Review of Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket", by Terrence Rafferty, in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1987
Full Metal Jacket - The unit under sniper fire

by Terrence Rafferty

I love working for Uncle Sam,
It lets me know just who I am.

A new movie by Stanley Kubrick is something big, like a manned space mission. In the time it takes him to make a picture—he has done five in the last 23 years—you could get to Jupiter. The long gestation period between the idea and its fulfilment creates an agonising, not very pleasant kind of suspense, an anxious, slow-motion tedium of anticipation in which the tiniest events (or rumours of events) are magnified absurdly, until they are swollen with meaning. And when the great creation is, at last, delivered, it has become— partly through Kubrick’s labour and partly through our own imaginative projections—as daunting and inscrutable as a monolith, a great black object that doesn’t take the light.
It is no wonder that critics often approach a new Kubrick film with an almost childlike timidity: ever since 2001, which was greeted rather rudely on its initial New York release in 1968, they’ve been worried that they’re not quite evolved enough to penetrate the mysteries of Kubrick’s higher consciousness. His idiosyncrasies are so confident, so authoritative, his methods are so deliberate, it seems inconceivable that the weird stuff he has been putting up on the screen could be the reflection of simple confusion rather than the product of a highly sophisticated aesthetic and intellectual system. Now Kubrick’s ‘Vietnam movie’, Full Metal Jacket, has arrived, in an atmosphere of muted awe—though no one seems quite sure what it is. It’s one of the strangest war movies ever made, at once so hysterical and so austere that it suggests an unnatural coupling of Sam Fuller and Robert Bresson. In a sense, it’s the picture he has been working up to all these years: The Big Dead One.
Kubrick is certainly no stranger to war. It has been the subject of two of his most successful films, Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove, and two others— Spartacus and Barry Lyndon—have featured battle sequences: with Full Metal Jacket, that accounts for half the movies he has made in the last thirty years. What’s surprising about his new film is not its subject, but the specificity of the material. Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, from which Full Metal Jacket is adapted (by Kubrick, Michael Herr—author of Dispatches and the voiceover narration in Apocalypse Now—and Hasford), has very particular settings: the Marine training camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, and then Vietnam in 1968, around the time of the Tet offensive. The action of the novel could only have happened in these places, at that time, and we all know it—and the historical nature of the material is a formal constraint that Kubrick has deliberately avoided for virtually his entire career. He favours vague futures and remote, explicitly imaginary pasts, and locations that can’t be pinned down too precisely, that are neither here nor there. His movies, with their artificial, eerily pristine look, are self-consciously timeless and, in essence, placeless, too: adrift in space, where time bends back on itself. The massive, symmetrical compositions of 2001 and The Shining, blindingly lighted and sparsely detailed, look as though they were filmed on location in eternity.
On the face of it, Hasford’s gritty and idiomatic novel (which was based on his own experiences as a Marine in Vietnam) seems an unlikely candidate for Kubrick’s characteristic spatial and temporal abstractions. It’s difficult to imagine that even an artist as strong- willed as Kubrick could dare to transform this story, this war that is still so fresh in our memories, into something ‘timeless’, a slide-show of generalities about human aggression. But that is exactly what he tries to do: with some success in the film’s harrowing first half, which records the Marines’ stateside basic training, and with disastrous consequences thereafter, when the action shifts to Vietnam.
Military training is, by its very nature, something fixed and uniform and repetitive, an endless, numbing loop of drills and chants, and on Parris Island Kubrick truly seems at home. He is much more reluctant to leave this highly structured environment than the novelist was: Hasford devotes a mere 30 pages (out of the book’s 180) to the training camp, and Kubrick spends nearly half the movie on it. The barracks are as vast and antiseptic-looking as the kitchen of the Overlook Hotel, as menacingly self- contained as the huge uterine cabin of 2001‘s spacecraft. It is immediately clear that a large part of what attracted Kubrick to Hasford’s novel was its vision of the Marine Corps as an alternate universe, a shadow-world with its own laws and language.
Kubrick’s Parris Island (recreated, of course, on English soundstages and countryside) is a science-fiction landscape, suggesting variously a laboratory, a giant incubator and an operating theatre: the movie opens with a montage of recruits having their heads shaved, as if they were being prepared for surgery on their brains. For the next 45 minutes, Kubrick takes us through the whole operation, in grisly, clinical detail—a process by which all traces of civilisation are ground away and human impulses are reduced to a pure, murderous animal essence. ‘You’re not even human fucking beings,’ the recruits’ drill sergeant (Lee Ermey) tells them, in their first encounter. And he announces his intentions: ‘You will be a weapon.’ At Parris Island, these young men are meant to die as themselves and be born again as killing machines, helpless and forlorn as that axe-wielding cosmic puppet Jack Torrance: psychopaths of glory.
