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Full Metal Jacket

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Full Metal Jacket

In one scene in Full Metal Jacket, a public relations officer reassures his unit that news of a Tet offensive is highly exaggerated (“I wouldn't lose any sleep over it.”); he is as wrong about  Tet as the military were about the outcome of the war itself in Vietnam.  But in this case, loss of sleep is the least of their problems.  Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is a film about loss.  As the film begins, the recruits are losing their hair.  In the end, the viewer begins to comprehend why we lost in Vietnam where the same recruits are headed.  In the course of their journey from South Carolina where they train to South Vietnam where they are picked off like mechanical sitting ducks in a shooting gallery by a sniper, they experience other losses.  In South Carolina, they lose their identities and their self-esteem; one loses baby-fat, his baby-faced good-natured smile, and his mind in more than one way.  In Vietnam, other losses occur: A photographer loses his camera to a South Vietnamese civilian; soldiers lose faith in the cause for which they are fighting; the unseen but appropriately-nicknamed “Handjob” loses (sexual) self-control; a platoon loses one commanding officer after another; a grunt loses a close friend and his innocence when his first kill is a dying woman who asks to be killed (“Shoot  ... me”) to end her misery which probably serves as a metaphor  for what the world-weary Marines must be feeling.

      But for most of the story, Man loses his humanity.  War, and the preparation for it, is seen as a dehumanizing experience.  Recruits are shaped into “hard” (a word which is used on 16 occasions) Marines.  The logic is simple: An efficient soldier must be built from scratch, and the finished product is designed to survive because he has learned the importance of killing the enemy.  The recruits enter as “ladies” and become men only when they pass the physically and psychologically debilitating training course.  It is an upside-down world in which men are transformed into animals.  At one point, a grunt asks his commanding officer in Vietnam, “What are we ... lost?”   The answer is yes, both geographically and spiritually.

      The story begins on Parris Island in South Carolina where recruits are being shaped into Marines.  The foul-mouthed senior drill instructor Gunnery-Sergeant Hartman introduces himself with a volley of epitaphs which recur in the course of the story: “shit” (66), “turd” (2), “pukes” (2), “worthless” (2), “scumbag” (8), “ladies” (9), “dickheads”.  The recruits have to literally stand there and endure his insults.  He makes a racial slur to a black recruit about “fried chicken and watermelon”.  He accuses a Texan of being a homosexual.  He attacks Leonard for his obesity and has him suck his thumb in two scenes; he threatens the dim-witted recruit with castration.  He engages in physical abuse: punches, chokes, slaps; after a while, the verbal abuse is only targeted at those who fail to quickly comply with his commands.  If names indicate identities, the recruits lose theirs to Hartman when he assigns them nicknames: “Snowball”, “Joker”, “Cowboy”, “Gomer Pyle”.  While the language in the film is rough, the question must be asked, Which is more obscene: word or deed?  Dehumanization will lead to a killing mentality which the recruits will execute.

Hartman's elevated goal is to transform the recruits into killers, and “kill” is the operative word in the story.  In his introduction to them, he intones, "If you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon.  You will be a minister of death praying for war."  He asks a recruit, “Private Joker, are you a killer?”  He lectures the recruits at the rifle range:

It is your killer instinct which must be
       harnessed if you expect to survive in combat.
       Your rifle is only a tool.  It is a hard 
       heart that kills.  If your killer instincts
       are not clean and strong, you will hesitate 
       at the moment of truth.  You will not kill.
       You will become dead Marines.  And then you
       will be in
a world of shit because Marines
       are not allowed to die without

Hartman engages in war cries.

Hartman: What makes the grass grow?

   Unison: Blood!  Blood!  Blood!

  Hartman: What do we do for a living, ladies?

   Unison: Kill!  Kill!  Kill!

  Hartman: I can't hear you!

   Unison: KILL!  KILL!  KILL!


   Unison: KILL!  KILL!  KILL!

Hartman mentions at services on Christmas eve: “God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see.”  Joker narrates: “The Marine Corps does not want robots.  The Marine Corps wants killers.”  Hartman remarks about Joker's journalistic ambition: “Jesus H. Christ!  You're not a writer!  You're a killer!”  To which Joker mechanically responds in appeasement: “A killer!  Yes, sir!”

