Full Metal Jacket (1987)

The good news, at least from my perspective, about Stanley Kubrick’s highly lauded 1987 war flick Full Metal Jacket, is that the second act isn’t as wan as I recall. It is an oddly shaped film, sort of like two episodes of a TV show, stitched together to make a pilot. (“We’ve gotta have a boffo opening! Make the first episode two hours long!”) The bad news (again from my perspective) is that the first act is even less believable than I recalled. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking, and very compelling, no doubt. But it seems to fundamentally misunderstand human nature.

But we have a message to send.

Fine acting. But the subsequent “character development” is incoherent.

I mentioned the challenges of ranking Kubrick film in the Dr. Strangelove entry, although since then I have observed a curious thing about rankings: The aggregates tend to put Dr. Strangelove at the top and FMJ in the top half, but individuals who make their own lists seem to favor 2001 and respect FMJ much less. This is probably due to this 2-act narrative. (A critic is more likely to think that maybe, when a guy like Kubrick does something unusual like this, it’s worth more consideration than, say, some hack fumbling with a stupid premise. A regular moviegoer is more likely to say “I didn’t like it. It was weird.”)

But let’s look at the first act first. This is the narrative that launched R. Lee Ermey’s career, and he is spectacular in it. He is hilariously horrifying in his abuse of the soldiers, politically incorrect in extremis—and in a way that was shocking even way back in 1987, and would be unthinkable today. Part of the disconnected feeling of the second act, in fact, probably stems from the fact that his behavior does, in fact, seem to be completely arbitrary. That is, at no point are we ever prompted to recall the training which, in the second act would have been pretty critical to survival. But that’s not really the problem with the first act. The problem with the first act is Vincent D’Onofrio—or more rather, Kubrick’s relationship with “Private Pyle”.

And I don't see any horns. (No, it doesn't make sense. I'm on a roll.)

“Only two things come out of Texas, Private Joker: Steers and people who haven’t seen FULL METAL JACKET!”

This is, necessarily, going to be spoiler territory.

The first act has its own arc, as our hero, Private Joker makes his way through a hellish Physical Training, while he and his fellow recruits are being tortured because of the mentally deficient Pyle. And, here’s the problem: Pyle is distinctly represented as brain injured. Not just a little irresponsible or lazy, but genuinely impaired mentally. He has trouble making his bed or tying his shoe laces to military standards. (This guy wouldn’t get anywhere near today’s corps, I gotta believe, but I don’t know that such things weren’t possible back in the ’60s.)

Where it all falls apart is when the soldiers “fix” Pyle by beating him with soap wrapped in pillow cases. All of a sudden, Pyle is a lean, mean fighting machine. The Boy pointed out that that might not have been the case, and that that wasn’t what was intended, only that the movie showed the areas where he excelled afterwards (especially marksmanship). But this is what we see: Kinda friendly dope beaten into a murderous efficiency, literally.

But, of course, brain injuries don’t work that way. Volition doesn’t enter into it when a brain-injured person can’t figure out right from left, or doesn’t know what the responsible, correct action is. The idea that it a mental handicap can be remedied that way is what led to the torturous treatment of “morons”, “idiots”, “the retarded” throughout the 20th century and (of course) earlier.

What I think, though, is that Kubrick wanted to show the brutality of PT, and the warping of an innocent but dumb kid fit the narrative. And he went too far. In real life, if you beat a kid like that, they’ll have a nervous breakdown, not rise up in ability level.

Would you say that looks like "Criminal Intent"?

Yeah. No.

And the subsequent murder of the Drill Instruction by Pyle is completely unsupported, except through this magical personality change achieved through pummeling.

It’s funny, though: When I think of “directors with a strong understanding of human nature,” I don’t really think of Kubrick. I mean, if you’re recalling characters in Kubrick films, you’re thinking of what are, essentially, caricatures. Jack and Wendy Torrance, Alex from A Clockwork Orange (1971), the entire cast of Strangelove. Hell, what do people remember about 2001? The psychotic computer. (I haven’t even seen this one, and that’s what I remember.) Maybe Barry Lyndon and Spartacus are different, or maybe Kubrick’s wheelhouse wasn’t the traditional character arc found in a three act narrative.

Food for thought.

And this leads us to the second act, and maybe why I liked it better this time around. The second act is a series of things that happen, in sequence, that lead logically one to the next, but which don’t, particularly reveal character. In fact, I think that a number of the critical objections to this film are based around it’s “morally muddled message” (as I think Ebert put it). Our hero, Joker, is perhaps meant to be seen a bit more like Alex than a typical John Wayne character: He’s not a hero. He’s some guy who sort of trusts the institutions of the country enough to believe his presence will be a good thing.

Hard to fit on a bumper sticker, though.

“We had to destroy the village in order to save the rest of the villages from being destroyed by the Communists.” Not as catchy but as it turns out, true.

As such, his final action, the climax of the film, where he kills a young girl who has sniped several of his best friends, is rather anticlimactic. He does it; he moves on. He’s surrounded by battle-hardened veterans who have a problem killing this little girl, and he does it with only a little goading, and no subsequent remorse.

