Thursday, 31 December 2015

War Movie Week: Full Metal Jacket (Vietnam)

There are few directors who have shown quite a fascination with war as Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg might be a worthwhile contender (having made at least three World War II movies plus films about World War I and the American Civil War), but Kubrick seems to constantly return to criticize it. In Fear and Desire he emphasized that war was not black and white. In Paths of Glory he showed the pointlessness of war. In Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb he used dark humour to draw attention to the absurdity of Cold War politics. 

His last war film was Full Metal Jacket, which once again criticises Vietnam, this time by exploring the subject of dehumanization. To do this, Kubrick splits the film into two halves. The better-known of these segments is the first, which depicts the means by which the army turns ordinary people into killers. The second sees the end result of this training once the soldiers are on the battlefield, and explores the question of whether it is possible for a soldier to maintain their humanity. In both cases, Kubrick becomes very critical of the Vietnam War, but unlike his previous efforts, focuses primarily not so much on the politics, but on how it changes those who fight.

The theme of dehumanizing soldiers is first represented in the film's opening montage, which cuts between several close-up shots of the faces of new recruits as they each receive a haircut. Though they look different at first, the men are each getting their hair cut to look exactly the same. From what is visible, each of them begin with a distinct hairstyle, but are changed to display the same crew cut. The montage ends with a final shot emphasizing a pile of hair scattered around the floor of the room, presumably from the different men that have been shown. 

This is a detail often ommitted from war films, even those that deal with basic training (G.I. Jane being one of the few exceptions), but Kubrick dedicates the entire beginning to the haircuts. This is because it marks the first stage of the dehumanization that will progress throughout the rest of the film. The cutting of the hair represents the removal of each person's identity. Whoever they once were, they now have no choice but to become soldiers and to adapt to their new circumstances. Showing the pile of hair reminds the viewer of who these soldiers once were, and how they are now being changed due to circumstances beyond their control.

With the stage set for the transformation, the actual process can begin. This is the role of Drill Instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, himself a former drill sergeant who has since made a career out of yelling at people). Hartman is quick to bring this to the forefront. His first speech to the recruits consists of him telling them they are not even "human beings" as far as he is concerned. He claims not to discriminate because they "are all equally worthless" and proceeds to use a variety of insults, which include regularly calling the recruits "ladies" as well as a variety of racist and homophobic slurs. 

This being Vietnam, probably in the late 1960's, referring to the recruits as "ladies" would have been an appropriate insult for the era (the U.S. Marine Corps has only just begun accepting women). Similarly, the racist and homophobic slurs used by Hartman would have still been in common use by Americans, many of whom were racist, sexist, and homophobic. Hartman is simply taking advantage of common prejudices of the era. He equates his perception of the recruits to a conservative view of blacks and homosexuals. In other words, he is using common prejudices to make the recruits feel less human.

Hartman also emphasizes the idea of dehumanization by giving each of the major characters a nickname. Among them are "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard), "Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio) and "Joker" (Matthew Modine). All three characters are referred to almost exclusively by these nicknames, with very little regard for their actual names. Once again, Hartman is forcing them to change to adapt to the war, and to conform to his standards. Indeed, conformity remains a central theme throughout the first segment, with a prominent emphasis on the recruits as a collective group rather than focusing on a specific individual.

Joker and Pyle are really the only two recruits given any real development as characters, though Cowboy is given more depth in the second half. That said, it is still obvious that the viewer is aligned with the recruits, especially these two. While Hartman may be a memorable role, part of his effect is that he is alienated from the viewer. While the film shows the everyday routines of Joker and Pyle, the audience never gets to know Hartman as a person. Every one of his appearances consists of him performing his job as an instructor, and even when shown in pyjamas, he never takes off his distinct hat.

By contrast, Pyle is constantly isolated from the other recruits. Hartman singles him out on the first day of training, and as the film progresses, shots are often composed to draw the audience's gaze towards him. One shot that appears repeatedly consists of showing the recruits engaging in a training exercise on one side, with Pyle on the other in an embarrassing position. This is notable in one sequence where a group of marines are seen marching along a path in unison, before Pyle is shown several metres away, with his cap on backwards, his pants dropped, his thumb in his mouth, and his rifle backwards.

Hartman expands on this idea further in one notable scene, during which he conducts and inspection of the barracks. He passes several recruits with only a few minor insults before stopping at Pyle and opening his footlocker. Inside, he finds a jelly doughnut, drags Pyle into the front centre of the room (between two rows of his fellow recruits). He proceeds to use Pyle as an example, and marches back and forth displaying the doughnut, which he holds at arm's length as though he is disgusted by it. He also introduces a new tactic: punishing the other recruits for Pyle's mistakes, making them resent him and thus forcing him to improve.

The only other character given any prominent focus during this portion is Joker, who is fitting in much better with the marines, if not perfectly. From what is seen, he appears to be a decent man when given the chance. This is notable in his relationship to Pyle, as he is the one recruit to attempt to assist him. Pyle is obviously unfit to be serving in the military (given the timeframe, it is easily possible he was drafted) and fails to learn under Hartman. His one-on-one sessions with Joker prove more effective in teaching him. However, Hartman is succeeding in his task of making Pyle into a killer.

This dehumanization can be seen throughout this montage and the various actions that occur during training. One early scene shows Hartman instructing the recruits to sleep with their rifles. He instructs them to give their rifle "a girl's name" with the idea that they are married to their gun. Hartman justifies this by claiming that, in his words, "this is the only pussy you are going to get." Hartman is instructing them to get attached to their rifles by treating them as a lover, thus becoming more acquainted with the idea of killing another person. It is a gradual process, but slowly each of the men are being turned into fighting machines.

