The Genius and Frequently Misunderstood Politics of "Full Metal Jacket"
One of Stanley Kubrick's most well-known and controversial films of his career is 1987's Full Metal Jacket. Despite being one of the most notorious and blatant anti-war movies of all time, why is it so frequently misinterpreted by pro-war militarists? Since we are living in highly charged political times I think the time is right to investigate Kubrick's misunderstood masterpiece.
Full Metal Jacket is a psychological war thriller as well as a black comedy directed, produced, and co-written by prominent filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a group of Marines during the Vietnam War from their time in training to official deployment. The film is based on Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short Timers which inspired Kubrick to make a movie about the Vietnam War.
Plot-wise, Full Metal Jacket centers around the main character, 18 year old J.T. "Joker" Davis and his fellow Marines as they endure the bitter conditions of the Vietnam War. Ever since its release it has received universal acclaim from passionate cinephiles to the casual moviegoer. That same adoration has also come from a very unexpected demographic and that is pro-war Republicans. I'm sorry if this applies to you, but if you are a militarist who enjoys Full Metal Jacket...you're missing the point entirely.
Let it not be mistaken, Full Metal Jacket is one of the most blatant anti-war films to ever come out of a professional studio. It was not made to portray the glory and honor of the United States military like many think, but rather to showcase the traumatizing nature of war and how just the training alone can be enough to shatter a person's spirit. Kubrick was not a director who was afraid of controversial topics, to this day he has made some of the most polarizing films to ever hit the big screen including 1971's A Clockwork Orange and 1962's Lolita. Even his more lighthearted comedy Dr. Strangelove is rooted in controversial political substance. Kubrick has been described by friends and colleagues as "akin to a 19th-century liberal-humanist" so it's unlikely that he would make a pro-war film. Pro-war films themselves tend to be statistically rare, with only a few examples that can be named by mainstream viewers such as Mel Gibson's Braveheart from 1995, and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation from 1915, the last of which takes place from the perspective of the Ku Klux Klan. Movies that glorify war tend to only come from filmmakers with extreme far-right views, and that was not Kubrick. He was never outspoken about his political alignment and his beliefs were often seen as ambiguous but one thing we know for sure is that he was not the kind of artist to make a film with the same themes as Mel Gibson. After well over a dozen rewatches of Full Metal Jacket, the right wing obsession with this movie only becomes even more confusing.
Full Metal Jacket is split into two separate parts, both express the barbarity of war in different ways but the first half is significantly more well known. This could be due to the fact that most of the comedic moments take place during the first forty five minutes in the form of Drill Sergeant Hartman's ridiculous insults. Part one gave us a plethora of quotable lines such as "5'9? I didn't know they stacked shit that high" and "I bet you could suck a golfball through a garden hose," but what is frequently overlooked by the casual viewer is how disturbing part one is beyond its humor. Easily the most horrific example is the character arc of Leonard Lawrence. From the very start of the film he is abused by not only the drill sergeant (which is expected) but also by his fellow trainees. He is given the shameful nickname "Gomer Pyle" after the naïve, comically dumb character from The Andy Griffith Show. Private "Pyle" could also serve as a representative of the many individuals who join the service as a financial last resort considering that he is referred to as "a section eight." Over the course of the film he is mocked and tortured extensively by everyone else in the Marine program, constantly humiliated in public and conditioned to lose his humanity. He is later made the victim of a "blanket party," a military hazing ritual where he is struck relentlessly with improvised flails made of towels and bars of soap. Eventually, all this torment proves to be too much for Private Pyle and he ends up committing a murder/suicide, killing himself and the drill sergeant who abused him. During this climactic scene, Pyle brandishes the famous "Kubrick stare" that has been used in various other films by the director such as The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. The famous, downward tilting glare into the camera only appears to signal when the character is at the height of their moral depravity, and in Full Metal Jacket, it appears after the character has experienced the harsh, inhumane treatment of military training. While easily one of the most blatant messages in the film about war, it's far from the end and we're still only in the first part of the movie.
The main character Private J.T. "Joker" Davis is who Kubrick uses in order to get his anti-war message across to the audience. He is meant to symbolize every trigger-happy enlistee who's eager to get behind a gun to "protect and serve" his country before they experience the cruel reality of war. Later in the movie he represents the duality of man, the line between pacifist and militarist. In a very sick way, he is the character that the audience is meant to identify with. Throughout the film we find out that he is not inherently violent and bloodthirsty but rather the average 18 year old kid. He got his nickname "Joker" from cracking a poorly timed joke during his first day of training. His iconic costume includes a peace symbol button and a green helmet with the words "BORN TO KILL" scrawled across, a true dichotomy. For basically the entire duration of the film we witness Joker brag about how much he wants to be a "killer" and how excited he is to go to war but nearly breaks down when he is struck by the drill sergeant and chooses to be a journalist instead of an infantry soldier. He is the only person throughout the whole movie to show Private Pyle any sort of kindness in the form of showing him how to load a gun and acting as a shoulder to lean on during long, gruelling runs. However during the blanket party, he is the one who strikes Pyle the hardest with his flail after a moment of hesitation. Even during part two while he is in Vietnam, he is mocked by his fellow Marines for not having the "thousand yard stare" which symbolizes the emotional detachment one experiences after or during war. Joker is not the killing machine he so desperately wants to be seen as, he is simply an 18 year old teenager who enlisted in the Marines out of ignorance and now has to deal with the consequences. This is especially prevalent during the most powerful scene in the movie, the final sequence.
