Thoughts On: Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Kubrick’s Vietnam war film masterpiece.
Full Metal Jacket is an undeniable masterpiece. A film in two parts, what has me come back to this picture time and time again is the opening 45 minutes. From the buzz cuts to Pyle’s suicide, this is the shortest 45 minutes you will probably ever experience.
With blistering pace fueled by the subtle clockwork of filmmaking, this sequence refuses to let your breathe and locks you into the world of story and make-believe. This immersive tone is skipped away from for the second hour-long sequence in Vietnam…
… and whilst this jump is jarring, having watched the opening 45 minutes by itself many times, I can confidently say that these two halves certainly need each other as without one another neither holds much substance or a cohesive point. However, we won’t be thinking of this movie as a whole or delving too deep into its narrative and subtext today. This is because we’ve done this already. In the briefest of explanations, Full Metal Jacket is about the duality of a collective unconsciousness and personal unconsciousness in face of self-awareness. Throughout this film, men then battle to not be consumed by a war machine and to remain individuals by sustaining a conscious outlook.
In this regard, many men fail and this leaves them to regress into childish mannerisms – hence the Micky Mouse song ending. And this basically explains ‘the Jungian thing’ mentioned in the movie. But, as said, this isn’t our focus. What we’re going to zoom in on is the opening, first as a formal piece of filmmaking and then through Sgt. Hartman.
It doesn’t need to be said, but this sequence is directed masterfully. Kubrick not only captures an isolated yet somehow confined atmosphere through cinematic language, but imbues the story with incredible continuity. This is of course aided by the editing and works to abstract you from time and force the 9 week training period into a fluid, gruelling and relentless experience. The sound design truly makes this patch-work of transformation seamless, giving the sequence constant rhythm and a dramatic atmosphere which allows us to peer into characters. And in mentioning character, we have to touch on the immense writing and acting. The structuring of this montage meeting the balls-to-the-wall performances and dialogue adds further flavour and texture to the opening. The final touch to all of this is the cinematography which expresses, through colour and light, that exact isolation of characters and their simultaneous pressurisation with a character-centric frame. These many elements come together through one singular force…
… Hartman. It’s Hartman’s voice and presence that act as the glue and fuel of this sequence as it’s his words, threats, curses and rants that we’re always hearing and his control we’re slowly seeing be realised in his platoon. It is then Hartman that hijacks the opening of the narrative and imbues it with liquid gold.
The effect of this is that we, like the soldiers, are truly lost in a cinematic present. The idea of a ‘cinematic present’ has nothing to do with the present in reality as, through cinema, you can, as best described by Tarkovsky, sculpt in time. This means that as a sculptor may make his art by whittling away at rock, a filmmaker whittles away at time. This leaves movies as sculptures of space and time. These sculptures can take many shapes, they can be opaque, jagged, vibrant and rigid, or, they can be like…
… like water; fluid, liquid, shapeless, versatile and so easily sunk into. Films that are more rigid and jagged in their sculpting of space and time have a strong sense of pace and time – you always know the time, what has just happened, what can happen and often where. A great example of this would be High Noon.
The bumps and grooves in this sharply cut sculpture of time is what gives High Noon such a solid structure, defined scenes, distinguished set-pieces and is also what gives the narrative so much tension. Though we are made to feel we see things in real-time, that time is not truly a ‘cinematic present’ as we are always thinking about the hands of the clock and the future. In Full Metal Jacket’s first half, we see the opposite approach taken; an approach that leaves us suspended in the present.
Whilst we see characters change, we never see this in the context of week 1, week 4, or week 7 – not until the end of the sequence where we’re told that graduation is in a few days. Character is the only sense of structure that we’re provided as an audience; we can only guess that time moves because there’s less of this…
… and more or this…
This is so significant as the structure is defined, as alluded to, by Hartman’s control over his men. Because of this, because we are constantly hearing his words, because we are constantly seeing his control realised, we are left stranded in the mind of a soldier oblivious to the weeks hurtling by, barely able to grip change and the slippery slope of evolution he’s forced down by Hartman. And this isn’t the only way that this pacing adds to story; the momentum of this sequence traps us in a cinematic present so we forget the past. We see this materialised through characterisation.
