Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford
Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood
Fighting for one’s nation is a call that takes pride, bravery, and a sense of duty to protect fellow citizens from all threats, foreign and domestic. Coming from a sense of honor, all promotional advertisements for enlistment depict the impact one individual can have on national security, which has allowed a steady stream of willing participants. The time of the Vietnam War certainly had a different vibe to enlistment and the soldier experience, with Full Metal Jacket being one of the most deft examples of how the system takes in young men and completely spits them out.
At the height of the Vietnam war, a bunch of new recruits join the Marines in the hope to serve their nation but must endure the boot camp led by drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey). Through tortuous conditions and drills, these new recruits must confront the reality of what it takes to make it to the frontline and the horrors awaiting them.
Most war films fit within two categories, those seeking to glorify the country’s involvement and the others looking to demonize it. Those centered around World War II typically fall into the glorification while the Vietnam War films certainly take a sterner approach. These lenses certainly capture the attitudes of the times with the Vietnam War being very unpopular. Young men were sent to their deaths in what became a pointless war where thousands more in Vietnam met their end. Full Metal Jacket ensures to not sugarcoat anything and displays this entire time in the armed forces as one where the young men were churned out for political machinations.
It all begins with a group of young men sitting at a barbershop and each of them having their hair cut off to a simple buzzcut. The type of hair normally associated with members of the armed services. The opening scene indicates that these young men are about to enter a new experience in life but thematically it demonstrates how each of them is being stripped of their personalities. With each cut, it shows a different type of hair and face attached to it being stripped of what makes them unique. Instead, they are shaved down to be the exact same as they cease to be an individual and more so part of a larger collective chosen to give their lives in war. The proceeding events led by the drill instructor do nothing to dissuade this idea either with these young men put through tortuous regimes and mercilessly mocked at the slightest slip-up. This eventually serves as the first half of the entire film and it gets difficult to sit through.
On my first viewing of this film, I could not stand the monotonous and abusive nature of these drill scenes as it almost drove me mad. It led me to not enjoy the feature at all, but upon reflection and revisiting it, it demonstrated what Kubrick wants the audience to feel. We’re meant to be put right in this hellish environment with these young men. It became evident on the many occasions when the drill instructor would be yelling right into the camera as if berating at one of the young men when instead we’re the ones getting the hiding. Everything being yelled and displayed serves its purpose and it’s to explain everything that will occur in the second half of the film. Any humanity these young lads had when coming to boot camp gets stripped away because these officers do not want soldiers looking to make ethical decisions out on the battlefield. That would mean these men would see through the ludicrousness of this war. Instead, the drill instructor wants to sand down these individuals to a body with their gun merely being an extension. It’s stated several times in the marches they have to do and when they sleep with their weapons. These men are needed to point, shoot, and not ask questions, which comes fully into fruition in the second half.
Serving as his second-to-final film, Stanley Kubrick wears his criticism out in the open throughout this feature. His otherworldly camera work and overutilization of takes must have been quite a nightmare for those involved seeing the grueling conditions involved. One aspect of his direction I particularly enjoyed came from the song selections made throughout in order to emphasize what was occurring in the foreground. One as obvious as “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” to perfectly encapsulate the relationship between the United States and Vietnam during the time. Everything just works so well in the execution and the way the first and second halves parallel and complement each other to create one whole agonizing tale demonstrates successful storytelling.
Certainly mid-tier in regard to quality for Kubrick but when more than half of one’s filmography are genuine masterpieces, it’s quite the bar to clear. Among the tops in regard to anti-war films, Full Metal Jacket fits right in with other Vietnam films in depicting where honor was lost on the ground and how it barely existed from the top down. A situation where cruelty reigned and only those willing to violate human rights seemingly got ahead.