On its own terms, this long training- camp sequence is remarkable—a rigorous, concentrated, brilliantly sustained assault on the sensibilities. Kubrick gives us very little conversation among the recruits, and almost no information, visual or otherwise, to enable us to distinguish one from another. The only recruits to stand out at all are the narrator, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), who does John Wayne imitations and is occasionally allowed to register a thoughtful look, and fat Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), named (like all the others, by the sergeant) after the bumbling hero of a Marine TV comedy of the 60s, because he is the stupidest and most physically inept of the bunch.
The recruits’ experience is rendered almost entirely in static, repetitive scenes of the demonic Sergeant Hartman screaming abuse (‘You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece’) and of the recruits running gruelling endurance courses, sprinkled with a few Monty Python like drill routines in which the Marines trot in step while chanting inane military doggerel (‘I love working for Uncle Sam/It lets me know just who I am’). It’s all ritual, incantation, and furious grimacing by pale, shaven-headed men in skivvies —a real theatre-of-cruelty spectacle, presented with a single-mindedness that’s startling in a big-budget studio movie. This is not exactly a new mode for Kubrick, and the themes it serves—de-humanisation, the blurring of individual differences, the devolution of personality to something brutish and fundamental—are among his most characteristic. But he has never let us know just who (he thinks) we are with such relentless savagery of attack. It is not only Hartman who seems to relish the violent stripping of the recruits’ identities: we sense, too, the director’s satisfaction with the grim efficiency of his work, and with the awful and, in his eyes, inevitable power of its outcome.
Visually, Kubrick’s misanthropic argument is flawless, hermetic as an airlock. The compositions are so stark, so minimalist that they could be, well, modern art masterpieces—white skivvies on white flesh against shining white walls and floors, all bathed in bland fluorescence or the milky light of almost-sunny days. The look of the film, at this point, is as bare and basic as Kubrick wants us to believe his message is: it’s the look of the laboratory, of truths painstakingly arrived at by the scrupulous exclusion of contingency, the systematic elimination of all variables. In aesthetic terms, Kubrick’s approach in the Parris Island segments seems radical: philosophically, though, it’s retrograde. His thought is nineteenth- century, positivist, the kind of pseudoscience that classifies human behaviour by observable (and prejudicial) physical traits—the size and shape of the head, say.
Kubrick reportedly cast this film by remote control: American actors auditioned by way of videotapes sent to the director in England. The actor’s physical presence was not required, the blurred definition of the video image deemed sufficient to establish types. Most of the actors playing the recruits seem to have been chosen for their dull, all-American similarity. They are lean and wiry and their features are regular—the same type as the astronauts (both frozen and unfrozen) in 2001. Against this uniform human background (the control group, in experimental terms) the anomaly, carefully isolated visually, is fat Pyle, cast by Kubrick both against credibility —this appalling specimen would hardly have passed a Marine physical—and against the novel’s description of the character as a ‘skinny red-neck’.
In Hasford’s book, where the horrors of both training and war are disturbingly casual, Pyle is nothing special, just a simple-minded country boy who goes crazy in the pressured environment of the camp. Transplanted to Kubrick’s world, where nothing is casual, Pyle has become a swollen, over-stuffed metaphor, a great white whale of meaning. The blubbery Pyle Kubrick puts before our eyes is explicitly infantile: we are meant to see in him a symbol of what the Marine Corps is giving birth to. In some sense, Pyle—who gradually becomes Hartman’s most perfect creation, a being who identifies himself, totally and unthinkingly, with his rifle—is an over-programmed machine that runs amok and turns on its creator, as HAL did. But Kubrick, by casting an actor who suggests an overgrown baby, pushes his interpretation of Pyle’s breakdown beyond the realm of the mechanical, into the biological.
The violent resolution of Kubrick’s Parris Island experiment is a confrontation between Hartman and Pyle (with Joker, as always, observing), and takes place in a gleaming lavatory with exposed toilets—a set he treats with an odd reverence, as if it were a shrine to the body and its most basic, undeniable demands, the ultimate metaphor for the human condition. (In the novel, this scene is set in the squad bay where the recruits sleep. The change of location is certainly Kubrick’s idea. Several of the key scenes in The Shining, including Jack Torrance’s long encounter with his murderous predecessor/alter ego Grady, took place in lavatories, too.) It’s a place where human beings are equalised by their needs, where our physical nature, in Kubrick’s view, gives the lie to our myths of individuality, of unique identity—where, in Full Metal Jacket, the creator and the creation, the father Hartman and the baby Pyle, achieve the absolute equality of dead matter, brains and guts smeared on the chamber’s walls like illegible graffiti.
