“Good-bye, my sweetheart. Hello, Vietnam.” — Johnny Wright
“Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” – Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket was Stanley Kubrick’s eleventh film (twelfth, if you count Spartacus) and his last to depict war and the military. Kubrick dealt with the military in Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove in very different ways. In Full Metal Jacket, he would focus on the institutional and ideological aspects of American marines and their experience in Vietnam.
Full Metal Jacket is based off of the The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, who also had a screenplay credit along with Kubrick and Michael Herr. Hasford reportedly did not contribute much to the script except for a few lines of dialogue. Herr was chosen as collaborator because Kubrick admired his book Dispatches, which was a New Journalism take on the Vietnam War based off Herr’s experiences as a war journalist while working for Esquire. Kubrick and Herr took the source material and changed the overall narrative significantly by expanding the chapter on the recruits’ training and leaving out many events from the latter parts of the book. Kubrick and Herr created a narrative that has two distinct but connected parts; each segment has its own three-part structure, making Full Metal Jacket a six-act film that runs just short of 2 hours. The ending has a conclusion, but it is unsettling and lacks the closure spectators are used to seeing in a narrative film.
It is worth noting that Kubrick and his co-writers produced several scripts and Kubrick was even revising the story while the film was being shot. The shooting script had an ending where Joker was killed in the line of fire, intercut with scenes of him as a child playing with toy guns. Several other scenes that set up Joker as a lead, heroic character were filmed and subsequently cut. Even after Kubrick scrapped the original ending and decided on the existing one, there was another scene cut that followed Joker shooting the sniper. In this cut scene, Animal Mother trumped Joker’s “hardcore” move by cutting off the sniper’s head and tossing it around. According to several behind-the-scenes records, Adam Baldwin did numerous takes of this scene tossing around a rubber head and many crew members eventually got nauseated from this experience. After this ordeal, Kubrick decided to take the scene out much like how he removed the pie-fight scene from Dr. Strangelove. Thus, as with many of his other films, Kubrick was always rewriting while shooting and the film that eventually became Full Metal Jacket changed so much from the initial rewriting of the script, the various rewrites, the shooting, improvisation on set, and the editing process. Everything in the film is the product of Kubrick’s obsessive, artistic mind, which was constantly searching for the story he wanted to tell while he was creating it.
Kubrick’s Vietnam film is one that has no heroes. Joker, originally written as a hero, does not serve that function. There are moments where he steps into that role and certainly the infrequent use of steam-of-consciousness in the voice-over provides some unity to the film, but his actions do not drive the narrative and he is much too passive to be the conventional hero. Without a main character, Full Metal Jacket might appear to lack unity. But this is never the case with a Kubrick film and certainly not with a film as coherent as this one. Every shot, sound effect, music choice, and acting directions connect to each other in repeat viewings. The images and soundtrack unify the apparently aimless two-part narrative about failed ideological interpellations and the American military institution in Vietnam.
The film begins with the song “Hello Vietnam” by Johnny Wright, played over a montage of recruits getting their heads shaved in the barracks in Paris Island, South Carolina. The recruits sign up with their own sets of clothes and hairstyles, only to be made equivalent by shaving their heads and given uniforms for physical training and sleeping. Immediately, they are stripped of their individuality and become a blank slate for the marine training camp to turn into killing machines. As blank slates, the recruits are taught a new system for thinking and communicating in the Marines. Vulgar sexual language is constantly spewed out from Hartman, their drill instructor, to explain their required duties. The recruits are ordered give their guns female names while each of them are given sexually derogatory names like “Snowball”, and speak to each other in Hartman’s language (For example, Joker says to Cowboy, “I wanna slip my tubesteak into your sister” as they mop the head). Hartman’s speeches repeatedly objectify women and instruct the recruits to do as well.
The second half of the film has a set of corresponding scenes that show this attitude put to work. All of the women Joker and his crew meet in Vietnam, or the ones we are shown, are prostitutes, turning their bodies into pleasure-objects for the men. The Marines kill Vietnamese men with their rifles and penetrate the women with their penises. Femininity is coded in the Marine Corps as weak, passive, and soft while masculinity is coded as hard, strong, fierce, and aggressive. What is not clearly shown is that femininity, especially the physical reproductive organs, the sex of the woman, is coded as terrifying and dirty. That void where men are supposed to thrust themselves into is unconsciously a terrifying space that threatens to swallow up the hard weapons of the marines (recall the phrase “Mary Jane Rottencrotch”). Rot, decay, and death are also associated with women. Femininity is not simply the antithesis of the Marine, but it threatens to destroy these rough and tough weapons of war. The end goal of Hartman’s training is to make the Marines hard like their rifles made of wood and steel, hard like their erect penises. The recruits march around the barracks singing, “This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for shooting, this is for fun.” The end goal of the boot camp is to strip away all of the feminine qualities of the Marines and heighten, to the highest degree, their masculinity.
