David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

“Full Metal Jacket”: The Jungian Thing

Nobody seems to be paying attention to the fact that 2007 marks the 20th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Warner Home Video finally released a deluxe 2-DVD edition just last week, along with remastered editions of The Shining, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and a few others.

Why is it a shame that nobody’s marking the occasion? Because Full Metal Jacket is one of the most meticulously crafted films of the past 20 years. I think it’s damn near perfect.

'Full Metal Jacket' movie poster(Interesting side note: Believe it or not, this will be Full Metal Jacket‘s first home video release in widescreen. The film was originally shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, what you and I call “widescreen.” But if you’re an eccentric genius like Stanley Kubrick, you get to make unconventional decisions. Before his death Kubrick decided that, since 98% of the world’s TV sets back then had a 4:3 aspect ratio — i.e. “fullscreen” — henceforth and forevermore his films would be released in a 4:3 aspect ratio. None of that devil letterboxing for Stanley! It’s only now that Warner Home Video, with the collaboration of the Kubrick estate, is restoring the films to their original specs.)

Audiences have had a peculiar relationship with Full Metal Jacket since its debut on July 26, 1987. It’s much loved in some quarters, but it’s equally despised in others. Everyone seems to appreciate the taut first act set in a Parris Island Marine boot camp, yet many never get over the film’s sudden shift to Vietnam in its second half. Even so perceptive a critic as Roger Ebert famously called the latter half of Full Metal Jacket “a series of self-contained set pieces, none of them quite satisfying.”

But Full Metal Jacket is designed to be a two-part story; just about everything you see in the first half of the film has a parallel in the second. It’s a structure Kubrick has used before (cf. the apes/the astronauts in 2001, and Alex’s life before/after his treatment in A Clockwork Orange).

More than that, the film is full of dualities: Joker’s helmet with the peace symbol and “Born to Kill” inscribed on the side (“I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man… The Jungian thing, sir”). The two dramatic deaths at the end of each section. The two-mindedness of the American public about the war. Joker’s own conflicting desires to “get into the shit” and to get out of there as quickly as possible. His dual nature as Leonard’s teacher and as the one who beats Leonard the hardest. And so on.

Of course, most of the moviegoing public doesn’t want to see films about Jungian dualities, and so people often go into Full Metal Jacket with false expectations. Hollywood generally only gives us three categories of war films: (1) the anti-war film (Platoon, Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory) (2) the war-is-sordid-but-necessary-and-sometimes-ennobling film (Saving Private Ryan), and (3) the out-and-out propaganda film (John Wayne’s The Green Berets, 300). But what do you do with a Vietnam movie that not only refuses to take a stand on the Vietnam War, but actually embraces its contradictions? “Do I think America belongs in Vietnam?” Crazy Earl says in response to a question from the television interviewers in FMJ. He looks totally perplexed, like he’s never even considered the question before. “I don’t know. I belong in Vietnam, I’ll tell you that.”

So if you’re going to get the most out of Full Metal Jacket, be prepared to take the long view. The way long view, the view of an alien civilization dispassionately studying humanity under a microscope. Like those hypothetical aliens, Kubrick rarely makes moral judgments; he simply observes. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Joker, Animal Mother, the Vietnamese sniper, even the crazy gunner gleefully shooting down fleeing Vietnamese civilians from a moving helicopter — the film doesn’t really take anybody’s side. It doesn’t give you convenient moral labels to tell you who the good guys and who the bad guys are.

Take Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played with vicious brio by R. Lee Ermey (you know, the guy who’s played the military drill sergeant in every fucking movie since 1987). At first blush, he seems like as good a candidate as any for a villain in this movie. A manipulative brainwasher, a callous tool of the U.S. government. But on repeated viewings, you realize that he’s not the villain at all — quite the opposite. He’s doing his best to prepare these soldiers to survive out in the field. He’s a father figure. He’s a protector and teacher. He’s Obi-wan Kenobi, if Obi-wan Kenobi called his Padawan learners “unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit.”

“Because I am hard you will not like me,” says Hartman. “But the more you hate me, the more you will learn.” Didn’t Mr. Miyagi say something similar to the Karate Kid when making him paint the fence?

Put in that light, Hartman’s abuse of Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’onofrio) becomes not just understandable; it’s necessary. Look at the scene where the platoon goes tearing through the mud in slow motion, only to have Leonard trip and pull the whole team down into the mud with him. We fat and happy civilians look at that scene and think, why doesn’t someone give that poor kid a hand? Hartman looks at that scene, and he thinks: that kid’s not just going to die in Vietnam, he’s going to get a whole shitload of other Marines killed too.

So Hartman is playing the role of the Teacher. But you know what happens to the Teacher in all these stories: he dies. In fact, he must die, because our Hero must learn to prove himself, alone.

