Kubrick's Vietnam, 25 Years Later

When the 25th anniversary Blu-ray of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War movie, Full Metal Jacket, showed up in the mail last week, I knew what was going to happen. As I glowered at the lavishly packaged thing and it glowered glacially back, my inner Jiminy Critic chirped up with his usual reproach to my anti-Kubrick bias.

“Practically everybody but you knows that Stanley is the greatest thing since sliced eyeballs,” he said, making that tired joke about Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou for the gazillionth time. “You chump, did you even notice that 2001: A Space Odyssey just vaulted into sixth place in Sight and Sound’s poll of The Greatest Movies Ever Made? And you haven’t seen this one since it came out.”

Feebly, I protested that once was enough. As for 2001, I’ve seen it four or five times, just trying to figure out what everybody else is going on about. I still think it’s like watching somebody mistake solitaire for poker.

“Once is not enough, if I may be so bold as to quote the famous American author Jacqueline Susann.” (My Jiminy Critic sometimes talks like Chou En-Lai.) “Time for due diligence, my huckleberry droog. Watch Full Metal Jacket again and try to spot whether the emperor is at least wearing mismatched socks and a codpiece.”

So I did, and oh, well: it’s not quite as bad as I remembered. There is an Argyle here and there. But it’s still a self-important stew of war-movie cliches repurposed to look like profundities. You could argue that its regurgitation of World War II tropes in Vietnam’s context is a pointed dislocation, but that doesn’t make it an especially expressive one. Nor can the oddity of shooting a Vietnam-set movie on the outskirts of London be hailed with a straight face as a brilliantly perverse artistic decision; the simple fact was that Kubrick had a phobia about leaving Merry Olde. Millions of Warner Brothers dollars got flushed down the toilet over the years to accommodate that little whim.

As my fellow oldsters may recall, Full Metal Jacket is basically made up of two long sequences: the boot-camp ordeal at Parris Island that ends with much abused fat boy Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) shooting his drill instructor and then himself, followed by that deed’s witness Private Joker (Matthew Modine) playing Marine war correspondent at the battle of Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive. It’s a parody of the training-to-combat narrative arc of World War II Marine movies like Battle Cry and Sands of Iwo Jima, which favored at least cast continuity between the two realms—you’ve met the squad, now watch ‘em die—instead of Kubrick’s deliberate disjunction.

Kind of by definition, though, successful parody has to say something fresh and apt about its subject. And as a statement about Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket is corny—not nearly as inventive as the much crasser Kelly’s Heroes, which played the opposite game by grafting Vietnam-era cynicism onto the Good War itself. I’m not even that huge a fan of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which came out earlier the same year. But Stone’s Vietnam movie left Kubrick’s stranded at the post come awards time for good reason, much as Robert Altman’s unheralded MASH turned Mike Nichols’s widely-anticipated Catch-22 into a white elephant back in 1970.

The way every frame of FMJ is imbued with Kubrick’s steely mystique—something that really ought to be generated by viewers’ responses, but that the latter-day Stanley managed by fiat —creates an illusion that the movie is saying something mordant and unprecedented. But its attitudes are shallow and fatally secondhand. The notion that Marine training as such, and not the reality of Vietnam, brutalized nice American boys into dehumanized killers is knee-jerk and shrill. (You’d never guess, for instance, that the drill instructor’s persecution of Private Pyle has the purpose of saving lives in combat.) That war’s horror wasn’t what they’d been turned into Stateside; it was what they’d been turned into for. Yet Kubrick is hardly the director to remind us that the people of Asia suffered most. The only Vietnamese he finds room for are two hookers and a sniper—who’s also female, laying on the misogyny a bit thick.

Unless you’re an admirer of Kubrick’s coldly impressive visual command—never my cup of tea, since it’s got no liveliness or geniality—what’s here to like? The rarest thing in a latter-day Kubrick project: good, non-cartoonish performances by some of the actors. Modine is too bland to make a particularly effective viewpoint character, but Arliss Howard’s Private Cowboy—decent, worried, and in over his head once he’s promoted to noncom—is a genuinely created, interesting human being, not a billboard. Dorian Harewood, on the other hand, is a billboard— he’s playing The Black Guy, pure and simple—but can almost fool you into thinking otherwise.

Considering Kubrick’s intentions, however, it’s a fitting irony that R. Lee Ermey, as the Parris Island drill instructor, is the best thing in Full Metal Jacket by miles. Not an actor by trade, at least up to then, Ermey was the real thing: a onetime Marine gunnery sergeant who’d only been hired as a technical advisor until Kubrick heard his barracks indoctrinations and promoted him. (He even improvised most of his flavorful, obscenity-laden dialogue, an unheard-of autonomy on a Kubrick set.) How could the director have watched him in action and not grasped that what D.I.’s do is a kind of performance art to begin with, not sadism for sadism’s sake? Ermey’s self-amusement, brains, and deadpan delight in his own verbal inventiveness—not to mention his utter confidence that he knows why he’s doing what he does, and cruelty isn’t its point—give the lie to the movie’s whole agenda.

Otherwise, sorry, Jiminy. I wasn’t convinced by so much as a minute of Full Metal Jacket back in 1987, and I’m not any more convinced now. Then again, a big part of my impatience with the later Kubrick is that I never got the feeling he wanted to convince me of much of anything except his own majesty.

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