Every time I see comments or reviews about Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, I hear the same complaints: it was two completely different movies, and the first half was better than the second half.
I remember initially feeling the same way as I was watching the Vietnam portion of the film. I thought, “Woe, wait a second. What’s going on? I just sat through this incredibly riveting segment about some kid who goes crazy in boot camp because his drill instructor was riding him the entire time. Now I’m in Vietnam, and it’s like that entire segment never happened. No one’s talking about it, not even the main character, Joker (Matthew Modine). And no effort has been made to connect the two segments.”
Had The Master lost his touch? Was this the movie in which I could finally say, “Kubrick finally jumped the shark”?
No. On the contrary–Full Metal Jacket is, indeed, one whole movie. However, whether you see it as one movie or not depends on whether you saw the common thread between both segments. If you saw the common thread, you saw one movie. If you didn’t, you saw two movies.
So, what was this common thread? Well, let’s look at the two segments again more closely.
In the first half of the film, we see a group of new marine recruits fresh off the bus who are entering boot camp at Parris Island. Since this training is all about toughening everyone for combat, it’s extremely brutal physically, mentally and emotionally. The drill instructor, Sgt. Hartman, couldn’t be more sadistic. He screams at, verbally abuses and punishes the young recruits at every turn. If they even so much as look at him cross-eyed, he goes after them like a pit bull on steroids.
All of the recruits eventually toughen up except for one–“Gomer.” “Gomer” is the fat, wimpy, sensitive nerd of the group, more or less like Piggy from Lord of the Flies. He’s also a colossal screw up and can’t seem to do anything right no matter how hard he tries. Naturally, when Hartman sees what a complete and total loser he is, he goes in for the kill. He rides Gomer the entire time and even gets the other recruits to turn against him. However, the joke is on him. One night, Gomer steals a weapon and lies in wait inside the bathroom. Sgt. Hartman finds him and as usual, heaps a pile of abuse at him. Gomer then blows him away and kills himself. Kaboom.
Right after this shocking incident, the movie suddenly shifts gears to Vietnam and focuses on Joker and his exploits as a war journalist. Full Metal Jacket then becomes a standard Vietnam War combat film, and there’s not one thing about it that references what happened during Joker’s training at all. There’s not even a throwaway comment explaining how it all ties together. It’s as if Kubrick started out with one movie, got bored, and went in a different direction.
However, he didn’t. There is a common thread between this and the first half of the movie that ties them together. But what?
Notice in the Vietnam War combat segment how Joker and his buddies talk to each other. Even though they’re obviously the best of friends and have a camaraderie, they’re as verbally abusive to each other as Sgt. Hartman and the other drill sergeants at Parris Island were to them during boot camp. Of course, the abuse is all done in a joking, frat boy-type matter. They call each other ethnic slurs, they insult each other’s mothers, they say the cruelest things. Nevertheless, it’s still pretty shocking because jokes or not, this isn’t how people normally talk to each other. It’s almost as if Joker and his friends are mentally incapable of speaking to each other with respect or kindness. You could even say that they endured so much mental and verbal abuse at Parris Island that they internalized it to the point where they can’t talk to each other normally anymore.
Okay then. So the guys wound up being as jerky to each other as their drill instructors were to them. So what? What was Kubrick trying to say?
On Military Training and Dehumanization
Some people think that the abuse that recruits experience in boot camp is all about “toughening them up” for combat. It makes sense. After all, if you’re going to fight in a war, you can’t be a little snowflake freaking out over every little thing. You have to be mentally and emotionally tough, ready to face down the toughest and scariest situations.
However, there is a lot more to this abuse than toughening recruits, something far more important than training them to have balls of steel in the face of combat. What that something is is dehumanization. In order to make someone comfortable enough to kill people, you have to teach him how to regard people as less than human. You do this by training them to see people as ethnic slurs, categories and insults instead of human beings deserving of dignity and respect. In other words, you teach him how to see people in dehumanizing terms and in dehumanizing ways. This is the whole point of Sgt. Hartman constantly using abusive terms and humiliating the recruits, to get them used to the concept of seeing people being treated like dirt and reduced to little more than insults and slurs.
Part of the dehumanization process is also programming people to get used to being dehumanized themselves. Why? Well, imagine if you were put into a situation in which you and other people were constantly insulted, put down and disrespected and told in so many words that you were being “soft” for getting upset over it, that only wimps get upset at being called stupid, fat, ugly, lazy or worthless? Over time, you would become so immune to being dehumanized that you would see this as no big deal when it happens to you and your friends. Not only that, you would see your dehumanization of the enemy as no big deal, either. You’d start to think, “So what if I see and call these people as gooks? We call each other f*gs, n*ggers, polacks and k*kes all the time and it doesn’t bother us any. BFD!”
