Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket Study Guide

Stanley Kubrick released Full Metal Jacket in 1987, a full seven years after his previous project, the psychological horror film The Shining. Kubrick was contemplating making a war film as early as 1980, when he initiated contact with writer and former combat correspondent Michael Herr, author of the famous Vietnam memoir Dispatches. Herr was initially reluctant to participate in another Vietnam war film project, having already worked on Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now in the late 1970s. Kubrick's persistence, and decision to adapt Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers, which both men considered a masterpiece, helped to convince Herr to come on board.

Full Metal Jacket is an unusual war film in that half of it takes place in basic training, before the men are deployed. Critics have noted the stark disparity between the film's first and second halves. The first half of the film takes place at a U.S. Marine Corps base on Parris Island, South Carolina, as the men complete basic training. The story focuses tightly around Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence, sidelining other characters like Joker and Cowboy, who become central in the latter half of the film. Through Pyle's story, Kubrick examined the "brainwashing" effects of military training, and the kinds of psychological breakdown and homicidal ideation that they could incur.

Critics praised the first part of the film, especially R. Lee Ermey's vicious performance as Hartman. Kubrick also sang Ermey's praises, astounded by the force and power he brought to the incredibly demanding role. Ermey's line readings often satisfied Kubrick after only a few takes—a rarity for the notoriously perfectionist director. Critics were less favorable toward the second half of the film, which unlike the first half, unfolds as a series of loose vignettes, rather than as one tight storyline. Roger Ebert called the film "strangely shapeless," and Gene Siskel commented that, "the second act fails to live up to the first act."

Nevertheless, Full Metal Jacket ranks among Kubrick's best-known works. The horrifying story of Hartman and Pyle, which ends in a brutal murder-suicide, has become the film's primary legacy, as has the film's unflinching overall treatment of the U.S. Marine Corps' culture. Although Kubrick stated publicly that he did not intend to make an "anti-war" film, the boot camp sequence undeniably conveys how the brutality of basic training leads to moral anarchy and mental breakdown. When every single member of the platoon joins in savagely beating Pyle after Hartman's indirect order, they are all implicated in the violence that takes place—no one is innocent, even before they step foot in Vietnam.

Ironically, the film is also popular within the real U.S. Marines. Many in the service vaunt Hartman as the ultimate drill instructor, and disparage Pyle as a pathetic "non-hacker." The film's sensationalization of masculinity and masculine violence have been occasionally interpreted as an endorsement, not a critique. Although Kubrick renders the psychological ramifications of war, he also encourages the audience to feel empathy with Joker and Cowboy, creating a complex film with no clear protagonists. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, as well as a Golden Globe in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.