Full Metal Jacket


Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is an examination of the meaninglessness and amorality of war. It is also a critique of the military and its values. This film is based on the writings of two Vietnam war veterans, Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr.

The film tells two stories that subtly mirror each other. The first half of the film depicts the basic training experience of James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) at the Marine Corps base on Parris Island during the Vietnam War. He and a group of other recruits are under the command of a drill instructor, Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who was a Marine D.I. before he became an actor). Hartman aims most of his insults at Pvt. Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hapless recruit who can never seem to do anything right. Hartman gives him the nickname “Gomer Pyle” and proceeds to make his life miserable. His taunting of Lawrence has tragic results for both of them.

There were several things that struck me about this half of the film. The first is that on several occasions Hartman either slaps or punches people. In one scene, he chokes Lawrence. I was always under the impression that officers and N.C.O.’s are not allowed to hit soldiers. (Didn’t Gen. Patton almost get fired for doing that?) I have since learned from various sources that D.I.’s sometimes get away with hitting recruits, even though technically they are not supposed to do it. Another thing that struck was religious indoctrination. Hartman sometimes talks about religion to the recruits. In one scene, Hartman asks Davis if he believes in the Virgin Mary. When Davis says no, Harman punches him in the stomach. Among other things, Hartman merely asking that question violates the First Amendment. People in the military take an oath swearing to defend the Constitution. The issue of religious indoctrination in the military is one that crops up in the news every now and then. There have been attempts at the United States Air Force Academy to convert people to fundamentalist Christianity. I guess a belief in Biblical literalism helps one to drop bombs on people.

This film also depicts how misogyny and homophobia are instilled in recruits during basic training.

The second half depicts Davis’s experiences during the Battle of Hue. Full Metal Jacket manages to avoid the clichés of war movies. It leads to a harrowing climax in which the members of Davis’s platoon are picked off one by one by a sniper. For all their savage training, the soldiers turn out to be just frightened men dealing with a terrifying situation. The lone sniper turns out to be a woman. When Davis kills her, we are reminded of Lawrence killing Sgt. Harman. Full Metal Jacket ends with a scene of Marines marching through the ruins of Hue while singing the theme song of The Mickey Mouse Club. There is perhaps no better metaphor for U.S. imperialism.

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