The Taser's Edge

War and Worship in Full Metal Jacket (1987, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Full Metal Jacket is one of those films which it feels stupid to recommend because it’s so well-respected and because it’s a Kubrick film at all.  But, following the modus operandi of Oprah’s Book Club, it’s also a film that demands to be recommended no matter how many times it’s been recommended before.

Part of the issue that clouds how much this film is one of the standards by which all war films should be judged is that there are so many anti-Vietnam movies out there.  Most of them fall into that sad trend of American pop culture dumbing down history in general, and particularly the history of the 1960s (see, The 60’s): “The only thing you need to know about Vietnam is that it was bad, so that you can say you are against it.  The only thing that you need to know about the 1960s is that they were good, so you can be for them.”

Perhaps worse, we’re already flattening out the history of the current Iraq War (which I suppose makes sense, because we’ve had so much practice with previous wars): “The only thing you need to know about Iraq is….”  I can already see the CBS miniseries on the first decade of the 21st century, although first they will have to come up with a catchy title.  Someone’s probably already writing a new Forrest Gump to fully obliterate any sense of connection between historical events and historical narrative, but in the meantime we have films like last year’s Fair Game (about Valerie Plame) and Casino Jack (about Jack Abramoff), both marketed not as ‘based’ but ‘inspired by true events.’  And you can be sure that a team of lawyers forced that language to avoid litigation.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to make a historical film.  Ray, for instance, was factually misleading and somehow managed to make Ray Charles boring.  Many older war movies starring John Wayne (both in WWII and Vietnam) make war seem more ‘kind-of-sucky sometimes’ than ‘hell.’  And then other films make up stuff from whole cloth and range from brilliant (Life is Beautiful and the mystifyingly lesser known The Lives of Others) to excellent (Three Kings) to entertaining (Green Zone and perhaps Inglourious Basterds) to crap (too many to name).

Full Metal Jacket goes in the brilliant category, even though it’s impossible to directly compare it to Life is Beautiful (more freedom for fantasy) or The Lives of Others (more focus on historical groundedness).  FMJ is a war movie not so much about war as about people.

Yes, there are the battle scenes (and I am certain, although I haven’t yet seen Alfonso Cuarón saying so, that the battle scene with the camera moving through bombed-out buildings in Children of Men is a direct homage to a long scene late in Full Metal Jacket, also a long, uncut shot following folks through burning and bombed-out buildings).  But there is also this massive risk, which pays off amazingly, in which Kubrick (although basing the story on a novel) decided to tell two full stories, making the movie into two discreet-but-sinewed-together acts, each of which easily a stand-alone.

The first act is about a fairly heavy and dim-witted Marine recruit who becomes the object of bullying at Parris Island.  The second is about a bright, educated Marine journalist who went through training at the same time, and who is on the ground in Vietnam during the beginning of the Tết Offensive and the Battle of Huế, literally wearing his conflicted feelings about the War (his helmet reading “Born to Kill” alongside a peace sign pin on his jacket).  Interestingly, the official trailer really didn’t have a clue how to depict both acts, and so didn’t even try:

So, why is it important that this war movie is primarily about people instead of primarily about war?  Because war is primarily about people, and we continue to wage wars in order to distract ourselves from the fact that peace is harder, because peace is all about actually valuing people.

Finally, why does this movie matter so much to me?  Because it makes clear that war is by definition about worship, and that the gods whom we worship in war are far from the God who is the Lamb Who Was Slain.  That’s not something that’s as clear in any other war film I know (although Apocalypse Now comes close, and I think I might look at worship as a lens through which to return to war movies I’ve already seen).

Very much related post: Veteran’s Day Ambivalence

2 Comments so far
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Never stop recommending movies because they are acclaimed. That is something I’ve learned over the years. There are just too many choices out there these days and most of them are bad.

Speaking of recommendations, have you ever seen Kieslowski’s The Decalogue?

I enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work.

Comment by @burtonmorris

Thanks for the encouragement and for following the blog. I’ve only seen the first few of The Decalogue (and that’s not because I didn’t like the ones I’ve seen).

Comment by tasersedge

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