About a month ago I rewatched Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a movie I recalled loving even though people are a bit down on it’s split structure (“only the first half is good”). I appreciate the split structure, and I think the second half is equally as powerful as the first, but it is a decidedly strange structure, and a confusing movie. So I took to my most trusted source, Wikipedia, to see if I could figure out what motivated Kubrick to take this specific approach to the movie. Under “themes”:
Compared to Kubrick’s other works, the themes of Full Metal Jacket have received little attention from critics and reviewers… Most reviews have focused on military brainwashing themes in the boot camp training section of the film, while seeing the latter half of the film as more confusing and disjointed in content. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post wrote, “it’s as if they borrowed bits of every war movie to make this eclectic finale.” Roger Ebert said, “The movie disintegrates into a series of self-contained set pieces, none of them quite satisfying… Tony Lucia, in his July 5, 1987, review of Full Metal Jacket for the Reading Eagle, looked at the themes of Kubrick’s career, suggesting “the unifying element may be the ordinary man dwarfed by situations too vast and imposing to handle”.
I didn’t quite know what to say in response to all this, though I felt it was wrong. The second half of the film spoke to me just as much as the first, and never felt it was “eclectic” or that it “disintegrates into a series of self-contained set-pieces”. I moreso agreed with Tony Lucia: it is a story about individuals and a vast situation they are both dwarfed by, and part of.
Watching Dunkirk this past weekend I felt more sure than ever I wanted to write about FMJ because it highlighted a lot of the same themes. They both treat war as a force of nature (as I claimed in my Dunkirk review most war movies do). They both reinforce this by keeping the enemy invisible for long stretches (Dunkirk for the whole movie, FMJ for the pivotal final scene). And they both cast their protagonists as part of a larger force too (Dunkirk doesn’t have a protagonist outside of British moxie, a sort of “power of the group” aka answering a force of nature with nature – FMJ’s relationship with their larger force is more complicated).
Where I think FMJ takes a hard sharp left is the way it undermines its own ideas. While staring at a mass grave Joker is confronted by a Colonel who asks after the button on his shirt (a peace symbol) and the phrase written on his helmet (“Born to Kill”). “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir,” he answers. “Who’s side are you on, son?” asks the Colonel. The Colonel wants to see things as our side/their side, but Joker sees things as a little more complicated than that, and the whole movie relishes in this: if you keep scratching you’ll just keep revealing deeper levels. The enemy is a force of nature, but they’re individuals too, but they’re individuals who build up this force of nature. Same can be said of the Marines. Even the structure of the film hints at the two halves: supposedly split in half but linked in too many ways to count.
The first half of the film focuses on erasing the individual. “You may die, but the Marine Corps lives forever,” Hartman announces to his trainees, and he’s right. His goal is to erase the individual, to strip them of who they are and to mold them into a single unit. The film suggests he is mostly successful, particularly with Gomer Pyle who sheds all of his former traits and becomes a lean, mean, killing machine. While Pyle experiences the most radical transformation, he is not alone. Huge sections of “Part One” are dedicated to watching people do things in tandem – they run, they climb, they chant. The opening of the film we literally watch as their individuality (their unique haircuts) is shaved away. A wide shot of their graduation shows a huge army of marines, all in matching uniforms, all walking in rhythm – to claim Hartman had failed would be foolish. He has successfully stripped them of their old lives and made them into one.
Of course, Part One famously ends with Hartman’s failing. “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine,” chants Gomer Pyle as he loads his rifle with live rounds in the bathroom. It’s a chant we’ve heard before, but always in a group, never alone. You can strip someone of an identity, but you cannot strip them entirely of individuality, even when they are part of a group (even the chant fails to strip them of individuality: “this one is mine” presupposes a self). Left with a barren husk an new personality will begin to fill in.
The second half is the mirror image of the first: having seen Joker stripped of his personality we now watch him build a new one. But the film is never content to simply ignore dualities. Let’s look at a war, for example. A war needs two sides to be a war. Both sides play two parts (a side views itself as “hero” while the other side views them as “villain” and vice versa, with both sides taking on the role of the invisible horrific foe). An individual is not a force of nature, yet the forces of nature are built up by individuals. We feel righteous fighting the enemy army, and feel righteous having our own army die to make headway, but we don’t feel righteous killing individuals and are afraid to die ourselves.
These are the things Joker struggles with as he builds a new identity. “Anyone who runs is a VC. Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined VC,” shouts a helicopter gunner as Joker and Rafterman ride alongside him. “How can you shoot women and children?” Joker fires back. The helicopter gunner doesn’t see women and children. He just sees the VC, the larger force. Not so with Joker. Yet the helicopter gunner’s final line beats Joker at his own game: “Ain’t war hell?” And yes, it is. But, as outlined above, Joker is war. His individual feeds into the Marines feeds into the American Army feeds into the invisible ephemeral thing “war”. War exists out there and in here. It trickles up and down with no clear divides.
Part Two echoes the ending of Part One, again stripped away the invisible force and exposing the individual. In this case the invisible force is not the Marine Corps but rather an unseen sniper. While unseen they are easy to hate, easy to want to kill, but faced with an individual the killing becomes more difficult. Does Joker do the right thing? It’s nearly impossible to say, and I won’t venture an opinion. Is he responsible for her death? Or are all the marines, are both armies, or the war in general?
Our final images of Joker are in a crowd of people chanting about Mickey Mouse, an American icon. Again, we are faced with an image of a gestalt (AMERICA!) but we hear Joker’s interior monologue too: “Yes I am in a world of shit, but I am alive. And I am no longer afraid.”
Maybe I should have prefaced this article with a warning that I was going on a ride with no conclusion. Unlike Dunkirk, which resolutely applauds the British for dissolving the self and pulling off a successful evacuation as a “group” FMJ doesn’t land one way or the other about relinquishing self to the whole versus preserving the self. I don’t think it wants to and I don’t think it can, because war (life?) is messier than that. Is Joker no longer afraid because he’s finally earned his stripes and become part of the whole, finally feels he’s relinquished his “self” and doesn’t need to worry about death or killing any longer? Or is he perhaps no longer afraid because he, him personally, did what he believed was right: does he now know he is stronger than the invisible force pushing down on him (an invisible force he perpetuates). Or is it some muddy combination of those two – are those two opposites intrinsically linked?