Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) is unnerving. From the opening scene, in which a series of young men are given buzz-cuts, accompanied by Johnnie Wright’s upbeat track Hello Vietnam, to the closing sequence of marines singing the Mickey Mouse Club Marching Song, the film portrays war in an unexpected way.

To start, a large part of the picture takes place on Parris Island (the induction and training centre for marines) before the recruits reach combat. In this act of the film, drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) is relentless. He finishes what the haircuts begin: he totally deconstructs the men in an attempt to turn them from “maggots” into killing machines. Overweight private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) bears the brunt of Hartman’s ridicule. The sequence on Parris Island is reminiscent of the gladiator training regime in Spartacus (1960) and the viewer knows that a transformation of sorts is complete when Pyle begins to resemble one of Kubrick’s ape-men, his deranged stare paralleling Alex (Malcolm McDowell)  in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining (1980). Immediately after completing his eight-weeks, Pyle shoots Hartman and commits suicide: it is the overarching irony of this section that Pyle’s “killer-instinct” is intentionally developed by the man it eventually destroys.

The aesthetic of the Parris Island sequence is clean: the camera moves in straight lines, often following a parallel created by the rows of bunk beds or the movements of the drill sergeant; the lighting is limited to the blue hue of night time, the artificial bulbs of the barracks and the blank tone of a slightly overcast and not too bright sun; the marines look startlingly similar and move like robots (making the out-of-time Pyle all the more glaring). The viewer is reminded that these “maggots” are human, however, when Pyle’s blood splatters across the ordered bathroom tiles.

The enduring humanity of “the phoney-tough and the crazy-brave” that survive Parris Island is reinforced when they leave the sterile homogeneity of their training environment and are dropped in Vietnam. The hair grows back and idiosyncrasies begin to appear. For example, the combination of private Joker’s (Matthew Modine) peace badge and his helmet, which reads “BORN TO KILL”: he’s apparently aiming at “the duality of man […] the Jungian thing.”  The change of location not only exposes the marines as (fallible) humans but also ushers in a more chaotic aesthetic: well ordered furniture is replaced by scattered rubble and ruins; the overpowering sound of Hartman’s barking, almost the only authoritative sound to be heard on Parris Island, is replaced by gunfire, bombs and arguments; the red flames of explosions bleed into the black and blue of the night.

War, from the creation of soldiers to the brutality of killing, is presented as perverse, chaotic and complex. That Kubrick does not flinch in his portrayal is exemplified by his lingering close-shot of the young female sniper, writhing like as insect and repeatedly saying “kill me”. The quick movement from such a gruesome shot to the marines’ (apparently) childlike Disney song illustrates the extent to which those facing battle must retreat within themselves, if they are not all to end like private Pyle, who is, in a sense, the purest product of Parris Island.

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