Mother). I don't want to compare Joker to Col. Dax, but I think both characters, on a superficial level, are meant to impress us as people who have managed to retain their humanity in the middle of a crazy situation.
But Joker is, in the end, compromised. He professes detachment, yet he capitulates and clobbers Leonard, with unequalled ferocity. He kids and rags on his Stars & Stripes "boss", but Joker's joking is deflated, quietly but effectively, in its turn -- Joker's crack about "finding more blood trails and drag marks" is met with a quiet, "I've had my ass in the grass, Joker. Can't say I liked it much..." All of Joker's apparent "humanity" and ironic distance must be re-evaluated with these things in mind. The penultimate scene, Joker's killing (mercy or murder?) of the sniper, would not carry nearly the same force as it does were not Joker's character as ambivalently drawn as it is.
Geoffrey Alexander: That ambivalence seems to be the crux of the film. The question of Joker's intentions in that final scene shows us -- underscores, in a remarkable way -- what was earlier hinted at in the exchange with the pogue Colonel -- "the Jungian thing, sir", the duality of Man.
John Quinn: Joker's 'duality' is the result of his intense military training being thrown upon his previous intelligence, humanity, and humor. The result was a cold killing machine aware of its inhumanity yet somehow functional and 'without fear'. The sniper episode concluded the training Hartman had begun. Joker became a soldier. That's all.
Geoffrey Alexander: Interesting though, that it was his intelligence and humanity that made him bith aware -- intellectually -- and accepting of the notion of such a duality.
Now, there is a certain question here, in this regard, as to how much the fact that Joker is a draftee and not an elistee (he's there against his will, in other words) indicates his willingness to go along with the experience he is about to be put through -- by definition, he is not a draft-protestor -- he's there. What we are given I think is the example of a man of somewhat higher than ordinary intelligence and sensibilities, who none the less has not (except in a cynical way perhaps) come to any definite moral conclusion regarding war & all that. I think one message of Full Metal Jacketis what happens to such people.
Ernest S. Tomlinson: ...mmmm, I thought over that interpretation for a long time, but ultimately I don't think it's 100% valid. When Joker pulls the trigger, he certainly doesn't look merciful; his grimace recalls his "war face" that he tries on at Parris Island. Also, I think his behavior in the incident involving the "motivation" of Pyle belies his liberal or humanitarian surface.
Geoffrey Alexander: It's ironic that it's the very way in which one of the major themes of the film -- moral ambivalence -- is so precisely evoked, that makes approaching the film difficult....
Joseph Martin: Well, here are about six or seven major flaws in Full Metal Jacket that I could name off the top of my head, number one being the fact that there are really no good characters in the film's second half. A war movie needs to have at least one character that we actually care about, that we can actually feel for -- the Parris Island sections give us that, but not the Vietnam scenes. Platoon, for example, isn't really a "great" movie -- it's just what really happened in Vietnam, and nothing more. Full Metal Jacket is a more typical war movie, and so it seems more entertaining.
Gordon Dahlquist: I'm curious about the 6 or 7 major flaws you speak of, but if they're on a par with "no really good characters" then we should just let it drop -- it seems like such a very drastic difference of opinion, about even what character is and how it functions and why you would care if it functions that the discussions seem pointless ... I think the post-Parris Island sections of Full Metal Jacket are crammed full of interesting, complex characters. The fact that the main character may insist on not being pleasing is problematic to many people -- the fact that Joker is ironic, sarcastic, mercenary, unexamined and weak (and doesn't write sensitive letters home to his grandma for crissake) push some people away from the film (but this isn't to say that the character isn't complex, subtly portrayed or compelling) ... much of this seems to be a disagreement on what the film is "about", and correspondingly, what it "should" be about, given the subject matter.
To me the unalterable distinction between Platoon and Full Metal Jacket is that Platoon tells you exactly how to feel about practically every minute of the film, and Full Metal Jacket about practically none of it. And to me one of those options is simply a better kind of art.
Again, I really think people have a very hard time seeing Full Metal Jacket if they concentrate on what it isn't -- i.e. on how they think a war movie ought to behave -- than on watching how it does behave. I think with an artist of Kubrick's stature one owes it to him to go in with an open mind and see what is happening. Most of the negative reactions to Full Metal Jacket -- Ebert included -- are full of frustrated expectations that they have brought to the experience.
But also, as far as Platoon being "just what really happened in Vietnam" ... flush out your headgear new guy -- look at the art of the portrayal. Arbitrary metaphorical structure is fucking ladled over that movie (along with poor Samuel Barber), a readable (and arbitrary) map of moral value superimposed on the action like a symbol from a first year creative writing class. You may enjoy it, or find it compelling, but it's no more "real" than any movie about one place filmed somewhere else, like The Red Sands of Iwo Jima, for example -- a wonderful film, and about as weighty, if half as pretentious.
Dave Dlugos: I think the second act has big problems. The third act almost redeems these weaknesses, but not quite. I still maintain that Full Metal Jacket is SK's least successful film (artistically).
Derek Rose: It seems Full Metal Jacket always conveys the early impression that it has a lot going for it in the first act but then weakens. With all due respect to those who feel otherwise, I really feel this is a very superficial analysis. The first act certainly does have a lot of impact, especially at an emotional level because it gets to the heart of one's sense of self dignity and self-worth and one's sense of vulnerability to institutionalized humiliation and violence. Thus, it goes without saying that people who ARE human fucking beings are greatly moved by the emotional force of what takes place. And that first act climax? Whew! -- very few directors get where Kubrick gets with this one.
What follows in the subsequent two acts is far more subtle in terms of delivery, even though it pursues the same philosophical threads. The way in which war forces these boys to come to know other selves or other beings within themselves is a fairly devastating phenomenon, and the way in which Kubrick reveals this is, I think, quite outstanding.
But like others here, I certainly didn't come to appreciate Full Metal Jacket in the way I now do after just one or two viewings, it takes several. You may be satisfied with as much as you've already got out of it, but if you feel the inclination to go further, then another 5 or 10 or 20 viewings may take you places where you can't go in one. For simple satire alone the last three acts (or the last two if you feel Full Metal Jacket is a 3-act show) has a lot to offer, but as a more philosophical inspection of humankind, the warmongering mammal, it's those extra experiences that cut the ice.
