Skip to main content

I, er, wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them.

Full Metal Jacket
(1987)

(SPOILERS) If there’s a problem with appreciating the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick, it’s that the true zealots will claim every single one of his pictures as a goddam masterpiece (well, maybe not Killer’s Kiss). I can’t quite get behind that. Every single one may be meticulously crafted, but there are rocky patches and suspect decisions made in at least a handful of them. Full Metal Jacket is something of a masterpiece when set against the other ‘Nam flick released in a similar time frame, certainly. Or rather, its first half is. The first half of Full Metal Jacket can stand proud against anything Kubrick ever did. The second half… less so.


One thing that ought to be very evident up front is that Full Metal Jacket is not an anti-war movie, or one with any beef with violence generally. No film featuring as many lovingly rehearsed slow-motion deaths could be. No film in which the cathartic closure of the first (of two) act is the well-earned demise of a professional bully and aggressor could be. Besides, Kubrick already made his anti-war film, three decades earlier, and he’d have been a tad hypocritical to renege on his fascination with violence, given the cause célèbre of A Clockwork Orange, even if he did recant somewhat on the extremes he believed he’d gone to there.


What Full Metal Jacket is, is an at times brilliant study of the dehumanisation of war, and by extension the brainwashing that occurs in any oppressive system. Its accompanying drawback is that all the first-rate work in this regard is in service of the preparation for warfare, and once battle has commenced the conclusions are a fait accompli; much of what transpires could be relocated to or from any other war picture, give or take the craftsmanship on display. “How can you shoot women and children?” is a question that shouldn’t need asking.


Hartman: Those individuals showed what one motivated marine and his rifle can do.

If you want to follow the line of Kubrick exposing the machinations of the Illuminati, of course, a popular sub-sect of interest in the multiplicity of meanings his films may or may not contain, then Full Metal Jacket can be seen as his take on MK Ultra-style brainwashing (an extension of A Clockwork Orange in that regard; Jacket is as broad, heightened, cartoonish even, in characterisation as that picture), except that, rather than programming a victim unaware, Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) is conscious, even embracing previous purveyors of destruction Lee Harvey Oswald (there’s self-evidently intended irony here, since the sheer difficulty of the task at hand is the crutch of the flaw with the official story) and Charles Whitman. R Lee Ermy’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman even states, mockingly but entirely seriously, that they were great marines because the abilities they learned enabled them to expertly commit their atrocities.


Is the closing refrain of the Mickey Mouse Club song a reference to the purported programming that occurs in the innocents recruited to the Disney empire, as some adherents of Kubrick conspiracy lore would have it? Certainly, post-Eyes Wide Shut, the floodgates opened to retrospectively arriving at new, ever-more intricate readings of the director’s texts, matching their architects’ eye for minutiae; more basically, Mickey Mouse simply represents America’s misplaced sense of divine right over the world.


Such conspiratorial trains of thought may lead to some tenuous connections. One thing I can’t unsee in the picture now is Kubrick’s decision to film entirely in the UK. From basic training exercises along picturesque, rural roads (when the recruits run in slow motion in one sequence, the end credits to Dad’s Army all-but swim into view), to the London Docklands standing in for Hué, the director’s reluctance to fly or otherwise depart his adopted home country in the service of his art leads to a curious gaping hole in his perfectionism. The weather just isn’t right, and the scenery sufficiently off that no number of imported palm trees can simulate the desired effect. All of which means the attestations that Kubrick was expressly intending to depict not Vietnam but rather the US Middle Eastern wars to come a little rich. Yeah, it was pure providence that enabled him to make a Vietnam film that wasn’t really a Vietnam film that coincidentally only required the set to be an hour from home.


Admittedly, the location is largely irrelevant for the basic training section of the picture, the oppressive intensity of which allows little time for stray reflection on the surroundings. If that section is gymnastically taut, the second half is akin to slowly letting the air out of a balloon by comparison. And the opening is also blessed with three sterling performances, only one of which continues into the second half (Arliss Howard is also very good, in a subdued way, as Private Cowboy, but not nearly as significant in importance).


The film arguably secured acting careers for two of these three, and defined the career of the other; for all, it would be something impossible to equal. Ermy, the actual ex-drill sergeant putting the actors through their paces, who snagged the role through persistence and creativity with his improvised dialogue (my favourite is always “Are you about to call me an asshole?”), is a blistering powder keg of raw energy. He had to repeat all those verbally splenetic takes multiple times to his master’s satisfaction, making the achievement even more impressive.


