About 2/3rds of the way through Full Metal Jacket I started to think about Paths of Glory. It’s not surprising, both are war films that are critical of war in some ways, and both are directed by Stanley Kubrick. Pretty obvious. I was struck, however, at how differently the two movies see war. This isn’t a case of a director making the same point in a different era. In fact, Kubrick conceptualizes the two wars (WWI for Paths, Vietnam for Full) almost completely differently. In Paths of Glory, his ire is aimed at the higher ups, the generals who rigidly stick to antiquated notions of what a war is and put the footsoldiers into harms way without a care for their humanity. In Full Metal Jacket, that inhumanity infects everybody. Sure, the generals are idiots for getting America into the mire and not doing anything to get us out or change anything, but now the grunts aren’t noble sacrifices to the gods of war, they see themselves as those gods personified. They willingly absolve themselves of their morals in order to fuck and kill their way through a foreign country and its people. Kubrick doesn’t have his characters call Vietnam and the warzones within it “the shit” for verisimilitude, he does it because he sees the US military as covered in the stuff, full of it, or even composed of it.
You don’t even have to get to Vietnam for “the shit” to infect you. The opening forty minutes are a masterclass in depicting how the USMC strips its volunteers of whatever makes them human and turns them into killing machines. I was surprised, early on, to see Vincent D’Onofrio as a kind of likable character. His Private Pyle at first seems like a good old boy of the kind you see in WWII movies who might lose some of their naïveté in the course of battle but retain a wholesomeness that they can bring back to the home after the fighting ends. And he’s good at it! I’m so used to seeing D’Onofrio play weird characters in stuff like The Cell and Men In Black that I was immediately rooting for him when I saw him be kind of a normal human being. Well, that ends quickly. R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant aims to turn his recruits into lethal extensions of the United States’ imperial mentality and he does his job too effectively. By the end of the training section, Private Pyle’s got that Kubrick Stare and can’t tell friend from target. Perhaps the drill sergeant’s examples of the UT sniper and John Wayne Gacy’s USMC-given accuracy should have been a warning rather than point of pride. I can think of 3 other examples of the Kubrick Stare (the cinematic opposite of the Spielberg Wonder Gaze?) in A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and 2001, but this one is maybe the scariest. He links it to the thousand-yard-stare that people who have seen too much combat adopt but its use of it in his other films also link it to an absolved humanity. These are characters who willingly (if under extreme circumstances) give up their investment in fellow human beings and become killers and rapists. Private Pyle is scary not only because of what he becomes but what he was to begin with. It’s a masterful interplay of character, actor, and director that might be Kubrick’s best creation.
It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that the rest of the movie just acts as repetition of that idea rather than meaningful elaboration. Some reprisals are more successful than others (one that sticks out is the guy who gets interviewed next to a mass grave and can’t stop smiling to the reporter’s camera as he recounts the grisly details of the lies and murder that transpired just hours earlier) but none match Private Pyle’s transformation nor his menace, and soon the movie almost starts to feel like a typical Vietnam movie. I say almost because Kubrick is still very good at crafting compelling compositions and that makes this the prettiest movie in its genre. He also eschews the stereotypical soundtrack for Vietnam movies in favor of more absurd choices that intriguingly counter the visuals and story playing out on the screen. And the story remains interesting in its own right, it’s just not as good as that first third or so. I realize this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking perspective on this film, but I hope I’ve explained what makes the movie work the way it does for me personally. I’m glad I finally watched it.