Geoffrey Alexander: The first act of Full Metal Jacket is as directly effective as it is as a dramatic vehicle, because it is affective -- as comedy has to be. Pyle's death, however (which is built towards in a straightforward dramatic fashion, even while at the same time seeming abrupt and even shocking) puts the period on this kind of storytelling -- and upon the sensibility to which it communicates. It's the end of the comedy per se in this film, and the end of 'easy-thinking' just as surely as it's the end of Pyle. Surely this shift in sensibilities is what Kubrick is trying to evoke in us, viscerally. And what follows that (the two acts set in Vietnam) is meant to be thought of differently. I don't want to go too deeply into it now, but the meanings of the second and third acts seem to communicate more through the structuralist side of Kubrick's style (as in 2001 and The Shining -- wherein the latter, the structuralist narrative was inlaid congruently with the dramatic, 2001 itself portraying an entirely non-dramatic structuralist aesthetic).
If one becomes a little lost at first, in that second half, leaving the States and traveling immediately (and cinematically, through the pure act of editing -- not what is in one scene or another scene but what they mean when put together) to the war zone -- perhaps this is not part of the point? That Kubrick uses the art of cinematic narrative & montage to help you experience this -- that alone is brilliant, aside from the entire matter of what it is he is communicating in either parts of this film.
Gordon Dahlquist: I'd go so far and say that it's this union of the how and the what that makes SK's post-2001 films a notch above the earlier ones. It's really impossible to separate the formal choices made in structuring the narrative with the "content" of the narrative itself. There's a self-conscious edge to all of SK's filmmaking, but in Full Metal Jacket so much of the film is about what constitutes "conventional behavior" in various (extreme) situations, the differences between how we think we ought to be behaving and how we actually do, and to what degree these conventions take on a life of their own and/or betray us ...the "phoney tough and the crazy brave". Isn't it exactly this tension that drives Barry Lyndon, that destroys Jack Torrance? And in each case the narrative structure of the film reinforces/defines how the social network of the particular world is constructed, so far beyond the literal plot or dialogue as to render it completely subject to context.
John Melville: Context is vital. To say Hartman wasn't competent is devoid of meaning outside of his sociological realm. Hartman's job, after all includes "ritual humiliation of recruits," something he was adept at. The only "incompetent," and I thought highly unrealistic scene in the boot camp sequence was, how in hell did Pvt. Pyle get live rounds into the barracks. The Corps is fanatically concerned with ensuring that recruits account for every round fired, including counting spent brass.
Derek Rose: There does seem to be a bit of mystery surrounding this. Any way he could have pocketed just one round on each of several training sessions? I guess not, what with the rampant brass-counting. A few knowledgeable posters have said how Lawrence's ammo collection would have been pretty impossible, but it would be nice, as a point of trivia, to know how it might have been possible.
John Melville: I never heard of an incident where a suicide was attempted in Boot Camp with anything other than Razor Blades or Aspirin. In fact, while I was at Parris Island a recruit tried to OD on aspirin, and the next morning our DI's gave a lecture on the correct methods of committing suicide, like how to break open a Trac-II razorblade, and make the incision not across the wrists, but longways down the inside forearm....
Geoffrey Alexander: In the original screenplay Michael Herr included such a scene; cut from the final version, of course, probably because it was too much a foreshadowing of the act's final dramatic scene. I wonder how it might have played, had Kubrick adapted the excised scene of the other private's attempt to cut his wrists with a bayonet, so that it was such a means by which Pyle committed suicide. Although it would have undoubtedly been more realistic, in terms of logical believability, would it have had the same dramatic impact?
Tim Gould: Check out part 2 of a Japanese film trilogy called The Human Condition -- a genuine Kubrick borrowing. Pyle's suicide-by-rifle is lifted shot for shot. Even that haunting two-tone music is the same....
Derek Rose: ...and wrist- or throat-cutting is usually depicted in the least efficient manner in films. By holding one's head back, as it's usually portrayed, the carotid arteries run anterior to the larynx, so that one can cut the windpipe open without severing a major blood vessel. By tilting the head forward, however, the carotid arteries become more accessible by a swift, penetrating slash at a level just below the Adam's apple. Either way, it's very messy and theatrical, and I suspect that people who do this are simply trying to draw attention to themselves. Civilised people simply pop down to the river with a quart of vodka and don't come back....
Geoffrey Alexander: Yes but that attention-getting rather begs the issue, doesn't it, Derek?
Bobby Gilliland: When I was at Orlando for basic in the summer of 84, the division our company was bunked in had one unoccupied berthing. It stayed that way our entire time there. The rumor was, that a recruit had committed suicide there one night by placing his head in between the bars at the end of his bunk and he had flipped his body over the top. Thereby breaking his neck and snuffing himself in the process. Probably just a BS story. But when I had division rover some nights, one of the places we had to check was that same berthing. The goose bumps would crawl up and down my body when I walked in there. It really did psyche me out. Along with a lot of other guys.
John Melville: I knew many characters in the corps who were just like Cowboy, Animal Mother, and the rest. The film rang true with an incredible insight into how Marines are, as unflattering as that may be. I think Full Metal Jacket works all the way through.
Derek Rose: I think this in large part to the stellar work of Michael Herr, whose advice to Kubrick during production was nonpareil. Anyone who enjoys Full Metal Jacket simply HAS to read Herr's book Dispatches. It makes so much of Full Metal Jacket fall into place. Dispatches is his personal account of reporting stories from the Vietnam War. Although Kubrick based Full Metal Jacket more on the story in The Short Timers, the tone of the film is more apparent in Herr's generous, humane, compassionate study. Hasford, meanwhile, seems to be something of a pompous ass, and apparently was invited by Kubrick to keep away from the set of Full Metal Jacket because he was such a nuisance. But Hasford, being a self-obsessed person, took it upon himself to concoct all manner of foolish stunts in order to get on or near the set. The Short Timers is okay, but for humanity, and for a genuinely compassionate study of the human condition, read Herr's Dispatches. The story about Errol Flynn's son alone makes it worth the read. Dispatches also contains a number of lines and sequences which made their way practically unaltered into Full Metal Jacket and are immediately recognisable to those who saw the film first. All due respect to Hasford's work, but I'd have to say that of the two, he is the forgettable.
Geoffrey Alexander: It's interesting though how Kubrick rearranged much of the voice-over text in the final film, as opposed to the screenplay. And eliminated most of what Herr had planned for the ending narration.
