Saturday, June 8, 2013

Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

And the unplanned and fulfilling Kubrick marathon continues~

no spoilers, just basic plot description and commentary

Private Joker
    Full Metal Jacket opens up with shots of new U.S. Marine recruits getting their heads shaved. We are then promptly taken to their barracks where the recruits stand in formation as they are being berated by their Senior Drill Instructor, Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). One of the recruits decides to spoof John Wayne during Hartman's tirade, leading to Hartman gut punching the sucker and issuing a verbal warning against any future horseplay (Hartman's hardcore, like you don't even know). This recruit is dubbed 'Private Joker' (Matthew Modine). Despite Sergeant Hartman's aversion to The Joker's comedic antics, it is overweight and 'slow' Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio) that receives the sergeant's full wrath. Lawrence, now called Private Pyle (after Gomer Pyle), is made the subject of Hartman's constant ridicule and humiliation.
Private Pyle & Sergeant Hartman: A love story for the ages
   Private Pyle is unable to keep up with his fellow recruits due to his size and simple nature. Private Joker is assigned to help him. Private Pyle does indeed become better, being able to complete the arduous obstacle courses and even proving himself to be a great shot. However, the harassment continues, and now from his own recruits. Private Pyle becomes increasingly unstable and shut off from the rest of the recruits, choosing instead to speak with his gun. This story arc comprises the first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket.

Me love you long time
     The next 70 minutes are set in Vietnam where Private Joker works as a photojournalist/war correspondent. His job appears to be more leisurely than his days in the boot camp, what with his dallying with prostitutes and all (Papillon Soo Soo as a hooker is a comedic gold). Those laid back days (if you can call being in a freaking war zone that) are cut short when he is sent to a military unit in war-torn South 'Nam where he reunites with Private Cowboy. South Vietnam suffers several attacks from the enemy. The unit is sent on patrols, resulting in a deadly sniper situation and an epic conclusion.

     Full Metal Jacket is often praised for its first half and put down for its "less-than-stellar" second half. I loved the entire thing. They're both brilliant pieces of film-making. The two halves may not be stylistically cohesive, but the contrast between the two makes for an interesting film. The first half is strictly set in the boot camp where these men have to follow and observe strict rules and receive intensive training. Their days seem repetitive. The second half, however, is less structured and more chaotic as the men are now away from the rules and safety of the boot camp. They no longer are just facing war; they are living it, for however brief a time that the bombings permit. 

First area of protection in war
    While I'm one of the few people who loves the second half nearly as much as the first half, I again differ from most viewers in that I think the film is actually separated into three non-equal parts. Bear with me. The boot camp stage lasts for 45 minutes. That's just a little more than 1/3 of the film since its running time is 116 minutes. Then, the next few scenes are of Private Joker and his current living/work arrangement in Vietnam. Those scenes are what I view as the transitional scenes from the boot camp scenes into the actual battle sequences. I believe that most people focus on those transitional scenes as being the weaker counterparts of the film. I do agree with that. Still, the transitional scenes are still badass and just as entertaining as the humor displayed in the first portion of Full Metal Jacket. You have the barely-intelligible hooker uttering such classic lines as "Me so horny" and "Me sucky sucky, me love you long time". I've been quoting "Me love you long time" all of my life and never even knew/bothered to know where it came from.

    R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D'Onofrio are the stand outs in the cast. Ermey is amazing as the foul-mouthed Sergeant Hartman who can deliver his lines faster than you can suck a golf ball through a garden hose. The man's delivery is simply amazing. Unlike Papillon Soo Soo's hooker quotes, Hartman's quotes are delivered so fast and with such force that only portions of them can be quoted. They're increasingly degrading, which only ups the shock and humor factors. It's been said that Ermey as Sergeat Hartman is playing himself. If any of this is true, he is a character I would prefer not to run into in real life. Although a sadistic part of me would love to see him wipe the floor with somebody's ass in real life. 

   Vincent D'Onofrio as Private Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence is brilliant in his role. While Ermey gives the loudest and most comically powerful performance, D'Onofrio's performance is the most affecting. To see his character start from the very bottom, make some progress and begin to receive some recognition only to fall back down is a character arc that is without a doubt depressing. You want to root for him. Yet, you realize that the more he succeeds at distancing himself from the simple being he used to be, the more he becomes the killing machine that Hartman wants him to become. He is losing his humanity. He may win the Vietnam battle for his country, but he's already lost himself. The war is already over for Private Pyle. 

   Not many films can carry such an arc for just 45 minutes and not have it feel a bit rushed. Full Metal Jacket succeeds because there is no exposition for the viewers to really get to know these characters. What drives them, where they're from. It's a film about the now. We are thrown into the film almost immediately into the barracks scene where Hartman is already degrading his recruits. By not overtly personalizing the characters, Kubrick shows us not only how war changes an individual but how it changes humanity. Humanity in the face of war is the main theme of the film. During the boot camp, Hartman praises Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting skills. He blatantly states that he wants to break and rebuild his men in that image. He wants to make them into killing machines. Yikes!

