This year we celebrate three decades of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War film, Full Metal Jacket. The movie came to Netflix on June 1, and it still streams like the brutal, hilarious, bleak and indelible examination of the conflict it was during the Reagan Era. The film is just one of Kubrick’s criticisms of combatting countries, but it’s also an indispensable entry in a 1980s movement that found Hollywood finally attempting to come to grips with the war about a decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Full Metal Jacket is based on the 1979 novel The Short-Timers by American Marine Corp veteran Gustav Hasford. The book was based on Hasford’s experiences fighting in Vietnam, and the writer teamed-up with Kubrick and Dispatches author, Michael Herr, to adapt the novel for the screen. The trio argued about credits, but their screenplay still snagged an Academy Award nomination.
The movie has a pretty predictable contemporary war film plot: a young man becomes a soldier, a climactic battle is won, the soldier — now a veteran — marches on. But in Kubrick’s film these progressive steps in the evolution of his protagonist, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), read like distinct, tonally disparate chapters — Roger Ebert’s review compared the film to a collection of short stories. By shifting from a harrowing boot camp drama to a seemingly superficial series of set pieces to a brutal climax and finally to a rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, Kubrick loses a lot of audiences who are left understandably bewildered. You can find hundreds of comments in a Reddit discussion “Does anybody actually enjoy the second half of Full Metal Jacket?,” and having read Hasford’s much more linear novel, I didn’t like the movie when I saw it during its first run in theaters.
Of course, I’d also seen Oliver Stone’s Platoon six months earlier, over the Christmas holiday in 1986. While films like Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) all pointed at the conflict in Vietnam, Platoon was the first Hollywood movie to confront the experience of the war from the point of view of the soldiers who fought it. Platoon is a poetic moral allegory. It’s visceral, immediate and emotionally devastating, and it’s the greatest Vietnam War film ever made. Platoon is a wail for a lost generation, and it readily eclipses similar films of the period like Casualties of War, Hamburger Hill and Uncommon Valor, not to mention the action-over-art Rambo and Missing In Action franchises.
That said, Full Metal Jacket is one of the most unique war films ever. Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket comes down clearly on the side of soldiers versus incompetent bureaucrats and sadistic military leaders. And while it’s not as completely bonkers as Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket shares its more satirical sensibilities with Doctor Strangelove. The tonal break after Full Metal Jacket’s boot camp beginning comes as the film shifts to the actual war in Vietnam. The artificiality in these scenes — it’s shot in a Vietnam-ized English countryside — speaks to both the unreal nature of a chaotic, confusing war, but also to Vietnam as the first prime time television war. One scene featuring a TV crew interviewing the soldiers in Private Joker’s squad is played for absurdity: the actors look straight into the camera responding to questions as if they’ve been given written answers to recite.
Lee Ermey as Gny. Sgt. Hartmann in Full Metal Jacket.
Of course Full Metal Jacket’s deranged-seeming deconstructing of war film tropes isn’t for everyone, but the film will always be unforgettable for Lee Ermey’s relentless portrayal of Gny. Sgt. Hartmann, which goes down as the greatest portrayal of a drill instructor ever put on film. Ermey’s character is endlessly quotable, but the sergeant’s speech about great Marine marksmen like Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald might have singlehandedly snagged the script its Oscar nomination. Ermey got a Golden Globe nomination for the role, essentially playing himself. Vincent D’Onofrio’s mouth-breathing take on the dim-witted and doomed Private Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence traces a heartbreaking arc from chronic klutz to coldblooded killer before the soldiers even get to Vietnam. D’Onofrio put on 70 pounds for this breakthrough role which introduced him as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Maybe this film’s skeleton key is the scene where Private Joker is questioned about wearing a peace symbol pin while also having “Born to Kill” scrawled on the side of his helmet. Joker offers that he’s trying to suggest something about the “duality of man.” With Full Metal Jacket, so is Kubrick.
Full Metal Jacket is currently streaming on Netflix.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.