Every time I see comments or reviews about Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), I hear the same complaints: it was two completely different movies, and the first half was better than the second half.
I remember initially feeling the same way as I was watching the Vietnam portion of the film. I thought, “Woe, wait a second. What’s going on? I just sat through this incredibly riveting segment about some kid who goes crazy in boot camp because his drill instructor was riding him the entire time. Now I’m in Vietnam, and it’s like that entire segment never happened. No one’s talking about it, not even the main character, Joker (Matthew Modine). And no effort has been made to connect the two segments.”
Had The Master lost his touch? Was this the movie in which I could finally say, “Kubrick finally jumped the shark”?
No. On the contrary–Full Metal Jacket is, indeed, one whole movie. However, whether you see it as one movie or not depends on whether you saw the common thread between both segments. If you saw the common thread, you saw one movie. If you didn’t, you saw two movies.
So, what was this common thread? Well, let’s look at the two segments again more closely.
In the first half of the film, we see a group of new marine recruits fresh off the bus who are entering boot camp at Parris Island. Since this training is all about toughening everyone for combat, it’s extremely brutal physically, mentally and emotionally. The drill instructor, Sgt. Hartman, couldn’t be more sadistic. He screams at, verbally abuses and punishes the young recruits at every turn. If they even so much as look at him cross-eyed, he goes after them like a pit bull on steroids.
All of the recruits eventually toughen up except for one–“Gomer.” “Gomer” is the fat, wimpy, sensitive nerd of the group, more or less like Piggy from Lord of the Flies. He’s also a colossal screw up and can’t seem to do anything right no matter how hard he tries. Naturally, when Hartman sees what a complete and total loser he is, he goes in for the kill. He rides Gomer the entire time and even gets the other recruits to turn against him. However, the joke is on him. One night, Gomer steals a weapon and lies in wait inside the bathroom. Sgt. Hartman finds him and as usual, heaps a pile of abuse at him. Gomer then blows him away and kills himself. Kaboom.
Right after this shocking incident, the movie suddenly shifts gears to Vietnam and focuses on Joker and his exploits as a war journalist. Full Metal Jacket then becomes a standard Vietnam War combat film, and there’s not one thing about it that references what happened during Joker’s training at all. There’s not even a throwaway comment explaining how it all ties together. It’s as if Kubrick started out with one movie, got bored, and went in a different direction.
However, he didn’t. There is a common thread between this and the first half of the movie that ties them together. But what?
Notice in the Vietnam War combat segment how Joker and his buddies talk to each other. Even though they’re obviously the best of friends and have a camaraderie, they’re as verbally abusive to each other as Sgt. Hartman and the other drill sergeants at Parris Island were to them during boot camp. Of course, the abuse is all done in a joking, frat boy-type matter. They call each other ethnic slurs, they insult each other’s mothers, they say the cruelest things. Nevertheless, it’s still pretty shocking because jokes or not, this isn’t how people normally talk to each other. It’s almost as if Joker and his friends are mentally incapable of speaking to each other with respect or kindness. You could even say that they endured so much mental and verbal abuse at Parris Island that they internalized it to the point where they can’t talk to each other normally anymore.
Okay then. So the guys wound up being as jerky to each other as their drill instructors were to them. So what? What was Kubrick trying to say?