Hartman’s training also emphasizes cleanliness, structure, and order. The Marines spend their days endlessly exercising their bodies, which become weapons in the Corps, and repeatedly cleaning their barracks, weapons, and equipment. The bathroom is always kept as clean as can be and anything resembling messiness and disorder is gradually chipped away from their consciousness and daily lives. The use of soap to punish Private Pyle ties into the Marine ideology of cleanliness. When Hartman decides to punish the other recruits instead of Pyle for his mistakes, they implement their own form of discipline to make sure Pyle cleans up his act. In the middle of the night, they stage a disciplinary session, where each recruit strikes him with a bar of soap wrapped in a towel, symbolically polishing this turd for his failures. In the same way that the Marines are taught to keep all of their equipment clean, their bodies being the most effective piece of equipment, they “clean up” Pyle for his sloppy behavior. This is also why the conclusion to the first story must take place in the bathroom. The bathroom is the only place where feces is allowed.
When Joker finds Private Pyle in the bathroom, he is hunched over on the toilet like he was relieving himself. Joker warns Pyle that if Hartman finds him in the bathroom, he “will be in a world of shit.” We all know Pyle’s response: “I am…in a world…of shit.” He sees himself as a piece of shit, unfit for the Corps because he is soft, dirty, and weak. Private Pyle’s response connects to Hartman’s earlier comments about dead Marines: “And then you will be in a world of shit, because Marines are not allowed to die without my permission.” Hartman hears the noise and bursts into the room dressed in his pajamas and hat, barking rhetorically, “What is this Mickey Mouse bullshit?”, to Pyle and Joker. Joker shoots Hartman, murdering the paternal figure of the Marine ideological apparatus, then points his rifle into his gaping mouth and pulls the trigger. Making a bloody mess of the clean bathroom, Pyle’s suicide depicts the failed interpellation of this would-be weapon of the United States Marine Corps.
The conclusion to the second half of the film represents the unconscious terror of the Marine ideology: a woman with a gun. When Joker and his crew descend on a ravaged tenement, a sniper picks several of the Marines off from a hiding spot. After Eightball gets shot twice, Animal Mother rushes in to save him and the squad follows. When they eventually get inside the sniper’s den, Joker and Rafterman corner the sniper. Joker tries to shoot her but his gun jams. So much for keeping it clean and perfect so the “bolt moves smoothly and the action is tight” as Hartman taught. The hard weapon made of steel fails the Marine and he is caught with his pants down in front of the female sniper, embodying the most terrifying enemy of this fascist ideology. As a woman, she threatens to swallow up the Marines’ hard weapons and is equipped with her own tool of destruction. Unlike the hookers the Marines met before, this Vietnamese woman is not available for penetration because she has her own phallic object that threatens their masculinity and dominance. Rafterman saves Joker from getting killed, celebrating joyfully. Kubrick does something very interesting with the soundtrack at this point. The same sounds used in the bathroom suicide scene in the finale of the first half are used in this sequence when the Marines go to inspect the dying female sniper. Kubrick connects this death with Pyle’s suicide. Both the sniper and Private Pyle are victims of the Corps. The sniper prays and then says “Kill me, kill me,” and Joker obliges her wish. “Hardcore, man, fucking hardcore,” his fellow Marines say to Joker, construing his act of mercy as something else entirely.
Kubrick ends the film with the Marines marching while singing the Mickey Mouse March song. “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E,” the Marines sing, recalling Hartman’s mention of “Mickey Mouse bullshit” earlier in the film. Kubrick answers Hartman’s question quite clearly in this scene: the United States Marine Corps is Mickey Mouse bullshit. Joker’s voice-over is played over this scene and his words perfectly conclude Full Metal Jacket by connecting back to the first segment: “My thoughts drift back to erect-nipple wet dreams about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and the great homecoming Fuck Fantasy. I am so happy that I am alive. I’m in a world of shit, yes, but I’m alive. And I am not afraid.” Joker survived this battle and he now consciously accepts the world of shit that is the Marine Corps.
— Cody Lang