Full Metal Jacket

by Bill Krohn

Excerpt taken from the book: Zone 6: Incorporations, edited by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, New York: Urzone inc, 1992, pp. 428–435. All Rights Reserved

First movement: At a Marine boot camp on Parris Island, a squad of young recruits are brutalized by Sergeant Hartman, a horrifyingly funny drill instructor whose face and voice so dominate the film’s first section that only two other characters are permitted to develop a semblance of psychological individuality: a wiseass named Joker and a dumb farmboy named Pyle, whose propensity for screwing up makes him the main target for Hartman’s brutality, and that of his own comrades, until he goes mad and shoots his persecutor in the latrine.

Second movement: Cut to Da Nang, where Joker and a gung ho newcomer named Rafter Man have drawn easy duty as correspondents for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, and suddenly the tension of the first part dissipates, the structure of the film loosens to the point of entropy and the narrative is set adrift, as if we were watching outtakes from a film whose story we haven’t completely under stood. We follow Joker and Rafter Man from the placid corruption of Da Nang, broken only by a curiously anemic sequence showing the let Offensive, to the countryside around Hue, where they join a seasoned combat unit called the "Lusthogs" for an assault on Hue, overrun by the Vietcong. The drifting, fragmentary, anti-dramatic feeling of these sequences is heightened in the aftermath of the assault, when a television crew films the characters speaking in choreographed succession like actors in a bad Broadway play about Vietnam, then addressing the camera directly in inter views that recall a famous episode of TV’s M*A*S*H.

It is only during the last minutes of the film that a sense of narrative progression returns: as the Lusthogs patrol the streets of Hue, they find themselves pinned down by an invisible sniper who turns out, when Joker penetrates her stronghold, to be a teenage girl. Cut down by Rafter Man’s bullets, the sniper is slow to die, and only Joker is willing to put her out of her misery with a bullet through the head. Afterward, we see American soldiers marching at night silhouetted against a fiery landscape, singing the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme song, while Joker, barely distinguished from the horde by the last of a sparse series of laconic voiceovers, informs us that he is no longer afraid.

Is Full Metal Jacket an antiwar film, as the critics have assumed, or is it, in the words of an indignant Samuel Fuller, "a recruiting film"? Fuller’s reaction did more to point up the slippery quality of Full Metal Jacket for me than all the raves predicated on the notion that Stanley Kubrick had made another Paths of Glory (1957). Since that film and Spartacus (1960), Kubrick has rejected messages in order to purify his art, and Full Metal Jacket (1987), which returns thirty years later to the booby-trapped terrain of the war film, is part of that ongoing process, as we can see by comparing the director’s shooting script with the film he finally made. Two scenes were eliminated which would have made the drill instructor a monster: one where he nearly drowns Pyle in a bowl of urine, and one where he orders a recruit who has cut his wrists to clean up the mess he’s made before reporting to the doctor. Instead, due in no small part to Lee Ermey’s mesmerizing performance, the character remains human-size, believable, by turns outrageous and sympathetic, and seductive.

So it’s not difficult to understand Fuller’s rage at the way Hartman is portrayed, or his distrust of any film that includes a scene like the one where the recruits, transformed by many sufferings into proud members of the Corps, parade to the strains of the "Marine Corps Hymn," while Hartman’s voice tells them they are now part of an indestructible brotherhood, It was just such a scene that the producer of Merrill’s Marauders (1962) tacked onto Fuller’s film to turn it into the kind of war film described by Roland Barthes in a famous essay In Mythologies:

Take the Army; show without disguise its chiefs as martinets, its discipline as narrow-minded and unfair, and into this stupid tyranny immerse an average human being, fallible but likeable, the archetype of the spectator. And then, at the last moment, turn over the magical hat, and pull out of it the image of an army, flags flying, triumphant, bewitching, to which, like Sganarelle’s wife, one cannot but be faithful although beaten.

In fact, that is a perfect description of what happens in Full Metal Jacket until Pyle shoots Hartman. Then another kind of film begins, and by the time the image of the triumphant army returns at the end, the conventions of the (anti)war film have been transformed into something else altogether.

The best answer I have seen to the perennial critical quarrel about whether Kubrick is a humanist is Gilles Deleuze’s observation that all of Kubrick’s films portray the world as a brain, one fated to malfunction from both internal and external causes. This surprising insight will at least permit us to do justice to the strangeness of Full Metal Jacket, where the little world of the training camp on Parris Island is portrayed as a brain made up of human cells thinking and feeling as one, until its functioning is wrecked first from within, when a single cell, Pyle, begins ruthlessly carrying out the directives of the death instinct that programs the organ as a whole, and then from without by the Tet Offensive, the external representation of the same force. A double movement is described by the rigorously plotted movements of Kubrick’s camera: in the first section, as the camera follows the constant parading of the recruits and their instructor, and movement is almost exclusively from the interior of the screen out, while in the second section, beginning with the striking dolly forward on the miniskirted ass of a Da Nang whore, camera movements into the screen, toward the vanishing point, predominate; but the film’s two parts describe a single movement with a single endpoint–the encounter with a fellow human being whose face, in Hartman’s memorable phrase, has become a "war face," the face of death.