By crediting their marksmanship, Hartman elevates both assassins Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald because they were both Marines.

      Those individuals showed what one motivated 
      Marine and his rifle can do.  And before
      you ladies leave my island, you'll all be
      able to do the same thing.

      Pyle's transformation in the course of the story amazes Hartman who has finally molded him into a killing machine for which the drill instructor can be proud.  Unfortunately, Pyle has taken the recruit training course seriously and has been affected by it while Joker, by the very nature of his nickname, knows it is a sick joke.  Pyle uses his killer instinct against his oppressor and cold-bloodedly eliminates Hartman.  If Pyle is, as Hartman once saw him, “shit” and admits to being "in a world of shit", then his means of escape is suicide - a metaphor for the type of mission that American soldiers signed up for in Vietnam.

When the setting changes to South Vietnam, the abuse continues.  The song heard in the background is "These Boots Are Made For Walking".  And the words are appropriate: “ .... that's just what they'll do.  One of these days these boots are going to walk all over you.”  As two grunts are negotiating with a prostitute who is negotiating sexual favors for a price, a Vietnamese civilian steals the grunt/photographer's camera.  The disillusioned Rafterman comments about the South Vietnamese:

You know what really pisses me off about these
       people? .... We're supposed to be helping them
       and they shit all over us every chance they get.

      The sexual bargaining (in the first of two scenes) followed by the theft of a camera is a metaphor for the kind of extreme negative experience: the American soldier will have in Vietnam (i.e. f_ _ _ ked).  Officers accuse Joker of disrespect: when Joker asks about the public relations officer about the possible cancellation of a visit by Ann-Margret and when an officer is offended by  the peace symbol on Joker's button.  Joker trades verbal abuse with Payback and Animal Mother.  Two soldiers are slowly butchered - an indignity that is not even reserved for animals.

The spirit of Hartman and other drill instructors who have molded them into killing machines are with them before the grunts are shipped to Vietnam.  The recruits’ beating Pyle is similar to his abuse by his drill instructor; Hartman's approval of Joker having sex with his sister will be repeated by Joker who twice asks sexual favors of Cowboy's sister.  In Vietnam, we meet other Marines who have lost their identities to nicknames: “Rafterman”, “Chili”, “Payback”, “Crazy Earl”, “Animal Mother”, “T.H.E. Rock”, “Eight Ball”, “Handjob”.  Other Marines speak “salty” language: “scumbag”, “shit”, “asshole”.  Hartman called Pyle "numbnut"; Cowboy uses the same word when help is denied to eliminate the sniper.  The enraged Hartman storms into the Head screaming: “What is this Mickey Mouse shit!”  The Marines sing the theme song from the Mickey Mouse Club.  Like Whitman and Oswald (Marines that Hartman alluded to who assassinated civilians), a helicopter gunner sprays bullets on a field in South Vietnam where farmers run for cover; he admits to killing women and children.

Marines bring their killer instinct to Vietnam.  In Cowboy's platoon, a grunt sits beside the dead body of a North Vietnam soldier whom he praises:

These people we wasted here today are the
       finest human beings we will ever know.  After
       we rotate back to the world, we're going to
       miss not having anyone around worth shooting.

To a camera crew, Marines speak their minds.  Rafterman comments: “When the shit really hits the fan, who do they call?  Mother Green and her killing machine.”  Animal Mother is critical of their ally the South Vietnamese: “Well, if you ask me, we're shooting the wrong gooks.”  Joker speaks with tongue in cheek:

I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the jewel of
       Southeast Asia.  I wanted to meet interesting
       and stimulating people of an ancient culture
       and kill them.  I wanted to be the first kid
       on my block to get a confirmed kill.

The dim-witted Animal Mother with his dead eyes could very well be the reincarnation of Private Pyle.  While Joker has printed on his helmet the phrase “Born to Kill”, he is more a passive observer of death as a reporter; Joker, the Marine who was trained to take lives, experiences only one kill - a dying female.

