Seven years had elapsed between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, and during that time Francis Ford Coppola had exhausted the high-concept Vietnam film with Apocalypse Now. Rather than trying to reinvent the genre from the inside out, then, Stanley Kubrick used his adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel The Short-Timers to take two different parts of his worldview to their logical conclusion, revealing their connections in the process. The result is a film of two halves – almost two discrete films – that serves as such a precise coda to Kubrick’s career that you could never have predicted he’d come back with another masterpiece twelve years later. The first part of Full Metal Jacket takes place at Parris Island, where Sergeant “Joker” Davis, played by Matthew Modine, learns to deal with senior drill instructor Sergeant Hartman, played by Lee Emery, who takes a particular dislike to his friend Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. The second part jumps to 1968, and takes place in Vietnam, where Joker, now working as war correspondent, gets caught up in a dramatic skirmish in the wake of the Tet Offensive, with the “Lusthog Squad.”
The first part of Full Metal Jacket is the most iconic, and culminates Kubrick’s career-long fascination with characters who find themselves incorporated into complex systems of control. There’s nothing in this opening hour outside of military instruction, and formal military communication, all of which is framed by some of the most mathematical and geometrical compositions of Kubrick’s career. In another film, this might be presented as a lesson in military sadism, or political conservativism, but Kubrick largely abstracts the war from any overt ideological or military imperative, instead offering it as a formalist exercise in control – a pointed symptom of a control society, rather than a isolated event that needs fixing. This is all accompanied by the sparsest soundscape in Kubrick’s career too – just a few hums, drones and percussive noises, with most sound provided by the military diegesis itself.
Rather than frame instructor Hartman as a sadistic anomaly, then, Kubrick uses him as a cipher for the control society that his own films have both critiqued and enacted throughout his career. Emery was actually an instructor during the war, and draws on his experience here to become a cipher for Kubrick – an ultra-auteur who orchestrates images around him, asserting his dominance by commanding and directing the men under his control. Like Kubrick, his regimen largely consists of orchestrating precise planes of space, most notably during the training sequences, when “Gomer Pyle” tries to get over the various obstacle courses. The long pans and tracking-shots of The Shining are thus given a militaristic inflection here, while the film’s spaces are evacuated of everything except militarism, resulting in a series of cavernous outdoor scenes that are as sparse and austere as the clean lines and scrubbed surfaces of the mess hall. Everything is driven by a limited number of fixed sightlines, and all of these sightlines are scrutinised and policed by Hartman’s watchful eye.
In other words, the first half of Full Metal Jacket is to military training films what Apocalypse Now was to the Vietnam war film. Just watching it feels like a form of discipline, since Hartman is fixated with regimenting his soldier’s gazes above all else. Imagine all the insane picaresque energy of Strangelove fused with the Riefenstahl-like configurations that close Paths of Glory and you have have something like the hyperbole on display here. Every scene is full of shouting, and while Kubruck regularly cuts to quiet moments with Joker that seem to promise a more intimate and interpersonal register, we always abruptly shift back to military procedure once again (and even these quieter moments are always about procedure as well).
In its own way, the first half of Full Metal Jacket is thus Kubrick’s most refined and rarefied film – the very pinnacle of his obsession with mechanisms of mass control. Another director might end with a personal moment between Joker and Hartman, but this never happens, as Gomer collapses under the weight of all this ocular discipline by shooting Hartman before he shoots himself, ushering in the second part of the film. Whereas the first half crystallises Kubrick’s obsession with control-spaces – the war room in Strangelove, the spaceship in 2001, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining –the second half focuses more on the dissociation of sight and action that always goes hand in hand with this fixation on control in Kubrick’s cinema. Yet this second half is so different, at first, that it effectively plays as a completely new film – the pace is looser, the dialogue is naturalistic, the sparse soundscape is replaced with a rocking score and (perhaps most importantly) the soldiers are now able to control and direct their own gazes. So dramatic is this last contrast to Hartman’s obsessive directives that the second half feels undirected at first, and closer to a documentary than a regular Kubrick film, as the soldiers assert their ocular autonomy, their ability to look where they want, in a few key ways.
