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Stanley Kubrick’s Movie ”Full Metal Jacket” Analysis

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Published: Fri, 15 Dec 2017

Table of Contents

Section 1: Introduction

Section 2: Background

Section 3: Main

Section 4: Conclusion

Section 4: Bibliography

Section 1: Introduction

There were always a lot of different wars going on and even more war stories written down. These stories are usually very complicated and involve many characters, feelings and struggles. They show the war from different sides, describing the moments of intense battle as much as moments of soldiers’ soul torments. War stories mostly include different combats, a dramatic plot, sometimes a love line, and almost always an emotional finale. Some of these stories are quite positive and have happy endings; others try to show the real war. The director Stanley Kubrick also made a war story and named it “Full Metal Jacket”. This story turned out to be very unconventional and unusual, because it follows the mental development of the soldiers and their emotions rather than concentrating on the war itself. Kubrick’s movie observes the marines’ motivations, relationships between each other and their attitude to the war.

The motive for fighting is a very important part of any war story. People have very different reasons for a war, such as money, freedom, territory, power and so on. Mostly characters in war stories clearly define their goals in the battle, and the reasons for them to be there. They ask themselves why they fight, think about their life before they got where they are, and examine their feelings and motives for continuing, although “Full Metal Jacket” leaves motives of the soldiers uncertain. That brings the audience to the question: Are there any reasons for these soldiers to fight or the deaths of their friends were vain? Maybe the war was completely meaningless from very beginning?

Section 2: Background

The film “Full Metal Jacket” follows a Marine reporter nicknamed Joker through his initiation into Marine boot camp and his involvement in the Vietnam War which lasts from December 1956 up to 30 April 1975. Although the reasons for Vietnam War start appearing much earlier.

The situation becomes tense in the time when Indochina is still a French Colony. Different nationalistic groups come together with communist Ho Chi Minh to overthrow the French rule and become independent. So they start First Indochina war, and in 1954 France suffers a major military defeat. Signed in 1954 Geneva Accords ends French rule and United Nations divide Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, which was ruled by communists, and democratic South Vietnam. Nationalists’ forces want to unify Vietnam under the communist government and start the war which is now known as a Vietnam War. In the same time America tries to prevent the spread of communism through the world. They believed in domino theory which held that if a country goes communist the neighboring countries are likely to go communist also. So US feel that if they stop communism from taking South Vietnam it will also keep other countries from it. So they support South Vietnam in the war.

On the time period from 1965 until 1972 the Vietnam War keeps escalating. US send to the war about a half a million of their troops. America is very close to victory, but North Vietnamese army succeeds in breaking the will of the American People. Their military does not know what are they fighting for anymore and does not want to sacrifice their lives. And as the war goes on, the cost in blood seems to be extreme and worthless, so in 1972 US signs valueless peace agreement with North Vietnam which allows the retreating of American forces. But the armed conflict in Vietnam continues and in a few years in 1975 the North Vietnam takes up South Vietnam. Defeat of South Vietnam causes a massive genocide in Southern Asia resulting in the death of millions, while America suffers major political loss.[1]

The movie “Full Metal Jacket” is a war story about that part of history, about the Vietnam War. It was directed in 1987 and is based on Gustav Hasford’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Short-Timers”. [2]

The author of the book, Gustav Hasford, was a US Marine Corps veteran and went through a Vietnam War; his experience and his feelings on this war formed the basis of his book and therefore the movie.[3]

Section 3: Main

The story of the movie begins the United States Marine Corps Training Camp. A group of young recruits are having their heads shaved and being prepared for military basic training by their new senior drill instructor, brutal Gunnery Sergeant called Hartman, whose work is to “weed out all non-hackers”[4]. During the training the sergeant often degrades each recruit; he uses many different psychological attacks such as repeated chants in training or insulting their masculinity (calling them sweethearts or ladies). He also gives certain men a ridiculous nickname based on their actions or characters: the pragmatic man who talks behind his back got a name Joker[5], a man from Texas became a Cowboy[6] and finally, Leonard Lawrence, an over-weighed, tall, not intelligent recruit becomes Private Gomer Pyle[7]. Hartman focus his attention on him, because the corpulent recruit cannot keep up with the others in the grueling trainings.

The viewer can observe a slow dehumanization of recruits that occurs during the training. American boys are humiliated and worked to death. Finally they become totally broken and reconstructed as the perfect marines; they are taught that they are nothing more than bald-headed weapons of mass destruction in uniforms. Some of them could not handle this and slowly go insane, what is perfectly shown on the example of Private Pyle. This training seriously dements Private Gomer Pyle up until he becomes demented, maniacal, and suicidal. The scene where he is talking to his gun[8] shows just how much some people can be dehumanized by the experience of basic training. Private Pyle takes so much glory in his rifle that it starts to bother everybody in the training camp. When he reaches the certain state, Pyle feels like he has to not only kill his sergeant, but to eliminate himself from this world as well, and commits a suicide, even his fellow recruit Joker cannot change his mind[9].

