This is part 9 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 focusing on…
Full Metal Jacket.
To begin, I believe that Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s most overrated post-Strangelove work. He never figures out how to overcome the central shortcoming of the script, which is that, chopped in half, Full Metal Jacket is really two stories that don’t cohere very well. In the first, tensions build during boot camp in 1967 as the apocalyptically abusive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (played by R. Lee Ermey) bullies the hapless Private Gomer Pyle (played by an overweight Vincent Dinofrio) past the point of reason. Eventually Pyle turns into a time bomb. That’s basically it.
In the second, Private Joker (played by a wisecracking Matthew Modine), who had witnessed Pyle’s self-destruction at the hands of Hartman, has become a military journalist in Vietnam. He then joins American soldiers in the field where they take on and defeat a North Vietnamese sniper, who is also a little girl. That’s basically it as well.
In my opinion, Kubrick had fewer cinematic ideas for Full Metal Jacket than in his previous films, and instead found himself relying on memorable and shocking dialogue to make up the difference. Think about it…what memorable images do we have here? A few, to be sure, especially in the first half. I can see why such a script would appeal to Kubrick. Lots of men in uniform shouting and moving in unison can lead to mathematically precise imagry that you can just load with counterpoint.
Aside from some great scenes in the marines barracks, however, Full Metal Jacket is not quite like 2001 or A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove where you can just play it with the sound off or capture images almost at random and still know it’s a Kubrick movie. Indeed, there is less of the visionary genius that sparkled in his earlier masterworks.
This is not to say that Full Metal Jacket is bad film.
The Parris Island chapter is a gripping and well-filmed depiction of life at boot camp. Further, R. Lee. Ermey is just mesmerizing to behold, truly a unique cinematic experience. I don’t think a single actor has ever dominated a film so completely and so brilliantly as R. Lee Ermey did in Full Metal Jacket. I think Kubrick simply recognized the man’s genius, pointed the camera at him, and let him spew pure gold.
Because of this, the Vietnam chapter often gets overlooked, but it is a tight, suspenseful war story in its own right. It’s just that what makes Full Metal Jacket so celebrated, of course, is not so much what happens, but what people say in between what happens. How often does that happen in Kubrick movies? Name one single major Kubrick work other than this one in which dialogue trumps the pure, viceral images the man can so brilliantly convey.
In the first half, when little happens from a plot perspective, we’re basically entertained by the colorful abuse that Hartman heaps upon his recruits, especially Pyle. You can find most of it on YouTube or IMDB. Here are a few of my favorites:
“You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!”
“You are not even human fucking beings! You are nothing but unorganized grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit!”
“You climb obstacles like old people fuck!”
“Tonight, you pukes will sleep with your rifles. You will give your rifle a girl’s name because this is the only pussy you people are going to get. Your days of finger-banging ol’ Mary-Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over!”
“I bet you’re the kind of guy who would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I’ll be watching you!”
“I want that head so sanitary and squared away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in there and take a dump!”
Here is a great collection of the best bits in part one:
It’s interesting to note that Ermey had been a drill instructor during the Vietnam War and was essentially born to play that role. Nearly 50% of his dialogue he ad-libbed.
Kubrick shows his horns however when he portrays these young marines as being brainwashed into becoming nothing more than killings machines.
“Blood! Blood! Blood!”
“What do we do for a living, ladies?”
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
This is real Lord of the Flies territory here. But is it true? I’m sure some of it is. But I am also sure there was more to boot camp than training people to kill indiscriminately. If this were the case there would have been hundreds of Mai Lai Massacres instead of one. And the American servicemen who did commit war crimes in Vietnam wouldn’t have gotten in trouble, don’t forget that. By not giving a more balanced representation of boot camp, Kubrick really tries to make military authority figures out to be bad people, psychopaths, even.
