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Full Metal Jacket (1987,USA/UK)


Director: Stanley Kubrick              Starring: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin

As I work my way through the Kubrick blu ray collection there is something that is becoming increasingly apparent. Pretty much every one of his films contains things, moments, that have resonated with audiences so fully that they have embedded themselves into the global collective unconscious seemingly permanently. From the monolith, revolving space station and psychotic computer in 2001 to Jack Nicholson’s leering, improvised “Heeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” and the spooky girls from The Shining, there are elements of his films that are so perfectly judged and beautifully created that we, the movie going public, have not only been unable to forget them but feel the need to constantly revisit them in tributes and pastiches at every opportunity.

Full Metal Jacket is certainly no exception. Kubrick’s exploration of the dehumanising effect of wars on the young men sent to fight them is a film of two halves, following the raw recruits in their basic training for the first part before hitting the ground running in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive to follow their fortunes in active service. Told from the viewpoint of one of the smarter, more practically minded new soldiers “Joker” (Modine), it looks at the damage done not just by the horrors of war, but by the rigours of a training regime designed to strip a man of his humanity in order that he might be able to kill the enemy without hesitation or conscience .

And so, with this superb war film, Kubrick did it again. R. Lee Ermey’s legendary performance as the fearsome Senior Drill Instructor Hartman has gone down so solidly in history that it has been reprised and lampooned left right and centre (Ermey himself has made something of a living from revisiting that kind of role – check out Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners if you don’t believe me) and rightly so. Famously improvised (Ermey is a genuine former Marine Drill Instructor and therefore had no trouble whatsoever delivering seamless tirades of abuse), his derogatory outbursts, taking everything from racist and homophobic slurs to jibes about weight and intellect, are a brilliant tool to inspire audience complicity. They are clearly all about bullying, breaking the will of the recruits so that they accept orders without question, but Ermey’s tirades are so ingenious, so creative that you can’t help but laugh at them. Before you know it your sympathy for the treatment of the Marine Privates evaporates as you find yourself creeping onto Hartman’s side.

The balance is restored by an outstanding performance from D’Onofrio as Leonard “Private Pile” Lawrence. Hampered by obvious learning difficulties his inability to grasp basic training marks him out for special treatment at the hands of Hartman and his fellow recruits, angered by the constant communal punishment for his wrongdoing. Lawrence, lacking the normal mechanisms that the other recruits have for dealing with the situation becomes a victim of the Vietnam war long before any of his trainee platoon set foot outside American soil.

The Vietnam sequences are as equally schizophrenic, blending the gallows humour and cameraderie of the Marines with stark images of the horrors of war. We see them cracking jokes and shooting the breeze over the bodies of the enemy, offering up cynical sound bites to the camera crews filming messages for back home. There is no doubt that the unsettling mixture of sadism, mechanical apathy and fervent bloodlust among the soldiers is precisely what their masters were aiming for from their training. Robbed of normal emotional responses they resort to grotesque humour to deal with the carnage and the trauma.

Unusually, the Vietnam sequence focuses its attention on urban warfare rather than the usual jungle setting you normally find in Vietnam movies. The first encounter we share with Joker “in-country” is another moment that has taken on a life of its own outside of the film as he and his photographer sidekick Rafterman negotiate with a Vietnamese hooker, some scene setting before they set off on an expedition for Stars And Stripes to report on the war effort from the field. Her “love you long time” sales pitch has become a shorthand for sex worker based comedy ever since. But such levity quickly gives way to the grim realities of war. Generally we share Joker’s experiences of the aftermath of battles. The casualty counts, the plans for the next “big push” but as he gets deeper in country he has little option but to join the hostilities himself where he too, for the most part a lone voice of reason among the insanity, crosses the line into madness.

It’s a powerful film and one of my favourite war movies. It gets its message across without being preachy and manages to be far less bleak than some of its peers (most notable of which is probably Oliver Stone’s excellent but comparatively po-faced Platoon) despite the often horrific subject. There is a hint of the satirical touch Kubrick showed with one of his other anti-war epics, Dr Strangelove and there is also a similarity in feel to the likes of MASH and Catch 22, a willingness to appreciate the quirks and the ironies of the combat zone rather than merely wallowing in the horror of it all. The sense of futility, the sheer utter pointlessness of it all that Kubrick brought us in Paths Of Glory and Strangelove is here in abundance.

As always with Kubrick there’s an astonishing vision at work and he magics up his usual technical miracles to maintain the film’s authenticity despite the fact it was filmed (as with most of his latter works) in England. When the tanks roll into Hue city, the bombed out buildings are actually on the Isle Of Dogs rather than in Vietnam (where some of the buildings had been designed by the French architect responsible for much of Hue) which, with the addition of a few imported palm trees, becomes an utterly convincing substitute for the war torn city. It’s visually and aurally staggering, Kubrick’s attention to detail mind blowing. My journey through the box set has convinced me that he would have loved the blu ray format. He spent so much time ensuring that every tiny detail was accounted for I can only imagine him being delighted that we, as audiences, can finally appreciate it all on screen.

Full Metal Jacket is further proof, as if any were needed, that Kubrick is one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived.

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