The second part of the movie takes place already on the war. Each recruit got a Military Occupational Specialty. Joker, which is the main character, now becomes a military journalist.

In the first minutes of the second part, Private Rafterman grumbles to Joker, “You know what really pisses me off about these people? We are supposed to be helping them and they shit all over us every chance they get. I just can’t feature that.” Joker then replies, “Don’t take it too hard, Rafterman. It’s just business.”[10] The way he answers demonstrates to the viewer that marines honestly do not understand why Vietnamese people dislike them, even though Americans fight for their freedom and protect them from going communists.

Next scene, Joker is on the newspaper staff meeting, and the superior officer looks through the offered articles to verify that all the material would create the desired effect on the readers. Joker and his fellow journalists are ordered to only write articles that show that United Stated are the winners in this war, even if it implies that they have to make up some details[11]. Before Joker realizes that this not faithful reporting isn’t a right decision, he agrees with it because the happy stories would keep the troops in a good mood.

Afterwards Joker and Rafterman take a helicopter ride[12]. While flight, the helicopter’s door gunner starts to shoot Vietnamese villagers and soon Joker asks him, “How can you shoot women and children?”, and the soldier answers, “Easy! You just don’t lead ‘em so much! Ain’t war hell?”[13] These men on the war are losing their morality; killing women and children became totally normal, the only difference is that you use fewer bullets on them. The marines in this movie have no idea what they are doing in Vietnam, they were told to kill Vietnamese people and that is what they do.

Later, when Joker and Private Rafterman meet Cowboy’s platoon for the first time, Joker and the marine nicknamed Animal Mother have a dispute. In a second Private Eightball comes to Joker and says, “Now you may not believe it, but under fire Animal Mother is one of the finest human beings in the world. All he needs is someone to throw hand grenades at him the rest of his life.”[14] Sergeant Animal Mother appears to be an ideal soldier: a man who has become desensitized due to warfare.

There is a memorable scene where members of the platoon are standing around their recently killed comrades[15]. The camera turns around, focusing on each of them one by one as they give a comment about their opinions on deaths. Some are confused, one marine wishes them to rest in peace, and the next one adds “at least they died for a good cause.” Someone asks “What cause is that?” and the soldier replies, “Freedom.” The important line comes when Animal Mother suddenly says “You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a slaughter. If I’m going to get my balls blown off for a word… my word is poon-tang.”[16] This shows viewers some kind of idea about the characters and their thoughts, but there is still no particular idea about what they are actually there for.

One of the most important proofs that the soldiers do not know what they are fighting for appears when a news team interviews a platoon, and they share their experiences and opinion about the war[17]. The answers are uncertain and reduced to the fact that the soldiers are only here to kill “Vietnamese gooks”, as they were ordered. The marines speak very insecure with a lot of pauses unable to put the words right; they never thought about the reason to fight.

In a few days, the troop goes out on another patrol, in the ruins next to the place where the US army believes enemy’s troops have hidden[18]. The sky on the background is foggy showing some kind of uncertainty in soldiers’ souls. While observing the place, the leader of the squad dies by stepping on a mine and Cowboy takes the leadership. Very soon their squad becomes lost in the ruins and the unseen sniper shoots one of the marines, private Eightball. The platoon argues if they should take risk and try to save him or leave the dying comrade. This scene shows who of them still have something humane and who already became a “killing machine” as they were taught to be. The viewer can see how these people cannot take the decision. Then one man decides to take the chance and goes there. After the second soldier being shot the third marine goes and sacrifice himself too. That is the cost of being humane on the war.

Finally the viewer reaches the last minutes ofFull Metal Jacket, when the platoon finds the sniper and Joker faces death for the first time. As he looks down on the Vietnamese sniper, we understand that Joker has never really been on the battlefield, he has never needed to kill, but when he needed those were only darkened figures in the distance. For the Joker, war and death was something that happens somewhere at the distance to the other people. He never looked the enemy directly in the eye before pulling the trigger.

Being shot and surrounded by the enemies the sniper starts to pray, and then she begs them to shoot her. The marines need to take a difficult decision: or they should leave her to die from a blood loss or save her from suffering by killing her. Animal Mother agrees on a mercy killing but only if Joker will do it[19].

Before that Joker asked the helicopter gunner “How can you shoot women and children?” Suddenly this question comes back to him as Joker stands next to an enemy sniper who is and woman, and a child. After some hesitation, Joker shoots her. His fellow marines sarcastically congratulate Joker with his first corpse while he stares into nothing, having finally gotten his own brutalized gaze. In this scene he looks very similar to the private Pyle in the end of the first part.

All the military philosophy is shown in this one battle where a small marine troop is trying to win a Vietcong sniper to gain one tiny piece of land among the ruins by sacrificing their fellows. And this tiny piece of land is not even important for this war.