For example, Hartman at one point quizzes his recruits on the exploits of Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. These, of course, are two infamous snipers. The former went on a rampage at the University of Texas in 1966 and murdered 11 people. The latter assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Hartman not only brags about how the marine corps taught these two lunatics how to shoot at long range, but he tells his recruits that with their top notch military training one day they will be able to do the exact same thing.
Now, did Kubrick really need to do this? Did he really need to slander our Vietnam-era military leadership like that? Did he really need to accuse them of training marines to be mass murderers? These were the guys who stormed the beaches at Normandy, or withstood heavy fire at Okinawa, or marched with Patton’s 3rd Army across Northwest Europe during World War II. These were the guys who put their lives on the line to fight fascismâ€¦and now they’re what? Brainwashing kids into becoming criminals?
This is why I see Full Metal Jacket not so much as an anti-war movie, but as an anti-military movie. R. Lee Ermey played a similar character named Sergeant Loyce in a 1978 film called The Boys From Company C. Like Hartman, Loyce had to train a group of civilians to be combat ready in a short period of time. Like Hartman, he spouted a nonstop stream of profane abuse, calling his men maggots and civilian slime and worse. But he also gets the opportunity to humanize himself. It starts at 3:01 here:
Here’s what he says:
Suddenly, these recruits aren’t maggots anymore. They’re people. Suddenly, Loyce isn’t some loud-mouthed, bigoted jarhead anymore. No, he’s a person too. He clearly has compassion and concern for the welfare of the men he’s about to ship off to war. But in Full Metal Jacket, does Kubrick give us any of that? Of course, not! Compassion? In a Kubrick movie? Yes, he does pay lip service to some of the “we’re training you here so you won’t die over there” stuff. At one point, Hartman tells his recruits:
Note that Hartman is less concerned about the welfare of the men he is training and more concerned about welfare of the people he is training them to kill. A dead marine is not bad thing in and of itself, according to Hartman. A dead marine is only bad because dead marines can no longer kill. Because, you know, killing is what marines do. Just because.
Well, that about says it all, doesn’t it? So much for making the world safe for freedom and democracy. Murder and mayhem is more like it…as long as it’s said with such clever profanity that Kubrick’s sophisticated, college-educated fans would find it amusing, of course. Please go to Allan Millett’s, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps and Larry Cable’s Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War for evidence refuting Sgt. Hartman’s (and Kubrick’s) outlandish claim. Marines kill, to be sure. But they do a hell of a lot of good work as well, even during wartime.
According to historian Lindsay Kittle in her thesis Gentle Warriors: U.S. Marines and Humanitarian Action during the Vietnam War:
In 1970, journalist Cherilee Noyes went to Vietnam and had this to say about the marines:
Can we say the same about the Viet Cong?
Now, we all know how part one ends. Pyle goes ballistic in the bathroom and guns down Sergeant Hartman before taking a seat on the toilet, putting the rifle barrel in his mouth, and pulling the trigger. All while Joker watches on, horrified. This is a pretty intense, harrowing scene, and to Kubrick’s credit, he directs it impeccably.
Well, in classic-Kubrick fashion, our story then switches abruptly to Vietnam months later with Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boot are Made for Walkin'” on the soundtrack.
Have you heard this song? If not, listen to it now.
An upbeat, catchy mid-1960s pop number with a classic bass-line, “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” is sung from the perspective of a woman who’s lover has been cheating on her. Whether she’ll use her boots to walk away from him or walk all over him remains open-ended.
Now why did Kubrick juxtapose such a peppy song with such a grotesque murder-suicide? Well, for one, he doesn’t care much for the characters he just wasted and doesn’t want you to care either. Really, using “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” as an elegy for such a nihilistic massacre is artistically unforgivable in a serious drama.
Compare this treatment to other famous films in which major characters get killed before the story’s end. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock dusting off “Can Can #4” after Vivian Leigh gets sliced to ribbons in Psycho. Picture Francis Ford Coppola blasting “That’s Amore!” after Fredo Corleone gets dumped to the bottom of the lake in Godfather Part II. How about hearing “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone?” by Charley Pride right after Drew falls out of his canoe in Deliverance. What about “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters after Kevin Spacey eats it in L.A. Confidential?