It may be significant that the door to this room is labelled, military-style, ‘Head’—because the head, Kubrick’s head, is where this movie is really taking place. The most fascinating thing about Full Metal Jacket is that for the first time in years Kubrick has a story that forces him to engage, on some level, an external, verifiable reality: he has to ‘get into the shit’, as Hasford’s Marines refer to going into battle. And he can’t do it. As a long-time expatriate, Kubrick undoubtedly finds it difficult to identify with the native country he has rejected. But shooting the entire film, both the ‘American’ and the ‘Vietnamese’ segments, close to home in England suggests something in Kubrick that goes beyond the desire to maintain an aesthetic, ironic distance: the wilful perversity of this decision seems the symptom of a deeper confusion.
In Platoon, Oliver Stone kept telling us, ‘I was there’; Kubrick goes to extraordinary lengths to tell us that he wasn’t. His Vietnam looks, very self-consciously, like the bombed-out European landscapes of World War Two movies (the climactic scenes set in Hue were shot in south London). The formal distance he imposes on the material is, like his refusal to sympathise with his characters, the habit of a lifetime: these qualities even serve him well in the Parris Island segment, where a cold, dehumanising institutional ferocity is the subject. But when he gets to ‘Vietnam’, his methods seem worse than inappropriate: they’re evasive. It’s unseemly of him to dissociate himself, in this haughty, aestheticised way, from what America did in Southeast Asia. He wants us to know he’s clean, and in doing so wipes out his Marines’ personalities as thoroughly as the drill sergeant does. We can almost feel him scrubbing harder and harder to get the damned spots out, and there is something very sad about the effort.
Oliver Stone’s autobiographical narration in Platoon expressed the idea that Americans in Vietnam were really at war with themselves, and that is perhaps the only sense in which Stanley Kubrick can be said to be ‘in’ Vietnam: if Full Metal Jacket is about anything, it is about an artist at war with himself. For years, Kubrick has been elaborating the idea that what we think of as human identity is an empty concept, that the very notion of an essential self is a sham. It must have been a great relief to him to move from the rock-hard American star personality of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (that picture, Kubrick’s last in the us, was also produced by its star) to the chameleon virtuosity of Peter Sellers in his next two pictures. As the playwright Clare Quilty in Lolita, Sellers assumed a variety of accents and disguises in the course of his demonic surveillance of Humbert and Lolita. In Dr Strangelove, Kubrick had Sellers play three different characters—a British airforce officer, the American President and the high-Teutonic Dr S—and surrounded him with American actors, each locked into a single cartoonish role.
The Americans seem to illustrate what Kubrick thinks of people with solid, highly defined identities: they are absurd and dangerous and totally artificial. In a kind of extension of the Quilty role in Lolita, Kubrick uses Sellers’ extreme changeability, his capacity for emptying out his own personality and filling it with an infinite variety of others, as a reproach to the forceful styles of George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens. The only reason for Sellers to be playing three roles is to celebrate the principle of violent mutability upon which his acting is based. In a sense, Kubrick’s entire career since then—both the material circumstances of his move from America to England and his developing ‘philosophy’ of personality—may be attributable to the difference between Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers.
His next two films after Strangelove explored imaginary future worlds in which human beings are blank, featureless, floating in a void, and the liveliest personality belongs to an artificial intelligence (2001); and in which even our strongest impulses are subject to manipulation by technology, processes that turn our malleable natures from evil to good and back again with the ease of changing channels by remote control (A Clockwork Orange). And Barry Lyndon, played by a colourless Ryan O’Neal, was Kubrick’s characteristically abstract and extreme version of a classic picaresque hero: an alienated, unprincipled character who thinks nothing of changing his name, his appearance, his speech patterns, his very identity to facilitate his progress through the world. (Every picaresque hero is a man without qualities, whose facility in immersing himself in radically different environments is a reflection of the most profound detachment.) Kubrick had, at this point, developed a cinema in which only three kinds of people exist: ones with no personality at all; ones with overdetermined personalities—caricatures—who are invariably gross and vicious; and (the most interesting category) those whose ‘personalities’ consist of a succession of assumed identities. Each of these types, of course, is a variation on a single idea: that identity is form without content.
