BACK-STORY: “Full Metal Jacket” began its long journey to the screen when director Stanley Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”, “Paths of Glory”, “Spartacus”) read about Gustav Harford’s novel The Short Timers. Kubrick convinced his good friend Michael Herr to flesh out a screenplay. Herr had already written one of the great Vietnam War books – Dispatches. Harford was also involved in the adapted screenplay that ended up with an Oscar nod (the only one the film garnered!). The movie was filmed in England because Kubrick hated to leave home. The shoot lasted an exhausting 17 months. Kubrick eschewed a big name cast. Matthew Modine was coming off of “Birdie”. Vincent D’Onofrio was making his debut. He set a record by gaining seventy pounds for the role (breaking De Niro’s pigging out for “Raging Bull”). R. Lee Ermey was hired as the technical adviser and put the actors through a boot camp that included him yelling at them for ten hours a day. He angled for the DI role by impressing Kubrick with a fifteen minute profanity fueled rant while tennis balls were being thrown at him.
OPENING: Marine recruits have their individuality removed via the scalping of their hair. The theme of dehumanization kicks in early. If it’s not obvious enough we transition to Drill Instructor Hartman (Ermey) declaring: “You’re not even human fucking beings”. Hartman quickly becomes one of the most memorable war movie characters with his introductory emasculation of the stunned ex-civilians. He substitutes derogatory nicknames as their names are removed like their hair. “Joker” (Modine) earns his nickname (as well as some physical abuse) for a John Wayne wise crack. But Hartman reserves his main animosity for the chubby, intellectually challenged Leonard (D’Onofrio). He has the grinning recruit choke himself. Hartman presciently labels him “Gomer Pyle”.
|"this is my rifle, this is my gun"|
SUMMARY: The first part of the film is set on Parris Island for Marine boot camp. We’ve seen boot camps like this before in war movies, but never with the focus so much on the DI. The movie skips the usual backgrounding of the recruits and the bonding off base scene. We do get the training montages, but with Hartman’s constant colorful berating. Most of the recruits remain undeveloped, but Joker makes froends with Cowboy (Arliss Howard). The main plot thread is the arc of the hapless Pyle whose incompetence sets Hartman off. After Pyle proves infuriatingly unsoldierlike, Hartman puts Joker in charge of shaping him up. This arrangement seems to be working and in a traditional war movie we would move on to the next plot point. This is not a traditional war movie. When Pyle is caught with a jelly donut, Hartman commences a policy of punishing the whole platoon for his mistakes. Pyle continues to fuck up so his disgruntled mates give him a “blanket party” which consists of beating him with bars of soap. Even Joker participates and in fact hits him the most, out of sheer frustration.
After this “tough love”, it appears Pyle has turned the corner. He does very well on the rifle range and is now being praised by Hartman. However, the replacement of his goofy grin with a vacant stare proves he has snapped. This leads to the iconic bathroom scene. Joker encounters the clearly demented Pyle on his nightly rounds. Pyle is caressing and talking to his girlfriend – his rifle “Vanessa”. Somehow he has obtained live rounds – “7-6-2 millimeter full – metal – jacket”. He is in ”a world of shit”. Hartman’s attempt to cow Pyle into giving up the M-14 does not go well. Create a killing machine for the Corps – mission accomplished!
|Pyle and Vanessa|
After that stunning resolution of the boot camp section, we are suddenly in Saigon months later (to the tune of “These Boots Are Made For Walking”). Joker is a military journalist working for “Stars and Stripes”. He and his friend Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) are negotiating with a hooker. “Me so honny. [Why is my computer showing I have a spelling and grammar problem here?] Me love you long time.” At a staff meeting, it turns out Joker has grown into his nickname. This does not sit well with his editor who insists on the war being reported in a manner conducive to the reputation of the Corps. Truth is the first casualty. Here’s a sample: “If we move Vietnamese - they are evacuees; if they come to us - they are refugees.” He edits “search and destroy” to “sweep and clear”. There are two types of stories “Stars and Stripes” covers: winning “hearts and minds” and winning the war by killing bad guys.
|Private Joker with his peace button|
The Tet Offensive suddenly thrusts the Da Nang press corps into “the shit”. Joker helps defend the entrance from Viet Cong sappers. After using an M-60 to get some “confirmed kills”, Joker has a look of exultation on his face. War can be exhilarating. Joker and Rafterman head off to Hue to try to acquire that “thousand yard stare”. On the way, the helicopter door gunner (played by the actor who was supposed to be Hartman) is gleefully shooting at civilians. “Anyone who runs is a VC, anyone who stands is a well-disciplined VC.” When Joker asks him how he can shoot women and children, he responds that you simply “lead them less”. (This scene was lifted from Dispatches.)
In Hue, Joker and Rafterman hook up with Cowboy’s Lust Hog Squad. Joker has a confrontation with Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). Animal Mother is the soldier Pyle would have become. His helmet is labeled “I am become death”. (Joker’s reads “Born to Kill”.) A news crew comes by so the unit members can make wise cracks. Locker room type stuff. (The scene is reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now” except Kubrick doesn’t do a Coppola.) Later, some of the characters are interviewed. There are several references to the opinion that the South Vietnamese don’t appreciate what the Americans are doing for them, but nothing overtly pacifist. Joker says he came to Vietnam because he “wanted to see exotic Vietnam, meet interesting people, and kill them”. The reappearance of Miss Sucky-Sucky marks the end of the second part of the film.
|Crazy Earl with his BB gun and a VC|
The third part of the film is the sniper section. Cowboy becomes squad leader when Crazy Earl is killed by a booby trap. While moving through a wasted landscape, the squad gets lost. Eight Ball (Dorian Harewood) is on point when he is hit by a sniper, but left alive as rescue bait. Doc Jay goes to him and is also hit. Cowboy correctly recognizes the futility of a rescue attempt, but Eight Ball’s BFF Animal Mother goes charging out thus drawing the unit into a duel with the sniper.