Steve: Speaking of Joker's final musings; however familiar the basic premise of the ending may be, it becomes more devastating for me to watch with every viewing (only 2001 and Barry Lyndon consistently achieve same intense immediacy for me). A 'wakening' nightmare really coalesces perfectly...
Bobby Gilliland: ...and the nightmare never ends....
Tim Fulmer: Personally, I was struck by what I thought was a really uninspired use of voice-over. First, there isn't much of it to begin with, second, what there is of it doesn't seem to add much to our understanding of Pvt. Joker, and third, Modine's delivery struck me as very flat -- quite in contrast to A Clockwork Orange, for example, where voice-over works so well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the voice-over technique in Full Metal Jacket is unnecessary, as unnecessary as it might have been in The Shining....
Gordon Dahlquist: Someone mentioned recently a connection between some of Kubrick's technique's and Brecht, a connection I find very sound. While a major element of the narration in A Clockwork Orange is to bring the audience closer to Alex (and this is particularly important in the early sections when his behavior is so awful), I think the narration in Full Metal Jacket works -- and is intended to work -- in the exact opposite (and very Brechtian) way. While there is a certain manner by which simply by virtue of hearing his voice over the top of the film establishes Joker as a kind of canvas upon which to project our sympathy, thus establishing him as the "main" character, the primary aim of the narration seems to provide distance and context for what we're seeing -- at times quite deliberately weakening suspense, stating plainly what we've already read between the lines, or providing a "thinner" take on action we know to be more complex, just as Joker's own experience through so much of the film is one of denial, avoidance, diffusion.
I find this to be effective, because it mirrors so much of the verbiage of the film, which seems entirely occupied with issues of how "appropriate" behavior and attitude creates/destroys a given sense of "identity". And given that the act of narration is one of the most primary expressions of identity there is, Joker's distant, conventional, jargon-laden, high school journalistic tone traces the arc of general avoidance and final acceptance that mark his own journey in the film.
Tim Gould: Say, does anyone have an idea why Kubrick might have come up with that title? Yes, I know about the metal jacketing of bullets -- but the title doesn't seem to bear any direct relation to the film the way that, say, A Clockwork Orange does. Any ideas?
Jules N. Binoculas: I was reading a book on Ancient Rome and saw a "full metal jacket" -- overlapping panels of metal fitting around a warrior's thorax. Each panel, wrapped around the chest, was about 3 inches or 762 millimeters wide. Was there a movie with this title, or was Kubrick thinking of Spartacus?
Geoffrey Alexander: Kubrick came across the term while researching a ammunition catalog, and was intrigued by it; according to Michael Herr, he found it "beautiful and tough, and sort of poetic..." and I'd agree -- it's strongly evocative. And then if one considers the possible pun on the word "Jacket", then its use is very much like that in A Clockwork Orange (especially as Burgess noted that the Malay word for 'man' was "orang"...). In fact, the pun is closer than in that other film as, unlike the phrase 'a clockwork orange', the phrase 'full metal jacket' is used in the film itself, by Leonard, before he kills himself with one....
Ken A.: Pyle isn't the only one killed in that scene -- the man who taught him to kill is his first victim. And right before he's killed by Pyle, Hartman shouts "What is your major malfunction, numbnut?" While watching Full Metal Jacket the other day it occurred to me that "major malfunction" can be meaningfully linked not only to 2001, but also to the famous, chilling comment made by the NASA ground control as Challenger blew up in the sky: "Obviously a major malfunction." You know, his colleagues are hurtling toward certain death in the ocean, and yet the guy retains his calm and views the situation as system failure.
It is, of course, ultimately due to chance, but Full Metal Jacket brilliantly reflects this accident (early 1986, the year that Full Metal Jacket was shot, I believe) and this remark, and points back to the flashing "COMPUTER MALFUNCTION" display shown as HAL kills the hibernating astronauts. Brilliantly, I think, because it links Full Metal Jacket's prominent theme of dehumanization to 2001 via the reference to space flight, itself an activity presupposing a highly efficient and dedicated system that tends to minimize the personal appearance of its figureheads.
Conversely, Pyle was born human, but chose to enter a system that viewed him as less than a "human fucking being[ ]," and which strove to erase whatever vestigial remains of humanity that might survive. "It's a hard heart that kills," indeed. Against all odds, Pyle becomes a 'Hart' ('hard') man, apparently having surrendered his individuality to become a faceless unit in the Marine Corps. And finally, Pyle's inner O-rings have failed in the cold climate of his surroundings -- to take the analogy to its extreme. He does regain his humanity by taking charge again and acting as an individual (yet doing this in a mechanical, machine-like fashion; cf. his handling of the gun prior to the shooting), but the tragedy of Full Metal Jacket is that the only human activity that the Corps does not frown upon is the only one known now by Pyle: killing.
Steve: Usually people speak of Hartman succeeding too well in transforming Pyle into a killer, but in this sense maybe Pyle's heart isn't hard enough in light of his breakdown and particularly his suicide. Joker crosses the line and makes it back (peace symbol disappears then somewhat returns in climatic shot), and is able to dwell on seriousness of what has just happened but still crack wise, albeit a bit...half-heartedly.
Bobby Gilliland: One of the driving forces behind the idea that Hartman succeeded a bit too well in his training of Pyle, is the reinforcing shots of Pyle at critical moments of the story. Pyle reciting the Credo in his bunk as he swears before God that he will kill his enemy. Pyle as Hartman promises he will teach them how to use their weapons to kill their enemy. The blanket party Hartman all but forces. And finally, Hartman's acceptance of Pyle as a Marine. Pyle identified his enemy, used his tool, and once he understood the implications of the destruction of that enemy. He took the actions he needed to take. In the end he would be absolved. Marines live on in the image of other Marines. Pyle crossed the line to paraphrase you, but he never comes back. Animal Mother at the Island in effect. While Joker finally succumbs to his desire to cross it. Joker may have come back out of the realization that his self control was on the level of Pyle's, ultimately.
Geoffrey Alexander: Another thing I find interesting about comparing the original script with the final work is how brilliant and restrained the soundtrack is -- the original script never calls for 'music under' or even seem to be written in such a way as to allow the use of an instrumental score, yet Kubrick adds one -- yet stays so incredibly true to the original tone and pace of the original, dialogue-and-narration driven script. I think the atmosphere imparted to the film by the score is highly overlooked in favor of that admittedly amazing dialogue, and counterpointed well by the use of contemporary source music.