Who’s our hero in Full Metal Jacket? He’s called the Joker (Matthew Modine). His name is never given, but if you look closely, you can see that the nametag on his shirt says “J.T. Davis.” And Full Metal Jacket is the story of his coming of age, the story of his transformation from protected child to self-actualized soldier.

Joker and Animal Mother in 'Full Metal Jacket'At the film’s outset, he’s a gentle soul who’s trying his best to maintain an ironic detachment from the reality of the Vietnam War. He responds to Hartman’s diatribes with a mock John Wayne swagger; his “war face” is the pathetic imitation scream of a man who’s only seen death on TV; he tells the television crews that he wants to be “the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill.” For the Joker, war is something remote. Death is something that happens to other people at a distance.

But over the course of the next 120 minutes, Joker will see the barriers between him and death slowly stripped away. Notice how the authority figures protecting Joker from the big, bad world become less and less authoritative as the film goes on. At first, we have the stern and menacing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman; then there’s the sour-faced colonel who tells Joker to “get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you”; next there’s Lieutenant Touchdown, who seems competent if not particularly fearsome; then there’s Crazy Earl, who’s hardly much of an authority figure at all. By the time Cowboy takes command of the squad, you can see that he’s too green to have any sway over the anarchic Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin, now known to many as Jayne Cobb from Firefly). In the last scenes, even Cowboy is gone, leaving the Marines bereft of any real authority figure.

When we reach the last minutes of Full Metal Jacket, Joker comes face to face with death for the first time. As he faces down the Vietnamese sniper, we realize that Joker’s never really been under fire before. Nor has he ever killed another human being. Oh, he’s hunkered down in a bunker during the Tet Offensive and fired wildly at darkened figures in the distance. But to look the enemy directly in the eye and pull the trigger? No.

So Joker has reached his moment of truth, the moment that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was trying to prepare him for. Can Joker set aside the irony, the sarcasm, the phoniness, and perform the job he signed up to perform as a Marine?

No. Joker fails, as Hartman foreshadowed way back in Parris Island. “Your rifle is only a tool,” he said. “It is the hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong, you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill.” Joker hesitates, his rifle jams, and he withers under fire. He reaches for his pistol, drops it. Only by dumb luck — by the quick thinking of his buddy Rafterman, who Joker tried to leave behind — does he survive.

Earlier in the film, Joker asked the helicopter door gunner incredulously “How can you shoot women and children?” Now the question comes back to haunt him as Joker stands over an enemy sniper who is both a woman and a child (about 16, by the looks of her). The camera lingers over his face as he finally accepts the duality of man, the Jungian thing. Human beings are savage and civilized, kind and cruel, noble and deranged. Joker shoots.

Full Metal Jacket ends with Joker marching confidently alongside his brothers singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short,” Joker narrates in the end. “I’m in a world of shit… yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”

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  1. John Joseph Adams on October 30, 2007 at 12:47 am  Chain link

    Great essay. If I didn’t already love that film, I’d *have* to go out and see it after reading this.

    Question: What 2-DVD edition are you talking about was released last week? I see a 1-DVD edition released back in May (http://www.amazon.com/Full-Metal-Jacket-Adam-Baldwin/dp/B000P0J09C/ref=sr_1_3/102-2741404-1577752?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1193719412&sr=1-3), but nothing else.

  2. Steve Thorn on October 30, 2007 at 7:13 am  Chain link

    It is an Amazing film. Vincent D’Onofrio is great, probably best thing Modine has ever done or will do, and of course, and it introduced the world to R. Lee Ermey.

  3. David Louis Edelman on October 30, 2007 at 9:08 am  Chain link

    John: I believe the new edition of FMJ is part of the “Warner Home Video Directors Series” collection (here on Amazon). The restored FMJ was also released on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.

    I read somewhere that aside from the new remaster, the only real extra is a “making-of” featurette that’s rather unsatisfying.

  4. Brian on October 30, 2007 at 11:53 am  Chain link

    Great essay, David.

    The novel by Gustav Hasford that the movie was based on is interesting – it’s more true to the story than the movie is. Hasford was a writer in the same way that Kubrick was a movie director – he did things his own way and it worked. Shame he was taken early – the man had a gift for writing.

    I have not been to war but if people want to know what Marine Corps boot camp is like I point them to this film. Now – nothing like that ever happened to me in boot camp, the DIs could not swear, there was no physical abuse, Gunny Hartman is a stereotypical ogre .. so while it was nothing like that .. that’s what it was like.

    If that makes any sense.

  5. David Louis Edelman on October 30, 2007 at 12:20 pm  Chain link

    I did try to read The Short-Timers at one point about 15 years ago. For some reason, I didn’t care for it then, though I’m eager to give it another shot. (FYI, I just discovered the other day that Hasford wrote a sequel, The Phantom Blooper, and was intending to write a third novel too.)

