Regarding Full Metal Jacket
by Brian Siano
Full Metal Jacket as Genre Film
Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, which are clearly the Big Three films about the war, are always going to be compared and contrasted. Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now tried to filter Vietnam through Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and was clearly an attempt to mix surrealistic elements alongside of extremely realistic observations to provide a strong sense of the experience of serving in Vietnam. Oliver Stone's Platoon was, simply, based on Stone's own experiences, and he essentially used the simple techniques of a war film to provide a more authentic sense of what jungle warfare is like. Full Metal Jacket was based on author Gustav Hasford's own wartime experience alongside of his own efforts to compose a surrealistically-influenced novel about the war, but Kubrick apparently desired to use the story in an effort to explore what turns people into the killers they frequently become.
These are all very different approaches for what are, I think, very distinct purposes. If we are to compare them, it should be in an effort to gain insight into what the war means to Americans. All of these films are intelligent works made with artistic integrity, and they fail and succeed on their own merits.
How "realistic" are they? It's difficult to say. Both Platoon and Full Metal Jacket are extremely scrupulous to the actual details of warfare. But Apocalypse Now is, by virtue of its own approach, extremely good at creating a distinct state of mind in its audience. A Vietnam vet may prefer the former two films over Apocalypse Now if only because they got the details right. Personally, in my humble opinion, Platoon is the finest in giving the audience a sense of what jungle warfare is like: hot, tense, terrifying. (No, I didn't serve.)
What disturbs me about all Vietnam war films is that they can't help but glamorize the experience. There's a strange masculine appeal to the idea of having been to hell and back, of having lived in a realm where the normal rules of civilization have been suspended. I'm not saying that Vietnam vets liked their experiences... but a lot of people who didn't see combat like the idea of being someone who has experienced it. There's a terrific book called Warrior Dreams by James Gibson that should be required reading on this point. And sadly, Full Metal Jacket explores this theme (see how much Rafterman wants to get into combat) even while falling victim to it. Apocalypse Now embraces this attitude, however (I think it's due to screenwriter John Milius's military fetishism), and in retrospect I think it weakens the film as a definitive statement about Vietnam.
And I should mention that none of these films says anything about the war in any larger sense: no discussion of why the U.S. invaded this tiny country, why the Vietnamese won, or anything in any sense beyond the glam of serving in country. (Compare them to Costa Gavras' Missing, which managed to be a gripping film, a terrifying experience, and a strong political statement about the U.S.'s role in South America.)
Hasford's Vietnam Epic
Hasford's 1982 novel The Short-Timers was the basis for Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. I just finished reading The Phantom Blooper, which is Gustav Hasford's second novel about Vietnam. The Phantom Blooper was published in 1990, although indications are that it was written long before, and only after FMJ was released could Hasford publish it.
I truly wish that someone would publish these two books in a single volume, simply because they deal with Vietnam in a far more totalistic way than most approaches do. In The Short-Timers, we follow Joker through training at Parris Island, and into some of his service in Vietnam. The Phantom Blooper picks up the story where Joker is stationed at Khe Sanh, one of the more horrific places of the whole war. He is eventually wounded and taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. For reasons not entirely explained, Joker is allowed to work for the VC village; helping to build walls, train young soldiers, and much more. He makes his plans for escape very slowly, but as the story progresses he develops a respect for the VC that's far beyond the grunt's-eye-view respect for "Victor Charlie" we usually get in Vietnam dramatizations. And he develops sympathy for the cause as well; they don't try to brainwash him or make him confess to war-crimes, but he does eventually decide to start fighting American soldiers as well.
Amazingly, Hasford's narrative style -- so striking inThe Short-Timers -- adopts a more lyrical tone when Joker is with the VC, yet it doesn't really feel different. You really get a sense of Joker gradually shifting from the fatalistic, hyper-Raymond Chandler voice he had as a Marine. And although I haven't read widely of Vietnam novels, I know of relatively few that attempt to tell about the war from the VC's point of view. Eventually, Joker is "rescued" -- the village he's kept in is destroyed in order to save him. He spends some time in a VA hospital in Tokyo, recuperating, watching soldiers die slowly or commit suicide. The Army gives him a Section 8 because he willingly fought for the VC. Eventually he returns to the States, and after meeting up with some of the other vets (one is a memberof the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, another is a SWAT team sniper), visiting Cowboy's parents, he goes home to Alabama. His family, however, cannot deal with the horrors of what America has been doing to Vietnam, and what the war has created in Joker. At the close of the book, Joker is returning to Vietnam as a free-lance writer.
Like I said, I wish someone would issue these as a single volume. Taken individually, each is a brilliant & singular portrayal of the war. Taken together, we have a kind of Vietnam epic, the kind of story Oliver Stone tried to tell in Platoon, Heaven and Earth and Born on the Fourth of July. To be honest, I'm hoping that Kubrick's own success with Full Metal Jacket doesn't overshadow Hasford's achievement. If you can find The Phantom Blooper and The Short-Timers, read them both together.