That's another thing too; the screenplay was rife with references to The Rolling Stones, yet it was (with the exception of the entirely perfect "Paint It Black") even more ironic choices which still, in their context in the film, seem just right.
Wing Flanagan: I'm of a split mind on this one. I, personally, would have used darker music of the period. On the other hand, when a Great Artist does something that at first glance, seems wholly inappropriate, I feel the need to look more deeply rather than just dismiss it as bad judgment. Kubrick had something in mind -- something definite for each juxtaposition of vision and music.
Gordon Dahlquist: I think by emphasizing the trivial aspect of the great explosion of pop music that happened during the war, Kubrick creates an nicely ironic gloss on our sense of "what the war was really like" -- i.e. using "Surfin' Bird" in Hue city seems a pretty direct riposte to conventional notions that Vietnam was really "The End" in the Philippine jungle ... and specifically in reference to Platoon, where barber's adagio is poured like so much honey over everything "sad", the music in Full Metal Jacket is either original for the film (and, not in a negative way, "atmospheric" -- in that it doesn't call attention to itself as music from the 1980's) or period music chosen generally for its ironic counterpoint to the action ... ie. "Goin' to the Chapel" for the start of the Tet Offensive. Equally, in reference to what Wing mentions about the self-conscious nature of war film conventions dictating actual behavior in the war (which seems utterly correct to me), the music choices underscore the essentially juvenile quality of this phenomenon ... certainly he could have chosen better music from the period, or "darker" music, but I think he didn't because, within the film, the music works in relation to so many other sources of information. The strongest, darkest song in the film -- "Paint it Black", works fabulously over the end credits just because we're able to concentrate on it -- whereas if it was, say, over the lusthog squad advancing to get payback at the end, it would tell us how to feel in a way that Kubrick consistently refuses to do (unlike Stone ...).
Dave Dlugos: For me, this music does little but call attention to itself. It took me out of the movie repeatedly. As I've said before, it's the fact that all of these tunes are so "lightweight" that ultimately distracted me.
Derek Rose: I don't find any of Kubrick's choices of music in Full Metal Jacket to be based on novelty value at all; this is something that he strongly resists and he is on record as having fairly critical views of pop music. The tunes referred to may be lightweight but they have very pertinent contextual value in the way in which they refer to the mass psychology of the era, and in many cases are an interesting juxtaposition of mood. There is also a wonderful sense of irony in some choices, as someone pointed out with "Going to the Chapel" -- I think this is a clever choice of music, without any novelty value at all.
I know that other directors routinely use music for its novelty value and we've all seen long shots of Iroquois helicopters flying in to the opening strains of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" about a dozen times. I think darker music would have destroyed the effect that I think Kubrick was looking for, particularly because, as Gordon says, the music relates so well to other information we are offered in the film. If the music draws attention to anything for me, it is another manifestation of the theme Kubrick pursues with respect to the duality of man, the Jungian thing, sir. I think this is his reason for choosing the music he has, and at least for me, it works brilliantly.
Geoffrey Alexander: To me, it's another example of Kubrick shying clear of the cliche in order to find the more specific realism, I think. Anybody can take a scene of jungle combat and slather over a few bars of Pink Floyd or Hendrix and have themselves an instantly recognisable 'Viet Nam film'. For that matter, the fact that Kubrick and Herr portray urban warfare, instead of the kind of jungle warfare we associate with that time, tells an incredible lot about how serious a representation of the war they were after -- and the details of Kubrick's recreation of Hue absolutely seal the deal.....
Bilge Ebiri: I noted the bizzareness of the architecture of where Cowboy's group was camped outside of Hue -- specifically, the setting of the scene where Joker first meets them and they show them the dead Vietnamese lounging in a chair. The place seemed to be made up of circular entrances. I was in Vietnam last year and I tried to think if I had seen any architecture resembling this. Then it hit me -- I saw this kind of architecture at one of the Imperial tombs, on the outskirts of -- you guessed it -- Hue, the ancient capital. It's a wonderfully subtle move from someone who was working primarily from photographs.
Geoffrey Alexander: It wasn't just photographs he had -- one of the (Western) architects of Hue City was the very architect who had built the London gasworks where Kubrick filmed; I'm sure many details were added, but there was a versimilitude available to Kubrick that would have otherwise been hard to come by except at great expense.
Gordon Dahlquist: My father spent two tours in Vietnam, including some time in Hue, and he feels that the film was extremely accurate, extremely realistic -- but more than anything in the frankness in presenting details less welcome in today's view of the war (the prostitution, the corruption of the ARVN troops, the drugs, the gung-ho "born to kill" mentality, the distance between troops engaged in actual battle and the mass of "pogue" brass and support troops that were both very close and impossible separated from what was "really" happening ... as for the often- heard criticism of filming in London, I can't understand it -- it does look like Hue, if you do some research and check it out.
People except films made in other locations all the time, but have such a narrow sense of what Vietnam "actually" looks like, based primarily on films made in the Philipines or maybe Thailand, with a lot of generic grass hut villages. I agree -- making the climactic battle of the film not to be in the jungle (the book, The Short-Timers, contains several sustained actions in the jungle as well, not in the film, so it was definately a choice made...) puts the film,and the film's conception of war, and our sense of what war in Vietnam meant,in direct contrast with countless WWII films of GI's slogging through Italy or France, fighting house to house in that glorious struggle. The helplessness and confusion that hits the squad in FMJ seems as much because the situation doesn't match these earlier films as the immediate hell of sniper -- it strikes me as simply brilliant and wonderfully subtle.
The thing I really think that sets FMJ -- and Kubrick's work in general -- apart, and also causes trouble with a lot of viewers, is his insistence on being true to a situation, and to complexityof character. As horrible as he is, given the situation there are a lot of valid reasons for Hartman to behave as he does; as much as they may seem awful, it's an awful situation. Similarly, Animal Mother's viciousness, Cowboy's inability, Joker's opportunism -- these are all extremely complex, contradictory characters, and they resist easy categories, easy good/bad descriptions: compare them to either of the Sgt's in Platoon, it's like night and day. Of course, not everyone likes complexity or not having things spelled out, and a lot of people can't get a handle on FMJ either.