Or even Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” after Juliane Moore takes a bullet to the head in the futuristic Children of Men? (Yeah, I know “Blurred Lines” came out in 2013, seven years after the film and 13 years before the story takes place. But given the date of this essay, it’s the best I can do.)
And please don’t mention the famous ear slicing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. “Stuck in the Middle” by Steelers Wheels was playing on the radio and was therefore diagetic, despite Quentin Tarantino’s upping the volume on the soundtrack. Anyway, he turned the music off when things really started to get ugly.
So are these movies too different than Full Metal Jacket to matter? OK, fine. Let’s bring it closer to home. Imagine “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” being played after Lawrence Fishburne’s heartbreaking end in Apocalypse Now. Or, better yet, after Willem Defoe’s majestic death in Platoon. Would that make any sense? Remember, Full Metal Jacket is a war drama, not a stab at satire like Dr. Strangelove. Characters really die in this movie, and there are real consequences. We must assume that Pyle and Hartman have family and friends at home who will mourn them. We must assume that what we were just forced to witness was tragic.
But when Kubrick doesn’t wait twenty seconds after bullet hits the bone to kick his movie into second gear with “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” (lingering on the backside of a sauntering Vietnamese prostitute, no less), he’s telling us these deaths aren’t tragic, especially if he’s the one killing you.
The second reason why Kubrick chose this song was because it has meaning vis-a-vis the Vietnam War. According to Wikipedia:
â€¢ In 1966 and 1967 [Nancy] Sinatra traveled to Vietnam to perform for the troops. Many US soldiers adopted the song as their anthem, as shown in Pierre Schoendoerffer’s academy award winning documentary The Anderson Platoon (1967).
Well, I am assuming this was one of Kubrick’s reasons. I am assuming he knew about this, given his penchant for shoulder-hunching research and near-maniacal dedication to perfection. I imagine the chances that I would know something about a Kubrick film that Kubrick himself didn’t would be kind of low.
And it makes sense…this song resonating with American troops in Vietnam: the simple juxtaposition of loyalty versus infidelity, honesty versus mendacity, honor versus dishonor. The delicious threat of a well-deserved comeuppance. And there’s not an ounce of irony to it. The song also serves as a useful allegory for the war itself. For someone who actually believed in the cause, the song’s antagonist could be the North Vietnamese themselves. Consider the lyrics:
(Yeah, like in South Vietnam and Cambodia.)
Yeah, you keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’
(Like with all the guerrilla and terrorist stuff you pull with the Viet Cong.)
Now, what’s right is right but you ain’t been right yet
(We have the moral high ground here, not you…)
These boots are made for walkin’
And that’s just what they’ll do
One of these days these boots
Are gonna walk all over you
(See? You’re gonna get what’s coming to ya…)
So to select this very song to segue from a horrific murder-suicide to a scene in which a Vietnamese prostitute solicits two American GI’s who are keen on haggling is to make a statement on the very men who chose this song as their fight anthem. And that statement is negative to say the least. Intellectually snotty, even. If Stanley Kubrick re-makes “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” into the ironic anthem for the psychotic killers, remorseless bullies, and cynical assholes like what we have in Full Metal Jacket, then he has found a very clever and sophisticated way to say that the American GI’s did not have the moral high ground in Vietnam.
And why is this an anti-humanist perspective? Well, for one, Kubrick up till this point in the film refuses to humanize two of his three main characters, not to mention the entire US marine corps. But we already know that. Secondly, the American soldiers, despite whatever misdeeds you can accuse them of, did indeed have the moral high ground in Vietnam. Of course, you can’t expect soldiers to behave like boy scouts when they’re getting shot at all the time. You will find abuse in all wars and on virtually all sides. But as a whole, and in comparison with our enemies, the American forces have little be ashamed of for their conduct during the war.