On top of humiliation and abuse, there’s another thing that must be done to recruits as part of the dehumanization process. You have to teach them how to cross certain lines of human decency. For example, in one key scene, one of the soldiers uses the dead body of a Vietcong soldier as if it were a comedic prop. It doesn’t seem to occur to him, nor does he care, that he’s treating a human being like an object. The reason why is that he and the other recruits were encouraged to crack jokes that are cruel, indecent and inhumane, with the excuse that it’s all in “good fun.” Once they became comfortable making tasteless, disrespectful jokes about each other, it was a small step to making jokes about corpses and not treating the dead with any dignity or respect.
This process of dehumanization is more important than physical training, more important than military training. You can train a recruit to be the best marksman in the world and the most physically fit for combat, but without dehumanization, he is as good as worthless. He will refuse to kill someone because he will feel things like empathy and compassion. He will, in other words, see the enemy as too human like himself. But see the enemy as a gook, Nazi scum, kraut, Jap or camel jockey and it’s all good.
The pivotal moment in Full Metal Jacket that underscores this theme of dehumanization is the scene in which Joker has to make the decision to kill a Vietcong soldier who is wounded and is in such agony she’s begging to be killed. He finally decides to kill her. Ironically, his comrades–who’ve been killing Vietcong left and right without a thought the entire time and were planning to abandon the girl out of revenge for killing their comrades–react with shock and call him “hardcore” and “ugly.”
Why did Joker’s unit react in this way? What was the difference between him killing this girl and what they’ve been doing the entire time? The difference is that when they were killing Vietcong, they were killing “gooks”, not human beings. Joker, on the other hand, wasn’t killing this soldier because she was a “gook”. He was killing her because he saw a fellow human being suffering and wanted to put her out of her misery as soon as possible. So, in mercy killing her, he humanized her–i.e., transformed her from an ethnic slur into a human being instead of the other way around.
Joker’s humanizing of the Vietcong girl right before he killed her unnerves the other soldiers to such an extent (especially when Joker grapples with himself right before he pulls the trigger), that they see his killing as disgusting and exceptionally cold-blooded, even though it was done out of compassion and with the full understanding of the gravity of what he was doing. This absurd reaction on the part of Joker’s comrades highlights how military training has skewed their sense of reality. In their eyes, it was totally acceptable to use dead bodies as comedic props, allow someone to die an agonizing death and casually pop off enemies like no tomorrow as long as the victims were seen as “gooks.” However, kill the enemy in an act of humanity, and that was crossing the line.
Now, why on earth didn’t Kubrick just flat out say all this in Full Metal Jacket? Or at least put in a throwaway line somewhere that connected the two halves of the movie thematically? Was he trying to be a pretentious ass holding back? Or was this just a glaring oversight?
I say, “No,” on both counts. The first reason why I say, “No,” is that Kubrick’s movies were just as much about immersion as they were about telling a story or sending a message, and I think that Kubrick was less interested in sending a message in Full Metal Jacket as he was in plunging viewers into the experience of Vietnam. This goal of immersion explains why the movie abruptly jumps from Parris Island to Vietnam. It was to make the viewers feel what it’s like for someone to go to war. Just like in real life, there’s no transitional period in which Joker and the other newbies got to gradually ease their way from not killing people to killing people or ease their way from a non-combat to a combat situation. One week they’re in boot camp never having handled or fired a gun a day in their lives. The next week they’re in the thick of combat. So, the jarring jump from boot camp to combat in Full Metal Jacket was deliberate; it was meant to reflect the real life jarring experience of going from civilian to soldier.
The second reason why I say, “No,” is that Kubrick might have realized that had he been more overt about how the Vietnam segment was tied to Parris Island, people would’ve immediately used that against him, rejecting his movie as being heavy-handed, sanctimonious or shoving an agenda down the audience’s throat. By leaving it up to the audience to connect the dots, he couldn’t be accused of pushing a message.
One last reason I’m giving Stanley Kubrick the benefit of the doubt is that if you know anything about his work, he was one of the few directors in Hollywood who actually respected his audience’s intelligence. (See my comparison of Fail Safe vs Dr. Strangelove.) If he had a message, he always trusted that the public would get it without him having to spell it out in a very obvious way, and I believe that’s what he did with Full Metal Jacket. He didn’t hand hold his audience because he didn’t think it needed hand holding.
See Full Metal Jacket in a New Light
If you’re someone who’s been struggling to make sense of the disparity between the “two halves” of Full Metal Jacket, you’re not alone. To this day, many people still have had a hard time not seeing it as two different films. So if you’re one of them, I invite you to watch the movie one more time with everything I’ve said in mind and try to see what Stanley Kubrick was trying to accomplish.