Full Metal Jacket is a timeless film documenting the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War from 1964 to ‘75. It appeared in 1987, directed, produced and co-written by Stanley Kubrick and authors Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford. It has not aged a minute in 25 years in its similarity to the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libyan and now Syrian wars. If anything, the scale of our decade of war has only intensified in numbers, violence and weaponry—and in man’s inhumanity to man, woman, animals and earth’s destruction.
This saga begins with the corruption of innocence in a platoon of recruits in basic training, who are harassed, humiliated and intimidated by a senior gunnery drill sergeant in boot camp. I wanted to show this film to my 23-year old son who is flirting with enlisting in the Navy as a cook, as he would for any civilian job. My aim was to show him that the humblest job in the military can put him in unbelievable harm’s way, far worse than the ups and downs of low employment opportunities.
In this film, the hero and narrator, Joker, is played by Matthew Modine, who is courageous enough to stand up to the repeated insults of the drill sergeant, which earns him the privilege of leading the platoon. The “Sarg” “likes men with balls.” He is in sharp contrast to a younger, chubbier and bumbling Vincent D’Onofrio playing Leonard Lawrence, who earns the nickname of “Gomer Pyle,” after drawing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s wrath.
He is the slow climber up the obstacle course, the guy that shifts his rifle to the wrong shoulder, the guy that can’t quite get his leg over the top rung of a fence due to his excess weight. Using the twisted logic of making the weakest recruit an object of humiliation, thereby frightening the stronger into being on their toes, Joker becomes a kind of benign big brother to Leonard (“Gomer”), yet never uses the mocking name. Joker, who is intelligent as well as ‘ballsy,’ is applying for the journalism unit to work on the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
Moreover, the sergeant dishes out more discipline to the whole platoon for more of Leonard’s screw-ups, pushing them with extra push-ups and insults. This inspires the recruits, including Joker, in the middle of one night to wrap the standard big bar of soap into their towels to attack a sleeping Leonard with them. They beat him en masse to teach a sadistic lesson. The net effect makes something snap in Leonard, even as Joker remains his friend. Among the endless chants and orders sung while running, and the general gung ho atmosphere, Leonard is morphing into a monster. He can only remember he’s there to kill, the Sarg owns him, and he’s a pariah. Leonard obviously suffers from some kind of retardation and shouldn’t have been in the Marines in the first place.
One evening, as Joker and another recruit, Cowboy, are mopping up the latrines; Joker expresses concern to him that something has gone amok with Leonard. In fact, Joker saw him put a full metal pack of live ammunition into his rifle. His benign face has turned into an angry war-mask. Cowboy is concerned as well. Their misgivings are not without real consequences. That evening we see Leonard in skivvies with his rifle walking alone in the barrack, first checking the latrine, and next staring at the Sergeant’s office across the hall.
As Joker tries to calm Leonard, who recites drill commands and recites the Rifleman’s Creed, the noise awakens the platoon and the Sergeant, who confronts Leonard and orders him to surrender his rifle. Leonard turns and shoots Hartman repeatedly, then sits on a toilet seat, puts the barrel in his mouth and kills himself, the first tragic casualty of the platoon.
In the following scenes, Joker, working with journalists, is sent to Phu Bai, accompanied by another soldier, Rafterman. They meet the Lusthog Squad, where Cowboy is now a Sergeant. Joker goes with the squad during the Battle of Hue, where platoon commander “Touchdown” is killed by the enemy. After the area is cleared and declared secure by the Marines, the team of American news journalists and reporters enter Hue and interview a number of Marines about their experiences in Vietnam and their opinions about the war, which are all cutting, revealing a common disenchantment fallen to a new level of cynicism in the hell of battle.
During patrol, another squad leader, Crazy, is killed by a booby trap, leaving Cowboy in command. In this landscape of smoke, fire, crumbling buildings, burnt out automobiles, lime covered corpses in an open grave, the squad becomes lost and Cowboy orders Eightball to scout the area. A Viet Cong sniper wounds Eightball and the squad medic, Doc, who attempts to save him against orders, getting wounded himself. Cowboy learns that tank support is not available for withdrawal.
The squad’s machine gunner, Animal Mother, disobeys Cowboy and attempts to save his teammates. He discovers there is only one sniper, but Doc, Jay and Eightball are killed when Doc attempts to indicate the sniper’s location. Animal Mother assumes command of the squad and leads an attack on the sniper. Joker discovers the sniper is a teenage girl and attempts to shoot her, but his rifle jams. Rafterman shoots the sniper, mortally wounding her. As the squad comes together, the female sniper begs for death, murmuring, “Shoot me shoot me!”
Animal Mother decides to permit a mercy killing only if Joker, the group’s peacenik (who wears a peace button on his lapel and “Born to Kill” written on his hat) will kill the girl. After wrestling with his conscience, Joker forces himself to shoot the girl. His fellow Marines congratulate him on his kill as Joker stares affectless with “the thousand yard stare,” into the distance.
As the Marines converge in a long shot which takes in the burning buildings and vast graveyard of desolation, they begin to sing the Micky Mouse March song like demented children. Joker states voiceover that despite being “in a world of shit,” he is glad to be alive and no longer afraid. Fade to black, credits rise, as does the level of war films exponentially.
My first thought was this film could have been finished five minutes ago; especially seeing it on the heels of the last idiot debate, Romney calling for a trillion more dollars for the military and Obama listing his bona fides as a military-support killer. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my son had left for a walk before that last sequence took place. I had to describe it to him. He was quiet and moved. Fortunately, yesterday he began a new job as a cook for a known restaurant chain. May good fortune follow him through all of his travels. And may he never have to see the real thing called war, though the wars have come to roost in the economy and the soul of America and are destroying both if we don’t stop them.
Nothing but immediate withdrawal can save our tattering economy, our soldiers, and any ethical standing we have with the rest of the world. Kubrick knew this some 25 years ago. And with his sparse but brilliant, no frills, shooting and amazing dialogue, his camera caught the ongoing nightmare of Vietnam, including the obscenity of a young Vietnam hooker and her pimp bargaining with a group of young U.S. soldiers to have sex with her, one by one at five dollars a head.
Full Metal Jacket evolved in part from author Michael Herr, who wrote the critically acclaimed Vietnam War memoir Dispatches. It inspired Kubrick to adapt the book. Kubrick also discovered Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers while he read the Virginia Kirkus Review. Herr received it in bound galleys and thought that it was a masterpiece. Thus, the two authors plus Kubrick became the screenwriters.
In 1982, Kubrick read it twice, agreed, and decided it would be the basis for his next film. The books’ amazing dialogue and stark poetic quality give the film a surreal quality of war that deepens as it goes on. In 1985, Kubrick contacted both authors to work on the script with him, breaking down the treatment into scenes. Herr wrote a first draft. The process of hammering Full Metal Jacket from their souls went on for two years more till its release. Today, it stands proudly on most Best War Film Ever Made or Best Film in the last 100 years’ lists. Yet the wars go on and on till time fades to black. And you ask yourself as the credits roll, “What has changed?”
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.