Full Metal Jacket (1987) One of the Most Important But Ambiguous Vietnam Movies

In the hand of another filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick this wouldn’t have become the breathtakingly awesome movie this is. Full Metal Jacket is a visceral experience if there ever was one, a movie whose images will burn themselves into your memory forever. Not an unworthy beginning to a new year of blogging. But also a very controversial one.

As probably most of you know, Full Metal Jacket is like two movies in one. The first part, is the boot camp part, the second the combat part.

During the boot camp part the new recruits are transformed into killers, men who belong to a brotherhood. The drill instructor Gunnery Sgt Hartmann (R. Lee Ermey) is by far one of the most obnoxious war movie characters. But what a performance. Try saying one of the numerous bits he utters without stammering. This part also introduces us to Private Joker (Matthew Modine), an aspiring, cynical journalist. Private Joker symbolizes the controversies around this war. We will see him later, in combat, wearing a peace button and simultaneously a “Born to Kill” slogan on his helmet. Another of this movies memorable characters has his major part in this sequence, Gomer Pyle (Vincent d’Onofrio), a fat and clumsy recruit who winds everybody up because they are punished for his failures that are endless. His final scenes bear all the traces of other Kubrick movies like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Once in the combat zone in Vietnam, we meet other colorful characters, one of them Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a pure killing machine. At the beginning of his stay Joker is bored like hell. He is a journalist with Stars and Stripes. The guys basically hang around and wait for something to happen and instructions on what they have to report. The Vietnamese they see are either hookers or Vietcong. Any others don’t seem to pass their radar.

The last part is an intense combat part in the cit of Hue. They come under fire and some of them are killed by a sniper hiding in one of the bombed out buildings. As there may still be many people who have never seen Full Metal Jacket I will stop here. It should suffice to say that the last part is intense and not easy to watch.

What struck me most in this movie are the pictures and the colours. Smoke and fire, burning red heaven, bombed out buildings  and palm trees. Apparently the parts in the buildings were filmed in the docklands of London. I don’t know about the rest of the movie. The music is interesting as well. There is a mix between songs of the era and original score that would do any horror movie justice.

I have left out many important, visually powerful and interesting moments. I just wanted to give a short introduction to one of the most extreme and most important war movies that has ever been made. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should watch it.

Full Metal Jacket is also one of those movies that is focussing on the themes War and Journalism and Women in War Movies. Believe me, if you haven’t seen it, we got some interesting elements on both in this movie. If you have seen it, you know what I mean.

I don’t think it is the best Vietnam movie. At least not for me. Of the combat Vietnam movies I consider Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and maybe even We Were Soldiers to be superior. Why? I think, it is fantastic from a cinematographic point of view, but as an anti-war statement I always found it a tad ambiguous. Pretty much like Apocalypse Now.

What do you think?


19 thoughts on “Full Metal Jacket (1987) One of the Most Important But Ambiguous Vietnam Movies

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    I have to admit I am not a huge fan of it. It is certainly a great movie, but … I guess it’s sort of like your take on the Counterfeiters. The second half does not hold up to the first half (everyone says this). And I know it’s nitpicking, but the girl sniper never could have pulled off those shots using an AK -47. A sniper rifle, yes.
    BTW it covers the first two-thirds of the book and the movie would have been better if it covered the whole book (although longer, of course).
    I think Platoon and Apocalypse Now are superior.

    • I would have been surprised if you had really liked it… It is one of those that doesn’t need rewatching. I didn’t see much new elements this second time. I hadn’t paid attention to the soundtrack though, that was worth listening to. I am really curious now to see Paths of Glory.

  2. tuulenhaiven says:

    Okay, after claiming in my most recent post that I’ve seen all of Kubrick’s movies, you posted this and I realized that I’ve actually never seen ALL of this movie. I couldn’t make it through the first half. I think I was hating it and simply turned it off. Now I’m curious as to why – it was a few years ago. I really should try it again. I kind of have to, or my Kubrick claim goes out the window! 🙂

    • I can see how you could hate it… The first time I was too stunned by the cinematography and the ending to grasp it all. Now I find at least certain parts dubious… It’s worth watching, especially to compare it with his other movies, it pretty much is a typical Kubrick… The end scene of part one but also many others…

  3. nem baj says:

    I don’t think Full Metal Jacket is either anti-war or pro-war. It is ‘only’ terribly pessimistic about certain aspects of our civilization, as most of its author’s movies.