Maybe what Kubrick is getting at here is that Joker isn’t the person in question, the audience is. This maps pretty well with Clockwork Orange where we are inclined to root for Alex, not because he isn’t the embodiment of evil, but because there is something worse than that: Brutal inhumanity done to suppress the individual’s free will. Not that Joker is evil, exactly, but his smile isn’t exactly unlike Alex’s as he heads off to the next location where he will have to kill some more.

The kids liked it. The Flower loves “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” so I think she sort of recalls this as “The movie with the good music.” She also likes some Ermey (as do we all, except for The Engima, who refers to his program “Mail Call” as “History Shout”). I think The Boy also found the second act a little more palatable than he had previously.

I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s “muddled” as Ebert said, or if it’s just war that’s muddled, and that’s what’s being shown. But it is, of course, as all Kubrick films, a technical masterpiece.


She did point out that the girl in question was not actually wearing boots, however.

6 thoughts on “Full Metal Jacket (1987)

  1. With _FMJ_, Kubrick was essentially making an anti-war film about how the reality of war is ultimately a soul destroying endeavor that is utterly detached from all myths of patriotism.
    His _Paths of Glory_ (about how war inexorably leads to insane bureaucratic decisions that irrationally punish random individuals in order to deflect responsibility) is – overall – a superior product.

    Until he his “born again hardcore” (as drill-sergeant Hartman declares), Private Pyle’s cognitive capacity steadily degenerates. It is clear from the beginning that Pyle has an unusually low IQ. However, the more he is abused and humiliated, the more he mentally withdraws. The more he mentally withdraws, the more mistakes he makes and the more incompetent he seems to become. Which precipitates the vicious regress: with continued mistakes comes increased abuse leading to yet more mental withdrawal. Penultimately he resembles a whipped puppy whose only remaining defense is pathetic supplication with pleading eyes. And Pyle goes so far as to explicitly plead to Joker, “I need help.”.
    When he is given the ghastly ‘soap party’ and even his only social-human-connection, Joker, joins in: Pyle is abused into utter social withdrawal. Somewhere deep down, it registers that no help will ever be coming for him. As it happens, the platoon is just about to commence rifle training. It is important to understand that even though Pyle is stupid, he is nonetheless competent enough to follow basic instructions and perform straightforward tasks. But he is also easily distracted. The scene where he mixes up his right shoulder with his left shoulder is the perfect example. He knows the difference, but he’s just not paying attention when he makes a simple mistake. When Hartman proceeds to strike him on one side of his face and then the other side of his face, Pyle is able to easily and quickly answer which side is which. – Brutal circumstances require Pyle’s full attention. His mind is not free to wander as it did just moments before during a boring march. The ‘soap party’ finally has the desired effect of commanding his full attention. All distraction has been beaten out of him. He especially is not distracted by seeking any kind of social acceptance or contact. He has been savaged into being anti-social. With no remaining desire to reach out and connect with others, all that remains is to focus on any task immediately at hand. – Rifle training as it happens to be. Moreover, mastering the rifle gives Pyle awesome power in this brutal world that hates him. His rifle even becomes his only point of social contact: he lovingly talks to it.
    Now I’m not saying that this character arch is especially plausible. I doubt Kubrick thought it was either. But as you point out Jack Torrence’s character arch wasn’t realistic either.
    The only point I’m trying to make here, is that Pyle’s development into a master marksman does not violate the logic of the film. But it is necessary to realize that Pyle’s mental-state deteriorates before it is restored. And upon being restored, it has become completely free of distraction and endowed with a hunger for the power to self protect.

  2. Quick note: the battle hardened veterans do not have a problem killing the female sniper. The preference of Mother (played by Adam Baldwin) is to leave her to be eaten alive by rats. Joker’s dilemma is that he doesn’t want her to suffer, but he doesn’t want to kill a defenseless girl who no longer poses a threat. The sniper begs, “Shoot me… shoot me…!” Finally, Joker snuffs her out in a mercy killing. He does not smile. (However, when you think about it, it’s really not much of a moral dilemma. It would have been worse to leave her to be eaten alive by rats.)

    Consider that this lone girl sniper manages to take out FOUR extremely well trained and well equipped marines. – One of whom is the medic. And in the process, she pins down an entire squad that had gotten itself lost in the process of conducting their mission-less search-&-destroy ‘patrol’.
    And when Joker finally zeroes in on the unknown sniper to get his “payback” for killing Cowboy, Joker’s gun jams. (A problem for which the early M16 models were notorious. Note that they trained with the M14 rifle on Paris Island, N.C.) So simple bad luck prevents his revenge and is about to further cost him his life. And mere good luck saves his life when Rafter Man (who was nearby) shows up to blindside the girl sniper.
    Rafter Man, a photographer, – who was obviously the least capable and least experienced in the squadron – proceeds to indulge in disgusting spasms of maniacal gloating.

    Thus Kubrick punctuates the utter futility and irrationality of war in all of its soul destroying ignominy.

    • Good insights, Dave.

      This is the first time I’ve seen the film in the theater, and only the second time I’ve seen it at all, and I find Kubrick films need LOTS of re-watchings to get right.

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