The Stanley Kubrick Project: Full Metal Jacket

When I was a younger man… still-in-college young, God’s Gift To Theater young… word came down the pike that Stanley Kubrick was searching for young men for his next movie.  That news hit the drama department like a rock in a pond, which is to say there was a brief amount of activity, which gradually faded away. You were required to send in a tape, and in a small college in the wilds of Texas, there weren’t a lot of resources for that, not at the dawn of the 80s, anyway. Besides, none of us had an agent, and I had done enough writing at that point to know what a “slush pile” was, and what happened to most of the manuscripts/resumes that wound up in one.

Just as well, knowing what I know about Full Metal Jacket these days.

It seems there were two great spurts of Vietnam movies, first in the late 70s, then another later in the 80s. In the 70s, the country was still a little psycho about the subject, and the result was Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and the relatively restrained Boys in Company C. In the 80s you had First Blood Part Two: Rambo, the Oscar winner for Best Picture Platoon, and once again, apparently arriving late to deliver an appropriate coda, Stanley Kubrick and Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen all of these, so much so that they all tend to blur into one huge swamp of tropes and setpieces, into one huge movie with a hell of a running time… but I find the scenes that really stick out for me come from Kubrick and Coppola.

There are a lot of similarities between The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket, which doesn’t help my befuddled brain, but at least a scene involving soccer was cut from Full Metal, so I can still clutch at that difference. Both movies start at boot camp, where highly-trained drill instructors wear down, tear down and build soldiers; that which can be broken must be broken tout d’suite so it can be repaired or replaced and units formed that will kill on command. Where Full Metal Jacket forges its own unique identity in the crowded Vietnam movie market is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey in a star-making turn(well, perhaps not star-making, but it resulted in regular work, which I’m sure he’ll take as a consolation prize). Himself a retired Marine (and then only retired due to injuries), not only does Ermey bring life knowledge but an apparently infinite supply of insults, slurs and creative vulgarisms to the role. You fear him almost as much as the recruits, but you cannot take your eyes off him.

The entire first act takes place on Parris Island, as our major characters Joker (Matthew Modine) and Cowboy (Arliss Howard) navigate the grueling eight weeks of basic. The nicknames, of course, are supplied by Hartman, as is the name of  Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’onofrio, in his film debut), the recruit who can get nothing right, and who boot camp finally, truly breaks, with tragic results.

The second act finds us in-country, with Joker assigned to writing for Stars and Stripes, (much to Hartman’s disgust). Joker is pretty much dedicated to staying out of the line of fire and keeping his cameraman, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) the same. The 1968 Tet Offensive brings the war to their doorstep, however, and Joker and Rafterman find themselves embedded in the Lost Dog Squad (including old buddy Cowboy), who are charged with clearing the bombed-out city of Hue.

This is the third act, again establishing a difference with other Nam movies, which tended to put the war in the jungle or villages of thatched huts; Kubrick’s production designer, Anton Furst, takes an abandoned gasworks near London slated for demolition, and working from photos of Hue after Tet, began the demolition with an artist’s eye. It makes for an enveloping, harrowing portrayal of urban warfare. In the next 24 hours, the Lost Dog Squad will go through three squad leaders, eventually finding themselves lost in the wrong part of Hue and trying to get to the right coordinates, only to find the most dreaded obstacle in any theater of war: one determined sniper with uncanny aim and a near-unfindable location amongst the ruined buildings.

Back at the beginning of the movie, Hartman demands to see Joker’s “War Face”, prompting a scream and the usual derision from the sarge, “Bullshit! You don’t scare me!” The War Face is something that the movie returns to, over and over again. It’s the Full Metal Jacket that Pyle references in the horrific end to the First Act, meaning not only the copper sheath surrounding the lead in his M-14’s ammunition, but also, the War Face, the protective armor the soldier puts around his psyche. Joker, separated from Parris Island, returns to the jovial smartass he  tried to retain during basic, wearing a peace button on his body armor and “Born to Kill” painted across his helmet. Still, in their barracks, the journalists match their war faces and full metal jackets against each other, trying to impress with the number of times they’ve seen action. This dick-measuring contest is cut short by Tet, and although fearfully muttering they are not ready for it, the training takes over and the assault on the base is repelled.

Once he’s reunited with Cowboy, Joker’s War Face comes out again in a pissing contest with Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a character who is basically Pyle without the breaking part. Bristling with ammo belts, he tries to impress Joker with his alpha maleness, until the two are separated, like opponents in a schoolyard scuffle. Later, under sniper fire, Joker is finally going to have to go to the place the Marines built inside him, and take a life, face-to-face. The Full Metal Jacket will only take you so far; eventually the bullet must be fired.

Kubrick’s approach to Vietnam is fairly documentarian; the steadicam fluidly following the men as they crouch and run through shattered concrete canyons. There are a few things that seem out-of-place in a Kubrick movie – the contemporary rock music, as in any Vietnam flick, and a segment with the soldiers being interviewed by a news crew, which had been done by the TV M*A*S*H* years earlier.

Most of the time, however, Kubrick tries to not manipulate your feelings, except through images. There are a couple of times he can’t resist trotting out the black humor, though: Hartman proudly holding out UT Tower sniper Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as prime examples of Marine rifle training, and a Colonel dressing Joker down for his peace symbol, assuring him that “One day, this peace business will blow over.”

But overall, it’s a solid movie with a problematic structure, seemingly split into two different movies: the one set on Parris Island, and the other in Vietnam. The major problem with the second half is that there is no R. Lee Ermey in it, constantly barking and propelling the story forward. He is deeply missed once we’re in country. And frankly, there’s another Nam movie considered a masterpiece that shares the problematic third act: Apocalypse Now, where once Martin Sheen arrives at his destination and Marlon Brando enters the stage, the movie is suddenly struggling through hardening amber. Yeah, I also watched Apocalypse Now again. Sort of had to.

Actor Dorian Harewood, who plays Eightball, says he asked Kubrick if Full Metal Jacket  was his answer to Apocalypse Now. Kubrick replied, “No. It’s my answer to Rambo.” And there you have it. For some reason I never much cared for PlatoonApocalypse Now is more a nightmare set to film than an attempt at historical accuracy. But in my mental lockbox, where I store imagery and experience, Full Metal Jacket remains my Vietnam of note, capturing so well the banality of hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of terror, and the fact that men that were still not much more than boys were given the power of life and death, and set loose on a landscape not their own.