A funny thing happened in 1980s Hollywood, as America absorbed the reality that it had lost the Vietnam War. First, there was a self-created mythology of war films in which the U.S. somehow went back and extracted a victory from Vietnam, or it defeated the Soviets, or it beat the hell out of terrorists. It was an extended campaign of feel-good war movies that said a lot more about its audience’s desire for a quick and easy win than anything else. But then, once Hollywood got that out of its system, it began to re-examine Vietnam with a more critical eye. Enough time had passed since the fall of Saigon for American audiences to be more honest with themselves about exactly what went down in Southeast Asia from 1955 to 1975. And as that happened, the Vietnam War became the backdrop for some truly extraordinary movies some truly extraordinary movies not just about the ‘Nam, but about war itself. And among the very best of these is Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comic masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket.
It is 1968, right at the height of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and just before public approval in the war turns negative. On Parris Island, Private Joker and his fellow recruits are introduced to the brutal care of Drill Instructor Hartman, who proceeds to systematically break down every one of his recruits so he can reforge them into a Marine that don’t just excel at war, but revel in it. Joker’s training regimen is as tough as it is revelatory, as he sees that not all recruits pack the gear (as Hartman puts it) to serve in the Corps. Soon Joker sees just how steep the price of success and failure can be on the road to becoming a Marine, and afterwards, he arrives in Vietnam in time for the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Huế. As his squad travels further into the ruin of urban combat, they are faced with a series of impossible decisions that will test their mettle first as Marines, but more importantly, as human beings.
There’s a case to be made that Full Metal Jacket is really two different movies—the first act on Parris Island, and the second act in Vietnam. Perhaps had it been made today, Full Metal Jacket would have been a true duology. But as it stands, it’s a tale of two halves, radically apart in terms of tone, but still linked and best seen as the yin and yang of the same narrative.
The first half almost entirely rests on the brilliance of R. Lee Ermey’s award-worthy portrayal as Drill Instructor Hartman, an avatar of discipline and weaponized profanity the likes of which we shall never see again. Such was the brilliance of this performance. The first six minutes of Full Metal Jacket—in which Hartman introduces himself to his new recruits and then subjects them to an unprecedented verbal, emotional and psychological dismantling—is easily the most easily remembered portion of the movie. It is an astonishing piece of work; Ermey’s ability to spit some of the harshest put-downs in the English language one after the other without pause is something to behold. And at first, it all seems to be merely the unhinged ranting of a sadistic bully who happened to find a system in which he could vent his spleen 24/7 and be rewarded for it. But the extreme order of Parris Island, and the unflinching brutality of Hartman has a purpose: to prepare its soldiers for the chaos that awaits them in Vietnam. After all, people may think they are ready for war, but they never really are. And by then, it’s too late to turn back and prepare any further.
That’s the point of the second half of the movie, the often-criticized soft underbelly that prevents Full Metal Jacket from being perfect cinema. There are standout scenes in Joker’s trip to Vietnam (a brief conversation with a door gunner who is himself a flying war crime comes to mind) but collectively, they don’t form a straightforward narrative. But then again, that’s the takeaway from this particular war. Nothing was linear in Vietnam, and certainly not for the grunts who had to hump all day in the boonies or watch their officers come out of college and promptly catch a bullet. But by the end of it, we do get to see enough to know that there are three kinds of people on the battlefield: those who see its horrors and laugh, those who see its horrors and cry, and those who are going from one to the other and watch things unfold from behind a thousand-yard stare. At one point, Joker wisecracks about wearing a peace fin on his flak jacket to comment on the duality of man. He might be the only one who gets it.
The final scenes of the movie are an extended encounter between Joker and the soldiers of Lusthog Squad and a single sniper, amid the ruins of the city of Huế. It’s a rare Vietnam movie that focuses on urban combat, instead of the jungle, which may be why so many audiences found this section hard to parse. But it’s an effective and tortuous segment in which the order of the squad breaks down and a real sense of fear begin to seep into the soldiers. It is one thing to know somebody is out there trying to kill you. It is another to not know where to point one’s weapon in response.
None of it is particularly easy viewing. But as the remnants of Lusthog finally dispatch their enemy, they do it in a moment of truth that is as searing as it is sobering. Their enemy lies mortally wounded, begging for a mercy killing. We know it will be Joker who pulls the trigger. But why? We get the answer in the final scene, as Joker marches into future peril, no longer afraid. In Joker’s war, there can be no greater prize.