    An amusing anecdote I read about Hasford… Apparently Kubrick asked co-screenwriter Michael Herr to introduce him to Hasford while they were working on the movie. Herr said that’s a bad idea, Hasford is a really scary guy and you won’t like him. Kubrick said I want to meet him anyway… and apparently the meeting went so poorly that Kubrick banned him from the set. Or something like that.

  6. Brian on October 30, 2007 at 5:31 pm  Chain link

    Herr said that’s a bad idea, Hasford is a really scary guy and you won’t like him.

    There was also supposed to be some friction between Ermey and Hasford. Ermey served in Vietnam, but with the Air Wing. Hasford was a combat correspondent and saw Ermey as a REMF and was not above telling him so.

    Or something like that. Guys with Ermey’s persona can be hard to take in person if they don’t turn it off.

  7. John Joseph Adams on October 30, 2007 at 7:02 pm  Chain link

    Well, crap. Looks like only HD-DVD and Blu-Ray get the widescreen treatment. Looks like the regular DVD verison they just re-released is still 4:3, or 1.33:1 according to Amazon, but the reviews indicate it’s still not widescreen, and the HD aspect ratio is listed as 1.66:1. (The one you linked to in the comments was the Blu-Ray edition. All I’ve got is a regular DVD player, alas.)

  8. David Louis Edelman on October 30, 2007 at 7:21 pm  Chain link

    All I’ve got is a regular DVD player, alas.

    Me too.

    Interestingly enough, if I understand this review correctly, the FMJ fullscreen edition is not a pan-and-scan job. Kubrick actually shot the film in the fullscreen aspect and chopped off the top and bottom to achieve the widescreen effect. So what you’re seeing when you watch the fullscreen is just the widescreen edition, plus an extra band on the top and bottom that wasn’t originally intended to be visible.

    I hope that makes sense. Took me a bit to wrap my head around it.

  9. coffeesister on October 30, 2007 at 10:46 pm  Chain link

    Being a widescreen fanatic, knowing that it’s the top & bottom that were trimmed in this case helps me appreciate my fullscreen version.

    I so love this film & you’ve perfectly described why. Not only do I enjoy a film with its “Jungian thing” doing its thing but our duality is singularly avoided by too many. My own allowance for its existence is oft mistaken for ambivalence which, of course, irks me to no end tho’ I understand. ~_^

    Kubrick is my favorite director & I thank you for this post. In fact, I’ve linked to a few film reviews from my blog & am adding this immediately. ^_^

    |_|) “Seven-six-two millimeter. Full. Metal. Jacket.” ~ Private Gomer Pyle

  10. […] David Louis Edelman | Full Metal Jacket: The Jungian Thing If you’ve seen and love the film, go read this great appreciation and analysis of it. (If you haven’t, you might want to skip it and go rent the film instead. Spoilers abound.) (tags: Kubrick film) […]

  11. Andrew T. on October 31, 2007 at 10:21 am  Chain link

    Hey, Tom Witherspoon, my co-worker, forwarded me this. I’ll look through it shortly, but to anyone who loves Kubrick and philosophy, I’d definitely recommend this book by Thomas Allan Nelson. In fact, his chapter on Full Metal Jacket is titled “The Kubrickian Thing” as Kubrick’s growing obsession with things Jungian began to evolve into his own philosophical leanings.

  12. Andrew T. on October 31, 2007 at 10:21 am  Chain link

    Sorry, didn’t include the book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Kubrick-Inside-Film-Artists-Maze/dp/0253213908

  13. Ken Preston on October 31, 2007 at 5:54 pm  Chain link

    I saw Full Metal Jacket when it came out, and I think I was expecting another Platoon, which I really liked.
    FMJ just left me feeling cold.
    My only real memory of the film is when the fat kid falls down, and everyone in the cinema fell about laughing, as though we were watching some stupid comedy.
    I couldn’t laugh though, I didn’t see it as funny at all, and looking back I kind of remember that laughter having a desperate quality about it, as though the audience were desperate to find something enjoyable about the film.
    Enjoyed reading your views on the film. There is no doubt at all that Kubrick was a genius, but I found most of his films difficult to appreciate.
    Apart from Dr Strangelove. Saw that at university (not for the first time) and the audience was just right. Very funny indeed.

  14. […] Full Metal Jacket: The Jungian Thing – A thoughtful deconstruction of one of the greatest war films of all time. via David Louis Edelmanâ

  15. vaden thompson on November 19, 2007 at 4:57 pm  Chain link

    I am so military minded that I just have to watch every single WAR MOVIE out there, even if I have already seen them more then 5 times.I really enjoy watching FMJ the most and I was just curios who played the woman SNIPER in this film? Does anyone know? Thanks.

