Memorial Day Retrospective: Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket

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Kubrick’s 1987 classic continues to resonate…

With another Memorial Day coming and going, it seemed interesting to take a retrospective look back at a movie that showcases some of the brutal realities of serving in the country’s armed forces, Full Metal Jacket.  The late Stanley Kubrick certainly had a unique ability to tell dark stories, and perhaps this isn’t more evident than it is here in this film. There is always a lot of hope and promise when it comes to recruitment in the armed forces, but Kubrick manages to pull back the shimmering veneer to showcase the ugly underbelly of what these incredible individuals must deal with when they decide to serve.

The audience surrogate in this movie, is Private Davis (played by Matthew Modine), who goes on to be known as Private Joker as nicknamed by his drill sergeant.  He is easily the most relatable of the bunch as he seems to display a balanced personality with a thoughtful consciousness. Joker sticks to his moral principles as evidenced when he respectfully refuses to agree with his drill sergeant when inquisitioned as to whether he believes in the Virgin Mary. This earns him the respect of his drill sergeant as he is appointed to squad leader.  Part of military life is conforming for the sake of the team, and Joker certainly is a team player. Yet he feels hesitance whenever he is asked to do something questionable for the team.  Regardless of being the most level headed of the bunch, even Joker is not immune to the grim aspects of service. Through him we learn about the subjects of discipline, mental health and duty that are touched on in FMJ.

Something that sticks out, that seems obvious at first, is the strict amount of discipline it takes to make it in the military.  We are presented two different characters with whom to go through this training with.  The first is Joker…someone who follows all orders, does everything well, and treats everything with the appropriate respect.  The other is “Gomer Pyle”, played brilliantly by Vincent D’Onofrio.  Pyle is out of shape, has trouble with basic training requirements and seems to look at things with amusement.  To get to the point where they are even allowed to fight for their country, these soldiers must be beat down and then built back up as part of their education.

It takes a strong individual to make it out of basic training. Sadly, as shown by the extreme example of Gomer, some can’t handle the intense rigors of the regimented lifestyle. Strong mental health is key to successful advancement.  Even the most mentally strong will have their wits tested as they witness terrible tragedies which can potentially occur. Joker witnesses Gomer, a person whom he’d been appointed to be a mentor to, murder his drill sergeant in front of him and then commit suicide.  This unit has yet to fight in a war but already they are being battle tested.

Everything  comes to a head when these men finally go off to fight in the Vietnam War. Here Joker witnesses the harsh realities of war.  These men are fighting a thankless battle in a country for people that seemingly don’t appreciate the ideals that they are fighting for.  Yet they continue because of duty. These men witness their comrades getting killed in front of them, and they must summon the courage to keep on forging ahead.  Even the enemy is not clear cut.  Joker’s troupe has several men gunned down at the hands of a sniper who turns out to be young girl.  When they finally surround her, and shoot her down, she pleads to be put out of her misery as she lay on the ground bleeding out and gasping her last breaths of air. This girl has murdered Joker’s friends but he can’t help but feel mercy for her.  In the end, he ends up shooting this girl in the face to save her the agony of a lingering death.

How will this affect Joker going forward? We are not quite sure.  What we are certain of, is that he has witnessed terrible things just in the name of duty towards our nation. Sometimes, the general citizen can be oblivious to the plight of men and women that have and continue to serve us. As we celebrate the comfort of freedom in this great country, we shouldn’t lose sight of the journey of those who have sacrificed for us. Full Metal Jacket showcases that it takes an incredible person to commit to duty. 

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