Episode 54: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Film chosen and introduced by Matt

I was a terrible sleeper as a kid. I’d often only drop off if I was watching TV downstairs, or had my dad read to me. A clunky old television soon changed that. When my grandparents finally bought a new living room telly, their old box (and I mean old) was suddenly up for grabs, and fortunately found its way into my bedroom. It had a plug-in, external aerial, which could just about provide a watchable picture if you jiggled it enough, balanced it precariously on the edge of the set, or a nearby flat surface – if the cord would stretch; the perils of terrestrial TV before the digital switchover. It also thankfully had an early remote control – it was the size of a brick, but it had one. I’d watch late night movies, controller in hand, and hone my talent for switching over during adverts and back to the film again, before, or just as the film recommenced – a skill I have proudly retained to this day.

Sometime during secondary school, which would put me between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I recorded a late night screening of Full Metal Jacket, with commercials littering the broadcast, which would make it a Channel 4 standalone showing, or more likely, part of one of their many Stanley Kubrick seasons over the years.

“You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings! You are nothing but unorganized, grabastic pieces of amphibian shit.”

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick was once described as “a remarkable, genius, nightmare, warm, caring, distant, cold, expansive, funny, hugely intelligent, totally driven man” and again, “the most patient man, and simultaneously the most impatient of tyrants.” In truth, Kubrick was at the mercy of his wife, Christiane, and daughters, Vivian and Anya, whose feminine powers helped keep him in check, in spite of his domineering nature. According to Christiane, Stanley was the opposite of a recluse. This was one of many misconceptions about the man. He was curious and gregarious, but didn’t suffer fools. He worked from home as it was logical and convenient. No one recognised him as he never gave television interviews, so he enjoyed popping to Ryman’s on the high street to look at the new stationary – always paying with cash to remain anonymous. If he made you coffee or tea, he’d spill it. He’d burn your toast, but he would always offer. He was bitingly sarcastic, and often very funny. On Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick put several Warner Bros. executives in a van during shooting, and told them not to come out. That is power, and evidence of his playful, humorous nature. Maybe I’m blinded by how much his work means to me, and I have no doubt Shelley Duvall would disagree, but I like the sound of Stanley.

Yet, the manner of Kubrick’s directorial approach precedes him. “Regimented” doesn’t come close. He’d spend two days on an actor, performing one line, over and over, doing 66 takes or more, and then not include it in the final film. Kubrick would sometimes light for an entire day, and then send everyone home. It took seven days alone just to light Pyle’s bathroom scene in FMJ. Kubrick purportedly shot a million feet of film on both The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. His maniacal, repeated takes on the former resulted in a gargantuan 100:1 shooting ratio. On Full Metal Jacket, he apparently averaged close to thirty takes – the most being 37, on Lee Ermey, for the unlocked footlocker scene. Matthew Modine’s theory was that Kubrick in fact liked to halt shooting, for whatever reason imaginable. It was the chess player within him. It gave him time to step back and reassess. He also cracked the code of Kubrick’s exhaustive drilling of actors in as insightful a way as I’ve ever heard it put. He found the actors’ complaints about, “Why is Stanley doing this to me?” egotistical, and instead contemplated, “Why is Stanley doing this to himself?”

Films are built in the edit; why not do thirty takes if you can? Or if you feel the need to explore the minutiae of something to a ridiculous degree? How many directors would do that if they didn’t have suits and studios breathing down their necks? I hesitate to say a lot. Yes, Kubrick went over schedule massively, but only 10% or so over budget. He famously took his time, ordering in McDonald’s and pizzas for the cast and crew, or vegetable curry for himself, which according to Modine, in his superb Full Metal Jacket Diary and iPad app, was all Stanley ate. It was a humble setup. Kubrick would parsimoniously count the plates at lunchtimes to ensure the crew was as skeleton as humanly possible. Stanley didn’t want to rush, or have any pressure during shooting. Pre, and post-production, ok – just not during turnover. For me, this precision and keen attention to detail is where Kubrick pulls away from his contemporaries. As Martin Scorsese said, “One of Stanley’s pictures is equivalent to ten of somebody else’s.” I do feel that’s a touch modest, especially coming from Marty, but it’s a claim that makes you wonder if Kubrick could be the best filmmaker we’ll ever experience.

After Stanley refused to grant Modine a day off to visit his wife in hospital for the emergency C-section birth of their son, Boman, Modine threatened to cut his own hand with a knife in order to guarantee an A&E visit. Seemingly outwitted, all Kubrick could muster was that Modine should’ve named his kid, “John,” or something else “normal.” Later, regarding Full Metal Jacket’s potential alternate endings, Modine broke Stanley’s golden rule of there being “no bad ideas” and criticised both the director, and the cast, in Stanley’s Winnebago. Kubrick, who had by this point, adopted some good ol’ British swearing, chose to refer to Modine as a “miserable cunt” for an extended period of the shoot. I know the type. Nothing is right. Nothing is good enough. We often want to please these people when we’re faced with them – especially when they hold a position of authority over us. On some level, we may even fear them, but ultimately they don’t command our respect. However, love him or hate him, Kubrick did.

As incredible as his films are, I find myself wondering if it all could’ve been achieved without these provocative methods. Would the films be what they are if Kubrick had behaved differently on set? Wouldn’t they be almost identical if he’d just lightened up, used one of the first three takes, and treated everyone with a gentle respect?

