Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket, is best described as two films in one. The first half depicts young marines in basic training. In the first images, their shaggy hair is shaved off, individuality wiped away. Then comes Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), barking endlessly like a machine sent to pulverize the men into marines with orders and insults. The second half follows our main young marine, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), as a journalist covering the Vietnam war in Hue.
Along the way, a loss of human life and dignity is constantly shown. Sgt. Heartman’s constant flamboyant insults are just mental preparation for the disgusting things ahead. The weak are weeded out and punished, mentally by Sgt. Heartman and physically later by their fellow men. The men who can’t take it…well, I won’t reveal the fate of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) for any newbies. In Hue, the men barter with Vietnamese prostitutes in the street and disagree on who gets her first. Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis) shows off a dead Vietnamese soldier propped up in a chair, calling him one of the finest people he’ll ever know. On Joker’s chopper ride into the warzone, a man yells “Get some!” constantly shooting a machine gun at anything they fly over. When two of their own have fallen, the men stand around their bodies laid out on a tarp and hardly a minute passes before one man bluntly brings up the “medical issue” that was about to send one of the men home. These men seem to have very little respect for human life, even when it has passed. Perhaps that is what’s needed to survive the horrors of war in Vietnam.
The real star of Full Metal Jacket is R. Lee Ermey. He was originally a consultant for the first half of the film, making sure things were as authentic as his own boot camp. After Kubrick saw a video of Ermey spouting his military style insults for fifteen minutes straight, without breaking, he was offered the role. Most of the first half of the film, Emery’s voice is the main soundtrack, hollering at us, beating out the softness and molding us for the next half of the film. It’s best to toughen up before heading to war. He is also one of the most prominent characters in the first half. While all his men stand together, silent and still, Sgt. Heartman moves and leads them through the sterile barracks and through the grounds.
Full Metal Jacket only received one Oscar nomination, for adapted screenplay. No love for Kubrick’s direction or the cinematography I’ve come to love from his films. Thing is, given the duality of the two parts I can see some arguing that Kubrick was a bit unfocused. And that crisp, symmetrical depth we love in other Kubrick films is not present in Full Metal Jacket. Sadly, this may be because Kubrick’s usual cinematographer, John Alcott, died shortly before production.
I’ve heard many people say that the first half of Full Metal Jacket is what makes it a great movie. Though I loved both parts, I have to agree. Seeing the marines in training, losing more of themselves every day to Sgt. Heartman is intriguing and like no film I had ever seen. But being out in the warzone feels a lot like other films depicting Vietnam. Kubrick keeps a few tricks up his sleeve to make it stand out, but just barely. The idea about the duality of man best sums up the film. Joker wears a peace sign button, yet has “born to kill” written on his helmet. One part of the film shows the men being molded into straight and honorable marines, the other they’ve become dehumanized war fodder.
“Bullshit I can’t hear you. Sound off like you got a pair!”