Ernest S. Tomlinson: Here's how I approach the film, in terms of its 'rituals':
Part I (Parris Island): which effectively covers a well-worn ritual -- the "eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave." Hartman succinctly outlines the "growth" that occurs--young men are broken down and recast as killers -- "born again hard". Hartman, presiding over this venerable ritual, knows exactly what he's doing, and all of his actions have an air of tradition about them. The introduction, where he lets the "ladies" know what the score is ("you are all equally worthless"), the intensive training, the browbeating, and finally graduation ("you are now part of a brotherhood") all seem, in Hartman's hands, like part of a well-established routine.
The "Rifle Prayer" is an especially striking moment.... As is the sequence where the rest of the platoon gives Pyle his "motivation" by gagging him and beating him up. The whole sordid affair seems well- orchestrated, as each recruit files by and strikes Pyle once (except for Joker, who first wavers, then reverts to extreme violence); it's just another part of the tradition, part of the pressure brought to bear (indirectly) by Hartman on those who lag behind.
Eventually the ritual leads not to graduation, growth, and rebirth, but to death. Pyle, "born again hard", kills Hartman and commits suicide; Joker is also adversely affected, although the effects won't manifest themselves until later. The "Rifle Prayer" exemplifies the connection of the "ritual" of Parris Island, not to growth, but to destruction and death.
Part II (In Vietnam) In keeping with 2001, a birthday party happens in FMJ -- the birthday (death- day) of a dead NVA soldier. "I shall never forget this day." There is also a farewell party, after the deaths of Lieutenant Touchdown and of Handjob. The highly theatrical presentation of this "ritual" (perfectly symmetrical circle, and the too-perfect synchronization of the camera with the utterances of the soldiers of the squad) sets it apart from the other rituals which happen in FMJ, and accentuates the rather ugly conclusion (all the other grunts say trite phrases -- "You're going home", "Semper Fi", etc. -- until Animal Mother, who pauses longer than the others, says "Better you than me.")
Part III (The Sniper) -- Most striking about this last section of the film is the slow slide from sunlight and blue sky, to smoke, fire, and darkness. The film ends at nighttime, but long before that a man-made darkness has descended over the world. It's hard to speak of "rituals" here, unless the entire sequence (which is, after all, it marks Joker's transformation into a killer) can be seen as a ritual. Cowboy's death has a ritual quality about it, which recalls not only the wake for Touchdown and Hand-Job (symmetrical composition) but Parris Island ("I can hack it!").
Geoffrey Alexander: ...what I'm thinking of here is the kind of 'ritual circle' the grunts form around both their own dead comrades and the dead sniper....
Ernest S. Tomlinson: The final minutes of the film tie in more closely with Parris Island. Joker's shooting of the sniper echoes Pyle's shooting of Hartman, but also the beating given to Pyle. The same eerie music is heard in all three scenes. Joker again suddenly reverts from apparently indecisive sympathy to an ugly act of violence. This sudden act is all the more forceful in light of Joker's preceding remark--"we just can't leave her here." This statement sounds like the sort of thing you'd hear from a stereotypical "war is hell" character on M*A*S*H; but Joker blows that false impression to atoms.
Geoffrey Alexander: Returning to Paths of Glory again, the sniper's prayer in Vietnamese, to me, makes her a cousin of that German POW girl & her song in Paths of Glory (though Kubrick has stated the correlation was coincidental, it is still powerful and evocative) -- the difference in denoument however makes the final scene of Full Metal Kjacket even more pitiable & terrifying (in an Aristotelian sense -- Full Metal Jacket may be the finest example of modern tragedy put to film). And, When Joker grimaces to shoot, it's the first time in the entire film 'Abigail Mead's' brilliant score ever really rises above the volume level of the dialog track -- and it's the same cut used in the scene of Pyle's suicide....
Ernest S. Tomlinson: In my opinion, Joker at the end of Full Metal Jacket has totally succumbed to the destructive power of the "ritual" of Parris Island. Pyle, his individuality completely destroyed, shoots himself; Joker, his individuality destroyed, does not shoot himself, but he is effectively dead anyway. His ironic "rebirth" and growth takes on grotesque form ("born again hard") as he is indeed reborn into a new world ("Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me?") which is marked not by growth, but by child-like and primitive regression ("M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.")
Gordon Dahlquist: Well, I've said this before in reference to Full Metal Jacket, but I'll say it again: I've found the film gets seriously better each time I've watched it. I saw it three times in the theatre when it was released, and I remember speaking to very disappointed friends who'd seen it before I had, and who, from the trailer, had expected some kind of "strangelove" version of Viet Nam. On first viewing I felt there was a disjunction between Parris Island/Nam portions of the film, but not that this was necessarily bad; subsequent viewings and many video viewings have confirmed -- in my mind anyway -- the careful manner in which the themes of the Parris Island section are developed throughout the rest of the film, as Ernest says. I think it's actually an extremely subtle and again, rather challenging film, formally.
As I said at the beginning, very often I think people who find the later portions of Full Metal Jacket unsatisfying are bringing their own expectations to the table. Particularly for a first (or second) time viewer, I'd suggest watching it again and look at what is happening instead of what isn't (this sounds condescending, but I don't mean it that way -- I think it's actually rather difficult to do ...)
Geoffrey Alexander: One of the things it isn't doing, which has derailed some peoples' expectations, is furnishing a ready-made polemic against the Viet Nam war, or war per se; although it surely regards its subject with horror, it is the horror itself we are given -- not any sort of predigested attitude towards it -- which even Paths of Glory gives us (to bring us back to the original point), for all its qualities.
Ernest Tomlinson: In any case, Full Metal Jacket is far and away more disturbing a film than Paths of Glory. Paths of Glory comes dangerously close to the model of the sort of self-indulgent "anti-war" movie that gets high praise -- you know, the sort where you watch for two hours and walk out thinking, "yeah, war really is hell," agreeing with everything the film put across without really giving it any thought. I don't think FMJ is an "anti-war" movie; it is simply a war movie.
Jeff Westerman: To talk about Full Metal Jacket as a pro- or anti-war film is meaningless. It is, beginning to end, a thoroughly compassionate work. The point about this film, I think, is dehumanization. The first 45 minutes, which can be called the more "traditional" narrative element, are a kinetically driven tumult. The sheer rush of this segment is so blinding, so caught up as it is in the effects of boot-camp on its participants, that it effectively blinds the viewer to the emotions created within themselves. While almost every line is military jargonese, there is still a very gripping, physical air of reality about it all, still a hope that Sgt. Hartman will finally reveal himself to be just another human being, once the travails he's put his recruits through on Parris Island are over. When it's over, he might finally take his hat off! (He's gonna turn out to be a benevolent father-figure, if only they can graduate, and get to know him personally, man-to-man; he's gonna turn out to be a regular guy, a comrade, who only subjected them to all this for their own good and safety in the Big 'Ol Nam. I think this is what all the John Wayne references are about). While waiting for this expected conclusion, we don't see how cheated we're going to wind up. Nor does the entire platoon. Pyle's murder/suicide is just the first hint.