What made these films so infuriating (even at their most impressive) was their air of superiority: the spectacle of Kubrick systematically dismantling the integrity of his characters’ selves while asserting, with his overbearing technical mastery and formal control, the awesome force of his own personality. But The Shining, his messy, hall-of- mirrors horror movie, hinted at a slightly less assured, more ambivalent attitude. For the first time since Spartacus, twenty years earlier, Kubrick allowed a big star—an American, at that—a place in his meticulously ordered world. The way he used Jack Nicholson is, in a sense, predictable. As Jack Torrance becomes madder and more deadly, the actor gradually hardens into a wicked caricature of himself—‘Jack Nicholson’ trapped in a tight corridor of quotation marks, literally frozen in place, a statue
with permanently arched eyebrows. Torrance, though, is also in some sense Kubrick as he sees himself in the mirror —an obsessive, isolated artist-figure who is more at home with the phantoms of his imagination than he is with real human beings, who is imprisoned by a sense of his own timelessness, who asserts his one small truth (‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’) doggedly, endlessly.
It is impossible to know how consciously The Shining is a derisive self-portrait of the artist, but something about either the story or the star, or both, seems to have spooked Kubrick. We sense a slackening of his iron control here, an inability to resolve all the thematic and visual associations into an airtight formal scheme. As the picture careens from one room and one idea to another and another, helter-skelter, we sense a tremor of fear, a bit of vertigo from Kubrick’s lofty overlook. It is as if, while editing the film, he had begun to shine to the implications of his notions of identity, as if he suspected that what he had done to his American star— rendered him static, immutable—might be the image of what he had done to himself. The final incoherence of The Shining is, for Kubrick, an act of selfalienation—which in this case may also be a form of self-protection.
‘Talking to dead people is not a healthy habit for a living person to cultivate and lately I have been talking to dead people quite a lot,’ says Hasford’s narrator in The Short-Timers. That statement is nowhere to be found in Full Metal Jacket, which seems strange: surely these words should be resonant for the man who made The Shining. But Full Metal Jacket shows Kubrick once again approaching and then pulling back from the exploration of his own identity. He doesn’t have to love working for, or on, Uncle Sam—but shouldn’t it tell him something about who he is? Inadvertently, it does. Kubrick’s camera, helplessly expressive, is as fascinated by the awful Sergeant Hartman as it was by Torrance in The Shining. Kubrick must be aware that Hartman is, among other things, a monstrous parody of a godlike, autocratic director, and that basic training is a nightmare image of actors rehearsing their roles. The overtly theatrical intensity of these scenes, combined with a flicker of recognition in Kubrick’s treatment of Hartman, suggests a (near) acknowledgment by the artist that his fancy ideas about the essence of human nature are, in fact, ideas about acting. Carried to its conclusion, this would be scary self-knowledge indeed. It would mean that for much of his artistic life Kubrick has been guilty of the same brutal subjugation of nature that the military practises in its training courses and that the United States inflicted on Vietnam, and for the same reasons—sheer ‘American’ arrogance and desire for control. And Hartman’s death, in these terms, would be the director’s suicide, a bizarre ritual disembowelment of himself.
As it turns out, though, Kubrick only appears to fall on his sword in shame: he fakes it, for effect. The rhetoric of the film is that the sergeant’s death, occurring halfway through, marks a turning point. Kubrick has given him such prominence that his absence in the second half of the movie actually defines (and thus distorts) the meaning of the Marines’ experience in Vietnam. In retrospect, we see Hartman’s orderly, authoritarian world as somehow preferable to living ‘in the shit’ of a war without rules, without form. It’s certainly aesthetically preferable, since the Vietnamese half of the film, to be effective, would need some emotional centre, a few characters who haven’t been dehumanised, whose deaths we would feel as loss—but Kubrick can’t identify with the grunts. He is still with Hartman, trying to direct from a vast distance, from beyond the grave. His perfect compositions look increasingly irrelevant, unreal; his Vietnam looks more and more like a landscape of the mind; his control is remote control, like a stateside general’s. His failures of nerve, of sympathy, of self-knowledge hauntingly embody his country’s failures in the Southeast Asian war: against his obvious intentions, this movie brands Stanley Kubrick as an all-American film-maker, naive and trapped as an astronaut. How far into space will he have to go before he meets himself again?

Sight and Sound 56/4, autumn 1987, pp. 256-259


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