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?

The 15 Most Original War Movies

The question you might ask yourself right away is probably: What is an original war movie? Is Stalingrad original or Black Hawk Down? I would argue, no, they are not. They are great, they are absolute must-sees but they are not original. They consist pretty much of linear story telling. Well filmed but nothing out of the ordinary. What about Enemy at the Gates? Admittedly according to my definition this  almost made it into the list, as it is originally beautiful, but so are others.

Original is about something more than beautiful cinematography, it is something beyond the well-trodden path. Either a different way of telling an old story, a new look at something we saw before, a different way of filming, a genre-blend, an original story etc. After thinking for a very long time about it, I came up with the following fifteen movies that are far from the ordinary. I guess that all these fifteen films are movies that mostly also appeal to cinema lovers in general.

Three Kings (USA, 1999): Taking place during the first Iraq war it is definitely one of the most original movies I have ever seen. The way certain things are filmed is pretty unusual. When someone gets hit by a bullet we follow the bullet on its way inside the body, see how it affects the system and causes gangrene. Quite astonishing. On top of that it is a crazy, fast-paced story. Like a filmed version of a rock song.

Pan’s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (Spain, 2006): Set during WWII in Franco’s Spain. A genre blend, half fantasy, half war movie. Uses lots of fantastic elements, striking colors. Absolutely different.

Ovelord (UK, 1975): WWII, UK just before D-Day. A very short movie that alternates original footage and filmed bits. Filmed in black and white, it has a very old-fashioned feel. The story is original as well as it focuses on one individual soldier who will be shipped to France. Uses dream sequences, elements of foreboding. Still straightforward storytelling. (see my post Overlord: An Overlooked War Movies masterpiece)

The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998): WWII, The Pacific. This is the most lyrical of all  war movies. Intense pictures, haunting voices in the off meditate about death and dying. It is one of those cases –  you love it or you hate it but can’t deny it is original.

War Requiem (UK, 1989): WWI, France. Silent movie. Visual interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem based o the life of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Mixed with original footage that gets more and more gruesome towards the end. The most gruesome original footage that I have every seen. Heavy on symbolism, colors etc. Despite Sean Bean this is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. (see my post War Requiem; Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem)

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943): Boer war, WWI, WWII. A movie that relies heavily on almost choreography like acting, loads of allusions to British culture. Extremely funny, filmed in brilliant Technicolor. Quite slapsticky at times, reminded me of one or the other Laurel and Hardy at war movies, but undeniably British humor. Two astonishing acting achievements. Deborah Kerr playing three different women and Roger Livesey playing the young, the middle-aged and the old Colonel Blimp. Amazing performances.

The Downfall aka Der Untergang (Germany, 2004). There have been such a lot of movies about Hitler but this concentrates on his very last moment, in the bunker in Berlin. Quite an unusual look. Creepy, spooky, with a fabulous Bruno Ganz in one of his best roles.

300 (USA, 2006): The last fight of the Spartans is original because of the heavy use of CGI, outstanding camera work and graphics. (see my post 300: This is Sparta! )

The Hurt Locker (USA, 2008). Iraq movie. Academy Award Winner. Different in the sense that it focuses on one special task, bomb disposal and one special man who is doing it his way. He goes about his business as if he was a player in some video game. Death-defying. Plus the movie has a thriller feel which is quite unusual for a war movie. At times it feels like Speed goes to Iraq. (see my post A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker)

Birdy (USA, 1984). Post-Vietnam. This is unusual in many ways. Outstanding acting, a story that is far from ordinary and a way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome like we haven’t seen it often before. (see my post Alan Parker’s Birdy: A Tale of Frienship, War and Being Different)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (USA, 2008). WWII, Holocaust. Haven’t we all seen a lot of Holocaust movies? This is one that will stay with you. The cinematography is brilliant and the story is haunting. Nobody would expect that ending. The Holocaust seen through the eyes of a child that has no clue what is going on, only sees the signs and interprets them his way, is creepy. (see my post The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: An Unusual Look at the Holocaust)

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no Haka (Japan, 1988). Beautiful anime from the Ghibli studios. The sad and moving tale of two kids in WWII Japan, fighting for their survival after the loss of their family. (see my post Grave of the Fireflies: An Anime War Movies)

Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008): Israel.  Another animated movie but of an altogether very different kind. This looks more like a woodcut. Interesting take at the Lebanon war.

Apocalypse Now (USA, 1979). Considered by many to be one of the best war movies there is, it is also very original as it doesn’t show the Vietnam war as it was, instead more like a hallucinatory re-telling of The Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam war. Using Wagner’s Valkyrie and The End by the Doors further underlines it’s aiming at being something different. Whether you like it or not, it is very original.