Once we get to 'Nam, we find the insanity Hartman was teaching is so pervasive that no one can speak more than one sentence without resorting to cliche. I defy you to watch this film and find one moment, (until the execution of the sniper at the very end, of course), in which any character speaks for himself, cleanly and clearly, without resorting to parody. (OK, I take that back; Private Pyle does talk personally to Joker at one point, but Joker is not forthcoming with any kind of personal response). But the point I'm trying to make is that none of these people can talk to each other, or deal with each other, except in terms of domination and hierarchy. They're all vying for position, and so busy with the pecking order, because the reality of their situation is total disorder. Since nothing makes any sense anyway, and they are so completely numbed to this by their training, they can continue to engage in the madness.
In something less than a nutshell, this is my cursory analysis of Full Metal Jacket. It is a film about how people, forced into situations beyond anything they've ever imagined, cope with the irrational evil of war. That they must engage with the unspeakable, and also must find it within themselves to behave unspeakably, is the basic point that this film is making, I think. If they could speak about it, or even about anything, they would go so mad as to not be able to fight. And so this film is all about learning how not to feel, how not to speak, except in anything but the numbed language of death, if only for the sake of somehow staying alive.
Geoffrey Alexander: I think also that if FMJ had been more 'anti-war' on the surface, it would have failed -- after all, it's almost a given (unless it's a John Milius film) that a film about Viet Nam would be 'anti-war', correct? Kubrick had this expectation to deal with and though he doesn't disappoint in this regard, he wants us to see the entire issue as deeper (without sinking into Apocalypse Now's moony metaphysiscs -- all second-hand, anyway) than simple surface-level attitudes -- as though it's not enough to state that 'war is bad': the question is why it's bad. It's a mark of Kubrick's seriously inclined intellect that he doesn't accept the obviousness of a truth as its own self-sufficient explanation.
John Melville: I always thought Full Metal Jacket treated war phenomenologically -- being neither pro or antiwar. It just accepts war as a fact. It could be classified better (he said, trying to construct a pigeonhole) as a psycho-sociological study of men in war. Too often we think of Vietnam as the only war with absurd idiotic things happening, but every war contains disorder and chaos. One story that exemplifies this is Bill Maudlin's story of an Indian chasing a German soldier back and forth in the middle of no mans land, while both sides were firing at each other. Both sides ceased fire due to the spectacle of the big indian jabbing the kraut in the buttocks with his bayonet. According to Maudlin, the Americans were overcome with laughter at the sight.
Recruit training in the Corps is pretty much the same in war as in peacetime. Boot camp is about making profound psychological changes in recruits, making them "ministers of death praying for war." The Viet Nam stuff is about how those young men react to the trauma of war. You will never find a more anti-war group than the front-line troops. But, they are anti war, not anti personal adventure, once they're in the war. Look at Rafter man. He is not very motivated, except to get "in the shit" so he can go back and brag about it. Same with Joker. He is basically a Pogue, those in the rear, shooting bush shots of Anne Margaret, and occasionally going on patrol. I think we get the whole Sniper segment because, for once Joker is personally connected to the people he has to report about.
These guys continually make connections with each other, but it is in a language and manner which , I think, is peculiar to Marines and learned in boot camp. Joker shows his friendliness to cowboy by stating he wants to boff his sister. What better way to imply "you are cool enough to be my brother in law." By the same token, Sgt. Hartmann mocks the recruits by telling them they can boff his sister -- definitely sarcastic.
The exchange between Joker and Animal Mother is an awesome thing. Animal mother is the neanderthal. This is the guy you want to be friends with due to his power, and who will be the most devoted and loyal friend because he is uneducated, straightforward, and has never heard of that duality of man crap. He is testing Joker to see what kind of man he is. This is no small matter, as the quality of your buddies can determine whether you live or die. I don't think Animal Mother ever accepts Joker or Rafter man, or Cowboy.
On the other hand you can tell he is really close to the black guy, as he constantly insults him, telling him "all niggers must die." Again, this is a juxtaposition of how civilians would behave. It also shows his security in his relationship, because there were never worse periods of racial tension than in the Viet Nam era military.
As for Pyle, he's an outcast for trying to communicate in civilian ways, and for thinking like a civilian. But, Joker does try to reach Pyle. Ultimately it is Hartmann who gets to Pyle.
I think the John Wayne references by Joker are a play on the Idea. John Wayne is an American film icon. His characters -- especially as a Marine -- are one dimensional. Wayne was always cast as the war hero, but in real life was never in the military. I think this is what Joker is talking about when he says "Is that You, John Wayne. Is this me?" Is Joker a guy who is playing war hero? Is he an actor? Is he really involved before the sniper sequence? I found very little of this film symbolic, in that sense. After all, Is Hartmann evil? Isn't his first duty to weeding out non hackers? Isn't his second duty to provide the Corps with what they need, men who will ignore their instincts to run and hide? Is Pyle Evil? Is Joker Good?
Ronie J. Whalen: I've noticed that at the end of Full Metal Jacket, Joker is not that concerned or shocked with this first killing, instead he seems quite happy with himself, saying he is 'not afraid' and dreams of homecoming sex. Joker's rite of passage has been completed. From Parris Island where he was a comedian to the final scenes where he is just another machine, another killing machine that is just as cold as the drill sergeant who made Joker into what he was.
Padraig Henry: As a deconstruction and critique of the myth of masculinity and its boot-camp construction and portrayal in American culture it is both singular and without precedent. It also demonstrates how far Kubrick's ideas about cultural conditioning have developed since his tentative initial enquiries in A Clockwork Orange. And Full Metal Jacket is not just about Vietnam and combat, it is about colonialism in the widest sense of the term -- colonization of the Self as well as of territorial frontiers. Post-Freudianism at its best.