This segment of the film ends with the recruits graduating and becoming marines. Hartman delivers a motivational speech about how the marines will serve their country and how even those who die will live on through the continuing success of the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, this optimistic moment is ended by the famous wash-room sequence, which set up the ideas explored in the second half of the film. During this scene, Joker is tasked with guarding the barracks during his last night before getting deployed, and finds Pyle in the officer's lavatory. It is here we get to see what Pyle has become as a result of Hartman's training.

Pyle has become a killer. He displays everything he has learned as a marine, but he is far from a soldier following orders. He begins talking to his rifle, as Hartman has instructed him to do, but also performs several gestures and military calls that he has learned. He even recites the pledge about his rifle. Hartman's methods have worked too well, and Pyle has become an uncontrollable killer. Hartman tries to bring him back under his control but ends up getting himself killed doing so. This moment serves to motivate the second half, in which we see what happens when killers are placed in the field. These are not soldiers, but murderers. Ideology and politics are nothing more than an excuse at best, and all they can really understand is killing.

The second half centres on the actual conflict in Vietnam., and focuses more prominently on Joker. He has presumably been there for some time, but instead of taking a front line job as a marine he has signed on to be a journalist. These scenes, which focus on his relationship to fellow journalist Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), allow a glimpse of an outsider's perspective on the war. The newspaper is heavily censored, only running stories that put the American military in a positive light. There is frequent talk of how the Americans are trying to "help" the Vietnamese people, who are repeatedly criticized for not wanting outside assistance. 

This newspaper represents conservatives like John Wayne, the co-director of the earlier propaganda film The Green Berets. In fact, there is a very similar thought process going through the minds of the newspaper staff to what that which went into the making of The Green Berets, doing everything they can to make the army look good and convince people to support their efforts. Rafterman remains optimistic, while Joker is cynical, but both are assigned to accompany a platoon into the field. Rafterman in this case starts as an optimistic and even patriotic individual who is forced to see the reality of war, a bleak reversal of the George Beckworth character in The Green Berets.

It is once in the field that the reality becomes clearer. Once the soldiers are actually in the field, politics and ideology are left behind. All that remains is their instincts of kill or be killed. None of the soldiers they meet display any real sense of patriotism. In fact, one soldier, given the strange nickname of "Animal Mother" (Adam Baldwin of Firefly fame), openly calls out Rafterman for thinking in such a way. Animal Mother is depicted as a total psychopath, who seems to simply enjoy killing VC. The same can also be said for the Door Gunner Joker speaks to, who apparently delights in gunning down random people. These are people who, back home, would be seen as dangerous criminals, yet here they are allowed to roam free.

Joker is made to constantly stand out during this second half. He is locked in a tough psychological struggle to retain his humanity. This is symbolized by his wardrobe, which is called out by several characters. His helmet contains the words "born to kill" and yet he also wears a peace sign on his combat vest. He justifies this by saying it represents "the duality of man" or more accurately his own struggle to adapt to the environment of Vietnam. These details represent different sides of his personality, and his struggle to reconcile both.

As Joker travels with these soldiers, he finds himself witnessing the true horrors of war. His own transformation occurs, however, during the film's climax. Here, the marines find themselves faced with a sniper. At this point, rational thought and ethics are abandoned as the soldiers let themselves be consumed by their own emotions. Two of their own are shot and wounded, and even after Cowboy (who is currently in charge) figures out what the sniper is trying to do (drawing the soldiers out one at a time) and tries to respond appropriately, they become increasingly determined to overcome their unseen enemy, and Cowboy ends up having no choice but to follow him, which in turn leads to his death.

Eventually, the Sniper is revealed to be a young girl. She is shot by Rafterman and confronted by the other marines. It is here that Joker completes the shift in character he began in the film's opening montage. The sniper is wounded, and pleads to be shot, but Animal Mother opts to leave her behind. Joker, still clinging to a sense of right and wrong, tries to make a moral judgement, but ends up instead opting to perform a mercy killing. While Joker has handled a gun on numerous occasions, this scene marks the first time he has actually killed someone. Joker is now officially a killer.

This is shown in the movie's strange and enigmatic final scene, where the soldiers march through a battlefield singing the Mickey Mouse Club March, during which Joker can be seen as one of many soldiers. In a voiceover Joker admits that he is only glad to be alive, even if he is living in the middle of Vietnam. He has become a killer. The politics and ideologies that motivated the Vietnam War are irrelevant. All he is concerned about is his own survival, and all he understands is fighting the enemy. This completes the ideas of dehumanization that have been set up from the beginning.


  1. The opening half is FMJ is some of the most perfect film-making ever done. It was wonderful story telling combined with frightening accuracy. As one who served in the Army, I can tell you that the punishments given to Pyle really do, or at least did happen, including punishing everyone for the actions of one. And yes, retaliation can come in the form of the infamous "blanket party" scene. That's not something Kubrick and the writers dreamed up.

    That first portion is so great it overshadows the also excellent second half which, as you point out, completes the process set in motion by the first.

    1. Wow, yet another reason for me not to join the marines. Even if I could meet the physical requirements (I have flat feet) I don't think I'd last very long if it really is anything like in Full Metal Jacket. From what I understand, there are a few more rules about how hard the Drill Sergeant can be (i.e. they can't physically touch recruits) but beyond that I'm not sure if much else has changed.

      A lot of people seem to think that the first half is stronger than the second, and on some level I can see why, but the second half, while perhaps not as linear, is still just as important. That first half in boot camp wouldn't really be complete without that final resolution that comes when the marines enter Vietnam.