On its 30th anniversary, we ask why the Vietnam war flick is criminally overlooked
It’s peculiar how often films get described as “Kubrickian” when no two Stanley Kubrick films are alike. The term tends to be shorthand for one of the director’s more popular films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut. These are, by consensus, his critical darlings – the ones that top polls and receive adoration on social media.
But why not Full Metal Jacket? The 1987 anti-war movie, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today, is surely Kubrick’s most underrated achievement. It was his second-last film, constructed during his weirdo reclusive phase, and it’s the most nihilistic, action-packed entry in his oeuvre. For that alone it deserves the Room 237 treatment. So what gives?
First, it’s worth recognising how devoted Kubrick was to Full Metal Jacket. After The Shining, he hired readers to scour through thousands of novels and screenplays, all in search of a story worthy of his genius, and the one that transfixed him was Gustav Hasford’s Vietnam War novel The Short-Timers. The director knew a film adaptation would not only expand upon the pacifist sentiments of Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove, but it’d be cinematic, powerful and – unlike anything post-Lolita – set in a real, recognisable world.
And what Kubrick created certainly isn’t a typical war movie. Split into two sections, Full Metal Jacket posits that soldiers can be traumatised from the actual training itself, and that the depths of human violence stem from ingrained competitive machismo. A rewatch only highlights the cyclical nature of the echoing barbs: repressed rage, misogynistic rhetoric and self-delusion are what fuels these killing machines.
In the sensational first half, we see a boot camp of young cadets swiftly lose their hair, their personality and any semblance of dignity. It encompasses some of the finest performances from Kubrick’s filmography. The loudest of these is Sergeant Hartman, the drill instructor played by R. Lee Ermey; the brute is so foul-mouthed and relentlessly cruel, he makes J.K. Simmons in Whiplash look like J.K. Simmons in La La Land.
“You will be a weapon!” Hartman barks. “You will be a minster of death, praying for war!” The conditioning of A Clockwork Orange springs to mind here, except there’s no quirky costuming or playful language for ironic distance. Instead, the anguish feels visceral, and it builds and builds until no more can be taken.
Case in point is Vincent D’Onofrio’s standout turn as Private Leonard. Nicknamed “Pyle” due to his incompetence, the bullied character later suffers a mental breakdown despite the obvious signs to those around him. And you feel for him each step (and stumble) along the way. At one point, Hartman discovers a jelly donut in Pyle’s footlocker and creates a new rule: the whole platoon will be punished for each of Pyle’s mistakes. Worst of all, Pyle is force-fed the donut, and it’s the saddest instance of anyone eating a sugary snack in 21st century cinema.
“So why is it overlooked? Because it cuts too close to the bone and doesn’t let anyone off the hook”
For the role, D’Onofrio put on 70lb, which he struggled to lose afterwards. It’s the kind of transformation that wins an Oscar if you’re famous. And though Pyle dies midway, his presence is felt throughout the second half. Eschewing an intermission, Kubrick leaps straight from boot camp to Vietnam via Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”. Sergeant Joker, played by Matthew Modine, was a witness to Pyle’s suicide, and one minute later we see him behaving jovially in foreign surroundings. But all is not well. Joker wears a badge bearing the peace symbol and the words “born to kill” on his helmet. When encountering jingoistic colleagues, he sees the mindset that snatched away Pyle’s sanity, and therein lies the pitch-black satire.
“I hate Vietnam,” Private Cowboy tells a documentarian. “There’s not one horse in this whole country.” His fellow Marines can barely explain America’s presence, with Animal Mother observing, “We’re shooting the wrong gooks.” Add a sci-fi setting and it’s Starship Troopers.
Kubrick shot the entire film in England, hence the absence of Apocalypse Now-type jungle scenes (that’s no defence though for the offensive portrayal of Asian women) but who can forget the haunting final images of Joker trudging through a living hell? Burning buildings and rotting corpses surround Joker as he declares, “I’m in a world of shit, yes, but I am alive and I am not afraid.” When it comes to dehumanisation and breaking down free will, no man is left behind.
Few would dare attempt to make Full Metal Jacket, and those that do end up with the embarrassment of ditches that is Hacksaw Ridge. So why is it overlooked? Because it’s not on-the-nose enough to call itself Full Metal Jacket or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gun. Because it doesn’t allude to Tom Cruise’s private life. Because the bloodshed doesn’t suit gifs or fun memes. Because cheerleading for a movie involving war can sometimes give the wrong impression. Because it cuts too close to the bone and doesn’t let anyone off the hook.
Thankfully, Kubrick’s first-choice cast never planned out. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Michael Hall and Bruce Willis all rejected the script. (They’d be as distracting as, say, Harry Styles in a WW1 movie.) The rest, though, was meticulously planned, right down to the tiniest detail, and it’s a Kubrick film through and through: visually driven, covered in his obsessive fingerprints, and enriching upon each rewatch. It doesn’t get more Kubrickian than that.