Directed by Stanley Kubrick
From the moment it begins, Full Metal Jacket lets you know that no one matters, at least not in the eyes of the military at this moment in history. We watch as a number of unsmiling new recruits sit still while their heads are shaved. In each shot we lose a defining characteristic about each man, and they all start to blend together.
The first 45 minutes of this film follow a group of new soldiers as they go through basic training, verbally and occasionally abused by Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. He feels like the character that every drill sergeant has been based on in movies since 1987. Hartman strips the men of all dignity, particularly Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), a heavyweight recruit who struggles with pretty much every aspect of basic training except for, eventually, shooting a rifle.
Pyle is not the Private’s real name. It’s a nickname Hartman has given to him in an effort to reform these men into killers. The other important characters are Private Cowboy and Private Joker, who’s tasked with helping Pyle play catch up. Joker, stone-faced like all the other recruits, feels like just another guy. There’s nothing special about him, but he ends up being the character we follow through the second and third acts of the film.
Joker is a nice guy at first. He dutifully helps Pyle learn how to handle his gun and climb the obstacle course. Things start looking up for Pyle who at this point in the story feels like the protagonist. He’s easily the most abused recruit, and he has the largest hill to climb. Whereas every other recruit blends in and follows the rules, Pyle is the one with the most defining personality and appearance. He stands out, in other words. So at some point you might think he’s the recruit who will grow the most and become our lens through which to view the Vietnam war.
Instead, he keeps messing up, bringing Hartman’s wrath down upon the entire group of recruits. They respond viciously one night, each taking a turn beating him with a bar of soap. It’s a heartbreaking scene, and it might as well be the death of whoever Pyle was before the war and the birth of the killer he’s becoming. While Hartman’s signature brutal personality remains, he compliments Pyle on his marksmanship, a haunting foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Before the recruits begin practicing with their rifles, which Hartman forces them to bond with, even giving them female names, Hartman brings up two instances of marines “successfully” operating their rifle: Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. Whitman, of the University of Texas shooting, and Oswald of the… well you know who he is. Hartman seems to speak glowingly of these men, praising their technical ability with a rifle, calling attention to Oswald’s ability to get off three rounds in under six seconds while shooting at a moving target. This scene really highlights Hartman’s goal, to create ruthless killers. He doesn’t want men in his military, only killing machines.
Hartman probably did his job too well as Pyle snaps and shoots Hartman with his rifle. This comes after he recites the “this is my rifle, this is my gun” chant we first heart the recruits recite within the first ten minutes of the film. He then turns the gun on himself and pulls the trigger. Private Joker is the person to witness this, a look of horror drawn on his face.
Suddenly the recruits graduate, and before we know it we’re in Vietnam where an almost unrecognizable Corporate Joker works as a war correspondent with Stars & Stripes, a journalism outlet. It’s unclear how much time has passed, but Joker is hardly the person he seemed to be in the first 45 minutes of the film. His hair has grown in, thick, and he truly is a joker, one with some authority over a fellow soldier and combat photographer, Private Rafterman. It’s telling that, despite letting some of the humanity back in, these soldiers keep their nicknames from basic training.
Joker now wears a helmet with the words “Born to Kill” taped on as well as peace button on his jacket. He tells someone that it’s in reference to the “duality of man.” In other words, Joker doesn’t seem to fit in this war where all the solders have been bred to shoot first and think never.
Joker claims to have seen combat, and Rafterman wants to be in combat. They both refer to combat as “the shit.” After a surprise attack on their military base, both men are sent out to Phu Bai, and on the way Joker runs into Sergeant Cowboy, Joker’s friend from basic training. They appear to be close friends or brothers, as Hartman indicated marines would become. We never saw them share any brotherly love in basic training except for one scene in which they discuss the fading likelihood of Pyle making it through training. But now they’re good friends, so Joker and Rafterman hitch along with Cowboy’s unit.
The rest of the story doesn’t have much of a plot beyond them going further into “the shit.” Several men are killed including Cowboy right before the film’s climactic sequence. In that scene, Joker has an opportunity to kill a sniper who has already killed three of their own men, but his gun jams, and he is saved by Rafterman.
Joker seems to be shaken, but Rafterman dances gleefully, extremely proud of his first kill. He is the type of soldier Hartman would have been proud to have developed. The sniper a young Vietnamese woman, writhes in pain on the ground. The other soldiers want to leave her there, but Joker, after a long pause, shoots her dead, putting her out of her misery.
