A few days back, I watched Full Metal Jacket for the first time in many years. It made me think how lucky I was to never have gone to war. I had a few friends join the Marine Corps straight out of high school. One was a combat medic in Iraq. I never asked, but I believe Full Metal Jacket likely was an influence in him joining. I remember us frequently quoting from the film, trying our best to imitate Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s crude, rapid-fire dialogue during the boot camp scenes. There’s a wealth of quotes from Hartman, ripe for the pickings for impressionable teenage boys. In the Vietnam scenes, you might have a few (the main being the Vietnamese prostitute’s “me so horny“), but, for the most part, it’s the drill instructor’s lines that dominate the most-quoted from the film. R. Lee Ermey’s performance was so visceral, so realistic (because he was a real Marine, an actual drill instructor who served in Vietnam), I can’t help but think that my friends, and young men just like them, were so captivated by the film that they themselves wanted to be challenged and molded by the likes of men like Ermey to earn the title of United States Marine. Kubrick was such an intellect, I’m sure he foresaw reactions 180 degrees from his intent, especially after the controversies surrounding A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps that’s sometimes the price of great art. Make no mistake about it, Ermey was the real deal. His performance as Hartman, the defining role of his acting career, is the stand-out to many, myself included. He’s the mechanism that turns soft-bellied Gomer Pyles into killing machines. Hartman’s death marks the midpoint of the film. Ironically, the slow, naive recruit he transforms into a killer through mental and physical brutality, Private Pyle (played by disgusting fat body Vincent D’Onofrio), murders him. Private Joker, played Matthew Modine, is spared, the only living witness to Hartman’s murder and Pyle’s suicide. That event leaves a mark on his soul, a scar disguised as humor that he wears on his helmet and chest later in the film. Perhaps the only difference between him and Pyle was that he wasn’t pushed past his limits and into madness. The only way out for Pyle, the only way for him to end his suffering and find peace, was death. Joker carries that lesson with him and it’s reflected later in the film.
The Duality of Man
After the midpoint, the movie picks up in Da Nang, 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. Joker is now a sergeant and staff writer for the Marine Corps paper, Stars and Stripes. While on assignment with his combat photographer Rafterman, they get a tip regarding the N.V.A. murdering innocent civilians. When they arrive at the mass grave of the civilians, Joker is admonished by a colonel for wearing a peace symbol on his uniform. Further irritating the colonel is the writing on Joker’s helmet: born to kill.
On the surface, Joker is simply telling a joke. It certainly is laughably ironic, especially for a wartime solider. When that joke gets him in hot water (like his John Wayne joke in boot camp), his intellect comes through and saves his ass from the colonel’s wrath. Joker is well-read. I’d venture to guess that not too many NCOs have read Jung, much less battle-hardened colonels. Jung believed that there’s a duality to human nature; if there’s good in the world, it produces a “corresponding evil.” He called it “a painful fact.” Joker’s experiences and observations in boot camp and, later, war, have transformed him. Though he has the intellect to be aware of this, he’s yet to be tested. That comes later.
In the final act of the film, Joker is reunited with his old friend from bootcamp, Cowboy. He and Rafterman join-up with Cowboy’s squad and soon find themselves lost in the rubble and ruin of a battle’s aftermath that is so fresh that its fires are still raging. While trying to make it out of the worn-torn city, the squad is ambushed by a lone sniper, who tortures and murders Joker’s fellow Marines, including Cowboy, Joker then finds himself on the hunt for the killer. He’s the first in the squad to the find the sniper. As he sneaks up and makes his move, two major and immediate conflicts are presented to the audience: the first, Joker’s M16 jams; the second, the sniper is a woman who has been altered to his presence.
How Can You Shoot Women and Children?
Earlier in the film, while on transport with Rafterman, they’re both disgusted and shocked by the actions of the helicopter’s doorgunner as they witness him shooting innocent Vietnamese farmers for the sport of it (the doorgunner is played by real-life Marine and Vietnam veteran, Tim Colceri, who was originally cast as Hartman, but was recast when Kubrick saw then technical advisor R. Lee Ermey in action). When Joker asks the doorgunner how he “can shoot women and children,” the man replies, “Easy! You just don’t lead ‘em so much.” He then laughs and says, “Ain’t war hell?,” a joke that even the Joker couldn’t find an ounce of humor in.
Ain’t War Hell?
After trying to get the drop on the sniper, Joker’s rifle jams. He’s pinned down, seconds from death, with the sniper moving in on him, unloading her rifle in his direction. He’s saved at the last second by Rafterman, his combat photographer. Before the squad arrives, the two Marines stand over her. Joker is shocked beyond words – not only is she a woman, but Rafterman’s bullets did not kill her. As the squad arrives, led by newly appointed leader, Animal Mother, Rafterman celebrates his kill, kissing is rifle and metaphorically beating his chest. Joker, however, is distraught by her suffering. It’s here where the squad is presented with two decisions: let the woman suffer a slow, miserable death, exact a passive revenge for the torture and murder of their fellow Marines; or put her out of her misery. Animal Mother, the undisputed alpha of the squad, wants her to suffer. When Joker challenges him, saying “we can’t just leave her,” Animal Mother threatens him and gives him an order to “let her rot.” Understanding who he’s dealing with, Joker assures Animal Mother he’s not trying to challenge his status, he simply believes someone should end her suffering. Here, Kubrick holds on the sniper, gasping in misery, pleading with someone to shoot her. Animal Mother, perhaps picking up on Joker’s compassion as weakness, changes his mind. He knows if Joker were a killer, if Joker were a battle-hardened mother fucker like he is, he wouldn’t have asked. That’s why Animal Mother gives him the green-light. He wants to see Joker pop his cherry. He wants to see Joker become a killer. This is Joker’s most important decision of the film, the climax. Up until this point, he hasn’t killed anyone. Though he’s a Marine serving in war, he’s believes he’s nothing more than a writer covering the war, who also happens to be a soldier trained to kill. Here, Kubrick shows Joker’s inner struggle, wrestling with his conscious, the duality of his character. He doesn’t want to live with having ended this woman’s life, but he sure doesn’t want to see her suffer. You see it reflected in the squad, too. There’s a quick shot of Rafterman, who earlier was on the verge of vomiting from witnessing the doorgunner murdering innocent rice farmers, now wears a gaze of psychosis just like Pyle had before murdering Hartman. Modine’s performance is brilliant (probably, in part, because Kubrick made the actor suffer through a hundred-plus takes to get it). Does Joker let her suffer or does he put her out of her misery? Pulling the trigger seems to take all his strength, but he does so. And with that action, he becomes a killer because he gave someone suffering a slow, miserable death some peace. Ain’t war hell?