    • Yes, it’s certainly pessimistic but with hindsight I think it is very anti-war, just depends on who is watching it. It’s one of those movie you don’t shake off easily.

      • nem baj says:

        Joker arbors both a ‘Born to Kill’ tag and a peace sign during Part II – yet in the end he murders his enemy at point blank – something all the training in Part I prepared him to do – and enters the ‘world of shit’… deliberately.

        If even Joker can’t resist, who can? I think director Samuel Fuller called this film a ‘recruiting advert’; I wouldn’t second that, however I guess Kubrick raises the bar very high for anti-war supporters.

      • I found this and Apocalypse Now equally undecided in their anti-war statements but from the point of view of indoctrination this is quite amazing.
        This reminds me that I still haven’t seen The Big Red One. Alos a relatively controversial movie if I’m not mistaken.

      • nem baj says:

        The Big Red One is clearly anti-war. I don’t think neither Coppola* nor Milius wanted Apocalypse Now to be anti-war, they just intended to get the viewer in the heart of a fundamental human dilemma. And in my opinion they succeeded.

        (*) Who later did Gardens of stone, which is not a combat movie but nevertheless a good war movie in my opinion.

      • I reviewed Gardens of Stone. I felt about it as you felt about NaPola…

      • nem baj says:

        🙂 Maybe I’ll comment directly on on your review later, but I would have to see it again.

        At the moment I’m rather far from North America, beetween Monicelli’s The Great War, Cavani’s The Skin and Kobayashi’s The Human Condition.

        The nazi fatigue isn’t the only one, there’s also the Hollywood fatigue !

      • I can understand both fatigues. I’ll be watching Soldaat van Oranje/Soldier of Orange next. I still watch quite a lot of US movies too.
        After you mentioned The Red and the White I got a Miklós Jancsó collection. I’m quite interested in watching it. I don’t think I have ever seen a Hungarian war movie.

      • nem baj says:

        War was a delicate subject in Hungary for a while, as they had lost the last two and didn’t like the winners that much! The results were mostly abstract films, either in form or themes, or psychological dramas with a historical background like Szabó’s classics of the 80’s.

        Apart from Jancsó’s films, I like the war comedy The Corporal and others by Márton Keleti (the Hungarian Grande vadrouille, about deserters hiding at the end of WWII and switching uniforms according to which army, German or Russian, they encounter), and the experimental oddity American Torso by Gábor Bódy (‘about’ former 1848 Hungarian revolutionaries who joined the Northern side in the American Civil War). But both will be hard to find subtitled.

        Recently, there’s also been a couple of american style movies mixing action and historical recreation. There’s probably more to come, as Hungarian studios and crews are regularly working on US productions. I confess I’m not a big fan, though they can be honestly entertaining like Krisztina Goda’s Children of Glory, about the 1956 uprising.

      • Thanks for the suggestions. I knew Szabó and think I’ve got one of his movies “Sunshine”(forgot about it) and have review one of his more recent ones “Taking Sides”.
        I might be lucky and can find the others you mention as I don’t need to look for English subtitles. I might be able to find German or French subtitles.

      • nem baj says:

        There are some great (albeit terrifying) scenes about the military education of young men in pre-WWI Central Europe in Szabó’s Colonel Redl.

      • I’ve heard of that movie. Another one to watch. 🙂

      • I’ve heard of that movie. Another one to watch. 🙂

  4. Clayton Miller says:

    “I think, it is fantastic from a cinematographic point of view, but as an anti-war statement I always found it a tad ambiguous.”

    “It’s not pro-war or anti-war. It’s just the way things are,” Stanley Kubrick said of Full Metal Jacket, his 1987 adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s novel, The Short-Timers.


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