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'Full Metal Jacket': A War Movie for the Warriors

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Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” has earned its share of praise and hand-wringing since its debut 25 years ago. It’s been called the least of Kubrick’s war films, and has often been dismissed as a two-act movie that falls apart halfway through. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel famously sparred over the movie on their TV show. Roger gave it a thumbs down, saying it was a disappointment, while Gene thought it was brilliant, and chided Roger for giving “Benji, the Hunted” a thumbs up on the same program.

Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” had already scooped “Full Metal Jacket” by a year and won the Best Picture Oscar when Kubrick’s film was released in 1987, a year that also saw three other major films about the Vietnam war: “Hamburger Hill,” “The Hanoi Hilton,” and the Robin Williams comedy “Good Morning, Vietnam.” By the time “Full Metal Jacket” came out, there seemed to be a general feeling of “we’ve been down this road before” (something that would later be a factor in Kubrick’s plans to cancel his film “Aryan Papers” after Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” opened in 1993).

But like nearly all of Stanley Kubrick’s films, the years have been kind to it, and I would bet money that among the general movie audience, “Full Metal Jacket” stands alongside “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and “The Deer Hunter” as one of the best Vietnam films. Certainly, members of the United States Marines have shown their admiration for Kubrick’s film, something I’ll get to a little later.

A common trait in much of Kubrick’s work is the almost mechanized way in which his characters speak and behave.  Few people in real life act like people do in Kubrick’s films, but the characters serve their purpose of illustrating larger themes. The movie in Kubrick’s career most similar to “Full Metal Jacket” is “A Clockwork Orange.” Anthony Burgess’s own explanation of the novel’s title is that it's a metaphor for “...an organic entity, full of sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into a mechanism.” In the movie, Alex is subjected to the Ludovico Treatment, where he is conditioned into a man incapable of moral choice.

The first forty-five minutes of “Full Metal Jacket” are similarly dedicated, as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) takes his “maggots,” tears them down, and builds them into Marines. Private Joker (Matthew Modine) observes that “The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers.” But although the men are born again hard, trained to act and kill without fear, they are still human. The film’s title, “Full Metal Jacket,” is a similar metaphor as “A Clockwork Orange.” In this case, a “full metal jacket” refers to a hard-cased bullet with soft material on the inside, such as lead. Some can hack it, while others, while hardened on the outside, get their insides scrambled. Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes off the deep end as boot camp wraps up, and fulfills his mission to kill with unintended consequences for his DI.

“Full Metal Jacket” has been mischaracterized over the years as a two-act movie, and it’s easy to simplify the film into two halves, Boot Camp and In Country. There’s no denying the power of the Parris Island sequence, but I think the second act, which might loosely be described as “Vietnam: The Movie,” and the third act, “The Sniper,” each have a purpose as well, to illustrate the day-to-day life of the Marines during the war zone, and then to show how they react, as humans--and Marines--under fire.

Immediately upon arrival into Vietnam, Kubrick lightens the emotional burden on the audience through the use of period music (“These Boots Are Made For Walking”) and a sidewalk encounter with a hooker that has gone down into the annals of pop culture.  Joker and his fellow Marine, Pvt. 1st Class Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), are working for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, where the newsroom dialogue sometimes approaches “Dr. Strangelove” levels of absurdity. (“Does this mean Ann-Margaret isn’t coming?” asks Joker after the Tet Offensive breaks out.) This second act of the movie illustrates the war from the Marine’s point-of-view.

I recently asked online a group of Marines what they liked about the film, and one of them noted that his favorite scene was during this middle portion of the film, where Joker is called out by a superior for wearing a peace symbol button and scrawling “Born to Kill” on his helmet. This Marine said that for him, that scene explains the whole movie. Is it as simple as that? The duality of man, the “Jungian thing,” as Joker says? Perhaps it’s that Marines are human -- they want peace as much as you or I, because who wouldn’t? -- but they have a job to do.  I’ve always felt it interesting that the script offers no political judgments of the Vietnam War, and another Marine commented on my online inquiry as much, saying the movie focuses “less on the war and more on the mindset of the Marines.” Marines have also said they knew a version of each character archetype in "Full Metal Jacket," too.

Joker may stand in ironic detachment from the war around him for most of the picture, but he comes face to face with it at the close of the movie.  After an extended siege on the city of Hue, a sniper pins down Joker and his fellow Marines. When the tables are finally turned, Joker has to act. Does he do so out of mercy or out of revenge? It’s a tribute to Kubrick’s direction and Modine’s acting that I’m still not sure which. But as Joker exits the film, he’s still “in a world of shit, but alive, and not afraid.”

Kubrick had already made his anti-war film with “Paths of Glory,” and with “Full Metal Jacket,” he stated he wanted to make a war film, period. I think he succeeded in doing so. Even though boot camp is a completely foreign concept to most of us, “Full Metal Jacket” continues to strike a chord with the general populace, not only because of R. Lee Ermey’s outrageous and endlessly quotable profanities, but because the boot camp sequence, followed by the entrance to a war zone, and coming under fire, is itself a microcosm and metaphor for the way we’re all shaped and molded by society into our roles. We’re all born again hard, to survive in the world. But like a clockwork orange, or a full metal jacket, deep down, our humanity survives.


I can’t remember if this is the fourth or fifth time this movie has made it to DVD/Blu-ray, but this release is certainly the best of the lot. The Blu-ray transfer looks to be the same as the last edition that was released. The excellent audio commentary by some of the actors, including a grateful Vincent D’Onofrio, is ported over from the previous release, as is a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film. So why the major release now? First of all, it’s the film’s 25th anniversary this year, and studios love anniversaries almost as much as young couples do. Second, the set comes in a handsome hardbound book package, with an essay about the film as well as cast and crew biographies. Finally, to sweeten the pot, Warner Bros. has included a fascinating documentary, “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes,” about the hundreds, maybe thousands, of boxes of research Kubrick amassed over his five decades as a professional filmmaker and photographer. There are tantalizing glimpses of images that helped inform the production of “Eyes Wide Shut” and “A Clockwork Orange” (I wish a still gallery had been included on the disc).  Kubrick’s borderline obsessive attention to detail in the storage and cataloguing of this material begins to make sense. And most amusingly, some of the fans that had written letters to Kubrick over the years are tracked down and interviewed.

“Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes” is the only new edition to an already very good presentation of this classic film on Blu-ray.  If you already own it on the high definition format, I’d recommend finding the doc through Netflix or your library, and just holding on to your existing Blu-ray.  But if you don’t yet have this film in your collection, “Full Metal Jacket” is ripe for rediscovery.

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.