For this entry I’ve decided to try being a bit less conversational and a bit more scholarly (for lack of a better word). Apologies in advance if this little experiment doesn’t work out as planned, or proves to be unbearably boring. Here goes…
Full Metal Jacket is a film that’s difficult to wrap one’s head around. It deals with a variety of serious subjects. These include the psychological effects of basic training, and the difficulty of commanding a squad in the midst of combat. At the same time, much of the film – particularly the dialogue – is extremely humorous. Of course, this is no accident.
There’s a scene in the movie where a Colonel questions a marine about why he has a peace symbol button on his body armor, and yet has “Born To Kill” written on his helmet. The marine replies, “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir… The Jungian thing.” To me, this line basically sums up Kubrick’s intent with making Full Metal Jacket. Every person has two sides. Every hero is capable of villainy, and every villain is capable of heroism.
Fitting in with this idea of duality, the movie is divided into two parts. The first part is set on Parris Island, where a group of recruits train to be marines. The second part occurs in Vietnam, around the time of the Tet Offensive.
Both halves of the film rely heavily on black comedy. The first half is dominated by the presence of Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann, played oh so memorably by R. Lee Ermey. Playing a drill instructor came naturally for him, since that’s exactly what he was in real life.
There have been all kinds of stories written about Ermey’s performance in Full Metal Jacket. Among them was that many of his lines were ad-libbed, which was virtually unheard of for any movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick gained notoriety with some actors because of his perfectionism. It was not unusual for him to have his actors perform dozens of takes. Steadicam operator Garrett Brown recalls that one of the scenes in The Shining took 148 attempts. By contrast, most of Ermey’s scenes in Full Metal Jacket were accomplished in just two or three takes.
The first half of Full Metal Jacket works extremely well because of the Hartmann character. For all his outrageously abusive verbal bravado, he seems to be harmless enough at first. But he’s capable of overstepping those bounds and becoming a genuinely terrifying individual. Specifically, his unrelenting torment of hapless Private Leonard Laurence (whom he derisively nicknames Gomer Pyle) escalates rather quickly.
Pyle, played by a virtually unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio (who gained 70 pounds for the role), is a source of much amusement early on. His fellow recruits seem unconcerned about his poor performance until they are issued a fateful ultimatum from their drill instructor. “From now on, whenever Private Pyle fucks up, I will not punish him,” says Hartmann. “I will punish all of you!” This poses a particular issue for Pyle’s squad leader, known to us only by his nickname, Private Joker.
Like Pyle, Joker doesn’t seem to be cut out for being a soldier. The difference is that Joker knows how to fake it. Unlike Pyle, Joker is in good physical shape, which allows him to escape most of Hartmann’s criticism. Joker is also extremely intelligent. He’s played by Matthew Modine as someone who knows all the right answers, even though he may not believe in them. Joker is the closest thing that Pyle has to a friend, but their relationship causes great internal turmoil for Joker. He’s used to shielding himself from reality by making jokes, but there’s nowhere for him to hide on Parris Island.
The second half of Full Metal Jacket is too often criticized for being weak. This is patently untrue. Having finally completed basic training, the marines are freed from the influence of Hartmann and dispatched to various units in Vietnam. The absence of Hartmann does hurt the second half, but the other actors pick of the slack very well. Parts of the story start to feel a bit cliché and predictable, but the dialogue remains excellent.
We follow Joker, who has now become a reporter for Stars And Stripes. He continues to see the horrors of war, and the humour continues to get blacker and blacker. Kubrick employed black comedy in many of his films, and it works perfectly here. The key to its effectiveness is the realization that although you shouldn’t be laughing, you find it impossible to resist. Consider the response given by a door gunner when asked by Joker “How can you shoot women and children?” We laugh at the gunner’s answer, but simulataneously we feel callous for doing so.
For his part, Joker is his usual self. When being interviewed by a documentary film crew about his time in Vietnam, he explains “I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the jewel of southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of ancient culture, and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!” But of course, jokes can only carry a person so far in the middle of a war, as we soon find out.