Animal Mother, one of my fave characters
     The other performers in the film don't get a chance to stand out as much as Ermey and D'Onofrio but still flesh out their characters enough to make them interesting. Had the third portion of the film not featured a diverse group of characters that play off each other well, it could have fallen apart. Those men are interviewed by American journalists and we get to see a glimpse into their private thoughts about the war, Vietnam, etc. And Matthew Mordine as Private Joker is also an underrated part of the film. He is the occasional narrator, but his part provides the biggest visualized struggle to retain humanity in the face of war. In Vietnam, he wears a helmet that says "Born To Kill" and a peace sign medal on his jacket. He states that this is meant to represent the "duality of man". He also does not lay off the jokes. This is in contrast to his previous restraint during the boot camp training in the face of Sergeant Hartman's imposing nature. Now in Vietnam with no rules to dictate how one should behave, he chooses to let his personality shine. He seems to be one of the few soldiers who has not been too affected by the war. Most of the other soldiers seem to ignore their own ethics. They have no rules. They were sent here to kill, and kill they will.

    Even when Private Joker finally succumbs to an act belonging the dark side of war, he does it not out of any ill will. He is still human, though this act signals a change within him. Towards the end of the film, he states that he is no longer scared. Kubrick and the other writers Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford (who wrote The Short-Timers, the novel on which the film is based) make a great job of getting their points across. They condemn total institutions and the effects they can have on humanity at large. An inoffensive person, whether it be a simpleton or a teenage girl, resort to dire measures to carry out the plans they believe are above them. Losing themselves to such plans makes them into machines indeed, stripped of their humanity and strapped with full metal jackets. Unable to exude who they are deep inside, the only things they are then able to project are actual projectiles. In total institutions, you are cut off from your natural habitat. You lose your individuality; you are broken down. You are rebuilt in the image that the institution promotes. In the case of this film, the image of a blood-thirsty machine that serves its country. 

   The film's style is in line with its themes. Just as Private Joker stated he wanted to show the duality of man, the film is split into two halves that demonstrate just that. Earlier, I stated that Full Metal Jacket is separated into three parts, which I still maintain. However, those transitional scenes only connect the two main halves. Those halves are the main keys in unlocking the film's themes. The duality of man. Humanity faced with war. The damaging power of total institutions. We see the themes as they're being enforced and their ensuing after effects. Now with my praising the performances and the themes of the film, I realized that I did not really give praise to its cinematography. The composition of the shots is astounding. Everything is perfectly aligned. Even in the messy second half where chaos carries a sort of beauty and order. Kubrick knew how to arrange his scenes. The man was a master of details. For some reason, I've never noticed it as much as in this film perhaps due to the rigidity of the boot camp training scenes since the army requires order and discipline.

   Full Metal Jacket is a film that receives a lot of flack for only being half of a great film. I find it to be whole and full of harrowing vitality. Its humor and its portrayal of war show life itself under dire consequences. It does help that to me this is the most entertaining Kubrick film thus far due to the quick-fire dialogue, the powerful story, and the beauty contained in each frame. Probably now my second favorite Kubrick. We'll see. Either way, this is a film I more than love and that has me excited to check out my remaining unseen Kubricks. 

Ludovico Rating

I am loving my unplanned Kubrick marathon! Next stop Lolita.


  1. O Hell Yeah Teddy, this is one of my favorite war films. I am with you I don't really see what the gripe is in regards to the films second half.

    love that background you are using on this site.

    1. I was already clenching myself for the second half due to hearsay. I don't get it either.

      Ha, thanks. Had to show some love for Mulholland Drive.

  2. Nice essay on a great film. It is probably worth mentioning that the battle portion of the film concerned the Tet offensive and in particular the battle of Hue which was a unique urban house by house battle similar to Stalingrad. The "love you long time/me so horny" were actual catch phrases of Viet hookers.

    1. Lol what? "Love you long time/me so horny" are real??? I should have been there.

      The Battle of Hue sounds very interesting. Like something that could make for a full-length film. Were any innocent people killed in those house raids? I bet...

      I'm glad you loved this film and my post on it. Thank you.

    2. i can testify that love you long time was from Nam. For all I know it could have come from an earlier Asian war -- Japan

    3. Japan occupation or Philippean Insurection?

  3. This has never been one of my favorite Kubrick films, but after reading your thoughts, I can't remember what problems I created. I do recall enjoying the first half more than the second, but perhaps it's time to pull out the DVD and try this one again.

    1. It's my third favorite Kubrick. The first half is definitely better than the second, but I think they're both masterpieces. I do hope you enjoy it more after a re-watch. It just seems like a movie you'd love.

  4. Great comments on a great film. I was in the Army, but I am sure that a Marine would object to your comments on how the army required blind obidence. Kubrick understood he was making a film about the Marine Corp and as far as I know (being in an Army dratfee) the film is accurate in its Marine basis.