What is new in Full Metal Jacket is that, for the first time in Kubrick’s cinema (although A Clockwork Orange [1971] attempts some thing similar with its self-effacing boustrophedon structure), the narrative itself begins to malfunction, after Pyle has turned his rifle on Hartman and then on himself, as if eliminating the antagonists whose repeated confrontations made a story possible has condemned the film to wander into regions bordering dangerously on nonsense, until a new antagonist erupts in the encounter with the sniper, which permits the filmmaker to start turning the screw of suspense again, imparting a linear and dramatic coherence in time to arrest the fatal drift.

Kubrick told Newsweek that he wants to "explode the narrative structure of film," and in Full Metal Jacket the first casualty of the explosion is the conventional notion of character. For Full Metal Jacket is a film without a hero; its sole protagonist is a group-mind whose formation is shown in the boot camp scenes, most of which portray the process of indoctrination, with little reference to combat training per se. Then, in the second section, we follow scattered pieces of the group-mind as they are set adrift in a world where scene follows scene with no apparent dramatic or thematic necessity, so that even Joker, the protagonist whose acts and motives were starkly delineated by the constricting circumstances of boot camp, seems to withdraw from us, be coming a cipher as the film unfolds – mainly thanks to the unsparing labor of purification, by which Kubrick during the year-long shoot stripped away the elements in his own script that made Joker someone with whom the audience could identify: his voiceovers reduced finally to four or five; the instinctive revulsion that impels him, in a scene that was either cut or never filmed, to kill an Arvin colonel who is murdering prisoners during the helicopter ride from Da Nang to Hue; and his death and burial, which would have concluded the film on an elegiac note – replaced here by the group-shot of soldiers singing the Mousketeer anthem that was originally planned for an earlier scene, after the assault on Hue.

The effect is subtle and at times paradoxical: for example, the mute, expressionless faces in the film’s opening sequence, a montage of close-ups of recruits getting their first Marine Corps haircut, seem emotionally much closer to us than the faces in the montage of TV interviews, which distance the characters at the very moment they are being permitted, for the first time, to "express" themselves – with all the method acting, mock hesitations and other signals of sincerity on the part of the actors that "expression" implies. In the second section of Full Metal Jacket, we meet a whole new cast of highly individualistic characters who are imbued with the full range of human emotions, but cut loose from their narrative moorings they appear as opaque fragments of a larger whole, their acts legible only as behaviors (to borrow a term from the science of operant conditioning) in which are embedded, in a kind of horrible monotony, the traits – racism, misogyny, machismo, homicidal mania – that govern the group-mind, even in its malfunctioning; although this does not prevent us from feeling momentary sympathy for each of the characters. Sympathy, in fact, is necessary if we are to read the subtle, often nearly imperceptible gestures and expressions in which the drama of the group is played out.

One striking effect of Kubrick’s narrative experiments in Full Metal Jacket was to force many critics to reconsider their adulation of Platoon [1987], because Kubrick has eliminated every scene or action that might have served as a handhold for the spectator in search of easy edification, choosing instead to construct his film as a parody of all edifying and unifying fictions. It’s impossible to watch the last scene, where Joker, made fearless, is swallowed up by the marching throng, without thinking of Stone’s proclaimed intention of bringing Americans together and healing the nation’s wounds, to which the only proper reply is Alex’s last line in A Clockwork Orange: "I was cured, all right!"

I would also argue that the alienation effects that Kubrick uses in the Vietnam section of his film are a superior form of realism to Platoon’s scorched-earth naturalism, which is largely based on effects of déjà vu: Stone, who was there, has portrayed it in images copied from TV coverage of the war and myriad other war films, so that the shock of discovering a new reality Is mediated by images that are believable because they are already familiar– as in Salvador [1986], where the photojournalist played by John Savage says not that he wants to take a picture that shows the reality of war, but that he wants to "take one like Capa." Kubrick’s formal strategy in Full Metal Jacket– which encompasses every element of his film, and not just the narrative choices I’ve focused on in this brief description – is to create moments of utter strangeness that have the shock of fresh perception. His motto could be that of the seventeenth-century haiku poet Basho: "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. I seek the thing they sought."

