If you thought you had seen the definitive Vietnam War movie without seeing Full Metal Jacket, then think again. Stanley Kubrick’s narrative about a bunch of American marines who make the transition from boot camp to battlefield is as compelling as it is unforgiving. The transition is an allegory for a transformation of soldiers from raw youth to hardened, dehumanized killing machines.
The movie is an exploration of a contradiction: How do you reconcile the urge to recognize the enemy as a human being with the necessity of treating a human being as an enemy? After all, American soldiers were in Vietnam, or so they were told, to help the ‘gooks’ to help themselves. Or in the words of private Eightball, “I don’t understand them (he means the Vietnamese). I mean…we are here to help them out and they don’t even seem to appreciate the fact?”
Boot camp is a particularly grueling place pit bulled by a hard task master of a sergeant. He says that he “does not discriminate between niggers, punks, kikes and other forms of low life. They are all equally worthless?” He gives his ‘ladies’ hell everyday, and some fail to make the cut. In one memorable scene early on, he lines up the marines and gives them names: Joker, Gomer, Eightball, Animal Mother. Henceforth they are to call each other by their boot camp nick-names, the first step in erasing their humanity and becoming programmable zombies.
The contradiction plays itself out through the agency of private joker. In Vietnam he wears a peace button and a helmet that says, ‘born to kill.’ Does he love his country? Yes, he does, or at least that’s what he tells his superior officer. He is the leader of his group in boot camp and wants to help out private Pyle, a slow learner, but also dislikes him because he is getting the group in trouble with his moronic ways. There are hints about his ambivalent feelings towards the enemy. But he has to suppress them to preserve his own sanity. The contradiction explodes spectacularly in the climax, where joker has to make a choice. The choice he makes does not resolve the contradiction, but puts him in an easy frame of mind.
The film has all the traditional Kubrickesque elements: scenes that close with dramatic endings, slow dissolves that linger in the mind long after, music that is alternatively haunting and cheerful, brilliant frame compositions and a surreal feel. The combination of dialogue, music and visuals packs a taut left hook. Watching the film I couldn’t but help thinking about contemporary events in the Middle East. A case of history repeating itself? Just replace ‘gooks’ with ‘sand niggers’ and ‘North Vietnamese Army’ with ‘Al-Qaida’ and this could be a movie about the Iraq misadventure.