Dehumanization places people on a lower scale.  Animals are  referred to: “maggots” (4), “bull[shit]” (13), “worm”, “steers” (2), “[Mickey] Mouse”, “animals”, “bugs”, “monkey”, “Dog[patch]”", the songs “[Wooly] Bull[y]” and “[Surfer] Bird”, “hawk”, “[jungle]  bunny”, “horse”, “rabbit buffalo”, “[black] snake”.  (Variations of) the word “ass” which is synonymous with donkey is used on 22 occasions.  On the public-relations officer's window are replicas of Mickey and Minnie Mouse; Snoopy is on the wall.  Characters' nicknames are “Cow[boy]” and “Animal [Mother]”.  In the final scene, the grunts sing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song with the title character's name “Mouse” said 9 times.  In two scenes, hookers are bargained with as if they were animal meat.  Twenty nameless dead bodies that are unrecognizable with a layer of lime shovelled on them lay in a ditch; this is not the kind of dignified burial afforded to human beings.   One grunt comments about the dying female North Vietnamese soldier: “She's dead meat.”  Animal Mother adds, “Fuck her.  Let her rot .... I say we leave the gook for the mother-loving rats.”

The lowering of the human spirit and raising it to the level of killing machine is shown with visual ups and downs.  In the opening scene, the hair of recruits is sheared off; the electric clippers are placed at high and low points and move to the opposite extreme; their hair falls to the floor.  Joker collapses to the floor after Hartman punches him.  Pyle gets on his knees while Hartman chokes him.  As Hartman slaps Pyle for the second time, his hat falls to the ground.  Pyle's pants drag on the ground as he walks, and his rifle is upside down.  Recruits "mount" upper and lower bunkbeds they occupy; they pray with their rifles held above them.  Two engage in combat with poles until one is knocked to the ground.  Pyle slips and falls into mud.  Joker is promoted, and Snowball is fired.  Shoelaces are inserted from bottom to top.  Recruits stand atop foot lockers.  Hartman upends the tray of Pyle's footlocker and tosses it to the floor.  As punishment, recruits raise towels with bars of soap inside and lower them on Pyle's body; he is held down with a blanket.  Recruits lay on the ground as they practice firing.  The box containing their personal items is called a “foot locker”; the feet are the lowest part of the body.  The bathroom is labeled "head" which is the uppermost body part.  The loaded magazine cartridge at one point is on the floor; Hartman commands Pyle to place the loaded rifle at his feet.  Hartman falls dead to the ground.  A prostitute wearing a mini-skirt which has a high, side cut lifts up her skirt; she lowers her asking price from fifteen dollars to ten.  Twenties bodies lay in a trench.  Bombs explode and soldiers fall to the ground; one lays dead.  Grunt stands above their fallen comrades.  After a grunt falls, a colleague tries to resuscitate him by applying pressure on his chest in up-and-down fashion.  Grunts stand above the dying sniper.

Military exercises involve up and down motion: push-ups, pull-ups, rope scaling, jumping jacks and squat thrusts, movement across an overhanging bridge with their feet off the ground.  Obstacles must be scaled: one involving both ladders and ropes, a three tier construction, and a multi-step vertical structure.

Highs and lows are incorporated into the film's text.  Hartman's phrase for the grunts' mouths is “filthy sewers” - a sewer is set in a low place.  He berates the recruits for being “the lowest form of life on earth”.  When Cowboy mentions how tall he is, Hartman comments, “I didn't know they stacked shit that high.”  Charles Whitman shot from a “twenty-eight story observation tower”.  The public relations officer asks the photographer for "some good low angle stuff".  The Marines sing the words of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song: “Forever let us hold our banner high.  High!  High!  High!”  One grunt refers to Marines as “Jolly Green giants”; the word “little” is used on ten occasions.  Hell, the lowest legendary place is referred to.   A trigger-happy helicopter gunner asks, “Ain't war hell?”  Animal Mother suggests that the soldiers “blow the place to hell”" and “bomb the hell out of the north”.  North is a higher geographical region.  Texas, the home-state of Cowboy, is located in the lower geographical region. 

Ups and downs are also indicated with the use of appropriate words in the screenplay: “up” (59), “down” (23), “over” (22), and “under” (1).