After years and years of eagerly waiting, Joker is finally given the chance to kill a person. During the last ten minutes of the film, Joker and fellow soldier, "Animal Mother" come across a young Vietnamese teenager in a broken down building, carrying a rifle. As soon as they see her a skirmish breaks out and shots are fired, leaving the Vietnamese girl mortally wounded. As she lay on the cold, gravelly ground with the building around her set ablaze, she looks Joker dead in the eye and in a raspy tone begs him to kill her. Those two words "shoot. me." lead to the most important scene in the film. As her dying body writhes on the ground, Animal Mother suggests they leave and says to "let her rot" while Joker insists "we can't just leave her." After the death of their colleague, Animal Mother is made the squad leader and he orders Joker to kill her like she pleads, "if you want to waste her, go on, waste her." But even after years of "wanting to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill" he still can't compel himself to pull the trigger. It's only after several moments of hesitation that he gives in and puts her out of her misery. He then looks up from the corpse revealing his new thousand yard stare.
On the polar opposite side of the spectrum from Joker we have the character, "Animal Mother." He symbolizes everything Joker wishes he was, a ruthless killing machine with zero mercy. He acts as a foil to Joker in almost every sense. Instead of a peace pin, Animal Mother proudly wears dozens of bandoliers carrying deadly bullets. On his helmet reads "I am become death," an excerpt from a J. Robert Oppenheimer quote. This is a clever yet frequently overlooked detail in Full Metal Jacket. Oppenheimer oversaw most of the construction for the "Manhattan Project" and is often referred to as the "father of the atomic bomb." By writing Animal Mother as a character who idolizes J. Robert Oppenheimer, he has created a character who personifies everything wrong with pro-war militarists. Unlike Joker, he never hesitates when it comes to violence and murder but rather takes pleasure in it and sees every kill as a major victory for himself and the Marine Corps.
A character that goes hand-in-hand with Animal Mother is fellow Marine, Doorgunner, a ruthless helicopter gunner who takes a tremendous amount of pride in killing innocent Vietnamese people. His one and only scene consists of him shooting civilians in a field as their helicopter flies by, laughing the whole time. Doorgunner brags to a visibly startled Joker about his kill count of "157," including women and children. He even suggests that the field journalists write a story about him because he's "so fucking good" at what he does. Not only do these characters act as dichotomous foils to Joker but also exemplify everything wrong with the barbaric nature of the United States military.
Criticisms of the US Military are widespread throughout Full Metal Jacket and are impossible not to notice. From the abuse of Private Pyle to the brutal nature of characters like Animal Mother and Doorgunner, the military is picked apart and lambasted by Kubrick. Specifically, the Marine Corps is criticized through the thoughts and behaviors of Joker in part one. During a montage of training exercises, Joker utters the staggering line, "the Marine Corps does not want robots, the Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear." Throughout the movie's first half, the recruits are brainwashed into becoming mindless killing machines, completely accustomed to graphic violence and murder. During a drill session, the trainees recite chants such as "What makes the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood!" and "what do we do for a living, ladies? Kill, kill kill!" This is immediately followed by another scene devoid of subtlety where the recruits are told to aspire to be excellent marksman, and the examples they use are Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald, the "Texas Tower Shooter" who killed 12 people in 1966 and John F. Kennedy's assassin. The recruits are educated on the distance and precision of which these criminals slaughtered innocent people and are told to aim for that level of marksmanship because both those men learned their skills from serving as Marines. This scene is the director bluntly implying that the United States Marine Corps not only develops murderers but uses some of them as positive examples, consequently creating more murderers. Ruthless homicide is also condoned in various scenes such as on Christmas when Drill Sergeant Hartman says "God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see" and in part two when Joker declares "A day without blood is a day without sunshine" along with "I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them." Part two also includes a sequence of several characters saying that the Vietnamese should be grateful for the American soldiers because they're supposedly rescuing them from communism. One Marine even says "we're getting killed for these people and they don't even appreciate it," a critique of how prevalent nationalism is in the United States military and the country in general. With some of the least subtle language and symbolism to ever be shown to audiences, it's baffling how so many people still mistake Full Metal Jacket as a pro-war film.
The final shots of Full Metal Jacket are some of the most impactful in the entire movie. After Joker has completed his first and only kill and achieved his thousand yard stare, the camera shifts to a scene of dozens of Marines walking through the fiery city ruins, equipped with rifles. While walking, they chant the lyrics to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song as the world around them burns. Pairing such a horrific atmosphere with a youthful, innocent song is yet another one of this film's many dichotomies. It is the scene equivalent of Joker's moral ambiguity, torn between pacifism and raw military ruthlessness. In the final moments, Joker states "we have nailed our names in the pages of history enough for today" then we hear the soldiers chant "M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E" and march through the flames as the scene fades to black. It is the perfect ending to this truly genius film.
Despite being one of the most obvious anti-war and anti-military films of all time, why does Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket get so much praise from militarists and Republicans? On the surface, it is a straight-forward war movie about a Marine's journey from Parris Island to Vietnam but anyone who looks deeper than that will see that every aspect of this film is not only a critique of war itself but the American military as a whole. Full Metal Jacket will go down in history as one of the most genius and tragically misunderstood political films of the century.