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Writing About Film

Full Metal Jacket, 1987Vietnam, Without the Tears

Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

Paper for Vietnam and the Cinema class, 1988

 

Stanley Kubrick chose to do a film adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s Short-Timers because he recognized the novel’s cinematic potential. Nowhere does Kubrick claim — in fact, he denies — that Full Metal Jacket is his statement about the Vietnam War. Despite this disavowal, the film makes a number of significant antiwar observations, some stronger and more specific than others. An understanding of this is vital for assessing whether Full Metal Jacket is, ultimately, an antiwar film, let alone whether it succeeds as one. A comparison with some other recent films about the Vietnam War offers revealing insights into Full Metal Jacket ’s success.

What exactly is an antiwar war film, and how does that differ, if at all, from an anti-Vietnam War war film? M*A*S*H, though a television show and not a film, and ostensibly about the Korean War, has been construed as a vehicle for anti-Vietnam War protest. Like Coming Home, M*A*S*H focuses not on the fighting itself, but on the veterans, their spouses, indigenous peoples, doctors, and nurses. Both productions’ pure pacifist attitudes fail to grapple with the Vietnam War’s complex issues, though M*A*S*H, surprisingly, comes closer than Coming Home, since it deals directly with U.S. involvement in Asian affairs. Coming Home and M*A*S*H’s antiwar sentiments are probably made more acute because they are not antiwar war films: they for the most part avoid depicting the fighting. The glamor our culture ascribes to warriors, war, and technological weaponry is so strong that the incorporation of any of these elements into a narrative works against whatever antiwar statements are attempting to be made.

Even though our culture equivocates war and glamor, what compels individuals to follow suit? In other words, is it only because we choose to glorify war that we do? Only those who have fired a weapon or been wounded by one truly comprehend war’s utter absence of glamor, regardless of the rantings of Tim Page (a combat photographer, not a warrior). Individuals such as Barry Sadler, fixated by war and unable to live without it, further testify to sane peoples’ claims that war is neither romantic nor entertaining. Unfortunately, short of shooting everyone, it may well be impossible to dramatize war without attracting and captivating some segments of the population, reinforcing their war-loving enthusiasm. (There are those who gain vicarious enjoyment from watching Nazi concentration camp films.) One cause of this American love of war may be our country’s long success at it (excluding Vietnam), and our eminent position as saviors in both World Wars. In addition, the United States has not suffered invasion in modern times, and its citizens for the most part do not understand the fear and uncertainty of being arbitrarily at risk in their homes. A successful anti-Vietnam War war film would have to combine a dramatization of the U.S. government and Army high command’s disinformation tactics and lack of connection to reality with an account of the atrocity and futility of the fighting in Vietnam’s jungles and streets.

Full Metal Jacket attempts to address both issues, but avoids asserting itself in either area, or contradicts itself when it does. The film pursues two antiwar veins: that which applies to war in general, and that which confronts Vietnam in particular. The first type are straightforward and for the most part effective, while the second, unfortunately, are much more more subtle and fleeting. Generalized condemnations of war are expressed throughout the film: Staff Sergeant Hartman’s dehumanization of the Marine recruits; the insidious union of man and machine (in this case the weapon) encouraged by the Marines; the association of sex and violence cultivated in basic training; the warped, undirected Marine Corps honor code; and the euphemistic Official Style jargon used by the military to camouflage its brutal business. Unfortunately, the film fails to effectively relate these elements directly to the situation in Vietnam: even the grunts’ racist objectification of the Vietnamese could just as easily have been bestowed upon the North Koreans and Chinese in Korea, or the Germans and Japanese in World War II.

Additionally, the film avoids the typical backdrop of fighting in Vietnam — search-and-destroy jungle combat — and, by setting its events in Hue during the Tet Offensive, concentrates on the relatively rare, “traditional war” fare of street fighting across clear battle lines. In this, it sticks closely to Short-Timers. The novel, however, spends much more time with the grunts, exposing the depth of the Marine training’s mental corruption, and the soldiers’ subsequent viciousness and perversion in dealing with Vietnam. Most importantly, Short-Timers concludes very differently than Full Metal Jacket: in the bush, as Joker kills the wounded point man (his best friend, Cowboy) himself, rather than letting the whole squad get wasted by the sniper. When Full Metal Jacket enters its final phase, and the Lusthog Squad encounters the sniper, the film becomes, to many people, just another war movie, despite its final absence of grand conquest. What counts, unfortunately, is the action, suspense, and gore; and, secondarily, that the good guys win, even if it is a pyrrhic victory.

