By Sipati Kumar Swain (India)
Full Metal Jacket is a 1987 movie based on the Vietnam War directed and produced by Stanley Kubrik. It portrays the brutalizing effects Vietnam War had on US marines. The story is narrated by a young Marine named Private Joker, whose keen eyes observe these effects first in the confines of their training camp and then in the expanse of the Vietnamese City Hue, where one of the bloodiest street battles recorded in human history took place. The movie is thus presented in two segments- the first segment depicts the training camp and the second segment depicts the story of the deployed marines in Vietnam. Personally, I was really touched by the simplicity and expressiveness through which several facets of war are brought to us by the movie.
Movie’s opens with a group of young boys getting their heads shaved preparing for the marine training camp, while Johnny Wright’s plaintive track “Goodbye my sweetheart, hello Vietnam” plays in the background. You can sense the innocence and simple-worldly nature of these guys and it hits you even harder when you realize that these boys are going to be trained as merciless killing machines. The training camp is run by the experienced Sergeant Hartman, whose abrasiveness is a simulation of the cruelty of war. Each trainee is given a nickname by the Sergeant. We meet our narrator “Joker”, “Snowball”, “Cowboy” and also the fat, dumb-looking “Gomer Pyle”.
The training camp is brutal. Each day begins with creed recitals like “What makes the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood!”, “What do we do for a living? Kill! Kill! Kill”. The marines are taught to love their M14 rifles more than anything else in the world, so much so that each one of them is asked to give their rifle a girl’s name.
One of the scenes which stuck with me was the one in which Sgt. Hartman explains what a dedicated marine and his rifle can do. The example he chooses to drive his point home is that of Lee Henry Oswald, the ex-marine who killed Kennedy with a headshot, that too in a moving car. The fact that a military instructor chooses to give the example of a condemned murderer made me think about war. Probably there is no right or wrong about it. It is just skill. You kill or get killed. As Khuswant Singh says it in “Train to Pakistan”, a bullet is fair. It does not discriminate.
Most of the stories in the training camp revolve around “Gomer Pyle”. He is fat, dumb and cannot control his perpetual hunger. He is constantly singled out and punished for not being able to adapt. And on the final night of training, he shoots Hartman and then puts a bullet in his own mouth. Six weeks on the island turned a young boy into a gun-wielding sociopath. Ironically, the purpose of training has been achieved.
In the second part of the movie, we follow the trails of Private Joker, who is now a correspondent with the war magazine Stars and Stripes in Vietnam. He is often mocked by his colleagues for not having the thousand yard stare, the long brooding look you have on your face when you have killed someone. Ironically you kill strangers & innocents to be a hero. One question that comes again and again is – isn’t war hell?
The second part, although less intense than the first part, asks similarly piercing questions of war and morality. If someone were to ask me why I liked this movie, I would say that there is something poetic about the starkness of this movie. The undercurrent of human evil is so hard to miss and not feel sad about, even for the most pragmatic of viewers.
There are lot of scenes which depicts duality of human being and the duality of war. The one where Pyle is beaten with soap by all including Joker (who has been nice to him till then) shows goodness has always a threshold point. Private Joker, who wears a peace badge on his chest and has scribbled Born to kill on his helmet, manifests in his appearance, the contradictory nature of war. They are killing Vietnamese people so that the Vietnamese people can have peace. There is a scene where the troop leader dies and the second in command becomes the lead. How does one react to this celebrate the promotion or mourn the death of a beloved friend. There are moments of conflict between logic and emotion. Do you try to protect your friend and sacrifice more people in the process or do the logical thing and leave him to die alone?
After a long drawn battle, the Americans mortally injure the opponent sniper, who has caused them a great deal of trouble. When they go to check, they find the sniper to be a girl and she is in so much pain that she is begging for death. A long discussion follows on whether they should kill her or not. Should one be humane and put end to one’s misery or should one make the enemy pay. The responsibility to rid her of her excruciating pain is given to Private Joker, who shoots her after some hesitation. As his mates congratulate him, he looks in the distance and gets his thousand yard stare.
The movie ends with the main protagonist reflecting – “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I am in a world of s–t. But I am alive. “There is nothing patriotic about war. The dead does not care whether his nation won the war or not. The dead only wants one thing – to be alive.
There are persistent questions about what is moral and what is not. I think it was John Steinbeck who said that “all war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal”. War movies on the other hand, especially like this one, urge us to become thinking animals once again.