Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987)

This article is an excerpt from “The Final Features”, Part 5 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

The experience of the Vietnam War had soured America on the prospect of warfare, mostly because the widespread adoption of television allowed the war to be broadcast into the homes of every family— punctuating their supper with gunfire, explosions and the anguished cries of wounded men. Kubrick felt a desire to make a war film that reflected this new paradigm, and selected author Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel “The Short-Timers” as the source material upon which he’d base the story for what would eventually become FULL METAL JACKET. Working once again with his brother-in-law and producing partner Jan Harlan, Kubrick recruited a novelist and Vietnam veteran named Michael Herr to help him craft the script. The shoot audaciously (but not really convincingly) faked rural England for the humid jungles of Vietnam, with the production timetable ballooning longer than a tour of duty in the military. Where most actors and craftsmen would quit in anger over the prolonged schedule, this element of Kubrick’s shooting style had become so well known by this point that his collaborators willingly signed on knowing full well it would happen. They placed their utmost faith and confidence in Kubrick, and that trust and passion shows through in the final product. FULL METAL JACKET may be a flawed, uneven film, but that can’t stop it from enduring as one of defining films in the war genre as well as Kubrick’s own body of work.

In an attempt to do away with conventional modes of cinematic structure, Kubrick employs a two-act structure in FULL METAL JACKET. The first half takes place at a military base in South Carolina, where a band of new recruits are being trained to become the latest wave of efficient killing machines. They are under the command of Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), a relentlessly abusive disciplinarian who has placed a special focus on an overweight recruit he dubs Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). He never misses an opportunity to remind Pyle that he is a worthless fat-ass and a disgrace to the Marine Corps. One of the other recruits, who Hartman has dubbed Private Joker (Matthew Modine) takes pity on Pyle and helps him shape up to Hartman’s superhuman standards. Under Joker’s positive encouragement, Pyle shows remarkable growth—but that growth comes at a cost, and on the eve of their graduation, Pyle murders Hartman before firing a rifle round into his own skull. The film’s second half is set in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, one of the defining moments of the war. Joker is now a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes, the military-owned newspaper distributed to the troops. On a routine assignment, he runs into a buddy from his days in South Carolina, Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who is now running with a squadron making their way through Hue City. They eventually become lost and try to take refuge in the city’s abandoned ruins. They’re ambushed by relentless sniper fire, but there’s no retreat. If they want to live, they must forge ahead by any means necessary. By film’s end, we are left only with one question—what is the cost of warfare? Kubrick’s thesis posits that the answer lies not in the form of dollars, but in our very souls.

Kubrick’s cast is comprised entirely of unknowns, and it’s a testament to their talents here that they all went on to respectable acting careers afterwards. Matthew Modine headlines the film as the gangly Joker— a mischievous subversive who pairs his military fatigues with a peace symbol decal, which makes his story arc of lost innocence all the more potent. He carries a smug grin on his face throughout the entirety of the film, but you better believe by the end that Kubrick will have wiped it right off his face. Vincent D’Onofrio makes his film debut in FULL METAL JACKET as the fat, uncoordinated Gomer Pyle. He purportedly gained seventy pounds to play the role, offering a hint of those“dedicated thespian” affectations his career would later be known for. Arliss Howard plays Cowboy, the squad’s flustered, short-lived leader. His performance is unremarkable in and of itself, but it took three screenings of the film for me to realize that he also plays the antagonistic role of John Hammond’s nephew in director Steven Spielberg’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997). Spielberg was, of course, a close friend of Kubrick’s and his casting of Howard for his dino sequel speaks to how much he admired Kubrick and his work. The real star of the show, however, is R. Lee Ermey, who plays the hardass drill sergeant Hartman. Prior to the film, Ermey was a real-life retired Marine drill sergeant, and was brought onto the project as a tech consultant. His dedication to authenticity was so intense that he outright stole the role of Hartman from the guy who had been originally cast. His relentless abuse and creative grasp on insulting profanity approaches the level of performance art, and his particular showing in FULL METAL JACKET kickstarted a second career as an in-demand character actor that continues to this day.