The film’s only overt political statements are the interviews with the grunts in Hue, and the casting choice of the sniper, who is “. . . a child, no more than fifteen years old, a slender Eurasian angel with dark beautiful eyes.”1 By focusing on the sniper’s heritage, Kubrick and Co. expose the fallacy of the claim that the war was an ideological battle, betraying it to be simply a continuation of Western imperialism in Indochina. The sniper, a child of two cultures, has resolutely (and autonomously) taken up arms against U.S. aggression, fighting for the final independence of her country from the West. But this statement is too subtle: it completely relies on audience recognition of the sniper’s racial origins, and is weakened by the grunts’ lack of understanding of, or comment upon, her ancestry. The interviews work both ways, as well: though they point out the Marines’ lack of enthusiasm for the war’s supposed goals (witness Animal Mother’s “poontang” remark), they also ridicule and objectify the Vietnamese. In its subtlety, or its attempt to show both sides, Full Metal Jacket works against itself, appealing to the same Rambo/Barry Sadler-types it means to deprecate.

Furthermore, the film’s final scene, in which Joker and his company end the day by bunking down at the Perfume River, exhausted, but “not afraid,” attests to Joker’s (at least) continued ignorance. Private — now Sergeant Joker — has not learned a thing during the entire episode, and he is “short,” soon to return to the World. The soldiers do not sing patriotic ballads such as “God Bless America” or “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but, rather, the Mickey Mouse Club TV theme. They are alienated young men — from the war’s goals, from each other — and the only thing which motivates and unites them is a children’s television show. Here Kubrick’s intentions seem unclear: should the audience feel superior to Joker and the other grunts, as if the viewers understand the war in a way that the soldiers don’t? Or is it, in the end, that the Marine training worked, that it created the dehumanized killers that were necessary to win? Such cynicism, though powerful, is self-defeating, and certainly not antiwar or anti-Vietnam War.

A number of Kubrick’s other films have dealt with war, most notably, his 1957 work, Paths of Glory. That film made a much more effective antiwar statement than Full Metal Jacket, particularly in its juxtaposition of the circumstances of the commanding officers, and their immaculate uniforms and grand palaces, with that of the trench fighters and their mud-caked clothes and dirty barracks. Paths of Glory also viciously attacks military careerism and the lack of contact between the front-lines and the decision-makers — both ripe subjects for Vietnam. But Kubrick chooses to avoid re-introducing these themes in Full Metal Jacket. The film’s resulting removed stance precludes the passion of the antiwar critique of Paths of Glory, insisting on a more intellectual approach. This sterile appraisal fails to as effectively lambast war. Similarly, by not depicting Vietnam warfare as it was most commonly experienced, Kubrick prevents his audience from understanding the fear and uncertainty that characterized it the most .

In contrast, Patrick Duncan’s 84 Charlie MoPic succeeds as an attack on the Vietnam War because it so crisply puts the viewer in the warrior’s place — on a soldier’s shoulder, as it were — where there is no escape from the unknown, hidden enemy. With no music or views of the approaching enemy to announce an imminent battle, and only one camera angle on which to rely, the audience, like the soldiers, is continuously tense and vulnerable. In its resolute character development, the film forces an intimate connection between audience and warrior, one which is savagely broken by death. This needless loss leaves the audience empty, angry at a war which gave the soldiers no believable cause for which to fight, no ideal in which to believe, and, most importantly, no real enemy from which to exact revenge.

Oliver Stone’s Platoon succeeds in a similar manner. The film has no Nazis or insane, Russian-roulette-loving VC to fight, and thus it inspires no revenge factor, no way of achieving “satisfaction” from killing the enemy. The death of the good guy thereby becomes meaningless, as does the war, and in this way Platoon effectively refutes the war’s patriotic ideals. Full Metal Jacket, however, has clear boundaries: the Americans remain in control, and the “bad guy,” the half-Vietnamese sniper, is thankfully and gratifyingly put away because she so brutally dispatched Eight Ball, Doc J, and Cowboy. The episode brings the grunts together and proves both Rafterman and Joker’s manhoods.

With Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick may have been attempting to bypass the anguish of previous Vietnam films to let his audience reach its own conclusion about the war’s value. To this end, he remains distant and relativity uncritical of the film’s characters or events. The fine line between manipulation and free will is especially hard to distinguish in cinema, however, because just about everything portrayed on screen instantly gains emotive value. Even so, it is not a given that Kubrick’s removed approach is a more honest way to critique the war. As judged by its reviews, many viewers did not catch Full Metal Jacket’s antiwar overtones, or those who did, minimized them, saying they were merely the traditional, and therefore less potent, appeals of past films. This, if nothing else, points out the film’s failure: by doing so little to relate its comments specifically to Vietnam, which was like no other war that the United States experienced, Full Metal Jacket fails to effectively condemn the war. Presentation without condemnation is, after all, affirmation. This failing, in turn, may be the source of Kubrick’s denial that the film embodies any specific political viewpoint: he may have had to confront the fact that it is almost impossible to make an effective anti-Vietnam War war film in a traditional war film manner. The “easy” anguish of films like Platoon, 84 Charlie MoPic, and Hamburger Hill may be the only way to truly communicate the war’s horror.

 

1 Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, screenplay to Full Metal Jacket (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), p. 113.
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