Zachary Ralston: A philosopher colleague of thinks that the ending of Full Metal Jacket displays a more advanced state of mind than Clockwork, as if Kubrick has evolved to yet another level. He says that in Clockwork, Kubrick ends the film on a negative note, viewing mankind as stuck in his nihilistic, misanthropic nature; not only impermeable to a totalitarian government, but unable to progress past it. But in Full Metal Jacket, the ending shows Joker as a self-motivated autocrat, still acting of his free will and fighting against the forces trying to de-individualize him. Alex "was cured, all right," but even if the government couldn't "cure him" (i.e. imprint false morals), he never cured himself.
But Joker has cured himself -- he not only suffered through a Ludovico treatment of his own (boot camp, the Marine mentality), but he overcame it to find a reason to live, one that was based on self-actualization (spurred by the murder of the sniper and the death of Cowboy), and the theory that it IS better to be alive (the dead know only one thing:...), and that "I am alive, but I am not afraid." By overcoming his fear, he has accepted the utter meaninglessness of the world, but created his own reasons through combat and violence.
I don't know if I agree with this 'point of view', primarily because I think Joker has succumbed to the same primal, violent instincts Alex has, but also because I think Alex is acting on free will and a fighting stance against meaninglessness, only in his own, "amoral" way. But it made me think, and I wonder what others would say, considering this view -- in the overall context of Kubrick's body of work as a Nietzschean progression to the Overman (from say, 2001 to Full Metal Jacket).
Gordon Dahlquist: Well, it's for this reason that the post-Parris Island sections of the film are, for me, so important and effective. The desperate role-playing of the compromised grunts, the willful lack of context, the persistent lack of satisfaction ... it's a world-size critique on an individual scale, and the sputtering off into body bags and uncertainty connects more to Gravity's Rainbow than to Oliver Stone's will to giftwrap.
Brian Miller: Someone mentioned that you almost have to think of each part as a separate film and view them as such. While I don't completely agree with this, I see the point. In the first half you get exposed to a structured, limited, intense world, and the narrative and time frame follow in that manner. And it brilliantly further shows that no matter how structured you make everything, entropy still rears its ugly head - in this case, by way of the human condition through breakdown and insanity. The second act has the same sad evolution of insanity taking place, yet this time in a different narrative context where there are no boundaries of time and structure. Exogenous factors exist all around and their effects are incalculable.
I mentioned once that there is no path of least resistance for the possibilities of danger in the second half of the film; the insanity exists all around in the form of the enemy, prostitutes, environment, propaganda, and even, in the absence of war. Thus, in this lack of structure, the film narrative takes the same form. There are scenes of action, scenes of no action, and apparent unrelated scenes. Yet, an evolution is taking place in the characters, particularly Joker and Cowboy, and I feel this is what the movie is really about. It's almost as if you have to view the 2 halves of the film as mutually exclusive from a narrative standpoint, yet you must think of them as totally inclusive in retrospect to catch the undertone(s) of the film in whole.
Bilge Ebiri: That final circle of hell around the sniper's dead body (did you see that expression on Rafter Man's face? The scariest thing SK has ever shot, I think) is the ultimate proof of that; when Joker looks up, his shell is finally split apart and broken. Don't you just want to snuggle back into Sgt. Hartman's (suddenly) womb-like barracks and go back to sleep, horrible, horrible dream that this all is? Alas, no, it's an innocence that will never be retrieved.
Padraig Henry: Those final two scenes of the film, the killing of the female sniper and the singing of the Mickey Mouse Club song, are crucial to the film and connect back to everything that we have witnessed before. Joker's (Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?) killing of the sniper can be seen as not just an act of self-mutilation but as a suicidal act. When Pyle earlier brings his M-14 loaded with full-metal-jacketed bullets to his mouth in a deadly quasi-sexual embrace and pulls the trigger, he achieves complete but infertile unity with Charlene, his "feminized" gun. For Pyle the masculinization process has already run its course, a logical course that is suicidal. The truly "made" man is a dead marine.
Kubrick is showing that the masculinization process does not end at the boot-camp. The war is yet another testing ground. Much has been made of the sniper incident in many reviews and analyses of the film, often as a basis for criticizing it, so it may be useful to examine it more closely here. For instance, Susan Jeffords, in "The Remasculinization of America", sees Full Metal Jacket as exemplifying the movement, between 1979 and 1987, towards a masculinization defined in opposition to a feminine enemy. Comparing the film with Hasford's novel, she argues that "the film shuts down the novel's ambiguity and reinstates a clarified rejection of the feminine and restitution of the masculine." Referring to the killing of the sniper, Jeffords reads the film as a battle between a "purified masculine" and a "castrated feminine", which is finally silenced.
And in another analysis, John Stevenson's "Recent Vietnam Films", he argues that the second wave of Vietnam films, including Gardens of Stone, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, are, unlike the first wave, seen as a celebration of military life and are part of the "prolonged and concerted effort on the part of official America to reverse the old verdict on Vietnam". He maintains that the second half of Full Metal Jacket is reactionary and "degenerates into cliches", encouraging the viewer to identify with traditional combat films. His basis for this argument is once again the sniper incident.
But countering these analyses is Paula Willoquet-Maricondi's "Full-Metal-Jacketing: Masculinity in the Making", where she argues very convincingly that "rather than endorsing the dominant patriarchal ideology that turns boys into men through a display of bravery in the face of death, Kubrick criticizes the whole process of masculinization by showing that it involves not only the defeat of an "other" (female or otherwise), but, more fundamentally, the defeat of the very self." After Parris Island boot-camp, "Vietnam is redundant."
Gordon Dahlquist: I've never been able to understand why Full Metal Jacket is not more uniformly regarded as the most successful and resonant film set in Vietnam; much of this is simply because Platoon came out first; but as someone else was pointing out, I think it was really because of its ambilvalence -- Full Metal Jacket rejects both a simple good/bad moral structure about the war (and war in general) and also rejects a lame-ass "good character" vs. "bad character" metaphoric in particular -- why Stone didn't just use stick figures instead of actors is beyond me. To this day I get angry just thinking about Platoon, about how cheap and manipulative the story-telling is, and how engineered is the "truth" of the movie.
I do think Apocalypse Now is a wonderful film of great power, but again, it is really working on a much broader cultural canvas than the war itself - but I'm not saying this makes it a more "significant" or penetrating work than Full Metal Jacket -- in fact I think Apocalypse Now's desire to cover so much ground reduces it to a more general, more thin level at times that works through implication, by invoking things like the wagner or the playboy bunnies that have so much baggage themselves that they do some of the film's work for it. In contrast, Full Metal Jacket is so very boiled down, so locked into its own world that, correspondingly, it becomes emblematic for any situation of war -- and obviously the pared down structure of the film -- particularly the 2nd half's presentation of vividly representative moment-after-moment. Michael Herr has been dubbed by many with the title "Vietnam's Herodotus", but I do think the film quite consciously has that kind of emblematic grandeur in even brief scenes like Joker & Rafter Man meeting Touchdown on the road to Hue.
