Music Editor: Vivian Kubrick Cinematography: Douglas Milsome
Starring: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermy and Kevyn Major Howard
Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas in 1957, to Dr. Strangelove in 1964, to this film, Full Metal Jacket in 1987. With the Vietnam War ended for over a decade, there had already been a number of films in the late seventies and early eighties that dealt with the conflict in some way. But Kubrick looks at these themes in a way that only he could think of. The film is based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, who also worked on the screenplay with Kubrick and Michael Herr. As difficult as it is to believe, the entire film was shot in England, with the British countryside standing in not only for the Marine Corps training ground in Paris Island, but also for Vietnam. Kubrick had trees and plants flown in from Hong Kong to dress his exteriors. Anthony Michael Hall was originally Kubrick’s choice for the lead, and then he briefly considered Bruce Willis who had to refuse because of conflicts, before finally settling on Matthew Modine.
Kubrick wastes no time on credits. The second after the title appears, the film opens on shots of new Marine Corps draftees getting their heads shaved for basic training, to the accompaniment of country music. The brilliant R. Lee Ermy as the drill sergeant then initiates the new recruits, which include Matthew Modine, renamed Joker, Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays a dim-witted recruit that Ermy renames Gomer Pyle, and the terrific Arliss Howard. The first part of the film deals with the training of the Marines on Paris Island and the simultaneous acclimation of the recruits and the gradual deterioration of D’Onofrio. The training is played for humor, but it works so well because it is so close to reality. Modine, however, takes issue with certain elements but keeps them to himself. He will be reporting on the war as well as fighting in it, and it will be from his perspective that the war will be viewed. Working for Stars and Stripes, Modine has been in the rear the entire war, that is until the Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese attempt to overrun the base and he and his fellow reporters find themselves in the field. As with almost all Vietnam films, it will be the ethical dilemmas that will test the soldiers more than anything else. In the case of Modine, it is the fate of the female sniper.
Critics have not been as enamored of this film as they have been with his other works. But while the Vietnam section doesn’t really seem to have a unifying theme, if viewed as a continuation of the bizarre training from the first half of the film, it does have a certain logic. The duality of the “Born to Kill” written on Modine’s helmet and the peace symbol he wears on his jacket expresses, in his words, “the duality of man.” This duality fits perfectly with the two halves of the film, the first half with civilians being trained for war and in the second half with the incongruity of actually having to kill. D’Onofrio, then, as the civilian who can’t make the transition, is the flip side of Adam Baldwin’s Animal Mother who is the ultimate killing machine in the field. This can also be seen in the way that the characters played by Modine and Howard pass each other on the way toward differing moralities in the second half. Although in a very different way, this theme is also present in a later war film about Marines, Jarhead.
Matthew Modine’s work is good, though not overly so. His quiet moments when he’s observing death are actually better than his attempts at being the “Joker.” The other characters in the first half of the film are also far more powerful than he is, and more of a force on the screen. Lee Ermy, as the drill sergeant, steals the show. His colorful dialogue, most of which was already part of his repertoire as a real Marine D.I., is tremendous and his presence is what drives the narrative. The other star of the first half is Vincent D’Onofrio in one of his very first film performances. Being the incredibly intellectual and introspective actor that he is, it’s stunning to watch his transformation in this film, the facial expressions, the eighty pounds of weight he gained, all go into making what Lee Ermy called the most memorable role in the film. By contrast, Adam Baldwin’s character seems like a caricature. Even so, the second half of the film can’t be dismissed, and once viewers can integrate it in their own minds with the first half it makes for a greater whole. Full Metal Jacket is, and should always be recognized as, one of the great Vietnam films of all time.