One character's last words before a bullet fell and kills him are ironic: “Murphy, this is Cowboy.  Over.”  For Cowboy, the war is over.  In an early scene, Joker asks a finger-on-the-trigger helicopter gunner if he ever killed women and children for if he is directing his bullets at South Vietnamese civilians, then he would lack the conscience to take the lives of other innocents.  In the final scene, it becomes ironic that Joker himself kills a woman who is unable to take any more lives.  But it seems as much a necessary evil as the evils in which the Marines have be instructed in the  upside-down world.

The perversity of human nature is shown in word and deed.  Hartman glorifies killing.  Animal Mother speaks about the need for blowing up a city in the country that they are trying to preserve.  Crazy Earl admits that he belongs in Vietnam.  The perversity accounts for the use of opposites in the screenplay: "affirmative" (2) and "negative" (3), “ancient” (1) and “modern” (1), “beautiful” (1) and “ugly” (1), “before” (4) and “after” (2), “big” (5) and “little” (12), “black” (10) and “white” (1), “city” (1) and “country” (3), “clean” (4) and “filthy” (1), “dead” (2) and “alive” (4), “easy” (8) and “tough” (1), “everything” (8) and “nothing” (3), “fast” (1) and “slow” (1), “find” (3) and “lose” (1), “first” (9) and “last” (4), “fresh” (2) and “rotten” (2), “friend” (3) and “enemy” (8), “front” (2) and “back” (19), “fuck” (19) and “unfuck” (1), “good” (30) and “bad” (6), “hello” (3) and “good-bye” (5), “hit” (8) and “miss” (1), “home” (5) and “away” (11), “hungry” (2) and “full” (2), “in” (59) and “out” (32), “laugh” (2) and “cry” (1), “left” (13) and “right” (14), “life” (5) and “death” (4), “live”(4) and “die” (10), “love” (19) and “hate” (6), “more” (3) and “less” (2), “most” (1) and “least” (2), “near” (1) and “far” (4), “north” (5) and “south” (2), “old” (3) and “new” (6), “on” (53) and “off” (18), “open” (1) and “shut” (2), “over” (43) and “under” (1), “promoted” (1) and “fired” (1), “real” (5) and “phony” (1), “regular” (2) and “irregular” (1), “remember” (2) and “forget” (2), “right” (6) and “wrong” (4), “same” (2) and “different” (1), “save” (2) and “spend” (1), “short” (2) and “long” (7), “sick” (1) and “well” (8), “single” (1) and “married” (8), “stand” (2) and “sit” (1), “stay” (1) and “leave” (5), “stop” (2) and “go” (8), “sweet” (1) and “salty” (1), “up” (58) and “down” (23), “wait” (6) and “hurry” (2), “walk” (7) and “run” (4), “war” (14) and “peace” (5), “whole” (1) and “part” (1), “won” (1) and “lost” (1), “work” (2) and “play” (2), “worth” (1) and “worthless” (1).

If Pyle perceived training camp as “a world of shit”, then the recruits-as-Marines are not in a better place in Vietnam: They are back in the hell-hole where they started and are going nowhere.  This is illustrated with a familiar Kubrick symbol - the circle.  In Full Metal Jacket, the following are circular: Hartman’s walk around the barracks as he first greets the recruits, the setting suns in South Carolina and South Vietnam, Hartman and the recruits’ walk in a circle as they drill in their underwear, formation of recruits as Pyle is beaten to the ground with a pugil-stick, tires at the obstacle course, the dots on markers on the firing range, the multiple flares from Joker’s flashlight when he patrols the squad bay, the fan in the public relations office and his walk around the table, Joker’s peace sign button, the movement of helicopter rotor blades, the pagoda archways where Joker and Cowboy are reunited, the mat behind the dead North Vietnamese soldiers who is propped up, the eight ball marking on the Marine’s helmet, tires outdoors at the outskirts of Hue City where Marines are first shot at and killed, the camera panning the Marines who pay tribute to two fallen comrades on the ground, a marking on the wall in the building where the female sniper hides.

