War stories are often complex tales involving many characters, emotions, motives and struggles. Their stories traverse high and low moments of intense battle and inner reflection. Some war stories outwardly depict war as an act of battle, with the fight itself as the driving force of the story. Then there’s Stanley Kubrick, whose war stories are anti-war sentiment pieces of unconventional style.
Instead of focusing entirely on the war itself, his films capture the mental developments of the soldiers and their emotions. They go beyond normal war stories and examine the soldiers, their motivations, and their relationships to each other and the war. Paths of Glory (1957) is often cited as the best of Kubrick’s anti-war investigations. As DigitalSpy writes, “With its minute focus on one botched WWI assault (and its terrible aftermath), it lays bare a piercing insight into how warfare brings out the worst in mankind, not only in the hellish, barbaric conditions of the trenches but also the insane ingenuity whereby these conditions are actively engineered by callous generals for whom 'glory' is just a buzzword for career advancement.”
But thirty years later, he returned to war with Full Metal Jacket (1987), a film that showed these same harrowing effects in a modern setting, again telling an unconventional story.
The motivation for fighting is a necessary aspect of every war movie. People fight wars over a variety of reasons; money, power, land, honor, freedom, women, reputation. Most characters in war stories give the viewer a clear understanding of their individual goal in the battle, and the reason they are there. It is often brought up as a subject of conversation among the soldiers at some point. They will ask themselves why they are there, explain how they got where they are, and examine their personal motives for continuing. It builds a relationship with the audience by establishing characters to which we can relate, and buds a camaraderie among a gang of people we know won’t all finish the film alive.
However, Full Metal Jacket denies the audience this clarity. The motives of its soldiers stay unknown, which provides a unique perspective. The film is divided into two parts: The first half takes place at a basic training camp in South Carolina, where the recruits go through the dehumanizing process of becoming Marine-trained “instruments of death.” The second half moves to Vietnam and into battle itself during the Tet offensive. During both halves, characters are challenged to understand the reasons they are fighting.
To focus primarily on one character, one can look at the Joker (Matthew Modine) as the film’s “lead.” The first time he speaks in the film, it’s in the form of a John Wayne impersonation to which the terrifyingly hard-headed drill sergeant Hartmann (R. Lee Ermey) responds by giving the platoon a speech about how they are no longer people, but scum that must be trained into lethal uniformed killing machines. Joker is a man who stands up for his beliefs when confronted by Hartmann, and for that he is admired. When asked why he fights in the war, he says “to kill.” Yet, he does not seem like a killer, and after basic training he takes a job as a Stars and Stripes reporter, a fairly pacifist occupation for someone during wartime. The other characters never say a word about why they are in the marines or what they are fighting for, true or untrue, until the second half of the story.
Full Metal Jacket is ultimately a story of humanity set against the backdrop of violence and death. Most of the characters take to the dehumanizing process of basic training as the military expects, especially overweight recruit dubbed Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) who, after constant assault and torture, becomes a highly skilled fighter who goes so insane from the process he ends the lives of himself and sergeant Hartmann in the barracks on the final day of training. He represents the sour outcome of military training as presented in the film.
The marines are given ridiculous prayers to say to their rifles before bed, worshipping them. They follow orders blindly from fear of the sergeant and the image of the corps. This is all true for everyone but Joker. He seesm to serve as an icon of man’s intolerance to this militarizing process.
During the war, the characters have more time for conversing about their motivations, but still in a way that leaves them generally unclear. In a memorable scene addressing the issue, members of the platoon are gathered around their recently killed friends. The camera pans them in a circular fashion, focusing on their faces as they all give a one line comment about the sight of the corpses, which serves as identification of their characters and roles as Marines. Some are disturbed, some wish them peace in heaven, and one says “at least they died for a good cause.” A fellow fighter replies “what cause is that?” to which he is given the reply “freedom.” The defining line comes after, when the Marine replies “You think we waste Gooks for freedom? If I am going to get my balls blown off for a word…my word is poon-tang.” This line presents viewers with an image of the characters and their ideas, but still offers no concrete idea as to why they are truly there.
Joker shows his confused motivations through two physical icons he wears on his person. He has the words “Born to Kill” satirically written on his helmet, while he wears a peace sign button on his jacket. He claims it is to represent the duality of man, and Kubrick uses it to reflect the inner confusion of the soldiers as a whole. They represent the way soldiers are stripped of their personalities and given a new identity they must follow, though they may not actually believe in it. It mirrors Joker’s own arc within the story -- He takes a job as a reporter, which keeps him out of combat, but at the end of the film is involved in a skirmish where he shoots a wounded Vietnamese sniper point blank.
Another relevant component in a war story is the relationship between the upper-ranking officers and their soldiers. This relationship can established out of genuine caring and friendship, out of admiration, or out of fear and hatred. In Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V (1989), for example, his soldiers follow him out of respect. Henry cares about the well-being of his soldiers while maintaining having a great war mentality, a combination that garnered reverence from his soldiers.
In Full Metal Jacket, the soldiers obey for the opposite reason. The platoon is trained by Hartmann, a man who reflects the stereotypical image of a Marine drill sergeant times ten. He uses fear, insult and punishment to create a loyal following from the platoon, quite unlike the humanistically-concerned Henry V. Hartmann issues nicknames to all the soldiers -- ones that stick with the characters throughout the film and also serve as an expression of their personalities. Joker, Gomer Pyle, Snowball (Peter Edmund), Cowboy (Arliss Howard): these names are similar to the identification process used in war movies like The Red Badge of Courage (1951), directed by John Huston. The characters’ real names disappear and become unimportant as they are replaced by these offered by their superior.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann plays an active role in each character’s life. He is not just a threat, but a physical presence. He does not merely possess superiority over the soldiers and boss them around from afar, he is involved in every aspect of their daily lives. He constantly forces them to do things his way, ensuring nearly all of them despise him and fear him, save for Joker. It is not uncommon for war stories to depict leaders with little personal connection to their soldiers beyond being the one who issues their orders. Hartmann does not fit that mold. He prides himself on being there for everything the soldiers do, and making sure it is done his way. It makes him ruthless, but also very effective for the goal he works towards: creating human instruments of death.
Full Metal Jacket is a wonderfully constructed piece of filmmaking and a frightening exploration of the emotional ramifications of extreme situations on a person’s psyche. It takes the war narrative to a different level, turning the war itself into the background of a more emotional, personal story.