This is part 10 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post being the second to focus on… Full Metal Jacket. In the beginning of the Vietnam chapter of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick states his intentions quite clearly by focusing on the backside of a sauntering Vietnamese prostitute just before she haggles with two American GIs over sex. In broad daylight. This isn’t a film about the military anymore. And it’s not a film about war, either. It’s a film about vice. Warfare, the military, Vietnam, all of it, are just umbrella’d in beneath this repulsive yet fascinating thing. Where Kubrick essentially gave us a protracted and rude introduction to military life in part one, in part two, he endeavors to show how jaded, cynical, psychotic, or sex-obsessed American soldiers were in Vietnam. And in the end he almost doesnâ€™t do this. Quite ironically, the second chapter of Full Metal Jacket, while not particularly memorable from a cinematic standpoint, offers a glimpse of the man’s humanist side. Death becomes tragedy in Vietnam. The pain is real. It has real consequences, and these consequences are not always dashed by non-sequiturial pop songs like they were in part one. Further, the characters churn quite naturally under pressure, revealing unexpected strengths and hidden powers. Because, you know, they are human
beings, and that’s what human beings do. When since Paths of Glory in 1957 have we seen this in a Kubrick film? I don’t count Spartacus since Kubrick disowned it. 2001 shows mere hints of such humanism but not nearly enough. Of course, so does The Shining, but that’s more due to the expectations of the horror genre at the time (some 25 years before the advent of torture porn) and the fact that the two characters in danger at the end were a mother and child. Now let me make one thing clear: when I say Stanley Kubrick is not a humanist, I am only talking about him as an artist, not as a man. As a man, by all accounts, he was decent and honest and left many behind who loved him, and not just for his genius. Had he enticed us to dance on the grave of young Danny Torrance however, like he did with Sergeant Hartman and Private Pyle, I would certainly reverse this opinion. Judging Humanity harshly in art is not the same as treating human beings harshly in real life. And Kubrick never did that. We don’t get these humanist glimpses until the end however. Up until then, Kubrick sticks with the formula he used in the Parris Island chapter, that is, using outrageous and memorable dialogue to offset a shortage (for him) of visionary cinematic ideas. Consider:
Now, I didn’t see Full Metal Jacket until a few years after its release in 1987, but I was already aware of these lines just from being tuned into popular culture. And this is to say nothing of the film’s use of racial epithets such as “gook” and the N word, which, thanks to pervasive political correctness, would have been toxic in any polite conversations even as far back as 1987. But for Kubrick, it was shocking (in a good way) since I don’t think anyone doubts that those words were used quite a lot by American GIs of all races back then. There are a couple instances in which Kubrick really delivers cinematically in the Vietnam chapter of Full Metal Jacket. One in particular stands out, not only as a homage to earlier Kubrick movies, but also as a tacit admission to the fact that the North Vietnamese may have committed their share of war crimes as well. When Joker finds a platoon commander, he says, “We heard some scuttlebutt, sir, about the NVA executing a lot of gook civilians.” “That’s affirmative,” the man replies. “I saw some bodies about a half a click this side of Phu Cam Canal!” This little dialogue leads to this iconic image from Full Metal Jacket: From which Kubrick tracks back to this. Coincidentally, this is also one of Kubrick’s humanistic moments in Full Metal Jacket. The look of resigned horror on Joker’s face says it all. This was a ghastly mass murder of innocent civilians which Kubrick treats with respect and aplomb. Aside from this, however, Kubrick treats many of the American soldiers in Vietnam with contempt. He starts with the machine gunner who murders innocent Vietnamese from the safety of his helicopter while laughing and shouting “Get some! Get some!”