The film makes more than its fair share of references to family.  If the Marines are a family, then it is surely a dysfunctional one.  If Hartman is a father-figure to his men, then he is an abusive one even if it does serve motivational purposes: He proclaims that he is “hard” but “fair”, and he dispenses swift punishment to those who do not conform to his strict standards.  In the opening scene, he taunts those before him to challenge him.  He attributes Joker's John Wayne-comment to “the very fucking godmother”.  For his courage, Hartman states that Joker can have sexual relations with his “sister”.  He insults the parents of Cowboy and Pyle.  One Hartman's drill chant involve parents who engage in sex; another chant involves news of a dead Marine being announced to his “mom”.  Hartman informs Cowboy that he is not holding his "daddy's shotgun".  There is an allusion to the Virgin Mary who is the mother of Christ.  Joker makes a sexually suggestive comment about Cowboy's “sister”; later the request will be repeated with Cowboy suggesting that his “mama” not be ignored.  As parents watch graduation ceremonies, Hartman intones:

       You're part of a brotherhood.  From now on until
       the day you die wherever you are, every Marine
       is your brother.

      The notion of brotherhood is shown when Pyle is ordered to work with Joker who is very patient with him; when failure is evident, the brotherhood, including Joker, turns against Pyle and punishes him.  In their final confrontation before Pyle kills his abusive father-figure, Hartman asks, “Didn't mommy and daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?!”  Joker bargains with a prostitute's rate: “Five dollars is all my mom allows me to spend.”  He voices concern about Rafterman's fate; if he were to do, his comrade's "mom" would hurt him; later Joker will be made “responsible” for Rafterman.  The nickname “Animal Mother” is family-related.  Crazy Earl calls the dead enemy soldier his “bro” and his fellow Marines his “bros”.  Over the dead, Eight Ball says, “Go easy, bros”.  The prostitute refers to Eight Ball as “soul brother”; Eight Ball calls her “little yellow sister”.  While Animal Mother countermands an order to leave two fallen comrades and he leads the charge, he reacts like a brother during a crisis; during quieter moments, he is a bully in the Hartman-tradition especially in his introduction to Joker with whom he trades insults.  In the final scene, the Marine sings the words to the Mickey Mouse Club theme song: “Come along and sing the song and join our family.”  The family is of the Mickey Mouse kind - unreal as it should be.  A more revealing criticism of the government can be found in a Hartman chant: “I love working for Uncle Sam.  Lets me know just who I am.”  If working means killing for, and dying for the country especially in an unwinnable situation, then the idea sounds unconscionable.

Awareness often leads to an understanding which is realized too late.  The recruits seem prepared for the experience as they stand at full attention before their drill instructor.  They pass the course, but they are still unprepared for Vietnam.  The rumors of a Tet offensive are downplayed.   Military journalists have to lie in their press reports to maintain high morale; Joker is asked to revise a story so that it has “a happy ending”.  Nothing has prepared the grunts for the surprise attacks and wholesale dying for which they feel helpless; something that Hartman would feel when a grunt that he trained turned against him.  Words which imply awareness are: “see” (34), “understand” (7), “know” (36), “realized” (1), “look” (16), “watch” (2), “hear” (14), “listen” (14).

In Stanley Kubrick's film, some scenes are painfully long and slow.  The final scene from the ambush in which three Marines are killed to the vengeance exacted upon their murders is approximately twenty minutes.  The multiple wounding of Eight Ball and Doc Jay are shot in slow motion; Cowboy dies slowly in Joker's arms; the war cries they learned as recruits have become death cries.  The statement made about war is clear: War injuries are painful.  Lengthy scenes make a statement about the Vietnam War: The United States was there for too long.  If some Marines expressed doubts about their presence in South Vietnam to the camera crew, the message is made clearer in another scene: When Eight Ball reports that they are not in the appointed place on the map, he makes a suggestion to Cowboy: “ .... I think we should change direction.”  The correct direction was the quick exit from Vietnam.

Why recount the Vietnam experience ten years after the war ended?  Full Metal Jacket is not exclusively about war: The film, like the original novel on which it is based, begins with the Marine training course which provides the kind of education that no sane person needs; one harrowing and dehumanizing ordeal leads to another.  The violence may be acted out on a foreign soil, but it is manufactured in the U.S.

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