The remaining squad marches onward, further into the war, and in a voiceover Joker tells us that he feels alive. The ending feels very much like the end of Apocalypse Now, with the protagonist experiencing a sort of rebirth, but one bathed in blood. Joker has become the killer that this war seems to help create.
The whole story feels very awkwardly paced at first, but afterwards it all feels natural. It’s a bit jarring to spend so much time in basic training with the death of the two most prominent characters before we even reach the halfway point in the film. It’s meant to shake us a little bit, and it made me realize that it didn’t matter which character we followed through the film because they’re all meant to be the same. Joker’s journey, while dramatic and profound to him, means nothing to anyone else who was shipped somewhere else in the war. Hell, the other soldiers all might have had a journey similar to his. The film is about the breakdown of these characters, and we simply follow one of those journeys. The tone of this film suggests that each of the other recruits we briefly met would have experienced a similar journey.
So while Joker becomes the ideal military killer by the end of the film, Pyle reached that point even before the end of training. Both characters break, but Pyle’s is more sudden and dramatic while Joker’s transformation takes more time and is less obvious because it occurs in an environment where everyone is already broken or well on their way.
Pyle’s transformation stands out because it took place in the sterile environment of the marine barracks. It’s an extraordinarily clean setting for the conception of these ruthless, violent assassins. He’s like a baby born prematurely.
When Joker enters combat, he retains his own personality and sensibilities. His hair is full, and his uniform is decorated like Brian’s Chotchkie’s uniform:
Joker is not the typical soldier, yet. He’s Waldo while everyone is literally everyone else in Where’s Waldo? Cowboy’s head remains shaved (or just bald), and another soldier in Cowboy’s platoon is similarly shaved. That soldier, named Animal Mother, drapes himself in bullets and carries the biggest gun everywhere he goes. His break happened long ago, and he prides himself in shooting the enemy, nothing more, nothing less.
Joker’s late to the combat so he’s behind. He plays catch up with those soldiers like Pyle had to in basic training. In that way, the basic training segment of the film and the combat section parallel each other. In one we start and end with a soldier losing his hair, then his life. In the other we start with a soldier entering the shit, then becoming one with the shit.
I think Kubrick wanted each character to make you uncomfortable. There are no real characters to identify with here except for maybe Cowboy. At first you’re rooting for Pyle to toughen up and fit in, but Hartman’s goals for his unit are so counter to anything the average person would hope for that we don’t know what we want. Then Pyle snaps and basically becomes Charles Manson, and our rooting interests move to Joker. But Joker himself helped lead to Pyle’s breakdown because instead of protecting the man he was put in charge of, he helped lead the unit’s midnight attack on the big fella. In fact, now that I think about it, that attack mirrors the surprise Vietnamese attack on the U.S. military base. That surprise attack put in motion the series of events that leads to Joker’s movement towards combat and his own eventual transformation just like the attack on Pyle broke his spirit and let him become the deadly assassin that takes down Hartman.
So by the time we start to follow Joker, our feelings about him are complicated because we’ve seen both how supportive he can be but also how brutal he is. After every other soldier took his turn beating Pyle, Joker steps up to the plate, but he pauses as if unsure of this. We think he won’t do it or at least won’t do it willingly, but then he finally hits Pyle. Then he hits him two more times. It’s a truly enlightening moment for the audience, and it’s clear that Joker isn’t any type of hero. When we see him in war he is condescending and full of himself.
Once Joker comes across Cowboy, though, we finally meet a soldier who seems to have retained some of his personality and is also still empathetic to the people around him. His fellow soldiers either make subtle threats or pose with pictures of dead Vietnamese soldiers or make crude jokes at each other’s expense. Cowboy is a thoughtful guy. In a scene in which the soldiers are interviewed for television, many of them discuss wanting to kill the enemy, and Cowboy jokes about the lack of horses in Vietnam. He’s a nice guy. Of course he dies, and his death is meant to provoke Joker into getting further involved in the war. Everybody has lost something, and how Joker has too.
When the film ends, the soldiers are in their own formation, much like the forced formation of the recruits in basic training. Back then they were an assorted group of decreasingly unique individuals who had no real connection with each other. Everything was orchestrated by an outside force (Hartman), but by the end they walk and sing a Mickey Mouse song in unison, finally tied together by similar experiences. Those experiences, though, have essentially shaved the humanity off of them and stripped them to the bare essentials which in this case is a pair of eyes, a trigger finger and a trigger.