Based on the short story The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, Full Metal Jacket is the story of a young man joining the Marines in the mid-1960s as he endures brutal basic training in the hands of a sadistic drill sergeant. Then he becomes a war journalist in Vietnam as he would take part in the Tet Offensive as he comes to grips with the idea of war. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and adapted into script by Kubrick, Hasford, and Michael Herr, the film explores a young man’s outlook in the Vietnam war as he reflects on everything he’s experienced. Starring Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Arliss Howard, Adam Baldwin, Dorian Harewood, Kevyn Major Howard, and R. Lee Emrey. Full Metal Jacket is a visceral and entrancing war film from Stanley Kubrick.
James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) is at Parris Islands as a new recruit for the U.S. Marine Corps along with Robert “Cowboy” Evans (Arliss Howard) and Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio). Under the guidance of the verbally-abusive drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann (R. Lee Emrey), Joker, Cowboy, and Lawrence endure basic training as Hartmann calls Lawrence “Gomer Pyle” due to his overweight and slow-witted personality. While Joker gets promoted to squad leader, he tries to help Lawrence out with basic training only for things to go wrong when Hartmann finds a jelly donut in Lawrence’s locker trunk. The whole squad gets punished leading them to retaliate by hazing Lawrence as he eventually becomes a model soldier. Upon graduation, Joker begins to worry about Lawrence’s state of mind as he would witness a chilling incident.
One year later, Joker is now a war journalist writing for Stars & Stripes as he’s joined by photographer in Ptv. First Class Rafter Man (Kevyn Major Howard) covering the war. Both are looking for action as Joker needs a story despite the fact that his superior (John Terry) wants something that will boost morale of the already unpopular war. After their base is attacked by North Vietnamese troops, Joker and Rafter Man go on assignment to cover the war where Joker is reunited with Cowboy who is part of a squad that features the witty Eightball (Dorian Harewood) and the brash Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). After dealing with the intense fighting in battle along with the loss of some soldiers, Joker would later take part in another battle where he, Rafter Man, Cowboy, Eightball, and Animal Mother face off against a sniper.
The film is a two-part film of sorts about a young man joining the Marines and eventually become a soldier where he takes part in the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968 in the Vietnam War. All of this told by this young man who would endure a world that is ruthless and unforgiving as he becomes more confused by world as he tries to joke his way around these situations. During the course of his experience in basic training and then in the battlefield, he will face all sorts of brutality and moral issues that would question his own idealism. Notably in one scene where a superior officer confronts him about the peace symbol on his uniform while having the words “born to kill” on his helmet. It’s a scene where Joker tries to explain his feelings about the duality of man as he is torn between two ideals in the middle of a war.
The film’s screenplay is presented in a very unconventional structure as its first half is the exploration of basic training where its focus is on a few key men. While it is told mostly through Joker’s perspective, a lot of the film’s focus is on Leonard Lawrence who is probably the last person that should be in the Marine Corps. Here is this out-of-shape and naïve young man who starts out as this very innocent person who couldn’t finish an obstacle course and could barely get through everything else. With Joker trying to help him, Lawrence starts to eventually screw things up as his entire squad get punished while he is spared. After a brutal haze by his own squad, all of Sgt. Hartmann’s verbal abuse and the physical beating he received from his squadron would have a horrifying mental effect on this young man.
While the first half of the story is definitely the strongest due to the psychological and physical study of basic training. It’s second half is often considered to be the weakest because it’s not as engrossing as its first half. Still, it’s an interesting one where it revolves around the actual war itself where the story is still told by Joker who is trying to deal with what to tell to the world while dealing with all of its horrors. While he brags about being in combat, he has yet to kill someone directly as he ends up taking part in battle where he eventually goes head on against a sniper towards the end of the film.
The screenplay that is created is unique not just for its unconventional structure but characterization and the suspense that is created. While the first half is about the making of a Marine where recruits have to be challenged and refined by this ruthless drill instructor. The second half is about the Marine putting his training into use yet they would face things that Sgt. Hartmann is unable to teach them. There, they face death of fellow soldiers as well as the insanity that occurs in war. Notably a scene where Joker and Rafter Man are at a helicopter where a door gunner (Tim Colceri) kills countless of innocent people on their way to Hue. It’s a truly chilling script told with great care and thought by its writers.
The direction of Stanley Kubrick is definitely one of the most entrancing aspects of the film. From the way he frames a shot to the presentation of a simple shot that would say a lot. The film’s first 45-minutes at Parris Island has a directing style that is very tight, controlled, and engaging. From the opening scene of recruits getting their hair cut off to this next scene that is very striking yet simple as Sgt. Hartmann talks to his new recruits. Kubrick aims to maintain something that is unsettling and almost claustrophobic in his framing while moving the camera to capture the intensity of the marches and obstacle courses. There’s also some amazing close-ups and medium shots for Kubrick to capture the drama that occurs while using slow zoom shots to play up Leonard’s troubled stare.
While the film’s first half is more evocative and understated in its presentation, the film’s second half is much looser and playful but also more disturbing in its approach to violence and death. While the humor is very offbeat as it would involve negotiations with prostitutes, notably in the opening scene as a hooker (Papillon Soo Soo) says the lines “me so horny, me love you long time”. Some of that humor goes to dark places such as the door gunner scene as it’s a very unsettling moment though this gunner’s laugh is very maniacal. The humor is also included in a montage of soldiers talking to a crew about their experience of the war as if nothing is really wrong.
