The previous installment of the Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) retrospective discusses “A Clockwork Orange.”
“Full Metal Jacket” was Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film. It came out seven years after “The Shining” did – a considerable break. By now, the steadicam rules supreme and the rigid doctrine of the military proves to be the perfect subject matter for such a freewheeling device.
Like the national sport of Kubrick’s adopted country, “Full Metal Jacket” is a game of two halves. His gliding lens, probes, follows, and reports the life of Private Joker as he trains in The Parris Island boot camp and then sees combat in Vietnam as a reporter for Stars and Stripes.
Gunnery Sgt Hartmann, a human machine gun armed to the teeth with insults, abuse, and four letter words, dominates Parris Island. His job is simple – smash Joker and the other recruits to nothing, and then to steadily rebuild them into killing machines.
The episodic structure of basic training and the relentless way Kubrick edits it together presents Hartmann as a force of nature. He never jams, never tires, and never falters in his task. He dominates every frame as Kubrick places him centre stage in his heavily stylized mise-en-scene. His staccato delivery, as deadly as armour piercing bullets, ricochets as the audience tries to take make sense of his beautifully belligerent tirades.
At first, like Joker and the overweight Pyle, we are not sure whether to laugh or be deeply offended. Joker responds with John Wayne impressions, ironic as the Duke made a conscious decision to do everything he could to stay out of World War II, not out of cowardice but to preserve his stardom as his career had finally started to take off. Joker and his generation would have grown up with the notion that Wayne won that war single-handed from watching “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Back to Bataan.”
Perhaps Pyle can’t quite believe he has encountered the real deal in Hartmann and not Wayne’s pale imitation Sgt Stryker from “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” Pyle thinks Hartmann is an act and to a large degree he is right; he has been refining his performance every six weeks for each new batch of grunts that pass through his door. Every profanity, every cruel jibe, every bullying remark is rehearsed as if they were lines from Hamlet.
By upsetting Hartmann’s tour de force Joker and Pyle both receive his wrath. Joker is clever and able enough to counter him on occasion, and, after all, he believes in what Hartmann has to offer. Later on in the Hue City, Joker tells a film crew “I wanted to be the first person on my block to get a confirmed kill.” Pyle on the other hand hasn’t the wit or the dexterity to avoid Hartmann’s omniscient gaze for long.
Pyle is the fly in Hartmann’s ointment. He continues to make mistakes when the other recruits are decreasing theirs. He is the wayward son. Hartmann sees his incessant bullying of Pyle as ‘motivation’. However he is not just a one trick pony. He employs Joker to instruct Pyle, well aware of Joker’s different leadership qualities to his own.
Joker encourages, is patient, and proves a born teacher. But even he cannot save Pyle and Hartmann from themselves. Pyle soon reverts back to type after stealing a jelly doughnut from the mess. Hartmann retaliates by punishing the platoon every time Pyle fouls up. This in turn forces the platoon to hand out a drastic beating to him. Even Joker joins in, releasing his frustration at Pyle’s failure to conform.
This necessary act of violence triggers Pyle’s descent into madness-a key Kubrickian theme. Quietly, Pyle transforms into a wide-eyed lunatic, with everyone other than Joker oblivious to his growing mania as he is now what Hartmann calls “Born again hard”.
Pyle is the best sharpshooter in the platoon and Hartmann therefore overlooks his insanity. Pyle is like Jack in “The Shining” – as Wendy forgives his early signs of derangement, putting them down to her husband’s untapped genius as a writer.
Just before Joker and the others graduate his narration informs us,” The drill instructors are proud to see that we are growing beyond their control. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers.”
Hartmann has succeeded in turning Pyle into a killer but unfortunately for him he is the wrong kind. Pyle is a psychopath rather than a Marine, but Kubrick later shows us that in war there is a fine line between the two. After shooting Hartmann he turns his rifle on himself; maybe this murder/suicide was almost a final act of love in their twisted father/son relationship, a warped way of showing him how good a Marine he has become.
It is tempting to be swayed by some critics who believe that the film never regains the level of intensity once Joker leaves Hartmann’s body on the latrine floor and finally makes it to Vietnam.
Of course, any film would suffer from the loss of such an iconic character, but to say the story simply drifts after his loss is unfair. Kubrick allows us to see what Marines like Joker and Cowboy become once they have grown beyond the control of men like Hartmann.
Joker, Payback, and Cowboy take up his verbal assaults more than adequately. There is poetry to the level of abuse the Marines fire at one another, but it is Animal Mother who outdoes even Hartmann with his level of profanity.
His racial slurs aimed at his black best friend Eight Ball truly beggar belief. Yet they separate them from civilians just as the Nadsat in “A Clockwork Orange” separates Alex and his droogs from law-abiding society.
“Full Metal Jacket” reveals Vietnam as a war of small unit actions rather than the set piece battles of the Second World War. The grunts were a lot more self-reliant and we see the consequences of this when the squad becomes lost in Hue City.
Joker is a soldier and a reporter, which creates an internal conflict. Joker is a killer critical of his ability to kill. At the crunch he is found wanting. He cannot kill up close, but he can do so out of mercy, something which his comrades mistake for the ultimate “hardcore” act.
Yet as much as Joker is our route through “Full Metal Jacket,” it is Gunnery Sgt Hartmann who is most remembered, due to his unmistakable style. The pace and rhythm of his verbal assaults make the first half of “Full Metal Jacket” pure poetry.