Personally, I believe it’s who he was that made his filmography so unique. Those innate, methodical quirks may have been unpleasant for some, but you can’t pick and choose with artists, with friends, with lovers, with people. It’s all or nothing. We should accept them entirely, or not at all, and that’s how I regard Kubrick. We mustn’t chop him up, remove the rotten bits, and separate the aspects of his character we agree with. Who knows, maybe the key to what makes his films so special is that Jungian dark side he seemingly embraced.

“These are great days we’re livin’, bros. We’re jolly green giants, walking the earth, with guns!”

Crazy Earl, Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick began developing Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers in 1980. By the time it came to fruition as Full Metal Jacket in 1987, Vietnam films had become a ubiquitous subgenre.

To be clear, I love and respect Francis Ford Coppola’s work. He’s without doubt among the toppermost of history’s greatest directors. Although his 1979 Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now, has sheer cinematic clout, and the scale and chaos of it stuns, Full Metal Jacket boasts an intent, and to a degree, an execution, that Apocalypse lacks. As foolish as it may be to compare apples and oranges, I only invoke Apocalypse Now to emphasise the importance of Full Metal Jacket, and to place it alongside the very best of its peers, where I believe it holds its own. As I did, you’re probably comparing the quality of the imagery in each film in your mind – something I concede is debatable as to which is superior. When I picture the napalm strike, or the destruction of the Kurtz compound, I’m wowed every time, but I don’t believe most take as much intellectually from Apocalypse as they do Full Metal Jacket.

For one, Apocalypse Now was helmed by a certifiable madman (at the time). Coppola had lost the plot – gone insane. Just look at his wife, Eleanor’s stunning documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, and see for yourself. Coppola descended into madness, to the threshold of his sanity, he had no idea how to end his movie, was concerned he was making a pompous film on an important subject, and that it had become a pretentious failure, all the while teetering on the verge of suicide. Brando and Hopper’s scenes are strong, but they were ultimately improvised on the spot by drug-addled maniacs. All power to them, it’s a dazzling piece of work, and even more than that, an appropriate mirror for Vietnam. As Coppola said, “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.” Conversely, Kubrick knew precisely what he was making. Sure, he shot thirty-odd takes of scenes, just to see what happened, but when he experimented, he did so within an already cemented vision. Also, throughout his life, Kubrick didn’t alter a frame of Full Metal Jacket. No reduxes were necessary. Coppola, however, returns to Apocalypse endlessly and fiddles. Stanley Kubrick made the film he wanted to make the first time.

Some call Full Metal Jacket the best “war movie” ever made, whatever that means. Despite the astounding execution of Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach opening, as a complete piece, FMJ has a cold commentary and resonance that Spielberg’s WWII drama lacks. It has less abstraction and pretension than Apocalypse Now, and simultaneously evades the melodrama of Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It’s more of an intelligent allegory. We feel as if we know where the bodies are buried, but still have to dig.

“Listen up, pilgrim. A day without blood is like a day without sunshine.”

Joker, Full Metal Jacket

At the climax of Full Metal Jacket’s first act, the ethereal howls of Vivian’s score wither and merge with my favourite shot – the now totally iconic, Steadicam tracking entrance of the Da Nang hooker (and A View to a Kill Bond girl, Papillon Soo Soo), with Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ playing. This gelling of striking image and subliminal lyrical content are second to none. Before this scene can be decoded, we need to view the ending’s adolescent sniper as being an incarnation of Vietnam – a physical representation of the entire war. No heavy firepower, just a brave girl defending her country by any means necessary. The Vietnamese people were underestimated, taunted, and abused, but ultimately “won” out over the U.S. Army. When factoring in FMJ’s female roles in particular, this karmic revenge payback message is evident in Sinatra’s salty, swaggering lyrics: “You’ve been a’messin’ where you shouldn’t’ve been a’messin’. You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’, and you keep losing when you oughta not bet. You keep playin’ where you shouldn’t be playin’, and you keep thinkin’ that you’ll never get burnt (ha). One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

“It’s a hardball world, son. We’ve gotta try and keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.”

Poge Colonel, Full Metal Jacket

I tend to watch Full Metal Jacket alone. It conjures a mood I don’t mind dwelling in for a couple of hours, and then I leave it well behind, if I can. Subjecting someone else to this film could be classed as a cruel act. This one’s solely for the phoney tough and the crazy brave. It is depressing, but no more depressing than watching the news. It’s such a sad experience, partly because it’s still going on. It’s a Vietnam War period piece, yes, but at its heart, it’s just as much an exploration of modern warfare. We only wish it was the past, and not our present.

Full Metal Jacket doesn’t answer questions. It won’t comfort you with false hope. It’s a stylised look at how absurd war is, and challenges us to just look; look at what we’re doing to ourselves, and each other. Look what we’re capable of, and how we continue to echo our violent mistakes of the past. It’s an uneasy watch. It’s obsessive and clinical, but has an action as clean as Pyle’s rifle, Charlene. It’s a pornographic view of a stripping away of human decency and humanity to further a corrupt and evil political cause. It’s a Kubrickian warning that these actions, if repeated, will ultimately result in our downfall. It’s not a perverse, cold study; it’s a cold study of the perverse – a film sliced in two by a cinematic magician, who then challenges us to put it back together again in our own minds.


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