From such a barbaric and nihilistic character Kubrick takes Joker and a Stars and Stripes photographer named Rafterman to the mass burial scene shown above. This is where a colonel makes the following ridiculous and contradictory announcement:
From here, Joker and Rafterman head to a platoon in the field where Joker reunites with Cowboy, a friend from Parris Island. Within minutes he meets the brutish and hulking Animal Mother, who nearly picks a fight with him, and then discovers that the platoon (self-dubbed the “Lusthog Squad”) finds it amusing that they have propped a dead NVA soldier onto a lawn chair. “These are great days we’re living, bros!” gloats one oddly reflective grunt. “We’re jolly green giants walking the Earthâ€¦with guns! These people we wasted here todayâ€¦are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world we’re gonna miss not having anyone around who’s worth shooting.” After a victory at Hue City (where two soldiers are killed) Kubrick inappropriately blasts “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, another exuberant, albeit somewhat whacky, mid-1960s pop hit. He treats us to nearly the entire song. And the eulogy for the dead soldiers? After a few kind words, Animal Mother says, “Better you than me” to the dead men and rebukes Rafterman thusly:
After this, the soldiers discussed how one of the dead soldiers, appropriately named “Handjob” would masturbate ten times day in order to secure his section 8. Then comes the film’s second (!) scene in which American soldiers haggle with Vietnamese prostitutes over sex. As if one weren’t enough. Now, at this point in film is there anything redeeming about the US military? Well, it was nice that Joker seemed to realize that it is wrong to kill women and children, even if he was being detached and ironic about it. He also reacted with appropriate horror to the mass grave. But is that all? I’d have to say yes because in almost every other instance Kubrick goes out of his way to make American servicemen look bad. Did that dead American really have to be a chronic masturbator? Did we really have to see that lunatic helicopter gunner mow down civilians and then brag about it? Did we really have to sit through two very similar scenes with Vietnamese prostitutes? Did they really have to prop a dead NVA on a lawn chair just to laugh at him? What plot are we advancing here? What character are we developing? What narrative theme are we building upon? Was any of this necessary other than to shock and entertain Kubrick’s sophisticated, college educated public (very few of whom supported the war to begin with)? After all, people love it when you affirm what they already believe to be true. And if you do that by slandering the nearly 2.6 million men who fought in Vietnam and not slandering their despicable enemies (who set up a Stalinist police state after the war and murdered or enslaved millions), then I guess that’s just dandy. I mean, it’s not like the millions of lives wasted and ruined by the North Vietnamese, like, matter, or anything. Right? You see, this is why I question Stanley Kubrick’s artistic humanism. He gleefully slanders the lesser of two evils with regards to the Vietnam War while remaining mostly quiet about the greater of the two evils. And if you believe the numbers quoted in Part 1 of my Full Metal Jacket essay, the differences between these two evils are pretty freaking big. And then something must have happened. Maybe Kubrick was just following the script, or maybe he just got tired of sacrificing human beings on the altar of his movies, or maybe he was touched by the Hand of God for the first time in 30 years, or maybe he just slipped, but whatever it was, Stanley Kubrick finally woke up and realized that his characters were human beings. Starting at about 85 minutes in, Kubrick gives us straight-up, un-ironic, non-satirical, suspenseful filmmaking in which we feel what the characters feel and we hurt when the characters hurt. We feel the tragedy when they die. Basically, soldiers start getting killed one by one as Joker, Cowboy, and the rest of the squad are out on patrol. At one point a sniper hidden in a building picks off two soldiers. As they lie writhing on the ground, Cowboy is faced with a difficult dilemma. Does he charge to their rescue, not knowing if the buildings are infested with the enemy, or does he pull back and leave the two stricken men to their fates? He opts shrewdly (and perhaps not incorrectly) for the latter option, only to be repudiated by Animal Mother. The man who had heretofore been the film’s villain (or, at the very least, the Big Bad American Bully) now leads a heroic charge to save his fallen comrades. His actions are perfectly selfless, and, even better, he pulls it off. In lesser scripts, such a guy would have a comeuppance or would reveal himself a coward in battle (because, of course, all bullies are cowards). But no. Here, Kubrick bestows upon this man a sense of humanity that is frankly uncharacteristic for Kubrick films. And to do it with such an unlikable character, the kind of person the film is designed to slander, really is something. This is almost enough to forgive Kubrick for having Rafterman laugh and dance like an imbecile after shooting the little girl sniper in the end. But you see, this was a moment of clarity from which Kubrick promptly wakes up. He ends his film in baffling fashion as the soldiers all march onâ€¦singing the Mickey Mouse theme. I really don’t know what Kubrick was thinking in those final few moments, but whatever it was, it undid whatever good he accomplished when he went out of his mind treating his characters like real people for a change. Remember that characters are rarely anything more than pawns in Kubrick’s big game. In the Vietnam chapter of this film he may not play them as masterfully as he does in the Parris Island Chapter, but at least here he takes his hands off the pieces for a little while. He lets them serve their own agendas, not his. Why did Animal Mother lead that charge? It wasn’t to serve the anti-military aims of Kubrick’s, that’s for sure. He did it for the same reasons why real-life soldiers have done the same thing – because he has love for his comrades and a sense of duty to his country. When interviewed by a TV crew at Hue City, Animal Mother is asked what he thinks of America’s involvement in the war. He response is simple and straightforward. He says, “I think we should win.” While contemporary audiences might shudder at such unapologetic jingoism, history will show that, with such clarity of thought, Animal Mother is the most sympathetic and three dimensional character in the film. It’s just too bad that Kubrick didn’t see it that way. This concludes my polemic against Full Metal Jacket. Next up, the conclusion of this series: Paths of Glory, and what a humanist really looks like.