Thursday, May 25, 2006


RUNTIME: 116 min.

FULL METAL JACKET is not just another of those anti-Vietnam war movies. As a matter of fact it uses Vietnam as an example to raise questions both political and moral not only concerning Uncle Sam but every country that has invaded another country. Stanley Kubrick’s latest creation is every bit as good as the other great Vietnam War movies- PLATOON and APOCALYPSE NOW. In fact FULL METAL JACKET can be viewed as a bit of hybrid of these two movies. It carries the grounded ness and realistic approach of PLATOON but its imagery and the questions it asks are more along the lines of APOCALYPSE NOW.
FULL METAL JACKET is based on the book THE SHORTIMERS by Gustav Hasford. But it is common knowledge that Stanley Kubrick was never keen on seriously following the source material. He would borrow the idea and make it his own. He always used to maintain that both of them are two different mediums and deserve different treatment. It most famously happened with THE SHINING and it is quite apparent here as well.
FULL METAL JACKET does not have a plotline. The movie, as was the case with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, is told in two parts- one involving the training of the US Marine Corps and the second involving the Vietnam War.
Stanley Kubrick uses the training to drive home the point as to how innocent youngsters, some with a misplaced sense of machismo are turned into killing machines. They are trained as hell to be turned into “war machines asking for war”. They are trained to remove humanity from their souls. A generation and a country lost its innocence in this war. “Born to kill” is the motto of one of the principal characters. They are cursed at, they are howled at so that they become tough war machines who ask for war. This is wherein lies Kubrick’s critique of the world’s most powerful country’s policy. On one side we are evolving culturally progressing as a civilization and on the other we train people to become nothing but barbarians.
Kubrick is supremely clever with his material and he shows it with the screenplay. In a fantastic monologue involving the role of a sniper in warfare he uses the examples of infamous and notorious people who were darn good as snipers. His character Sgt. Hartman uses the example of Charles Whitman to inspire his trainees. The drill instructor asks his trainees to become as good as them. And these snipers, where did they learn their craft from- the US Marine Corps. Charles Whitman killed 15 people from a tower in Texas before he was shot dead by the police. And this is what the US Marine Corps have to become.
The second part is war. With graphic details as any war movie FULL METAL JACKET jumps up into an altogether different gear in this part. The action here is savage and it is not just to show violence on the screen as you would observe with most of the war movies today. It is in fact a depiction of the visual horrors of war, a means of conveying the dehumanizing process of war. Steven Spielberg later used the same technique albeit to a much greater effect in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The climactic sniper sequence is one of the very best war sequences ever filmed. Every frame has a purpose. The best part about the sequence and in fact the whole movie is not the visual depiction or its graphic detailing but how it stands as a metaphor for The Vietnam War -the Murder of Innocence. The revelation of the identity of the sniper who turns out to be an innocent looking girl stands for what happened in Vietnam. In fact the little girl stands for Vietnam. She underwent no Marine Corps training; she didn’t shout 10 times a day that she was a killer; she didn’t have “ Born To kill” written over her dress; she wasn’t yelled and cursed at. But she was motivated enough to kill 3 US Marines with 100% accuracy. This is where FULL METAL JACKET shares the philosophy of war with APOCALYPSE NOW and on a broader note with Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS. “Tough” Pvt. Joker with “Born to Kill” over his helmet cannot even kill a wounded little girl. It is because it so difficult to fight another person’s war. We tend to philosophize the situation because of the lack of motivation. There is a close-up here of Pvt. Joker’s face when he kills the girl. And the look on his face is not one of those ugly scowls he puts up in training when he is asked by his drill instructor to bring up his war-face. It is a stare that is his true war-time face. It is an expressionless shock that explains that these soldiers are never going to find peace again. No matter where they are the face of the girl or the face of Vietnam will forever haunt them.
The performance by the ensemble cast is brilliant. It is in fact a tribute to the genius of Stanley Kubrick. I have always maintained that it is up to the director to extract a performance from his actor and the latter are just set-pieces in his hands. Kubrick is always in control of his actors. Many great directors including Martin Scorsese give a lot more freedom to their actors. But Kubrick’s actors are always his tools. He extracts the exact precise expressions from his actors to drive home his point. Most of his movies are sarcastic and hence most of his characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional. But they have a character of their own. Kubrick’s characters, as is the case with the greatest of directors, are unique.
Special mention here for Lee Ermey for his portrayal of the drill instructor Sgt. Hartman. It is one heck of a brilliant performance. Lee Ermey actually served as a drill instructor and his experience shows here. His tongue-in-cheek performance with absolutely flawless turns in the monologues is a pleasure.
But the movie is all about the genius that is Stanley Kubrick. No director and I repeat no director is so brilliant and precise with his imagery. What takes 10 scenes for other directors to make a point is done in one shot by Kubrick. If there ever was a movie about irony this is it. Trained US Marines are killed by a single girl who would have barely undergone training. And insane killers are used to inspire the US Marines during their training.
The closing scene says it all about his ingenuity and about Vietnam.
It stands for the Vietnam fiasco in its entirety. Soldiers are shown walking away singing against a backdrop of burnt buildings. That was Vietnam. U.S. intervened in somebody else’s war to give them freedom and instead destroyed it and destroyed itself as well.
It is happening again, only at a different location.


Anonymous said...

According to you 'Full Metal Jacket' is as realistic as 'Platoon' but then is this kind of dramatic and ridiculous(stupid) language that sgt.Hartman uses can be real,or we should just ignore it since it's Kubrick.

man in the iron mask said...

First things first, the "realistic" approach means that the film doesn't go for the poetic movements of a Apocalypse Now, rather, its tone is more like a Platoon (All three films are Vietnam films per se, hence the mention. And I don't count The Deer Hunter as a worthy enough mention).
And as for the language, I guess and I only can guess from my bookish knowledge, that the language is very much in tune with a drill sergeant. Remember, this is the Marine Corps we're talking about, and if we go by the Law of proportions, I have faced drill instructors at school that felt be harrowed no end. Lee Ermey (Sgt. Hartman) was a former drill sergeant and I guess that counts for something too. Anyways, I don't think it is "dramatic" or "stupid", and by the way, Gustav Hasford's novel The Shorttimers, on which the film is based, is a semi-autobiographical novel and uses much of the same language. You can download the book from the following link (it is legal, it is his site.)-