Full Metal Jacket (USA, 1987). This is a highly original movie as it creates images that will burn themselves into your memory. Visually one of the most powerful movies. Plus it tells two stories. Boot camp and street fight. This last element is also quite original as Vietnam movies mostly portay combat in the jungle. Plus the Vietnamese sniper…

Have I forgotten any and if so, why should they be included?

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

I was thinking today, why shouldn´t  I write a post on the war movie characters I hate most? Obviously I am not talking bad acting here. On the very contrary, it is maybe more difficult to play a truly unlikable and obnoxious character. A true bully or a monster like Hitler. Bruno Ganz who stars as Hitler in The Downfall aka Der Untergang apparently refused the role at first whereas I believe I remember having read, Anthony Hopkins found his role in The Bunker to be particularly challenging and he did enjoy such a challenge.

But apart from  extreme  evil historical people like Hitler, there are numerous mean characters populating war movies. The list I made are those that came to my mind easily, those I will never forget, no matter how many years have passed since I last saw the movie. Often those really evil people are paired with good ones like in Platoon, Casualties of War and Cross of Iron.

Here´s my list of war movie impersonations of meanness or just plain unlikable geeks.

Gny. Sgt Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket. THE Boot Camp Devil.

Herbert M. Sobel (David Schwimmer) in Band of Brothers. Mean and dumb.

Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) in Platoon. How evil and sadistic can you possibly be?

Lt. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) in The Blue Max. Over ambitious with and inferiority complex. An annoyingly obnoxious arriviste.

Cpt Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell) in Cross of Iron. A conceited, arrogant upper-class Prussian officer.

Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) in Casualties of War. An abusive rapist.

Lance Cpl Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush) in Generation Kill. Total lack of feeling, an empty shell.

I am not sure which one I consider to be the worst. I guess either Sgt. Barnes or Hauptmann Stransky.

I am sure the world of war movies contains many more bad people than those I just mentioned. Who is your most hated character?

African American Soldiers in War Movies

It is a fact that until recently African American actors were almost nonexistent in war movies. This is quite unfair since they were also fighting for their country. Even though they are not omnipresent in today´s war movies, they seem to get a fairer share.

The makers of Generation Kill faced quite some questioning as to the reasons why there was no African American cast in the series. As fishy as this may have seemed initially there was a very good explanation for this. Generation Kill is based on the true story of the First Recon Company, a highly specialized troop, in which there were actually no African American soldiers, or only one, as we can deduce from the group photo in Evan Wright´s book.

The questioning however was very justified since there is really no war movie on contemporary conflict in which there are no African American actors. Be it Battle for Haditha, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave and many more. There are always African American actors and this is highly justified since many of the troops are of said origin.

How does the situation look regarding other wars? For example Vietnam? When it comes to combat movies – with the exception of We Were Soldiers – black soldiers are very often present. The best example is certainly Hamburger Hill that has a big African American cast. But they are not absent from Platoon or Full Metal Jacket either. Now what about We Were Soldiers? I honestly don´t know. Since it is based on a true story it might be possible that there were no African American soldiers in that company. If anyone knows the reason, tell me please.

WWII is another story altogether. Looking at the massive production of WWII movies it is incredible how absent African American actors are. Sure there are a few exceptions. A Soldier’s Story that I reviewed a while back is a good example. And then we have the Tuskegee Airmen based on the true story of the African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Aircorps (see my movie review). This fine movie illustrates how unjustified the belief was that Blacks were not capable of flying modern fighters. But apart from these two examples? And what about Flags of our Fathers? It´sad to say that there were 900 black troops participating in the battle of Iwo Jima but not one of them is represented in Eastwood´s movie. He has been questioned many times and asked to clarify but he did not reply. This infuriated many people, among them the film director Spike Lee. I think his Miracle at St. Anna might be a direct response to Eastwood´s omission. It is actually incredible but the absence of African American actors in Flags of our Fathers makes Pearl Harbor look good in comparison. At least  Cuba Gooding Jr had quite an important role. Spike Lee´s just mentioned Miracle at St. Anna focuses on the 92nd Infantry Division that fought in Italy. This division was the result of the segregation of the times. It was a purely African-American division, also called Buffalo soldiers  (I must admit that I have not seen Miracle at St. Anna but read many reviews that did NOT appreciate it). I think we are still waiting for a truly good depiction of African American participation in WWII.

And WWI? I am lost. Have no clue if there ever was  a WWI movie with African Americans in it.

Let´s rewind some more: The Civil War. And yes here we finally find an outstanding movie with a largely African American cast. One of my Top 10. Yes, I am talking about Glory. If you haven´t seen it yet, watch it.

