Kubrick’s Most Enduring Masterpiece


Kubrick made some extraordinary pictures, but none appear to endure like his ambiguous Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket.

Former Gulf War veteran and author Anthony Swofford wrote a piece for the New York Times accusing the film of seducing his generation to war. At the end of the dubious article he talks about laughing at the Gunnery sergeant (Lee J Ermy) and his wife recoiling in horror.

“How is that funny?” she asked.

Swofford: “It was funny and effective in the darkest parts of me. It’s funny and effective in the darkest parts of us all.”.

The film was made in 1987. At the time, Kubrick had not made a movie since the bizarre and haunting The Shining (1980). His reputation was still as strong, all powerful and mythic as ever. He allegedly read a book a day, and two were used as the inspiration for Full Metal Jacket: “Dispatches” by Michael Herr (who wrote the narration in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) – and Gustav Hasford’s brutal, dehumanising The Short Timers which inspired the majority of the opening training sequence, including the abuse and death of Private Pyle.

Ed Vulliamy wrote, “every writer who has tried his or her hand at war journalism would go to meet Michael Herr rather like a student of the cello would approach Mstilav Rostropovitch.”

Herr himself wryly commented of the great director that if Stanley Kubrick had not been a film director he would have been a “revolutionary war General.”

Mise en scene, the organisation of the foreground, background and area of the shot is no longer relevant in the age of CGI, but in this disturbing war epic, Kubrick’s mastery is evident in every shot. Nowadays we expect an army to be made up of CGI composites, but back in 1987 every cent of the budget is visible on screen. Every helicopter that randomly flies past Private Joker, every trainee running behind Joker and Pyle as they clamour up the obstacles were intentional, and become more breathtaking against the backcloth of our current artificial cinematic age.

As usual, Kubrick’s command of the camera, his mise en shot, remains as influential to nearly every war film made since, especially the weak, derivative Jarhead which seems like a B list cover version of a masterpiece. In a continuation of the monstrous look that both Malcolm McDowell has in A Clockwork Orange and Jack Nicholson has in The Shining, Private Pyle, (Vincent D’Onofrio) also falls prey to what Hasford described in The Short Timers as “werewolf eyes”, encouraging the eagle-eyed viewer to respect Kubrick as a genuinely literary director always attempting to continue themes he originated decades before, moments before Pyle commits his murder suicide. Although 2001 A Space Odyssey is one of the most unique films that will ever be made, it does not endure like Full Metal Jacket and, in my opinion, can only really be enjoyed properly on hallucinogenic drugs.

The irony of Kubrick’s Vietnam epic is that we see the film through the eyes of Matthew Modine’s Private Joker, with a peace symbol on his lapel and Born To Kill written on his helmet. As the fighting grows more vicious and bloody, the audience begins to forgive the brutality of Parris Island for without which, how would the troops survive? Using references to Peckinpah, a 14 year old Vietcong sniper, whose only job is to hold what can only be a losing outpost, makes several direct hits on Joker’s unit in order to draw them out. Eventually they wound her, and watch as she prays for them to shoot her. Joker does what could be argued as the decent thing and shoots her in the head.

“Hardcore”, one of the unit says breathlessly.

The film ends with the unit marching through the ruins of the Vietcong city, singing the Mickey Mouse Club song.

“I am not afraid”, Joker announces, having made his first kill. An Ironic masterpiece that is often misinterpreted, but to my mind Kubrick’s finest, endlessly disturbing cinematic achievement. If it were possible to make an anti war movie, he may well have succeeded.

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