Brian Siano: There is one flaw all of these 'Viet Nam' films share, and one only parially described by George MacDonald Fraser in "The Hollywood History of the World". Fraser served in Burma in the 40's, and his experience with jungle warfare is similar to that of Viet vets. However, he writes that the point of nearly every Vietnam film he's seen has been that this war has a singular beastliness than others didn't -- and that's the only point these films make. I agree with Fraser to the extent that, while Kubrick, Coppola and Stone have made films that are singularly revelatory about the Vietnam experience, they say nothing about the war-- it's ostensible goals, the deceptions of the American public, the systems that encouraged and profited from this war, and much, much more (that is covered in one fascinating documentary titled Hearts and Minds, which is a must-see). In short, they tell the story of the individual Vietnam soldier -- yet they rarely say much about the American government's evils, and nothing at all about the people of Vietnam, or the war's place in our history.
This isn't to say that these are bad films: I think all three are great works of cinematic art, clearly above such lesser efforts like The Boys in Company C, Hamburger Hill and The Hanoi Hilton. Coppola portrayed the war through a prism of Conrad's jungle-journey fantasy: Stone told the story of the grunt using the strongest tools of Hollywood storytelling; Kubrick outlined how man descends into savagery.
Padraig Henry: As Tony Williams argues in "Inventing Vietnam", "Many writers have recognized war's function as an act of ritual cleansing whereby man can purify his masculinity and disavow his feminine side". He must continue to kill whatever is not purely masculine to him. So for Joker the killing of the female sniper represents his rebirth as a "man", a further step towards masculinization.
But the sniper, even though female, is also a soldier. Again this displays Kubrick's historical accuracy: Lanning and Cragg, in a study of the VC and NVA, demonstrated that women revolutionaries were often in guerilla units and in combat operations. Like the sniper herself, only young and unmarried women were recruited. Kubrick intends for us to see the sniper as a soldier: the face she turns to camera -- in slo-mo -- as she tries to shoot Joker is that of a "grunt". As the screenplay states, "With the hard eyes of a grunt, the sniper fires her AK-47 rifle". Kubrick is establishing once again that the Other is always the Self because the distinctions between the masculine and the feminine, as Post-Freudianism argues, are false. Femininity and masculinity are cultural constructs, symbolic scripts, and masculine is not to be confused with male.
Kubrick is showing that women too can be masculine grunts, a gendering process that has found increasing expression in films since the late eighties, from Thelma and Louise to Aliens. Indeed, Cameron's films provide excellent examples of this phenomenon. Andrew Ross's analysis of Aliens shows that Ripley appears empowered by a Rambo-style of masculinity and weaponry which endows her with a "recognisably national identity". Just like Kubrick's Marine recruits, she is assimilated into a "western-masculinist posture". Ross maintains that "in fact, Ripley's story shows some of the moves by which women can be, and increasingly will be, presented as accomplices, unwilling or not, in the particular national tradition of engendering men." And Kubrick demonstrates in Full Metal Jacket how men themselves have been made into accomplices, victims, and perpetuators of this engendering process. In contemporary Hollywood, even little girls are being co-opted.
That final scene of the marines marching through the smoke-filled remains of the city of Hue, another man-made environment, singing the Mickey Mouse Club song, suggests two further insights. Firstly, the Marines' infantilism, a return to childhood which puts into question the very process of maturation and masculinization we had been witnessing. Secondly, that boot-camp and war are continuous with the rest of American popular culture. The standards of manhood promulgated by the military permeate all of society and are broadcast by its institutions. As Willoquet-Maricondi says: "In choosing to depict the Vietnam war in particular, Kubrick directs our attention to the fact that, in the words of the editors of "The Vietnam War and American Culture", our part in the wars fought to subjugate the Vietnamese people to various colonial rulers was merely the latest chapter in a long history. Our responsibility for that war connected us to the ugly history of Western colonization. This colonization, Kubrick shows, is foremost one of Hearts and Minds before -- and long after -- it is a colonization of territory."
Geoffrey Alexander: So what are we left with?
Ultimately, I think, Full Metal Jacket isn't a Vietnam film, and it isn't a war film either, but it is a Stanley Kubrick film, and its ultimate in that regard it has to be judged and assimilated. 2001 is quite possibly Kubrick's greatest work; other of his films, including Paths of Glory, may be (by whatever virtue of Kubrick's genius, and one's own receptivity to it) one's favorite; but I've come to think, that, in terms of pure economy, method, and expenditure of insight, Full Metal Jacket's his most accomplished cinematic gesture. You all know how much I praise The Shining for the depth of its narrative complexity; and 2001 needs no further comment; Barry Lyndon is to beautiful for me to talk about so I leave it to Bilge; and A Clockwork Orange is of its own kind. But Full Metal Jacket is right there, in front of your eyes, and hits as hard the first time as the last -- unlike The Shining, for example, which takes a fair bit of re-viewing to puzzle out the brilliance from the ironic dross of its genre-trappings.
As in those films, it concerns the immediate psychology of the human mind just as surely as it considers the psychology of the race and the species -- but with what economy! Kubrick, in this film, has laid aside his siege-engines of mythological and symbological stagecraft, and given us a mainline fix of pure feeling -- which, in the Kubrickean aesthetic, may indeed equal some bit of horrible truth -- Keats may have had it wrong, or at least incomplete: if beauty can be truth, then surely the hideous can be as well -- but a truth without the comforting candy-wrapping of any pre-rationalized formulisms.
In its terseness, in its nakedness, what has ever grabbed your heart like the scene of Pyle's suicide, when what has been, up until the very moment of it, a Strangelove-like giggle-fest, turns darker than that earlier film could ever have dared to -- and then the scene fades, the bass-line fades in, the bottom of our souls drop out, and we find ourselves, at once, in Viet Nam? Or that incredible nightmare imagery of the final scene, conflating two or three of the film's most recurrent images/symbols -- its mickey-mouse John Waynes, marching across the pavement of Hell? What, if anything?
And if there is an answer to that, who would want to know it?