By this point in his career, Kubrick had built up a strong working relationship with cinematographer John Alcott, who shot his previous three features. When Kubrick began to assemble his crew for FULL METAL JACKET, Alcott declined a fourth go-round with the maverick auteur. In hindsight, this would prove to be a serendipitous move for both parties, considering Alcott died during the middle of production. Douglas Milsome, who had previously worked on Kubrick’s films as a focus puller, stepped up to assume the role of cinematographer on FULL METAL JACKET instead. Milsome and Kubrick craft a relatively straightforward visual presentation that’s high on style and low on flash. Kubrick’s compositions retain his signature one-point perspectives that emphasize depth and symmetry, while his camerawork builds on THE SHINING’s innovations with the Steadicam by incorporating it as often as possible. Kubrick has always favored extended tracking shots as a way to convey mood, and the rise of the Steadicam allowed him much greater flexibility and versatility in that regard. No longer bound by dolly tracks, he could mount the camera on a Steadicam rig and follow his subjects right into the maelstrom without so much of a hint of handheld jitter. Like BARRY LYNDON or THE SHINING before it, Kubrick counters the formalism of his camerawork with New Wave techniques like slow zooms and flash cuts. FULL METAL JACKET’s naturalistic aesthetic isn’t as lurid or evocative of other Vietnam classics like Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1987) or Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), yet its visuals are just as (if not more) iconic due to Kubrick’s legendary eye for composition and considered movement.

The music of FULL METAL JACKET marks an abrupt departure for Kubrick, who was well known for using prominent classical works to accompany his visuals instead of original scores. Instead of baroque concertos, Kubrick opts for the iconic sound of the Vietnam War: rock and roll. Beginning with Johnnie Wright’s crooning country ballad, “Hello Vietnam”, Kubrick uses an inspired selection of late 70’s-era rock music to reflect the dark, subversive and unpredictable nature of Vietnam’s combatants. A particular standout is the use of The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black” over the end credits—a musical echo of the darkness that Joker now dwells in after the completion of his character arc. Despite the heavy presence of rock cues, Kubrick does make potent use of an original score written by his daughter, Vivian Kubrick (credited here as Abigail Mead). Vivian creates a suitably foreboding, industrial sound using electronic instruments that appropriately reflect Kubrick’s pitch-black portrait of institutionalized destruction.

While Kubrick’s films defy easy explanation, they can be distilled into the examination of two primal, opposing forces: violence and sex. His last two films—FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT—would become companion pieces in that they each dealt with their respective theme (violence for the former, sex for the latter) in a singularly summative manner. Kubrick was no stranger to war films, but whereas PATHS OF GLORY dealt with the ethical conundrums of warfare on a collective scale, FULL METAL JACKET is more concerned with the psychological consequences of warfare on the level of the individual. The film focuses on the military as an institution not only capable of perpetuating man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, but one that needs such devastation in order to thrive. Kubrick doesn’t depict the military so much as an institution, but as a machine—devouring countless scores of boys whole and spitting them out the other end as robotic killing machines devoid of compassion and empathy. The machine is kept fed by a surrounding culture that commodifies and glorifies violence; Joker’s iconic line, “I wanted to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill”, is terrifying precisely because it hits so close to home.

Vietnam was more than just a war for the American public—it was an existential crisis that introduced the idea of cynicism and irony into warfare. It was, for lack of a better term, The Hipster War. Having peppered it throughout his filmography to extremely potent effect, Kubrick was no stranger to the concept of irony, and FULL METAL JACKET is stuffed to the brim with it. Joker complements a peace symbol decal with a helmet that has the words “Born To Kill” scrawled across it. The big bad sniper of the film’s denouement is revealed to be a scared twelve-year old girl. Soldiers march against fiery scenes of devastation while cheerily singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. A young recruit is trained into such an effective killing machine that he turns his rifle on the man who created him.

FULL METAL JACKET came out the same year that Oliver Stone’s PLATOON did, and while Kubrick’s final statement on war and violence would eventually lose out the Best Picture Oscar to Stone’s breakout film, it now overshadows its former rival due to the legacy of its genius creator. It may not be the definitive Vietnam film, but it is certainly one of the most definitive films of the war genre. For Kubrick himself, FULL METAL JACKET serves as a fitting, yet, haunting conclusion to a topic that he spent a lifetime exploring.

FULL METAL JACKET is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Executive Produced by: Jan Harlan
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford
Cinematography by: Douglas Milsome
Production Designer: Anton Furst
Editd by: Martin Hunter
Music by: Vivian Kubrick (as Abigail Mead)