Deleuze discusses Kubrick in the second volume of Cinema, his comprehensive classification of film images and signs, initially as signing him to one of the two stylistic camps into which he divides modern cinema, the cinema of the body (for example, Godard, Cassavetes) and the cinema of the brain (for example, Resnals, Kubrick). Deleuze’s description of what is specifically modern in Resnais and Kubrick – as opposed to Eisenstein, who uses a classical model of the brain structured by processes of integration and differentiation – is based on philosopher of Science Gilbert Simondon’s speculation that "the properties of living matter are manifested as the maintenance ...of certain topological properties, much more than of pure energetic or structural properties," which leads Simondon to propose a non-Euclidian model of living organisms where "the functions of integration and differentiation are a function of a meta-stable asymmetry between an absolute interlority and exteriorlty’

Delouse makes a few adjustments to this speculative model –which seems to be equally applicable to organisms and their parts – when he proposes his own post-classical model of the brain. For example, by "absolute interiority and exteriority" Simondon means simply the organism and its environment, in contrast to the relative relationships of interiority and exteriority which hold between systems of the organism, where the bloodstream may be exterior with respect to a gland that emits secretions into it, and interior with respect to the intestinal walls. Reinterpreted by Delouse, these topological absolutes become "an inside more profound than any interior milieu, and an outside more distant than any exterior milieu," both of which are Identified with death in the section on Resnais and Kubrick and, in the conclusion to the volume, with "the unevocable in Welles, the undecidable in Resnais, the inexplicable in Robbe-Grillet, the incommensurable in Godard, the unreconcilable in the Straubs, the impossible in Marguerite Duras, the irrational in Syberberg."

Deleuze’s poetic rewriting of Simondon turns out to have many applications: in fact, as that diversified roster of modern filmmakers suggests, Deleuze Intends it to be more widely applicable than he first indicates: by the end of the book he is proposing his new model of the brain, which also includes "the irrational cut" and "the black screen," as a model for alt the global structures – mainly variations on the series – used in modern films. The new brain model is the "noosign" of modern cinema, just as the spiral was the noosign of classical cinema, based on the classical model of the brain structured by processes of integration and differentiation. Deleuze even says in an interview about the book that the biology of the brain, and not linguistics or psycho analysis, will furnish the criteria for a new film aesthetics: "The value of all cinema depends on the cerebral circuits It establishes...the richness, complexity and general tenor of its arrangements, of its connections, conjunctions, circuits and short-circuits."

So the cinema of the brain is not just one type of film in Deleuze’s taxonomy of modern cinema – it represents the whole terrain to be mapped. This means that the films of Resnais and Kubrick, which take this new organic model as their subject, are exemplary. By dispersing its narrative and making classical narrative one element in a structure that implements another logic, Full Metal Jacket, like any modern film, is exploring the cerebral processes that found the new aesthetic of l’image-temps; but by portraying as parts of a brain the stock characters of a genre that could stand for all of classical cinema ("A film is like a battlefield" – Samuel Fuller, 1965), and having them act out the breakdown of semimotor connections that give rise to "pure optical and aural situations," Kubrick is staging, in a peculiarly literal way, an allegory of modern cinema.

I don’t want to leave the impression, in concluding, that Kubrick is without masters. He had one, Max Ophuls, who is as present in Full Metal Jacket as he is in an obvious pastiche like Lolita. Hartman’s first appearance, for example, visually duplicates the opening sequence of Lola Montes [1955], with Peter Ustinov’s ringmaster spieling to the backward-tracking camera as he advances past a line of acrobats standing at attention. William Karl Guerin, In a book on Ophuls, has taught us to be suspicious of this Mephistophellan figure and his twin, the Master of Ceremonies In La Ronde [1950], who subject the other characters and the spectator alike to the seductive rigors of a mise-en-scene designed to illustrate "a sinister conception of man." Traditionally, critics have tended to identify these director surrogates with Ophuls, and Kubrick, who revises his predecessor by killing off Hartman in the middle of the film, might agree with them, but all the ambiguities of Full Metal Jacket are already deployed in Ophuls’ late films, where, as Guerin has shown, a single close-up (Simone Signoret in La Ronde, Martins Carol faint and perspiring before her final leap in Lola Montes) is sufficient to derail the Master of Ceremonies’ infernal machine. In Full Metal Jacket the close-up of Pyle, insane, signals the imminent death of Kubrick’s Master of Ceremonies, which liberates images and characters from the machine of the narrative; and when the narrative begins to function again during the assault on Hue, the close-up of the young sniper shatters the spell, leaving us with those concluding images of the marauding horde, which recalls the Dionysian mobs at of Le Masque and the end of La Maison Tellier episode in Le Plaisir (1951): images of a world without a master of ceremonies.


Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavera. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 41.

Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 205–206.

Gilbert Simondon, L’ lndividu et sa genese physico-biologique, Paris: P.U.F., 1964, p. 261.

Deleuze, Pourparlers: 1972–1990, ParIs: Minuit, 1990, pp. 85–86.

William Karl Guerin, Max Ophuls, Paris: Cahiers du Cinema, 1988.