Vincent D’Onofrio, empty-headed, slack-jawed and vacant of stare, who had to put on all that weight and never entirely lost it again, states outright that he owes his career to Kubrick, and that “I’m an actor, and I know how to take apart an M16 and put it back together blindfold”; perhaps the only aspect of Private Pyle’s trajectory that fails to entirely convince is the convenience of him being found to be really good at something (using a rifle) and that his descent into madness occurs as he is being commended for his new-found military discipline (although, this is arguably the point dramatically – it means he snaps when it is least expected).


Pogue Colonel: What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
Private Joker: No, sir.
Pogue Colonel: You’d better get you head and ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you.
Private Joker: Yes, sir.
Pogue Colonel: Now, answer my question or you’ll be standing before the man.
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Pogue Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.


Then there’s Modine, whose natural wit has only rarely been tapped so effectively (Married to the Mob, offhand) and who seems wasted when he pops up in straight roles (The Dark Knight Rises). The dichotomy of Private Joker, who resists losing his humanity by keeping his sense of humour and of the absurd in check (he immediately gets into trouble with his drill instructor for making a gag at the latter’s expense) but who is also identified as not having been subjected to the religious brainwashing of his peer group (“Private Joker, do you believe in the Virgin Mary?” – “Sir, no, sir!”), which may be why he has an extra layer of humanity to see him through the battlefield. After all, Hartman, and thus Kubrick/Michael Herr, adopt a fiercely cynical discourse on religion as it relates to justifying killing and conflict (“God has a hard-on for marines, because we kill everything we see. He plays his games, we play ours. To show our appreciation, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls”).


Joker’s thematic journey is writ large, that he is actively aware of the balance he needs to maintain to survive, of the ying-yang that contrasts his peace symbol with Born to Kill plastered across his helmet (“How’s it going to look if you get killed wearing a peace symbol?” he is asked by a distractingly youthful John Terry, of Lost). But Joker can only persevere so much with barbaric tests and tribulations; he counters Hartman’s treatment of Pyle with understanding and patience, but ultimately caves in to the pressures of the system and its standards of brutalisation. Nevertheless, he mocks the army’s casual propaganda machine (instructed of an article to “Rewrite it, give it a kill” he responds with “How about a general?”) and America’s motives for becoming involved in the country’s affairs (“I, er, wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them”), and passes the final test when others seek conformity; he kills an enemy, something he has not yet done, but as an act of compassion rather than machismo.


The “Fucking hardcore” response of Joker’s peers illustrates a wilful lack of comprehension of why he did what he did, for that too would invite compassion on their parts; it’s notable that Rafterman (Kevin Major Howard), whom Joker has chaperoned, responds to shooting the girl, in itself undermining preconditioning of the glory of righteous warfare, as if it’s something to warrant elation, a prescribed response to how his first kill should be; representing the naïve believer (almost passé even, at this point in Nam movies), he needs to wise up to reality (“Freedom? You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a slaughter”); he remains brainwashed still. Adam Baldwin, in contrast, playing himself as Animal Mother, a creature of instinct, has no humanity left to lose (“I am become death”).


Does that make the Mickey Mouse song an indicator of Joker going with the flow, retiring from a pro-active position? Or perhaps it merely suggests that he continues to embrace the dichotomy. At one point Harman, asserts that “The marine corps does not want robots. The marine corps wants killers”. Really, they want killer robots.


Of the feature’s first section, Pauline Kael, in typically withering fashion, commented “The moviemaking suggests a blunt instrument grinding into your skull. This can easily be taken for the work of a master director”. I don’t think there’s any mistaking the skill exhibited there for anything other than the work of a master director, but there’s a feeling that persists, between this and The Shining, that Kubrick’s grasp of more overtly populist material doesn’t quite have the same virtuosity overall that he had exhibited hitherto. He failed to make a war film that reverberated as Apocalypse Now did, for example. He was on a relative back foot.


On the other hand, Abigail Mead’s score (wife Vivian Kubrick in a rare case of her husband utilising non-classically sourced music – the rest is made up of period hits, including Paint it Black, which would also become the theme of dire late night Nam TV fodder Tour of Duty, beginning the same year) is a masterfully unsettling ambient nightmare; it’s this, in particular, that informs the drained London setting of the final half, giving it a haunting, otherworldly dread and lifting Full Metal Jacket, carrying it even, until the final sniper confrontation restores momentum and focus. Of course, there’s also the little fact that even a Kubrick picture that isn’t a goddam masterpiece stands head and shoulders, and a foot or two more besides, above the very best efforts of most of other filmmakers.



Below is the trailer I remember (unfortunately this version's in German), which ended with Surfin' Bird, so it's worth a look for the last 30 seconds:



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…