Who are these men? We grow know a few of them as Pyle, Joker and Cowboy, but we never get to know anything beyond these military facades and often struggle to see exactly what bubbles beneath the surface of these soldiers – if anything (especially in the first half). This is the epitome of a cinematic present being controlled Hartman; all experience beyond training and war is irrelevant for these characters as they are being broken down and re-constructed as human beings. All of this allows Hartman to upload his ideals and philosophy into characters, making them into his killing machines – full metal jackets, rifles or guns as we explored previously.
This first half of the Full Metal Jacket is then one of the best fictional showcases of a narrative or commanding voice. The only better examples you can find would be in documentary, and one of my favourite examples of this would be Alex Jones’ Endgame.
Hartman, like Jones, essentially spews a relentless monologue throughout the first 40 minutes of this movie. We may not always hear his words, but we always feel his presence, and in such we are immersed into his philosophy of action, war, God and the solider. You may even argue that this stretches beyond the first part of the movie and into Vietnam allowing us to see a rebuttal to Hartman’s opening ‘monologue’. In seeing Full Metal Jacket in this way, you have a through-route to assessing its subtext, so we’ll leave this point as is to concentrate on the effect this monologue has on us, the audience.
Hartman’s monologue has two effects, the first is authoritative and the second is antagonistic. Starting with the former, the authoritative characteristics of Hartman are blatant…
… at least in respect to the soldiers. But, his authority also extends to us on a conceptual level. That is to say that we are somewhat convinced and swept away by what Hartman preaches. In such, his heartlessness and malcontent hit us in the chest and make us giddy as we laugh and stare in awe at his parade of power. This is a small detail, but a significant one when we consider the means by which character is being felt by an audience. Instead of being defined through backstories, romance and heroism, Hartman is simply defined through behaviour, philosophy and presence. And added to this, his position as an antagonist is bolstered by the intuitive and visceral translation of his character. This note allows us to segue into the second antagonistic effect of Hartman’s monologue.
An antagonist is conflict with a body, mind and a voice. All narrative films have conflict and most movies have antagonists. Conflict is simply things that destabilise and disrupt the protagonist’s world or journey. An antagonist will also do this – but whilst having a sense of personage and character about them. The best conflict is then the kind of conflict that has subtext and so means something in relation to a character. A good example of this would be seen in Wild.
Cheryl’s conflicts throughout the film are the result of her hike; her feet hurting, back aching, tools not working. However, all the pain and suffering she endures is linked to the loss of her mother, the breakdown of her marriage and self-destructive acts of her past. Her hike is then a form of catharsis; a journey which sees her conflicts have purpose, and so be events that allow her to grow. We see this use of conflict in many road movies and I’m sure you could name quite a few.
Considering that this subtextual and character-centric form of conflict is the most effective because of the way it intertwines with all the working parts of a narrative, we can infer that the best use of antagonists will mirror this. A great example of an antagonist is then certainly…
… The Joker. This is not just because he is a great character we enjoy seeing on screen, but because he is a refection and commentary on Batman in the same way the hike in Wild is a reflection of Cheryl. In short, The Joker is chaos and Batman is trying to find a balance between order and justice. This is the power an antagonist can hold in a movie, and this is certainly the case with Hartman.
With his commanding voice and 45 minute long monologue, Hartman imbues Full Metal Jacket with thematic conflict as he tries to re-mould these men and turn them into killers. This provides us, the audience, further subtext and thematic textures to be immersed in.
The mastery displayed in the first half of Full Metal Jacket is then a pretty unique one, one that sees every element of narrative and film convey a powerful commanding voice through Hartman. This has many sides to it, all of which imbue story with rich undertones, emotive power and incredible allure that relentlessly entertains whilst commentating on soldiers and war.
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