“Full Metal Jacket,” a Vietnam War movie by Stanley Kubrik, is misunderstood. Of course, movies are an art form and can be interpreted however one wants. However, they are very rarely made as blank canvases. Filmmakers have an intended message and each element is carefully chosen to get that message across.
What I find strange is when a movie’s staying power in popular culture directly contradicts the original intent of the director. Full Metal Jacket is one of the most interesting examples to me.
The movie is antiwar at heart. Anyone who has heard of this movie, or heard people quote it, might be confused by this notion. “Full Metal Jacket” is a favorite of young recruits and men trying to prove their taste in films. “We are the Mighty,” a website dedicated to U.S. military information and news, has 18 articles dedicated solely to quotes from “Full Metal Jacket.” This movie is antiwar? Yes. That was the intent of Stanley Kubrik, and it’s apparent when one watches the movie – even in the parts which have been skewed by pop culture.
The movie starts with the crop of new recruits getting their heads shaved and stripping their identities away. The following hour consists of some of the most famous scenes in movie history: the boot camp training. Every war movie with a basic training scene has tried to live up to this part of the movie, then turned to homage when the task proved to be undoable.
“Full Metal Jacket’s” training sequence has earned a spot in history in no small part to R. Lee Ermy, with his portrayal of the ruthless Sgt. Gunnery Hartman. All of his scenes are electric, his insults quick, tactics brutal and nerve unwavering.
Perhaps Sgt. Ermy did too good a job with his role. Popular and military culture has zeroed in on the drill instructor, forgetting the real damage he caused.
He singles out one soldier in particular, Private Leonard, whom Hartman mockingly calls Private Pyle. True to real military culture during Vietnam, the goal of the training is to form these regular young men into killing machines. This is done by breaking down the boy so that they can build up the man. At least, that’s the idea.
In practice, Private Pyle is worn down to a breaking point. Hartman turns his entire platoon against Pyle by punishing the group for his mistakes. By the end of basic training, Pyle had cracked under all the abuse he suffered. He steals a rifle, hides out in the bathroom late at night and kills the Sergeant, then himself. Pyle has become the cold–blooded killer they were looking for.
The second, less talked about half of the movie starts when the privates are deployed to Vietnam. Their hair has grown out, and they each style their uniform a little differently with some adding accessories to their weapons. The soldiers are distinct people once again. This is a brilliant show of the futility of the training.
Out in Vietnam, the warfare becomes informal and messy. Despite their best efforts, the men they sent out are not machines.
Fast forward to the end of the movie when the soldiers conclude a deadly encounter with a sniper. When they finally reach the sniper, they find she was a civilian woman. She dies, and the men are silent.
The final sequence of the movie is the soldiers marching in unison through the night in an orange haze. They all sing the “Mickey Mouse Club” song, as that is a song that they all know. The established characters are no longer distinguishable in the march. They have seen war and are now killing machines, and their identities are more lost than ever.
“Full Metal Jacket” was not, and still isn't, remembered by the general public for its portrayal of the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. This online discussion board from 2015 serves as a nice microcosm for the general opinion of the movie for many years.
The main debate of the post is that the second half of the movie doesn’t live up to the energy and humor of the first. One user expresses losing interest after the foul-mouthed drill sergeant is killed. “Once Ermey dies, I'm out.” Another lists humorous moments in Vietnam as redeeming qualities for the second half.
When viewing only the scenes with Sgt. Gunnery Hartman, war seems captivating. It can be seen as a way to build fortitude and contribute to something greater. But when viewed in full, it is clear that the movie is antiwar. To me, as legendary as Ermy’s performance is, the scenes that stick in my head are the first and last: regular young men being turned into killing machines.
This ironic misinterpretation of a movie is not unique to Full Metal Jacket. The most popular example of this is “The Matrix.”
"The Matrix" has earned a place with men, who have used this movie as an example of breaking away from a culture they don’t agree with. They see the protagonist, Neo, as an ideal man’s man, choosing the “red pill” as the more challenging path to learn the truth about the world.
Isn’t it ironic that the directors of this movie made the movie as a metaphor for being transgender? That’s right, the directing duo of the movie, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, are transgender women.
The non-verbal messages of these movies are superseded by their interpretations in pop culture. In many cases, it’s a neutral thing. Large groups of people interpret art beyond its original intent. “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Matrix” stand out for the impact those interpretations have had on people’s lives. “The Matrix” has been an anchor in modern hyper–masculinity, and “Full Metal Jacket” has inspired people to go to war.
Jayme Mintz is a photographer at The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Have something to say about this? We’re dedicated to publishing a wide variety of viewpoints, and we’d like to hear from you. Voice your opinion in The Beacon.