While the film is shot largely in Britain for both halves, the re-creation of both the scenes in Parris Island and Vietnam adds a very surreal element to these films where it does feel like it’s set in those places. Notably the film’s climatic battle against a sniper where the location that is filled with destroyed buildings, palm trees, fire, and dirt. The mixture of grey, black, green, blue, and orange set a tone for what Kubrick wants in terms of its lighting and suspense. The moments of violence such as the point-of-view shot from the sniper as there’s a great zoom to whom the sniper is set to shoot plays up that sense of suspense so well. The overall work that Kubrick does with this film is truly stark yet seductive for its brooding tone as he creates what is truly a mesmerizing war film.
Cinematographer Douglas Milsome does a brilliant job with the film‘s camera work to complement the differing looks for the film. From the greener yet colorful look of the Parris Island scenes in its exteriors to the dark, nighttime interiors to play up the brooding moments of the film. The wartime scenes in the Tet Offensive have a much richer approach though the camera work is much looser with tracking and handheld shots to cover the action. The lighting is also more hypnotic with bits of lenses flares and lots of fires as lights to play up the suspense as Milsome’s work is truly the film’s technical highlight.
Editor Martin Hunter does a fantastic job with the film’s stylish editing by utilizing dissolves and fade-outs for transitions along with more rhythmic cuts for the documentary montage and the rhythm of the basic training scenes. Hunter’s cutting also maintains very unconventional rhythms to play up the drama and suspense as its pacing is very methodical for the set-up of the suspense and the scenes to follow. Production designer Anton Furst, along with a team of art directors and set decorator Barbara Drake, does an amazing job with the set pieces from the clean yet wide-opened look of the Parris Islands scene to the recreation of Vietnam with its decayed buildings, base camps, and palm trees to play up the chaotic world of Hue.
Costume designer Keith Denny does some nice work with the costumes ranging from the uniforms that the soldier wear to the skimpy clothing the Vietnamese hookers wear. Sound editors Nigel Galt and Edward Tise do wonderful work with the sound from the intimacy of the Parris Island base where the soldiers sleep to the atmosphere of the battle field filled with explosions and gunfire to complement the sense of terror occurred in war. The film’s music is a wide mix of music pieces that is used for the film. Among them is its score by Vivian Kubrick, under the Abigail Mead moniker, that is a chilling ambient score used for some of the film‘s suspenseful moments. The rest of the film’s music soundtrack consists of music from the 60s like Nancy Sinatra, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, the Trashmen, the Dixie Cups, and Chris Kenner to complement some of the film’s humor or to add excitement to certain scenes. Closing the film is the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black that serves as a fitting way to end the film.
The casting by Leon Vitali is outstanding for the ensemble that is created which features appearances from Vivian Kubrick as a camera woman at a mass grave scene, Tim Colceri as a crazed helicopter door gunner, Ed O’Ross as a platoon commander, Kieron Jecchinis and John Stafford as a couple of soldiers, Peter Edmund as an African-American recruit named Snowball, Papillon Soo Soo as a hooker who says some famous lines, and John Terry as Joker’s assignment editor. Kevyn Major Howard is very good as Joker’s combat photographer Rafter Man who is keen on wanting to get involved in the action while Dorian Harewood is terrific as the crafty and funny Eightball. Adam Baldwin is superb as the brash yet blood-thirsty Animal Mother who is willing to kill as many Vietcong soldiers while being there for his buddies.
Arliss Howard is fantastic as Cowboy, a soldier who starts off as spirited recruiter and later becoming a top soldier who is willing to head a platoon in the film’s climatic sniper-battle scene. R. Lee Emrey is phenomenal as the harsh Sgt. Hartmann who spouts very memorable lines and insults to push his recruits as it is a truly unforgettable performance for a man who was a real-life drill sergeant. Vincent D’Onofrio is amazing as the dim-witted Leonard Lawrence who tries to deal with his shortcomings and naiveté while slowly losing his mind as he becomes more chilling as the film progresses. Finally, there’s Matthew Modine in a captivating performance as Joker where Modine displays a sense of innocence and light-humor to a guy unaware about the dark implications of war as he tries to maintain a certain idealism that is later shattered by war.
Full Metal Jacket is a hypnotic yet exhilarating war film from the late Stanley Kubrick. Featuring a great ensemble cast that includes Matthew Modine, R. Lee Emrey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Arliss Howard, and Adam Baldwin. It is truly one of the great war films ever created for its study of madness, morality, and preparation. While it’s not an easy film to be engaged by due to its unconventional structure and themes of human nature in war. It’s a film that does a lot more to explore what it takes to go out there and kill the enemy while delving into the horrors of humanity along with way. In the end, Full Metal Jacket is an outstanding film from the late, great Stanley Kubrick.
Stanley Kubrick Films: Fear & Desire - Killer’s Kiss - The Killing - Paths of Glory - Spartacus - Lolita - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - 2001: A Space Odyssey - A Clockwork Orange - Barry Lyndon - The Shining - Eyes Wide Shut
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