Written by Kirk BairdStanley Kubrick didn’t set out to make a great Vietnam movie; he wanted to make the definitive war film. More specifically, a film about what war does to men and women…and children. And just like with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—the first in a wave of reactive and reflective Vietnam movies—Full Metal Jacket’s Vietnam setting is mostly incidental. In fact, Kubrick, notorious for not wanting to work much further than a short drive from his English home for his later projects, filmed Full Metal Jacket in and around London, with an abandoned gasworks outside the city doubling for a crumbling and bombed out Hue City, including imported palm trees planted all around. But really, the Vietnam setting is intentionally amorphous so that the burned-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets could be doubles for World War II or, more currently, the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars.
Full Metal Jacket was just released in a deluxe Blu-ray 25th anniversary edition, which includes a half-hour retrospective by cast and crew and others, audio commentary, and the fascinating and illuminating hour-long documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, which sheds light on the increasingly reclusive director through personal notes, photos, and fan and hate mail. Kubrick died March 7, 1999, at the age of 70.
The director’s film operates on two distinct levels, in much the same way as Private Joker (Matthew Modine), the closest thing we have to a protagonist in Full Metal Jacket, speaks of his own duality as killer soldier-peaceful civilian.
There is the harrowing marine indoctrination on Parris Island, with star-making turns by Vincent D’Onofrio as the simpleminded Private Pyle turned crazed killer, and R. Lee Ermey, a former Marine drill sergeant, who steals the film with his profanity-laced tirades as the taskmaster assigned to make soldiers out of teenagers. This act is about creating the perfect killing machine.
The second and third acts are about Vietnam, where the killing machine is loosed. More than just an hour of white-knuckle bloody combat, though, Full Metal Jacket dispassionately examines modern warfare through young marines, through innocence lost on both sides of the war, and through the media machine that tries to tell the story of war while avoiding the truth. There is commentary sprinkled throughout Full Metal Jacket, but it’s subtle—unlike the majority of Vietnam War-based films.
Consider the film’s ending, as the marines, after a grueling firefight with a sniper, retreat inward to a childish comfort and sing out the Mickey Mouse Club theme song as they leave the burning city. There’s nothing heavy-handed about the moment, but its visceral impact lingers.
Full Metal Jacket was released in June, 1987—nearly a year after Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoon, thus creating unnecessary comparison between the Vietnam films. But there really is no artistic comparison.
As D’Onofrio notes in the film’s audio commentary, “The narration in Oliver’s movie is fantastic because it’s Oliver’s deal and he went through it…you can’t beat it.…But [Full Metal Jacket] is Vietnam plus weirdness beyond belief. Full Metal Jacket is just an amazing piece of work, just the whole thing.”
Full Metal Jacket has all the ingredients of a classic Kubrick film: sharp, almost cold camera angles, an emotional detachment from the director—thereby allowing us, the audience, to create our own responses to the film—and meticulous detail in every shot that begs for repeated viewings with the finger on the pause button. Eyes Wide Shut may have been Kubrick’s last film, but Full Metal Jacket is his last extraordinary work. And this special box set gives the film its proper due. Kubrick was no stranger to war films. Also check out these two anti-war classics:
Paths of Glory
Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)