First, they’re introduced ogling Vietnamese prostitutes, and spend much of this second half enjoying how freely they can stare at local trade without fear of judgement or repercussion. At times, the pleasure of looking at prostitutes seems to outweigh the pleasure of actually sleeping with them, since their gaze can really linger, languorously, when there’s no pressure to follow through. Second, Joker is now working as a photojournalist, meaning that his military vocation now means that he has to rely on his own eyes, rather than subordinating them to the higher authority of Hartman. Third, the iconography of action cinema has started to creep into Kubrick’s mise-en-scenes – a big contrast to Apocalypse Now, released when the action film was in its infancy – especially the way in which action heroes tended to hyperbolise action (and the signifiers of action, such as muscles and weaponry) to make it commensurate to sight. Finally, all the characters seem hyper-aware of the conventions of Vietnam cinema, despite the fact that the action is ostensibly taking place in 1968, meaning they’re continually on the lookout for genre cues as much as military cues: “This is the Vietnam War: the movie.”
Yet while this ability to use their own eyes empowers the soldiers in the short term, it’s a lazy and listless kind of empowerment, since it also detracts from their ability to act effectively. In retrospect, you realise that Hartman’s regime was about cementing sight and action together, since without his authority the soldiers now start to lose a sense of control over their actions, even or especially as they compensate by jacking up the weaponry. The film also seems less in control of its own shape, as we drift aimlessly from one encounter to the next, enmeshed in a loose irony that’s embodied by Joker, who sports a peace badge and a “Born to Kill” shirt, and adopts a playful detachment that he doesn’t quite seem to believe in. Kubrick doesn’t quite believe it either, as evinced in his most dramatic effort to remedy this second half using the first half – a return to the frontal shots and direct address of Hartman’s command, but to convey a series of interviews with the soldiers. Ostensibly shot by Joker, this scene quickly descends into a trite docudrama style, reminding us why Hartman, rather than Joker, is Kubrick’s real surrogate, and ushering in a brilliant and more Kubrick-esque final sequence.
Given that the real drama here comes from this dissociation of sight and action, Kubrick has to find a way to pair the demands of a war film with the descent into what Deleuze described as a pure optical situation – a situation where a disembodied source of sight overwhelms any potential for action. Kubrick paves the way for this transition by alternating dramatically between raucous noise and deafening silence, thereby undercutting the collective confidence of the group, while also gradually moving away from the helicopters that allow action to catch up with sight in Coppola’s vision. We also move away from convoy vehicles and frontal combat, along with expansive locations, following the soldiers as they crawl through a bombed-out industrial wasteland until they arrive at the film’s final, primal encounter – a lone sniper who takes out their captain, and then draws the entire command into their purview.
Kubrick reserves the most violent moments of Full Metal Jacket for the squad’s first apprehension of this sniper, who becomes the end point of the various disembodied eyes that stifle masculine agency and autonomy in his body of work. The sniper culminates the pure optical situations that constitute Kubrick’s oeuvre, abstracting the battlefield into a concatenation of smoke, fire and gunfire that the men can only process through the language of action cinema – especially the alpha male, Animal Mother, played by Adam Baldwin, but originally slated for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who runs hysterically, guns blazing, into the unbearable ambit of this all-seeing, all-knowing eye, but is ultimately powerless to combat it.
During this incredible sequence, Kubrick extends the steadicam pyrotechnics of The Shining into the progenitor of the modern handheld war film, as the lighting becomes more surreal and lurid, and we transition into a digital palette that deforms and distorts every structure that the soldiers encounter. In a sublime final twist, the sniper turns out to be a young girl, who not only returns our gaze defiantly as she finally dies, but undercuts the gazes that the soldiers cast over Vietnamese prostitutes to cement their supposed ocular autonomy. As she lies dying, she sends them into a discognition that effectively ends the film, and at this moment Full Metal Jacket finally overtakes Apocalypse Now, delivering the dissonance that Coppola could never quite reach. It’s a perfect ending to Kubrick’s body of work too, coming full circle with the Parry Island scenes to encapsulate his perennial set-up – a giant control structure that tries, but can never quite cement sight and action sufficiently to guarantee conventional masculine agency. While it may not be the best film of his career, then, in some ways it’s the purest, and was a scintillating end point before Eyes Wide Shut arrived in 1999.