  16. Brian on November 20, 2007 at 6:43 pm  Chain link

    I was just curios who played the woman SNIPER in this film? Does anyone know? Thanks.

    It is surprising that many movie buffs do not know this!

    Stanley Kubrick delighted in hiding easter eggs in his movies for his devoted legion of cinnephiles. For example in the monolith scene on the moon in ‘2001’ Kubrick is one of the extras – but you can’t tell because he’s wearing a pressure suit!

    Likewise Kubrick played the voice of the officer that Cowboy is talking to on the radio, requesting an air strike on the sniper’s position, before the character was shot. Also Kubrick credited the part of ‘Sniper’ to one ‘Ngoc Le’ but played the role himself in heavy makeup and prosthesis.

    The give-away for this is an interview Stone conducted with Rolling Stone writer Terry Southern for the August 1995 issue where he hinted at his hijinks and that ‘Ngoc Le’ is Vietnamese for ‘the no(where) man’.

    From ‘A writers life: A Wunderkid interviews Terry Southern’ by F. Saberhagen in the literary quarterly “Berserker Curents”, published Winter, 2003 by GoodLife Publications.

  17. David Louis Edelman on November 20, 2007 at 8:03 pm  Chain link

    Also Kubrick credited the part of ‘Sniper’ to one ‘Ngoc Le’ but played the role himself in heavy makeup and prosthesis.

    Methinks that a leg hath been pulled.

  18. Brian on November 20, 2007 at 9:21 pm  Chain link

    Maybe.

  19. John Klima on December 4, 2007 at 10:31 am  Chain link

    Wow. I’ve got nothing new to add beyond the comments already here. Kubrick is perhaps my favorite director, and FMJ one of my favorites.

    The seeming disconnect between the two parts of the movie bothered me for a long time until one day when I said, ‘Well, what would it be like to go from basic training in the US to being thrown in the jungle in Vietnam?’

    I think it would be a lot like the disconnected feeling the two parts of this movie give you.

    Great write-up David. As always, lots of salient points and nuggets to create further thinking. I’m with JJA, if I hadn’t seen the movie before I read this, I’d want to to go see it now.

    Now if only I could afford the boxed set….

  20. Kelly Riley on September 22, 2008 at 10:20 pm  Chain link

    You are full of it and my friend just lost $5.00

  21. another fool commenting on April 8, 2012 at 10:09 am  Chain link

    The Thing about SK is his protagonists are always seem to be Winston Smiths (1984). It’s not so much in substance as in perspective. They think they can maintain some sort of dignity outside the system (be it good or bad, or even be THEY good or bad), be “in the world, but not of the world,” an individual keeping some portion of themselves against the grinder of the machine. All realize they are up against forces they cannot conquer, or even resist. Like Winston Smith, they always learn. Alex is “cured,” Humbert will be hoodwinked by the very Yankees he thinks are “rubes”, young Redmond Barry will grow into the life of a stereotypically feckless wastrel, Dave becomes the star child, imprisoned in his “zoo”, Jack “is” always The Caretaker, Joker will become a real Marine. Conform or die, or even conform & die, seems to be at play.

  22. W. Douglas Locke on October 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm  Chain link

    One of the best movies ever made in my opinion. “The dead know only one thing, …that it’s better to be alive.”

  23. Orange on March 1, 2013 at 5:08 pm  Chain link

    Animal Mother is Gomer Pyle.
    Look at Animal’s face when Joker is about to kill the sniper, it’s Pyle.
    The first half isn’t about a squad, it’s about three guys: Pyle, Joker and Cowboy. They’re in ever scene. Pyle, Joker, Cowboy in that order.
    Second half look for Animal, Joker Cowboy. In that order.

    Pyle is dead; so is Animal.
    The whole squad is dead; not just the gook. Look how dead people look. Look at dead Pyle. Then look at everyone in the squad. Cowboy isn’t dead, he’s a pussy. Have you seen Lee Harvey hidden by the burning buildings?

  24. Steve Renda on March 12, 2013 at 2:06 am  Chain link

    One fault in the movie. As they approach the building in which the sniper is hiding they use smoke canisters. Why weren’t these used to camouflage Doc when he was wounded in the open?

  25. ayax on March 31, 2013 at 6:56 pm  Chain link

    You have such a nerve to call Hartman a “teacher”. He is not. He is plain and simple a psychopath who in returns trains young people into psychopaths.

  26. Keith on June 29, 2015 at 2:09 pm  Chain link

    Hartman is ABSOLUTELY a Teacher. Kubrick made this film about War. Not Anti or Pro, but War as a “Just Is”, people like Hartman are essential to a Soldiers Fortune. Support of the war isn’t a necessity. Those kids are going, period! Hartman’s job is to prepare them. We find out that he was their best friend all along…

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