A Young Man’s Quest to Find the Duality of Man in the Backdrop of Vietnam
Editor’s Note: The article below contains spoilers for the film “Full Metal Jacket.”
One of the most contentious periods in the history of the United States is the Vietnam War, a long conflict forever immortalized in films. This period in history led to the creation of classics such as Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, “Apocalypse Now,” Oliver Stone’s controversial anti-war film, “Platoon,” as well as the more lighthearted take on the subject seen through the eyes of the legendary Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam.” All three of these films were nominated for a combined nine Oscars between the years 1980 and 1988, with "Platoon" taking home the award for Best Picture and Best Director.
In an 11-year period beginning in 1978 and ending in 1989, Hollywood produced 23 different movies on the Vietnam War, and one that goes down in the pantheon of cinematic achievement has got to be Stanley Kubrick’s "Full Metal Jacket." Released hot off the heels and one year after "Platoon" in 1987, "Full Metal Jacket" was snubbed at the Oscars with a single nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I am not here to debate whether or not this is a crime against humanity (which I feel it is); however, it should be noted that the lack of awards and prestige in no way diminishes the quality and legacy of the film, which serves as a testament to the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam.
Based off of a short story titled “The Short-Timers” and borrowing its name from the type of bullet most commonly used by soldiers at the time, Kubrick takes us, through the eyes of Private Joker, from a basic training camp to the front lines of the infamous Tet Offensive, ending with the bloody standoff in the Battle of Hue. Fans of the film will arguably recognize the boot camp sequences and often repeat the many famous lines delivered by R. Lee Ermey, who played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a tough-talking drill instructor tasked with whipping the new recruits into shape before shipping them out to fight in "‘Nam." While many films have tried to replicate the rapid-fire monologues and verbal abuse of the recruits, none have ever come close to his achievement. One can’t help but notice how true to life Ermey’s performance of Sergeant Hartman was in his ability to rattle off the lines and give orders like an actual drill sergeant would, more so than an actor could, even with proper training. This prompted me to do some more research into his history, and it came as no surprise that he himself fought in Vietnam and was a real-life drill instructor, thus bringing something entirely unique to the role. The character who receives the brunt of Hartman’s verbal ridicule is overweight Private Pyle, (nicknamed after Gomer Pyle of the famous television program of the 1960s, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C”). After months of making mistakes and being abused by his fellow recruits and drill sergeant, Private Pyle suffers a mental breakdown leading to his murder of Hartman and then taking his own life, ending what is seen as the prologue to the actual film taking place in Vietnam.
After a transition in location, we find Private Joker as a military journalist covering the various offensives and events of the war. In one scene, Joker is sent to photograph a burial site of Vietnamese civilians killed by the Viet Cong where a colonel stops him and asks him about a contradiction on his uniform. Joker is wearing a peace symbol and writes "Born to Kill" on his helmet, confusing the colonel. When Joker gives a more philosophical answer regarding the “duality of man,” the colonel responds with the following line: “Son, all I've ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here to help the Vietnamese because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It's a hardball world, son. We've gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.”
This sense of Americana and identity is the most common theme of the film. Whether through pop culture references such as John Wayne, Gomer Pyle and the Mickey Mouse March or through all of the characters having nicknames and never being referred to by their actual birth names, we see the true struggle of what Joker refers to as the "duality of man." This clash of either maintaining who the soldier is prior to joining the army is in constant clash with the country’s desire to turn them into machines spouting off the highlights of American culture and doing what they are told, no questions asked. These men are slowly being taught not what they are on the inside, rather what they are as citizens of the country, which is essentially John Wayne, Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. This reference, "duality of man," is the phrase that can be used to describe their identity crisis, as they have to choose to either be a cog in the machine and surrender to their duty towards their country or keep on fighting and holding on to what makes them unique in the world. We see people in boot camp no older than 18, 19 and 20 years old turned into what Sergeant Hartman refers to as weapons, or in more crude terms, he tells them they are not even “Human Beings” removing all sense of self and personality that they have, turning them into the cogs of the machine.
To sum up, "Full Metal Jacket" serves as not only a war film about Vietnam but also as a character study about people; both those that have been stripped of what makes them themselves as well as those that struggle to remain human despite those that want them to become the ideal faceless soldiers. Like many of Kubrick’s films, "Full Metal Jacket" was misunderstood by the Oscars, who refused to grant it more nominations. Yet, don’t let that deter you from seeing this classic film.
Photo Caption: “Full Metal Jacket” Movie Poster