Looking at the whole picture again we can say, it is getting somewhat better, but a contemporary movie, based on a conflict younger than the civil war, with an African American main actor is still outstanding. Now, don´t mention Hotel Rwanda (Don Cheadle was actually also in Hamburger Hill). Although it is an impressive movie  there was really no chosing a white main actor. Not even Clint Eastwood would have had the insipidity to do so.

History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

I named both these infantry combat movies among my Top 10 favourite war movies (of course, since this list ist out there for everybody to see I doubt its content. Typical.). Apart from thinking that these are great representatives of the genre I think they illustrate wonderfully the topic “history versus story” and why critics often rate the second as the better movie, whereas the general public will be more likely to prefer the first one.

Hamburger Hill is foremost based on a historical event, namely one squad´s  battle for Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam from May 11- 20, 1969. The squad consisted of 14  U.S. Army soldiers of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The battle was later called Hamburger Hill since the losses were so high and the American soldiers literally shredded to minced meat.

You can not be more precise than this when chosing to tell a story in a movie. That is the theme, and that is what is shown. No niceties, no made up story, no sugar coating to make the bitter pill go down any better. War movies don´t get any more visceral than that.

And then there is Platoon. We know the year and that some events resemble other events that happened but apart from that this is purely fictional. Especially the whole good and bad officers theme and a young soldier´s loss of innocence. All these roles are played by famous actors which is not the case for Hamburger Hill.

As I said before many critics rate Hamburger Hill higher than Platoon and from an intellectual point of view I can´t blame them. But I don´t agree. They think it is more realistic. Somehow morally superior. There is not a tiny spark of beauty in that movie. OK, I agree. But… If we really wanted pure unadulated realism, authenticity, moral education, unambiguity, shouldn´t we stick to documentaries? (And even those can show us whatever  they want to make us believe has happened. But this is not the subject here).

I´m afraid but I like a  bit of symbolism and an interesting story. And I also judge movies by the criterion whether their pictures stay in my memory or not.

For many of these reasons  if been considering lately to kick out Hamburger Hill of my Top 10 list and integrate one of the most artistic Vietnam war movies ever: Full Metal Jacket.

Yes, right, why wouldn´t I?

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) or What would I have done?

I´m not normally sitting there watching a movie and asking myself constantly: What would I have done but I did while watching this film. Michael Winterbottom´s movie Welcome to Sarajevo is one of the very highly acclaimed war movies. It is based on a true story, Michael Henderson´s account of his stay as a war reporter in Sarajevo. Sure, war and journalism is a theme that is likely to be explored and Winterbottom is of course not the only filmmaker to have done so (The Killing Fields, We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket, Generation Kill, Das Boot to name but a few,  deal with it to some extent). His second theme, war and children, has also been the center of many movies (Hope and Glory, Empire of the SunLa vita è bella aka Life is beautiful ). His major theme however is involvement. How much should we get involved? And in this specific context: Can a reporter only watch and stay outside?

Still somehow I didn´t like this much praised work and was glad when reading a comment on imbd from a person who lived through the siege of Sarajevo that he did not really like it since he found the setting unrealistic or rather the filmmakers had taken too many liberties with the setting. Funny enough that is exactly what I sensed and it spoiled a lot for me.

Winterbottom filmed shortly after the war, on site. We see a lot of destroyed buildings.  So much destruction is utterly depressing. Journalists live in abandoned hotels, meet in the evening in bars and discuss the days events and filming. Some pictures are really awful and the journalists  voyeuristic approaching of wounded, dead and dying people is shown in all its tastelessness. Intrusion without involvement.

The British reporter Michael Henderson (Stephane Dillane convincingly disenchanted and thoughtful) and the American Flynn (Woody Harrelson a bit of a sicko role as usual) were two of those vulture like creatures running to every scene whenever they heard a gunshot, firing, a bomb or screams. While Flynn appreciates the adventure quality of it all, Michael gets more and more weary. When they discover an orphanage that is located in one of the most dangerous zones of the city and he realises, even when he films the most realistic documentaries, the world just doesn´t give a damn, he´s had it. All through the movie we see original footage of the world´s then presidents. What they say combined with what we see would make great material for war satire.

Seeing those children, little babies, abandoned toddlers and older children Michael knows he can´t stay out of all of this. He wants to help and he does help. The journey he undertakes together with an American aid worker (Marisa Tomei – she´s such an endearing actress too bad her role is much too short) is the best part of the movie. Together with a few children and especially one girl whom Michael has promised a better life in England the escape the besieged city and try to get to Italy or England respectively. It´s an extremely dangerous and hazardous journey and you wish the whole time that they will make it. People like Michael truly make a difference.

Oh, by the way, what would you have done?