“Full Metal Jacket”ends with Joker marching with other marines and singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song and then Joker narrates, “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I’m in a world of shit… yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”[20]

He is called the Joker, and “Full Metal Jacket” is the story of his aging, the story of his transformation from an innocent child to the killing machine, real soldier. During this war, he finds nothing but madness and cruelness in everything around him, starting with his drill instructor, Sergeant Hartman, to the Vietnamese “enemies” and his fellows, so the film does not really take anybody’s side. It does not tell you who the antagonists and who the protagonists are.

More than that, this movie has a lot of dualities: the helmet with the peace symbol on one side and “Born to Kill” written on the other, even Joker himself explained it as a duality of a man[21]. The tragic deaths at the end of each part of the movie. Joker’s own desires to “get into shit” and to avoid it as much as possible. Him, being a Leonard’s tutor and the one who beats Pyle the hardest in the same time. The music use in different situations.

The music choice in the movie also says a lot about the meaningless of the war. For example taking a Mickey Mouse song in the end tells about the innocence of these soldiers many years ago, when there was no war going on. A period of time many years ago when they were all children, contrasted to fighting soldiers which they became now. Kubrick used music in a quite sarcastic, absurd and tragicomic way: The Mickey Mouse march, which is supposed to be entertaining and happy, becomes a dead march spreading above the land of destruction and death.

The title of the movie “Full Metal Jacket” is also given to it for a purpose. The Full Metal jacket bullets are bullets designed not to expand at all, thus they are considered ‘humane’, because they are less likely to kill (although more likely to maim)[22]. That fits the movie in a sense of how the marines had a distorted notion about what is humane and what is not. They believed that they are being humane because they are killing Vietcong people, who are communist and therefore ‘the bad guys’, and no matter if those are innocent or not. They were told that it is the right way for everybody, while in the reality they were just as bad, cruel and ferocious as Vietcong.

Section 4: Conclusion

The inscription “Born to Kill” on Joker’s helmet versus the Peace symbol perfectly summarizes this film.

There were no answers to any questions in the Vietnam War, the brink of honor and justice was lost. The gallant soldier is mocking while shoots a machine gun at innocent women and children, and nobody can even understand what are they fighting and die for, although they know that killing is their responsibility and mission.

There, in Vietnam, even a prostitute can turn up to be a Vietcong spy. There the difference, the advantage of women and children is that you use fewer bullets to kill them. There is no place for weak people or pacifists, and even if the soldier has a piece symbol on him, this is easily compensated with an inscription “Born to Kill” on the helmet, which is explained just by duality of a human nature. Everybody, who understood what a war is, tried to stay humane and alive at the same time, died and instead of the funeral, a funny song with terrible words sounded over their bodies.

“Full Metal Jacket” is a movie of contrast, where each minute contradicts the previous and the main character himself. All his doubts and compassionate in the beginning replaced with coolness and confidence in his decisions at the end. And finally a Hartman’s mission is completed. An army of demoralized people, who is only able to kill, will return back home, because it is too difficult to stay human on the war. The end of this transformation in the huge heartless machine is seen when Private Joker kills a sniper and destroy a pacifist in himself, symbolizing the final decay of the soul and the conversion into a monster.

In any war, if you kill a person in front of you, you kill a person inside yourself. And Kubrick perfectly showed how meaningless is that war in his movie called “Full Metal Jacket”.

Section 4: Bibliography

Sanders, Vivienne, 2007, “The USA and VIETNAM 1945-1975”

Kubrick, Stanley, 1987,“Full Metal Jacket”

Wikipedia: Vietnam War

Wikipedia: Full Metal Jacket

Wikipedia: Gustav Hasford

Wikipedia: The Short-Timers

Wikipedia: Full Metal Jacket bullet


[1] The information for these paragraphs is taken from: Sanders, Vivienne, 2007, “The USA and VIETNAM 1945-1975” and Wikipedia’s article about the Vietnam War.

[2] Wikipedia: Full Metal Jacket

[3] Wikipedia: Gustav Hasford

[4] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:02:35-00:02:37

[5] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:03:42-00:03:49

[6] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:05:16-00:05:24

[7] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:06:10-00:06:15

[8] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:32:00-00:34:38

[9] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:44:11-00:45:15

[10] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:48:21-00:48:35

[11] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:49:05-00:52:20

[12] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 00:58:40-01:01:05

[13] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:00:30-01:00:40

[14] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:07:30-01:08:44

[15] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:17:49-01:19:46

[16] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:18:33-01:19:03

[17] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:19:55-01:22:56

[18] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:25:35-01:51:05

[19] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:48:00-01:49:27

[20] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:51:05-01:52:53

[21] ”Full Metal Jacket”: 01:04:32-01:05:12

[22] Wikipedia: Full Metal Jacket Bullets


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