The Greatest films of all time: 76. Full Metal Jacket (1987) (USA)


In the history of art and perhaps science there have been two groups of greatest artists and scientists. One group of geniuses who have been able to produce more than one masterpiece, invention or discovery. The other one has not been able to go beyond one or two pieces of great works. Of the latter group, some were genius in one aspect and as a result of their limitations, they have not been able to produce more than one great work that happened mostly in their earlier career life. Some of this second group have only been able to achieve great later in life through maturation. The only possible exception to this generalized categorization is in classic music as masters such as Bach, Vivaldi, Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven have been able to produce many ongoing great music pieces, though even in this group of geniuses, some of their works stand beyond the others.

In the history of cinema as well, there have been two above groups. A few like Chaplin and Bergman have been able to produce more than one masterpieces, though they had their own genius limitations that have faded over time and have not been able to match the great classic composers. The second group of master workers have been more in number, who have been able to create one or two great films, due to their limitation in their genius or their subjects. Filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Vertov, Fritz Lang, De Sica, Kurosawa and John Ford have produced only one great film and not able to repeat their master works due to their limitations or obsessions in their subject works, like Kurosawa’s rigidity over Samurai and Ford’s preoccupation with westerns. Many in this group of one or two great creations, have achieved early in life and stumbled later on with no great works. Sergio Leone and Stanley Kubrick are of those few who achieved greatest later on in their career lives by strenuous and hard work and maturity.

Stanley Kubrick who taught himself photography and the art of filmmaking and continued with his hard and perfectionist strive, entered cinema with so many different works of all kinds, from short to feature films, different genres and subjects. Although he has been hailed by many critics as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, he only got close to a masterpiece in “2001:A Space Odyssey” that broke some cinematic conventions and achieved great cinematographic visual and special effects. But perhaps due to his perfectionism, while he started very well in the opening of the film, he lagged short with his slow development in the rest of the film up in the spaceship to the point of boredom for 142 minutes to make a philosophical point. Even in his masterpiece of “Full Metal Jacket” that is listed here as one of the greatest films of all time, Kubrick starts great in the first half in the recruit boot camp that was hailed by many critics, but lags behind in the second half in Vietnam that was critiqued by many as disjointed and slow.

In Kubrick’s film, no matter the genre and subject, there is always an ideology or message to deliver. Starting with “Spartacus” depicting the riot of slaves in the roman empire, he finally decided to make a film about the Vietnam war to make his own special point and message across, and indeed he achieved well and the best. There is a parallelism between the training of slaves into gladiators in “Spartacus” and the recruit of the marines in “Full Metal Jacket” under American empire, in the harshest and cruelest manner worse than the ancient world. The absolute abusive treatment of the marine recruits by sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) for the sake of maintenance of the hegemony of United States for the so-called “National Security” has been the best and never before on the screen. This depiction of reality of the policy of recruitment of marines that was based on the semi-autobiographic novel of “The Short-timers” by the ex-marine Gustav Hasford from his own experience in the Vietnam war, alone matched the best anti-war films and sufficient to disgust everyone of the United States and their war making policies. As it will be explained further in the following, indeed the film’s second half in Vietnam could have been made disjointed and disconnected deliberately by Kubrick, as the reality of the war and what the marines experienced in the field was totally different and unconnected with their harsh recruitment.


From Maggots to Killers:

The film opens with the shaving heads of the young American men getting ready for the marine recruitment while in the background playing the song of “Hello Vietnam “ by Johnny Wright.

The choice of the song for the opening scene is on its own self-descriptive of the film. The song sings:

Kiss me goodbye and write me while I’m gone.

Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam…

I don’t suppose that war will ever end.

There’s fighting that will break us up again.

Goodbye my darling, Hello Vietnam.

America has trouble to be stopped.

We must stop communism in that land.

Or freedom will start slipping through our hands.

Goodbye my darling…

I hope and pray someday the world will learn

That fires we don’t put out will bigger burn

We must save freedom now at any cost

Or someday our own freedom will be lost

Kiss me goodbye and write me while I’m gone

Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.”

In the next scene Sergeant Hartman after introducing himself as the privates’ drill instructor, starts right off his dehumanizing treatment of the young men by incessantly insulting their beings and crushing their confidence as human beings so to train them as the heartless killers: “From now on you only speak when you’re spoken to, and the only thing will come out of your filthy mouths will be “Sir”. Do you maggots understand that?” He addresses the young privates as “ladies” who if they survive the training, “You will be a minister of death”. He labels them as maggots and “ not even being fucking human beings…nothing but unorganized grabasstic pieces of amphibian shit.” The sergeant while stating that there’s no racial discrimination in the camp, he calls them “all equally worthless”.

Then he starts learning each of the private’s names and after they say their names, he changes their names to “Snowball, Joker, Gomer Pyle, cowboy,..”. When a soldier mumbles that the sergeant acts like John Wayne, he gets infuriated and insults them again as “assholes, pieces of shit, scumbags, pukes…” While he claimed not being racist, he keeps asking one by one “Do you suck dicks” and insulting their states of origin, their names and more. Private Pyle who will be all the way through the training period the subject of the sergeant’s harshest treatment, is attacked from the start for being fat and having a silly grin on his face that he cannot change. The sergeant forces him to choke himself in his hands to change the grin on his face. The first part of the film in the boot camp while it is dehumanizing and brutal, at times seems to be comic and satirical.

The next scene shows the group with the sergeant in jogging drill while he makes them singing inappropriate and degrading songs insulting their parents and Vietnamese. The sergeant makes the private Pyle pulling down his pants and sucking his thumb marching behind the group for being clumsy compared to the rest. The sergeant orders the group to sleep with their rifles at night and give them girl names as “that will be the only pussy you will get”. In one marching drill the bunch headed by the sergeant, while holding their rifles on their left shoulders, squeezing their balls singing “This is my rifle, this is my gun” in another satirical scene. When the private Pyle cannot clime up over a hurdle and pull himself over the bar fix, he becomes more a subject of insults and dehumanizing.

