1987 in Film – Full Metal Jacket

Release Date: June 26th
Box Office: $45,015,999

Vietnam films, at least in the 80s, came in two flavours.

You’d have the genre style action films, generally with someone like Chuck Norris shooting their way through the jungle and/or a load of Vietcong baddies.

Or, you get the films that actually try to make a point.

Going back to The Deer Hunter (1978) through to Platoon (1986)_ you have a run of films trying to articulate the damage this did to both the people who fought in it and also to American culture in general.

Full Metal Jacket (1986) is firmly in that second camp.

The film is broadly split into two section: the first half is set in a Marine training camp as a group of new soldiers go through the two wining program. The second half follows the soldiers during their time in Vietnam both in and out of combat.

The main focal point for the audience is Matthew Modine as Joker. His journey is the journey of most of the characters: surviving the dehumanising training process before trying to survive when the bullets start flying. And because this is a film made by Stanley Kubrick that dehumanising is in full effect.

Sometimes that Kubrickian cold touch works against a film but in a film that examines how the US military machine works it makes perfect sense. You have people inserted at one end who are then broken down to the point that they will kill on order. The allocation of nicknames, the shaving of the hair, the constant torrent of orders and abuse is watched with Kubrick’a now trademark steady cam.

And whilst there is humour in the film it isn’t done with a satirical edge like Kubrick’s previous work Dr Strangelove (1968), Full Metal Jacket is far from being a comedy. No, any humour is the darkest graveyard humour, the kind that you’d get from morticians or something. And it fits, because it’s that grim level of comedy that people need to employ up survive when they’re facing something incomprehensible like killing other people to order.

All of this is wrapped up in the usual Kubrickian level of detail. The fact that the film was set in a training camp in America or in Vietnam jumble didn’t stop Kubrick from filming the whole thing in the UK. It’s almost Herculean defiance in the face of common sense: no jungle? Have some flown in. Need a bombed out building? Find an old gas works and film there, despite the very ground being polluted and dangerous.

Does the film get wrapped up in this detail rather than finding a decent plot for the second half of the film? Very possibly. But then a typical three act Hollywood structure wasn’t something Kubrick was aiming for. With the film being split it makes it feel episodic, almost an anthology of war tales. The cast are all great, from Modine at the centre to R Lee Emery in an iconic role as the Drill Sergeant in charge of the Marines training.

It’s not a war film for everyone. The Vietnam films around it, Platoon (1986) and Casualties of War (1988) have more melodrama to then, more audience friendly, they try to tell a story. Full Metal Jacket isn’t trying to tell a story, it’s trying to show the horrors of war.

All this is symbolised in that last shot: a group of soldiers walking across a smokey bomb crater strewn landscape signing the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. A bunch of killers trying to recapture some of their innocence now lost.

Good soundtrack as well.

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