CLOSING: While assessing the situation, Cowboy gets hit and gets a great death scene. Now the remainder of the squad (and the males in the audience) agree with Animal Mother that it’s time to “get some payback”. The six (or is it eight?) survivors use the sudden darkness and smoke grenades to enter the Stalingradesque factory where the sniper has his lair. Spoiler alert: he’s a she! Joker pulls an early Pyle and screws up the kill, but Rafterman blows her away. Another great death scene ends with Joker’s mercy killing of the sniper. He thus tenuously clings to humanity. The movie closes with American soldiers marching into (or out of) the combat zone singing the “Mickey Mouse Club” song. War corrupts youth.
Acting = A
Action = 7/10
Accuracy = B
Plot = A
Realism = B
Cliches = A
Overall = A
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? They better like war movies. This is definitely a guy movie. Much of the dialogue is the type that has guys taking notes and gals blushing. There is only one female character and she is not someone most American women can relate to (although their boyfriends or husbands certainly would wish for this!) There is also some graphic violence. However, if you want to understand the male psyche …
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: FMJ is not meant to be historically accurate. It is based on a novel, but Hasford was a correspondent in Vietnam and supposedly based the book on personal experiences. The Joker character is apparently based on him. The boot camp segment is realistic as to Marine boot camp in 1967. If anything, the movie underplays the physical abuse. (The DI in the book is more brutal.) The “Stars and Stripes” reporting strategy is accurate. Da Nang was one of the targets for the opening Tet attacks (note the fireworks in the background – nice touch). As far as Hue, civilians were executed by the Communists. There was a sniper problem as part of the urban house-to-house combat although the movie does not refer to a specific incident. Last, but not least, there were hookers in Vietnam that offered to sucky sucky for ten dollars. My only real problem is I doubt the sniper could have been that accurate using a standard AK-47 from that distance.
CRITIQUE: “Full Metal Jacket” is not a perfect film, but parts of it approach perfection. The acting is amazing, especially considering that the cast is far from all-star. Modine does a good job as the main character and he is likeable. It’s an assured performance considering his star billing is undermined by career-making turns by D’Onofrio, Ermey, and Baldwin. D’Onofrio owes his career to this movie (which he readily admits). For a debut, he knocks it out of the park. His transition from grinning buffoon to malevolent nutcase is amazing. It was a travesty that he did not get an Academy Award nomination. Although Ermey had acted before (starting with 1978’s “Boys in Company C”), FMJ was his breakthrough. He completely dominates all his scenes and Kubrick’s lensing abets this. Watch him closely – the dude never blinks! It is important to note that the control freak Kubrick allowed Ermey to improvise his lines. (I must point out that many of his lines appear in the novel.) In spite of all this, I do need to remind everyone that Ermey was essentially playing himself. (Sorry, R. Lee.) As far as Baldwin, he is perfect as Animal Mother and should still be kissing his agent’s ass for getting him the part. Go to IMDB and see his resume. (Not counting “Firefly”.)
The movie is technically brilliant. Not surprising since it’s a Kubrick film. He took years to make it and the care is on the screen. The cinematography is masterful. The barracks scenes are especially noteworthy as the camera tracks Ermey in his transits. There are several long depth shots that are well-composed (e.g. when the men pray to their guns). When the film shifts to Vietnam, we get lots of shots with action in the background. Watch the TV crew scene. They are moving leftward, the Lust Hogs are stationary, and other soldiers move across the frame rightward. Cool.
The score is used very sparingly, but effectively. It was done by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian and she uses some eerie music that fits the mood well. Kubrick blends in some great contemporary songs. The Hue set is great. Kubrick used photos of Hue to adapt an abandoned gas works in East London. (Modine claims they were exposed to toxins.) This contrasts to the pristine atmosphere of the barracks. The editing has been justifiably lauded. For instance, Kubrick uses cadence runs to divide up the boot camp scenes. He bookends the middle section with the hooker. However, it is perplexing how he allowed the final assault on the sniper to go from six soldiers to eight back to six then eight and finally the original six. WTF
The plotting is fine, but not great. The movie is essentially three parts with the boot camp segment dominant and hard to top. This cannot be helped and critics have been too harsh on this. Kubrick explores the themes of war destroys and war corrupts our young. It is also clear that when you reprogram young men to kill you end up with killers that may not have a steady moral compass. The movie surprisingly does not take a clear stand against the war although it is clearly anti-war. The plot throws in some nice twists and avoids cliches. Kubrick does include a military funeral scene, but what the eulogizers say is distinctly iconoclastic. Animal Mother: “Better you than me”. The ending “Mickey Mouse” scene is an effective close. Certainly better than the original idea of having Animal Mother chopping off the sniper’s head and them playing soccer with it.
CONCLUSION: FMJ is one of the great war films and deserves consideration for the top ten of all time. It will be interesting to see how many of the movies ahead of it on the Military History list are lesser films. Kubrick made a unique film. He stood the boot camp trope on its head. He explored urban combat in Vietnam. He gave us three memorable characters. It was sadly underrated by The Academy. Who would argue today that it is not better than “Moonstruck” for Christ’s sake? And would you have guessed that the war movie nominated that year would be “Hope and Glory”? A good war film, but come on.
Pyle and the jelly donut
In a couple of days I will post a comparison of the movie and the book, including what happened after the events depicted in the movie.