Monday, December 5, 2016
Full Metal Jacket
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
I believe an important point to remember about director Stanley Kubrick is that his best work is satiric. Sometimes it is laugh-out-loud funny as in Dr. Strangelove, or more thoughtful, as in Paths of Glory. The first is a look at the danger of nuclear escalation during the Cold War, the second an examination of the betrayal of soldiers by those higher up in the military hierarchy (similar to what happens in the recently discussed Breaker Morant).
In Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick again takes on the subject of fighting a war, this time centering on the Vietnam conflict, and he mixes together the absurd with the thoughtful in one work here. Some may say that this movie’s style is uneven, and that may be a valid critique. But, the thrust of Kubrick’s theme remains consistent throughout. He is exploring what the American military machine, in this case the Marine Corps, feels it must do in order to transform individual young men into killers. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (an ironic name since the man has no warmth associated with the organ of life), played by Lee Ermey, says, “If you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war.” Kubrick hired Ermey, a former drill instructor, as a technical adviser. But, the ex-military man was so good at improvising the numerous insulting profanities that he made his taking on the role of Hartman an inevitability.
The first forty-five minutes of this film take place in the boot training camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. This section is an amazing accomplishment of combining humor with barbarity, and it is because of Ermey’s performance. His insults are numerous and devastating, and he unleashes them like shells from a tank. For example, he says to one recruit, “Did your parents have any children that lived?” Homophobically, he says to Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who comes from Texas, “Only steers and queers come from Texas, Private Cowboy, and you don’t look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down.” He says there is no prejudice at the camp, as he universally spews out ethnic slurs toward all social and religious types.
But let’s get back to the words “minister” and “praying” that he uses in the quote above. He often joins the religious and the profane in his remarks. It is an ironic contrast, since one usually associates religion with peace and brotherhood. But, as history has shown, people can warp that message to fit a political agenda. Hartman says, after ordering the bathroom cleaned, “I want the head so sanitary and squared-away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in and take a dump.” At Christmas, he tells the men, “Chaplain Charlie will tell you about how the free world will conquer Communism with the aid of God and a few Marines. God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see … we keep heaven packed with fresh souls.” Notice how the comic “Charlie Chaplain” is turned into something deadly, a priest who urges destruction of the enemy. And, the Corps is so lethal, only a “few” Marines are necessary to get the job done. These words are an incredible mixture of blasphemy, humor, and horror. What it amounts to is an exhortation to wholeheartedly fight a holy war.
At the opening of the film, we hear a song with the lyrics, “Goodbye sweetheart, hello Vietnam.” In essence, these youths must let go of who they were, by bidding farewell to all aspects of their past, including anyone they loved. As the song plays, we see their hair being sheared off, like sheep (some might say, “to the slaughter.”) This act symbolizes the discarding of individual characteristics, as they are made to look alike, and of course, dress in identical uniforms. They must follow orders to the point that “Marines are not allowed to die without permission.” They lose their names, a further disintegration of identity, and take on new ones in the form of nicknames. They must substitute flesh-and-blood lovers with their rifles. Hartman says, “you pukes will sleep with your rifles. You will give your rifles a girl’s name … You’re married to this piece. This weapon of iron and wood. And you will be faithful.” The soldiers, again mixing religion with violence, pray: “My rifle is my best friend … Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless … Before God, I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of our enemy, and we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.” They are being conditioned to see themselves as “useless” unless they are performing the act of killing. The ending of this “prayer,” however, suggests that once turned into a killer, “peace” is an enemy, because a destroyer of life can’t live in a world without killing. Later they chant in their underwear that the rifle is for killing, and their penises, which are called “guns,” because they also are made to discharge, are for “fun.” The comparing of the male organ with a gun is made obvious here, and emphasizes how men have equated their male sexuality with how well they can use a gun. In a sense, the symbolism suggests masturbation, with the male cut off from others, and only needing himself for satisfaction. In a way, the soldier here is joined to an inanimate destructive tool. He is supposed to transform into an unstoppable force that wears a deadly “full metal jacket” loaded with bullets.
The film does present the counter argument for the need to turn men into a community that transcends individuality. Hartman says at graduation, “Today, you are Marines. You’re part of a brotherhood. From now on until the day you die, wherever you are, every Marine is your brother. Most of you will go to Vietnam. Some of you will not come back. But always remember this: Marines die. That’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means you live forever.” The main character, Joker (Matthew Modine), the journalist who occasionally provides a narrative voice, also talks about transcendence when he says, “The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear.”
Joker is a character who shows conflicting sides. He says he joined the Marines to be a killer, but makes fun of the gung-ho mentality of Hartman, doing a John Wayne impression. He stands up to the drill instructor, and Hartman says, “Joker is silly and ignorant, but he has guts, and guts is enough.” So, Hartman assigns him the task of training Leonard, whose name the drill instructor has changed to Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), the silly Marine character in the TV show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Pyle is overweight and has a childlike aspect to him, sporting an innocent grin. There are some men who should not be turned into a killer because it is too traumatic a metamorphosis. Pyle is such a person. Besides heaping insults on him, Hartman makes him march with his pants down while sucking his thumb. As a punishment, he forces Pyle to fall forward on his knees into the Marine’s hands so he can be choked. This image is a forceful one, showing the self-destructive side of this brutal training. This aspect comes to full fruition later. Hartman punishes the rest of the unit for Pyle’s failures, emphasizing in a way how the weakest link undermines the group. So, the men hold a “sock party” where they wrap bars of soap around towels and beat Pyle at bedtime. The scene shows how the sadism flows downward through the ranks. But, Joker’s compassionate side is disgusted with the attack since he covers his ears because he doesn’t want to hear Pyle’s painful crying.
