Home / The measure of a man: Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”

The measure of a man: Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”

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Full Metal Jacket

***** – a masterpiece

As I watch more war films that actually take the time to analyze war, I become increasingly aware that standard war cinema just doesn’t cut it. I forgave Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan because of the outstanding way in which the film is told – but it can never be in the leagues of what has come from Malick, Coppola, Renior and Kubrick. The nature of average war cinema is one that trivializes the human consequences of war for a focus on pure excitement, strategy and technicality.

Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is not one of those films. The film views the sinister nature of the hyper-masculinity that infests man in war. Jacket is broken into two parts – the beginning a training camp sequences which focuses on forced sexuality and the creation of a “well-oiled machine” – which results in mental corruption and stark violence. The second section is set in Vietnam itself (in actuality sets built in England – much like Eyes Wide Shut‘s “New York”), and despite the contrast of location, what is covered in the first segment remains parallel in the second. The dual narrative structure provocatively compliments the film’s main theme of the duality of the masculine and feminine nature of man, and how war allows the masculine to override and corrupt. Each segment has somewhat-parallel beginning and end – with the first connected so directly that it serves as truly the beginning of the second. The two share an incredibly interesting symbiotic relationship with one another – as they remain separate, yet together. It’s unfortunate that many recognize this as the film’s flaw, when Kubrick’s brilliant structuring of the film is the highlight.

The first segment (easily the most popular of the two – undoubtedly because of the foul-mouthed drill sargent) essentially used as an explanation of sorts for the mentality and behavior displayed on the battlefield. The trigger-happy insanity shown in the second segment is proven by the first to have come from somewhere – it isn’t an intrinsic element of manhood. Joker, who gives us the very last scene of violence in the second segment – parallel to Pyle’s violence in the first – is shown to be quite caring when training Pyle, and opposite to his loud-mouth instructor. Eventually the instructors propganda kicks in, even for the more “effemenate” Private Gomer Pyle, and ends in tragedy in both halves. Few elements remain untied – including the first segment’s forced sexuality, which results in a few pathetic scenes in the second with Vietnamese prostitutes.

Stylistically, Full Metal Jacket is unfortunately one of Kubrick’s most dated. From a director who seemingly places just as much emphasis on how his film’s look, as he does in what they mean – the look of Jacket is surprisingly boring. Admittedly, there are stylistic elements that are of interest – from long tracking shots, to experimenting here and there with contrasting shades (done to greater extent in Eyes Wide Shut). The war-torn sets themselves could easily have been at least partial visual inspiration for later (and lessor) films – Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Scott’s Black Hawk Down come first to mind. However, when compared to the timeless beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut and others in his lineup – Jacket‘s visuals are overall uninspired. It’s unfortunate that the much of the film’s look never escapes the decade in which it was made – especially considering that the special-effects-heavy 2001 is still as visually excited in the present as I’m sure it was upon its release. Even the synth scoring of A Clockwork Orange is so otherworldly that it remains unattached to a particular decade.

If I have one other minor gripe, it’s that the film doesn’t end a minute-or-so earlier. The ending as is isn’t bad, it’s just pointless – and ending in the previous scene would’ve heightened the dramatic effect. It’s interesting to me that Roger Ebert states in his review, “You can only watch so much footage of a man crouched behind a barrier, pinned down by sniper fire, before the situation turns into a cinematic cliche. We’ve been here before, in other war movies, and we keep waiting for Kubrick to spring a surprise, but he never does.” I wonder if his boredom caused him to forget to notice the gender of the sniper (the “surprise” he was waiting for) – whose eventual destruction serves as a strong visual symbol for the hyper-machismo taking its final grasp, in the bloody, unfortunate end.

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  • John,

    Nice essay, but I’m not sure if I understand what you mean when you say, “It’s unfortunate that much of the film’s look never escapes the decade in which it was made”. How does Full Metal Jacket’s cinematography and production design scream 1980s? It definitely screams “Kubrick!”, especially if you’re familiar (as you undoubtedly are) with his other works, but I hadn’t noticed a strong ’80s look to the film, and I’d be curious to hear which elements you were referring to.


  • I think it may be a matter of personal interpretation of the “look” of the film – it just reminded me, not terribly so – but in contrast to his other works notable enough, of an “80s film” throughout. It was more of a comparison to his films as a whole – I don’t feel that way about The Shining, and that’s an 80s film, as well. I think it’s his least visually-inspired color film.

  • John,

    Well, there’s less interpretation involved when doing a war movie–it’s not like 2001, where Kubrick could invent everything, or Barry Lyndon, which allowed for lush photography, sumptuous interiors and rich costumes (not to mention [lingering sigh] Marisa Berenson). The uniforms and settings are probably two-thirds of a war movie’s look, and the audience has certain obvious expectations about both.

    There’s an excellent article that Douglas Milsome, the cinematographer for Full Metal Jacket, authored for American Cinematographer magazine in 1987. He said that Kubrick wanted a destaturated, documentary look to the FMJ, which is why they push-processed the film to achieve its somewhat grainy look, milky blacks, and reduced contrast. And according to what Michael Herr wrote in his profile, Kubrick had in mind, initially, doing something about war–it didn’t necessarily have to be Vietnam, which may be why the film’s Vietnam segments are dominated by grim urban landscapes, as opposed to the lush jungles of Apocalypse Now.

    And obviously, for many of the Vietnam scenes, Kubrick was trying achieve the same bleached out looking skies that he had in Paths of Glory. I think Thomas Allen Nelson described that look as similar to a coffin lid over the action.

    There was an interesting dichotomy to Kubrick’s films: he always wanted everything to look as realistic as possible, but in terms of acting and structure, his films became increasingly fantastic–Brechtian is a word I’ve often heard them described as.

    And in one respect, the look of Full Metal Jacket has stood the test of time: It was a sited as a direct inspiration by Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer of Saving Private Ryan.

    By the way, I’m necessarily disagreeing with you; there’s a lot of Kubrick-a-brack left in my brain from college, and it’s always fun for me to discuss this stuff!


  • I mentioned liking the set design in the Vietnam scenes as a highlight and theorized the look of the film to be an inspiration for both Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down – I’m glad to see that theory (half) confirmed.

    It is a matter of personal preference, and I found the visualization here to be boring in comparison to his works (I’d note his most similar, for me – was Eyes Wide Shut, which is stunning – especially in comparison).