One day the sergeant asks the private Joker if he believes in the Virgin Mary and he responds no, he attacks him by labeling him communist. Then Joker is put in the job assisting Pyle in learning the tasks that he has been struggling with all along. One day when the sergeant find out a jelly doughnut in the private Pyle’s foot locker , he forces him to eat it while punishes the whole platoon to push ups and from then on being responsible for misbehavior and under-achievements of Pyle for not helping him to change. The bunch angry with Pyle, one night in their dorm while he is in sleep start beating him up while one of them holding him.

On the day of shooting practice, the sergeant tell the group that Charles Whitman who shot and killed 23 people and Lee Harvey Oswald who shot and killed JFK as a moving object as examples of marines who were capable of such skillful shooting and killing tasks. On Christmas Day after singing happy birthday to Jesus, the sergeant shouting that we as marines are the killers who fill up the heaven with the fresh souls. The only time the sergeant likes the private Pyle is when he finds out his shooting skill is excellent.

On the group’s graduation day, the sergeant tells them “From today on you are not maggots but marines”. Then he announces each of their depositions and when finds out the Joker has selected to join the army press, he shouts at him “You must be joking. You are not a writer, you are a killer”. On the last night in the camp, Joker who’s on the watch, notices Pyle sitting in on a toilet in the restroom putting bullets in his rifle’s cartridge and looking totally out of his mind. Pyle starts doing drill with his rifle and repeats loudly “There are many rifles, but this is my rifle ”. Finally he wakes up every one including the sergeant who comes and screams at him to hand over his gun, but Pyle who looks totally insane, shoots and kills him before killing himself.

The second part of the film opens with a scene in Saigon, where a sexy Vietnamese girl walking provokingly towards two soldiers sitting on the side walk of a cafe. She asks the soldiers if they would like to have a girlfriend and that she is “so horny and sucky sucky”. One of the soldiers asks her price and they negotiate over $15 or $10 that suddenly a Vietnamese man approaches from behind and grabs the camera of one of the soldiers who was taking photo shots of the girl, and jumps on a motorbike waiting for him with another man.

The next scene shows Joker in an army press office meeting with the chief editor who asks his writers to write about blood trails and killings that are missed by the civilian reporters. The most of the second part of the film shows the marine corps are comfortably enjoying themselves in the city or their camps without much of actions that they were trained for. Joker while like many of the marines wearing helmet written “Born to Kill” on, is also ironically wearing a peace sign button on his uniform that are criticized and ridiculed by his editor boss and a colonel later on.

 Joker and his camera man, Rafterman are sent on a helicopter to a mission by the Perfume River to report killings and blood sheds. On the helicopter, there’s a killer soldier who keeps shooting down at the civilian Vietnamese farmers who run for their lives and keeps laughing, careless about killing women and children as well. Joker and his photographer Raftermen reach a mass grave of civilians covered with lime and they are told that the bodies are of local teachers, authorities, men and women who were killed and some were buried alive. Reaching a platoon in the action field, Joker runs into Cowboy from the training camp. One of the soldiers ridicules Joker for his name and also being a reporter and not a killer and the other one asks Rafterman to take pictures of a dead Vietnamese soldier whom he had killed and now has put beside him on a chair as his trophy.

The rest of the film shows the fighting in the wreckage of a town between the marines and Vietnamese resistance force. In an interview by TV reporter, a group of soldiers express their opinions about the war and their involvement. They question why they have to travel thousand miles away from their homes to fight for the freedom of the Vietnamese while they can take care of it themselves. Joker in the interview expresses himself that he would like to see the exotic Vietnam and not what he has seen so far.

The last half an hour of the film is the shooting engagement of the platton including Joker and Rafterman in the city ruins against Vietnamese, specially a sniper who keeps killing a few of them from a building. Finally after passing many aimless shots at the building, the squad gets into the building and shoot the sniper who’s a young female resistant fighter. She is on the floor still alive and suffering from her wound asking the few soldiers watching over her body to shoot her and end her torment. While others wanted to leave her to rotten. Joker who cannot leave her to suffer, shoots and finishes her, a scene that perhaps he would never forget for the rest of his life. The film ends with the marines singing Mickey Mouse club song marching away.

Opening with a dehumanizing boot camp training to change ordinary young men (maggots according to the sergeant) to marine killers to serve thousand of miles away from their homes to kill men, women and children of another land for so claimed freedom of their homeland needed to be ended with the Mickey Mouse club song. This is the irony of the Vietnam war created by a disorganized and irresponsible US government at the time with no win at the end but misery on both sides that Stanley Kubrick achieved to depict on the screen. While many antiwar film have shown the casualties of wars, “Full Metal Jacket” was able to show the underlying diplomacy and ideology of a war machine system that creates heartless killers for supremacy.


In closing remarks “Full Metal Jacket” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Full Metal Jacket” is original in disclosing the American war machine that makes her own young men ruthless killers for no sensible cause. The first part of the film in the training camp is also original as the preparation of men for war had not been shown before on the screen.  
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Full Metal Jacket” other than a few absorbing cinematographic shots and great performances is in its incessant dehumanizing of the privates by the sergeant in an uninterrupted long enough tempo that has become a classic on its own.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Full Metal Jacket” has been probably on any future film with dehumanizing content.
  4. Survival: “Full Metal Jacket” has survived well to this very day in not only as a classic antiwar film, but one that showed the brutality and futility of Vietnam war from the start to finish.

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