Full Metal Jacket

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Most people see Full Metal Jacket as a film of two halves. They see the two different parts (before and after training) as pieces that don't fit. But they do, because the film is about how an ordinary person becomes a killer, and the film simply wouldn't function with either section missing.

One of the most telling things is that at the beginning Joker says that he wants to kill. Obviously, as his John Wayne impression illustrates, he's grown up on films and their idea of war and machismo. Therefore it's quite understandable that Joker wants a piece of the action. He even says that he wants to be the first kid on his block to get a confirmed kill. Well, through most of the film Joker is a relatively passive figure. He gets to see other people come apart at the seams and he gets to see other Marines kill, but he never really takes part. But then at the end he finally gets his wish to become a killer. He executes an enemy sniper. But as the film shows, it's not really that much fun. Joker even looks rather appalled as his fellow Marines make jokes. This in itself would be a dark ending, but instead the film ends with Joker happily singing the Mickey Mouse Club song with his fellow soldiers. It suggests that his revulsion is temporary and that now he's finally become part of the club. He's finally got his wish and become a killer. But at what price?

Even though I mentioned that Joker really doesn't take part in things until towards the end, there is one notable exception – the part where he beats Pyle. Up until this point, Joker has tried to be helpful. He's tried to educate the dim-witted Private. But when the platoon gets punished for Pyle's mistakes, Joker finally snaps. He lays into Pyle with more venom than anyone else. And then as Pyle screams in agony, Joker can only cover his ears. It's a great scene as it shows how split Joker is; how he's capable of violence but how he also abhors it. And it's the point at which Hartman finally turns Joker into a Marine. He's finally put a dent in Joker's humanity.

But that scene is also the point at which Pyle snaps. Before that he and Joker were friends; in Joker he had a person he trusted. In fact, Joker almost acts like Pyle's dad – he makes his bed and even dresses him. But once he's beaten by the one person he trusted, the feeble-minded but innocent kid is turned into a stone cold killer. And rather inevitably, he focuses his rage on the source of his pain: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. And Pyle's final scene is rather chilling. Hartman finally succeeds in turning the kid into a killer, but the programming has gone haywire and he ends up getting killed along with the 'disgusting fat body'.

But even though Hartman is a rather dastardly figure, I can't help but feel sorry for him. As he says, his job is to turn these maggots into Marines and weed out non-hackers. Therefore there's no room for politeness and hugs and pats on the head. The whole act of training an ordinary person into a Marine is an act of violence (one probably just as violent as war) but it can't be any other way, and Hartman is just doing his job. So there's no feeling of joy when Hartman gets killed. It's just an unfortunate incident – some people just can't take the programming; these things happen.

Still on the subject of that scene, there's one little detail I like. Pyle turns the gun on Joker but he turns it away when Joker calls him by his real name (Leonard). It seems that all Pyle wants is to be recognised as a person – the person he really is. And there's a bit earlier on when Pyle ignores Hartman when he calls him by his adopted name. Then when he's asked a second time he screams "Sir, yes, sir!" at the top of his lungs. He's not going to take it anymore. He hates what he's been turned into.

But maybe Pyle does himself a favour by taking his own life, as none of the Marines in the field seem particularly happy with their lot. Joker is stuck with reporting on the war and he has to endure his government's rampant propaganda (like today there's a fixation on words and terms – 'drag marks', 'blood trails', 'sweep and clear' instead of 'search and destroy'), a gunner blows away civilians with a big grin on his face, a soldier dies for a hand-job and in a series of interviews the squad gets all their grievances off their chest. It's clear that these kids have been killed, maimed and destroyed for nothing. They've been sacrificed for some ridiculous political agenda.

There are quite a few scenes where the soldiers express the pointlessness and futility of the war. They realise that they're not fighting for freedom. But still, when death is always an immediate concern, the only outlet is in racism, sex and killing.

The scenes with the hookers (like the scenes with Hartman) are darkly comic, but they're also depressing affairs. The soldiers' only reprieve is in a joyless lay. And then there are all the racist jokes – both at the expense of the Vietnamese and the black soldiers. This is what all the programming has been for. All the humanity has been drained out of these kids and their basic instincts drawn out so that they can kill with greater efficiency. And it's telling that at the end the only thing that unites the formless squad is 'payback'. Only when they're killing do they act as one and only when they're killing do they feel contented. The training was a success.

You Might Also Like