I’m traveling this week, so here’s an early update addressing a timeless question: What IS all this Mickey Mouse shit?
The Film: Marine recruits on their way to Vietnam first pass through Parris Island, where they are stripped, shaved, and delivered into the hands of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who grants the soldiers demeaning nicknames and trains them alongside a routine of verbal and physical abuse. One soldier (Vincent D’Onofrio), nicknamed Gomer Pyle, suffers the most and cracks up after graduation, killing Hartman and himself. Some time passes and we catch up with Private Joker (Matthew Modine), now a Corporal and a journalist for Stars and Stripes. After surviving the Tet Offensive, Joker situates himself with a squad that includes his old friend Cowboy (Arliss Howard). Later, a sniper kills Cowboy and several members of the group, forcing Joker into combat. When the squad catches the sniper, Joker makes the decision to end her life.
The Production: Stanley Kubrick waited a full seven years after finishing The Shining before attacking his next project, a faithful adaptation of the war novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford. The resulting film, retitled Full Metal Jacket, would be Kubrick’s fifth and final movie about war (sixth if you count Barry Lyndon).
Nobody who sees Full Metal Jacket can ever forget the jaw-dropping performance of R. Lee Ermey as Sergeant Hartman. He’s so good and so raw that he overshadows the rest of the picture, and in fact some fans feel that the real movie ends when his character dies. Ermey, a former real-life drill instructor, was hired as a consultant but didn’t like the actors cast as the D.I.s, so he made an infamous audition tape where unseen extras pelted him with fruit while he unleashed creative curses and insults for 15 minutes. The tape won Ermey the job. Kubrick knew he had stumbled onto something exceptional and actually gave up some of his trademark control to capture it. Kubrick allowed Ermey to improvise over half of his dialogue and, extremely rare, required only a few takes of Ermey’s rants before calling it and moving on.
Full Metal Jacket hit theatres in 1987, the same year that Oliver Stone’s Platoon rampaged through the industry. The success of Stone’s film, a more realistic and emotional look at the war, overshadowed Kubrick’s take. Full Metal Jacket flopped and only found its audience much later on home video, removed from Platoon‘s shadow. Many critics now consider FMJ to be the better film.
Best Moment: The Kubrick stare. Hell yes, the Kubrick stare. No shot in his toolbox better sums up the way Kubrick saw the world and the often insane people he chose to populate it. The most famous stare is probably Alex in the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange, but you can find it in most of Kubrick’s late-period films, including this one. The scene takes place after graduation, as the troops spend their last night in the barracks before being sent to war. Joker is on watch, and he finds Private Pyle out of his bunk. (The whole scene is worth watching, but the stare is at 3:23).
D’Onofrio is a bit hammy here, but there’s tremendous power in the scene, a transition from the brightly lit training footage into the darkness that hangs over the rest of the film. I always enjoy Hartman’s final moments here, shitting on Pyle until the end. Hartman has no fear or hesitation. In a way, this is what Hartman wants. Pyle came to him as a lump, a man too useless for the military. Hartman made him a killer, and so this is more of a vindication than a murder. By giving his last breath, Hartman proved he could make a monster in his own likeness, even from the weakest stock.
Lasting Impact: Big, but mostly for R. Lee Ermey. Sergeant Hartman was written as an evil figure, but he’s developed into a cultural icon. Like Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, Hartman has become a comic figure known more for his one-liners than for his crimes. Ermey has made a career out of spoofing his persona in shows like Mail Call, and he even appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners as almost the exact same character. . . only dead.
Matthew Modine didn’t benefit in the same way, nor did D’Onofrio. In fact, the only character in the film to receive the same level of cultural notoriety is the Da Nang hooker played by Papillon Soo. Her come ons to Joker (“Me so horny. Me love you long time.”) were picked up by 90s hip hop artists and sampled into several hit songs.
Overall: Full Metal Jacket is a story in two parts. Rather than use a traditional three-act structure, the film has two separate acts only loosely connected by a couple of characters. Nobody in the second half talks about the events in the first, although they must have made an impression. Either part could stand on its own as a complete story, but neither would be the same without the other. What good is a film about the crafting of weapons if you can’t see the weapons at war?
The first half of the film gets all the love, and not entirely without reason. Ermey’s performance as Hartman is a minor miracle, one of those happy accidents that develop on film sets and become actual movie magic. Ermey is at all times equally authentic, hilarious, and terrifying. It’s hard to believe his actions are legal. In his long introduction scene, Hartman forces Private Pyle to choke himself, but using Hartman’s hand. If Pyle wanted to complain, who would he talk to? Hartman is god, but even if he weren’t, the men upstairs clearly condone his abuse. He makes boys into men and sometimes, as in the case of Pyle, something more. Pyle, already barely in control of his mind, becomes confused and looks to his gun for comfort. The gun won’t betray him like Joker or hate him like Hartman. In the novel, Pyle comes to think of the gun as his wife, and sees killing as the only way to make sense out of his place in the world. What if Joker hadn’t found him in the head? He might have been shipped to Vietnam, probably to become the exact kind of soldier the anti-war crowd was so worried about. A psychopath in military green, leaving only atrocities in his wake.
Of course, this is Hartman’s goal. He’s not just teaching these boys a lifestyle. Read the text of his graduation speech, which includes the following:
Some of you will not come back. But always remember this: Marines die. That’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means YOU live forever.
That isn’t a battle cry, it’s religion. Hartman, and by extension, the Corps., doesn’t want soldiers so much as he wants zealots. Pyle converted, but he overshot the edge. If he’d maintained his balance he might have been like Adam Baldwin’s character, Animal Mother, who Joker meets in the film’s second half. Animal Mother is a killer to the core and will barely tolerate any plan that doesn’t end in bloodshed. I get the sense that Animal Mother stays with his unit mainly for expediency; they always find targets, sooner or later.
Animal Mother inhabits the film’s second half, which seems more like a straightforward war picture and is often accused of lacking focus. Some blame the loss of Hartman, but the real problem is Joker. He’s the great unknown of Full Metal Jacket; despite his narration, we never learn very much about him. What can we guess about his motivation? We learn that he wanted to kill, joining the Marines with the hope of being the first on his block to notch his gun. Under Hartman’s abuse, Joker takes pity on Pyle and tries to help him along, but then beats Pyle savagely in the “blanket party” hazing ritual. It seems that there’s a killer inside Joker that’s eager to emerge, but then we move ahead to Vietnam and find him as a non-combatant, a journalist wearing a peace button. He was witness to Pyle’s becoming as a monster. Did Pyle change Joker’s perception about killing, or is it the peace button that’s insincere? I’ve seen the film several times and I’m still not sure about Joker’s final act, the killing of the sniper (and presumably his first confirmed kill, the one he wanted to boast about in the neighborhood.) His face suggests disgust, and his motivation could be revenge for the killing of Cowboy and his squadmates, but it can’t be ignored that shooting the sniper is a mercy. The cruel act would be to let her die slowly in the filth. Is it truly murder, or kindness?
Joker’s final lines are all we have. “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I’m in a world of shit… yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.” It’s not coincidence that he repeats Pyle’s line. I think Kubrick’s script doesn’t want to draw distinctions between killing for pleasure and killing for kindness. I think the film suggests that no matter the motivation, a man must trade a piece of his humanity to kill another. Joker may have his sanity and his conscience, but he is still Private Pyle, clutching his rifle and donning that full metal jacket to survive this world of shit he’s in. Joker has accepted Hartman’s religion. He wants to go home, but even if he doesn’t, he knows he is a Marine. He knows he will live forever.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
4. Full Metal Jacket
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire