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Empire List #457: Full Metal Jacket

According to an old saying, war is hell. In Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” boot camp is the pre-amble to the hell that was Vietnam. The story starts off as a platoon of marines are getting their heads shaved before being thrown into basic training. From then on they are trained for combat by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, one of the toughest, meanest drill sergeants ever depicted on film. Half of the film focuses on Hartman training the men and the second half focuses on the soldiers in Vietnam. The fight scenes are brutal, the violence explicit, the casting is perfect, and the message is clear: war sucks and it fucks people up.

I saw this movie gradually over a few years. First I saw interviews and clips about the film during a show on great movies by the American Film Institute while living in Santiago, Chile. Then I watched bits of it on television every now and then. Eventually my brother bought a copy and we watched the whole thing in the basement of my mom’s apartment while we were still living in Quebec City around 2003. It was just the two of us, which made sense. It’s pretty much a guy film. Most of the women in the film are either prostitutes or are being shot at.

R. Lee Ermey steals the show as the sergeant who must turn the recruits into soldiers. He gets right up to their faces and spits obscenities to harden them. They are about to go to war and he wants to make sure they understand no one will hold their hands in the battlefield. The enemy won’t show any mercy. Neither will he.

As training begins, a weakling emerges from the group. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) is fat, dim-witted, and clumsy. Since this is the last kind of man the army wants, Sergeant Hartman makes him a target of his insults. He makes fun of his weight, pressures him to step up during training, and humiliates him in front of the men. When he discovers a doughnut in Leonard’s bunk, Hart leaves him alone but punishes the entire group instead. At night they retaliate by beating him up with socks filled with soaps.

Eventually the men are trained to fire rifles. Much to the sergeant’s delight Leonard proves to be a crack shot. Private “Joker” (Matthew Modine) notices Leonard doesn’t only like shooting his rifle. He likes talking to it too.

It soon becomes clear the heavy psychological toll of basic training has shattered Leonard’s mind. The sergeant wanted to create killing machines but with Leonard he created a mindless killer. That is the insanity of the army. They take ordinary people, put them through hell, teach them how to kill, and then send them to war. What do they expect is going to happen when they come home?

This is not to say soldiers are a danger to civilians. Unfortunately every now and then you get a man like Leonard who simply cannot take the pressure without snapping. Sergeant Hartman believes he can take any man and shape him into a killing machine that will obey orders like a good soldier. Boy is he wrong.

Once the recruits graduate, the action moves to Vietnam shortly before the Tet Offensive. Joker is now a reporter for an army newspaper, allowing viewers to discover the battlefield right along with him. During his tour of duty he meets gruff army commanders, soldiers who are getting sick of the war, and some who are proud of their handiwork. During a helicopter ride he interviews a gunner who is happily mowing down civilians while keeping count. The gunner happily admits to shooting women and children. There’s another guy who will be fun to be around when he returns home.

After the Tet Offensive, a massive attack by the Vietcong, the action is moved to the city of Huế, an original location for a Vietnam War film. Most of the action in Vietnam movies usually takes place deep in a jungle filled with swamps, bugs, and traps set by the Vietcong who are hiding in tunnels. In “Full Metal Jacket” the action is moved to a city filled with concrete buildings where snipers lurk. The ravages of war almost make the place look like a different planet. These boys are a long way from home.

In the city, a sniper pins down Joker and a handful of men. This guy is good. He shoots one man and uses him as bait to lure out the rest of the soldiers. They believe they are dealing with a formidable adversary. In their mind he must be a six-foot-tall Vietcong soldier who had a sergeant just as tough as Hartman. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say even Hartman would have been surprised when they finally see the sniper.

“Full Metal Jacket” is one of the best war movies ever made. Its right up there with “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, and “Saving Private Ryan”. R. Lee Ermey, a real-life drill instructor during the Vietnam War, set the standard for all future portrayals of drill sergeants in movies. His scenes with the recruits show how during a war ordinary men are turned into soldiers. Many of them will die, some will lose their mind, and most of them will wish they had never gone to Vietnam. I imagine many Vietnamese felt the same way.

(Note: my brother recently pointed out he didn't buy a copy of the movie. It was a Christmas present from mom.)


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