I understand this not a popular opinion these days. Most educated people, if they think about the Vietnam War at all, will consider the war an act of colonial aggression on the part of the US and ascribe to it the basest of motivations. And of course they’ll have this perspective. They will be informed mostly by films like Full Metal Jacket.
For a more rounded perspective, you can go to Our War Was Different by Al Hemingway, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965, by Jack Shulimson and Charles Johnson, A Voice of Hope by Thomas Flynn, the documentary The American Humanitarian Effort: Out-takes from Vietnam, The untold story of humanitarian efforts during and after the Vietnam War by Robert Wilensky, and Gentle Warriors: U.S. Marines and Humanitarian Action during the Vietnam War by Lindsay Kittle. These sources will show that winning hearts and minds were not simply words to many US servicemen. The US forces did make real efforts to save and protect the South Vietnamese from the Viet Cong as well as improve their standard of life as much as they could.
Yes, there were American war crimes. According to Wikipedia, there was the Mai Lai Massacre of 1968 (504 civilians killed) and other less famous crimes amounting to an additional estimated 194 civilian deaths. This makes the total of innocent lives lost at the hands of American soldiers to 698.
Bad, yes. Tragic, definitely. And you know what? Let’s make it even worse. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Wikipedia got it wrong. Let’s say just for the heck of it that Wiki came up short by about an order of magnitude. Let’s just say that it wasn’t 698 civilian deaths caused by US servicemen but 6980. Then let’s round it up to an even 7000, because I’m a nice guy. That still would be nothing compared to the sins of our enemy.
According to Wikipedia:
Really. Burning people alive, huh? Even Kubrick doesn’t accuse American GI’s of that. Wait, there’s more.
In fact, Wiki has a whole section on the VC/NVA use of terror here:
Let’s not even stop there, because the North Vietnamese were just getting started. Let’s jump cut to after the Vietnam War. Once Saigon fell in 1975, Vietnam succumbed to one of the most shameful periods of violence and oppression the world has seen since World War II. Indeed, the poor Vietnamese were thrown into the 10th circle of Hell. Again, from Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
On 2 July 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Following the communist takeover, 1â€“2.5 million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, with an estimated 165,000 prisoners dying. Between 100,000 and 200,000 South Vietnamese were executed. R. J. Rummel, an analyst of political killings, estimated that about 50,000 South Vietnamese deported to “New Economic Zones” died performing hard labor, out of the 1 million that were sent. 200,000 to 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the communist Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge would eventually kill 1â€“3 million Cambodians in the Killing Fields, out of a population of around 8 million. At least 1,386,734 victims of execution have been counted in mass graves, while demographic analysis suggests that the policies of the regime caused between 1.7 and 2.5 million excess deaths altogether (including disease and starvation). After repeated border clashes in 1978, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and ousted the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodianâ€“Vietnamese War. The Vietnamese installed a new government led by Khmer Rouge defectors, which killed tens of thousands and enslaved hundreds of thousands.
Hey, Stan, don’t worry about all the zeroes in those numbers counting dead gooks, man. Zeroes mean nothing, baby. Nothin’.
Seriously, ignoring such all-encompassing evil in order to make US soldiers look bad cannot be seen as the work of a humanist. A humanist would be appalled at the inhumanity of the North Vietnamese and would be grateful that the United States and other civilized countries sent men over there to stop them.
I’ll say it, and I’ll say it slow. The North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and afterwards were a bunch of ruthless communist bastards. They were enemies of humanity and a stain on the human race. They are guilty of murdering, subjugating, and terrorizing millions upon millions, and I am proud to live in the United States which had the moral courage to stand up to people like that. This one major reason why I have problems with Full Metal Jacket, for all its brilliance.
This concludes part 1 of my polemic against Full Metal Jacket. Part 2 will address part 2 of the film and how Kubrick continues to rely upon shocking dialogue rather than visionary filmmaking to promote his less-than-humanistic ideas.