Pyle starts to get with the program, but he is now damaged goods. The most ironic scene in the movie occurs when Hartman talks about the shooting ability of ex-Marine mass murderer Charles Whitman and President Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. He says, “Those individuals showed what one motivated marine and his rifle can do. And before you ladies leave my island, you will be able to do the same thing.” With those words, we hear the danger of creating deadly men of war, who are so cut off from their humanity that they become suicidal weapons which aim themselves at their own citizens. After hearing Hartman’s words, Pyle looks battered. A foreshadowing of what is to come occurs when Pyle shows promise on the firing range and Hartman says, “Outstanding, Private Pyle. I think we finally found something that you do well.” On the last night of basic training, Joker finds Pyle in the head, loading his “full metal jacket.” When Joker warns him that they will be in a “world of shit” if they are found there, Pyle responds by saying, “I am in a world of shit.” The fact that he is in the bathroom just stresses the image. He no longer has that innocent grin. His mouth is in a snarl, his eyes look demonic. After loudly calling out rifle drill commands, Hartman shows up, so much the military man that while in his underwear he still wears his drill instructor hat. His demeaning yelling just provokes Pyle, who shoots Hartman dead, and then turns the rifle on himself, providing a climax for the images of self-destruction.
The story shifts to Vietnam, where Joker works as a journalist for Stars and Stripes with a photographer, Rafterman (Kevin Major Howard). Joker continues his cynical humor when confronting his superior officer, Lt. Lockhart (another unfeeling symbolic name) (John Terry), who ignores his warning about the upcoming Tet Offensive by the enemy. There is a 1984 revamping of facts feel to Lockhart as he uses euphemisms to describe wartime activities. For example, the term “search and destroy” becomes “sweep and clear.” He wants a war story about death to be re-written with a “happy ending.” Joker says sarcastically that he came to Vietnam, “to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture … and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill.” Notice the ironic juxtaposition of the child toward a hopeful aspiration that turns out to be an act of destruction. After the Tet Offensive, Joker and Rafterman leave Da Nang to cover the action near the city of Hue. On the helicopter ride, they encounter a door gunner who illustrates the barbarity of war as he gleefully and indiscriminately kills civilians and Viet Cong, because in modern war it is difficult to tell who is the enemy. But, he also has no problem killing women and children. This a prescient scene, because, as we see in American Sniper, sometimes some women and children can also be a threat.
The two hook up with Cowboy’s platoon. In interviews, we get the grunts’ impressions of the war. Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), who has written on his helmet “I Become Death,” basically echoing Hartman’s motto for the Marines, says, in response to the question about what he thinks of the war, “I think we ought to win it.” But, he also sees the absurdity of the politics of battle and reduces the fighting to the personal desire of getting laid. There are a few racial slurs against African American soldiers, which are tough to hear, but the point is that black soldiers are fighting a war supposedly for the freedom of this Asian country when they do not have total liberty in their own nation. There is also resentment that the Vietnamese people are not grateful for what the soldiers are doing, and actually resent them being in their country. Rafterman films the men and they mockingly talk about the idealized bravado shown in old Western movies, which Joker has already satirically alluded to with his John Wayne impression. In those films, there were good guys and bad one, and the righteous were always triumphant. As the camera rolls, they say the title of their film will be “Vietnam – The Movie,” with someone playing the horse, another will be the buffalo, and another will be General Custer. And, the Vietnamese are the Indians. Kubrick is showing how his film is the realistic answer to these deceptively morally simple motion pictures.
There is a scene which exemplifies the imperialism and self-righteous attitude of America in this war. A colonel tells Joker that “all I’ve ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as if they would the word of God.” This statement is revealing here, because it shows the military man’s assumption that accepting his arrogant equating of himself with God is no big request. He then says, “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook is an American trying to get out … We gotta keep our heads until this peace phase blows over.” The bigoted and presumptive belief here is that the whole Asian world is just an aberration, a disease that, once cured, will allow that the only true healthy way to live is the one prescribed by the United States. The idea of waiting for the “peace phase” to blow over echoes the earlier statement by Hartman that for soldiers made to become killers, peace itself, ironically, is the enemy.
We do have a scene of a grave containing twenty civilians who were killed by the Viet Cong, showing the barbarity of the enemy. So, in the final sequence we see the war from a soldier’s point of view, where these men have to deal with the deadly shots of a sniper who tries to draw them out by killing individual soldiers as they try to rescue injured comrades. The sniper picks off some of the men, including Cowboy, with deadly precision. The men finally corner the killer, who turns out to be a teenage girl. This fact undercuts ironically Hartman’s speech about how deadly one well-trained Marine can be. Here, the enemy can be just as lethal, and all it takes is a motivated female child. Rafterman wounds her. Animal Mother just wants to leave her in her writhing agony. In an act of both mercy and cruelty, Joker kills her.
On Joker’s helmet is written, “Born to Kill,” but he also wears a peace symbol button. He told the colonel that for him these conflicting expressions represent the duality of man. But, after his “confirmed kill,” he has transformed into what it takes to survive as a Marine. His last words are, “I am happy that I am alive … I’m in a world of shit, yes. But, I am alive. And I am not afraid.” The soldiers, joined by many other comrades, sing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. The words and music ironically harken back to the innocence of their youth which they have had to abandon in order to accept the violence which has become the focus of their lives. As the image fades to black, the film’s credits roll, appropriately, to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” Kubrick has, indeed, depicted a dark chapter in American history.
The next film is Shakespeare in Love.