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Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released 35 years ago. Gregory Wakeman explores how the film, and others by the director, revealed “the mindlessness and cruelty of conflict” – as well as the transformation of young men into killing machines.

Cinephiles often speak of their regret that legendary director Stanley Kubrick only made 13 films in his illustrious 46-year-long career. This blow is somewhat softened by the fact that most of his work, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Spartacus, to Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket, which turns 35 on 26 June, all look and feel entirely unique. Kubrick’s output was undeniably eclectic. But there was one genre that he couldn’t help but return to… the war genre.

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Kubrick’s fascination with war actually dates back to his debut outing as a director, 1953’s Fear and Desire, which he made when he was just 24 years old. Set during an unnamed dispute, Fear and Desire revolves around four soldiers who crash-land behind enemy lines, and somehow have to find their way back to base. Even though he would later disown it as “a bumbling amateur film exercise,” Kubrick would continue to explore Fear and Desire’s brutal yet tender look at the human and mental cost of conflict.

Nathan Abrams, a professor in film at Bangor University, who has written extensively about Kubrick, says that “he used war as the backdrop to examine the bigger issues that he was interested in, like the nature of humanity, men, masculinity and evil. He’s not interested in war, per se. He’s interested in what war tells us about us.”

Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University in Washington, DC, believes that “Kubrick understood, on a very deep level, the insanity of modern warfare.”

Paths of Glory stars Kirk Douglas as the commanding officer of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack (Credit: Alamy)

Paths of Glory stars Kirk Douglas as the commanding officer of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack (Credit: Alamy)

That was clear in his next war film, Paths of Glory (1957), which tells the true story of three French soldiers killed for cowardice after surviving a suicide attack. But while Dr Strangelove (1964) and finally Full Metal Jacket (1987) would follow, Kubrick’s interest in using cinema to examine the psychological, physical, and emotional impact of war wasn’t just restricted to the films he actually made.

“I think you get a better idea of Kubrick’s interest in war from the totality of what he attempted to do,” says Abrams, who points out that Kubrick spent years striving to make films on Julius Caesar, the Holocaust and Napoleon, while also noting how both Spartacus and Barry Lyndon stray into the genre, too.

Sex and violence

Paths of Glory’s exploration of the “irrationality, mindlessness and cruelty of warfare”, according to Kuznick, means that it is widely regarded as one of the finest anti-war films ever created. But it is Dr Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket’s mixture of sex and violence that really epitomises Kubrick’s viewpoint on the genre.

“Kubrick is very aware of certain things, especially the connection between sex and violence,” explains Kuznick. It’s there in the opening title sequence of Dr Strangelove, as Kubrick shoots the mid-flight refuelling of an aircraft as if it was a sex scene.

“The sexual imagery carries on through the entire movie,” says Kuznick, who points out how one of Dr Strangelove’s final sequences sees Major TK “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) straddling and riding a nuclear bomb as it falls to its target. “Even the name of the film,” adds Kuznick. “Strangelove. What is Strange Love referring to? It’s a love of death.”

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirises Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict (Credit: Alamy)

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirises Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict (Credit: Alamy)

While he’s renowned for his subtlety, Kubrick wasn’t afraid to be very blatant with his themes when required. Such is the case in Full Metal Jacket, when the tyrannical drill instructor Sergeant Hartman (Lee Amry) tells the privates he is training that they have to give their rifles women’s names and sleep with them. There’s even a scene where they march around holding their weapons in one hand and their genitals in the other, chanting, “This is my rifle. This is my gun. This is for killing. This is fun.”

All of which raises the question, why was Kubrick so intent on repeatedly showing the link between sex and violence? “I think he’s saying that the same urge that can turn people into obsessively sexual beings is interconnected to our proclivity towards violence,” explains Kuznick. “Ultimately, I think that’s what makes Kubrick pessimistic about human beings.”

Kubrick’s cynicism towards humanity is apparent all the way through Full Metal Jacket. Split into two separate stories, the first hour details the boot camp training of US Marines by Hartman. He is so abusive to Private Leonard (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is less intelligent and more overweight than the other trainees, that Hartman is ultimately murdered by him.

“Full Metal Jacket is about the abuse of young men, which has been going on in the military since the start of society. These young men are turned into killing machines,” explains Abrams.

In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick explored how men might react if pushed to their limits (Credit: Alamy)

In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick explored how men might react if pushed to their limits (Credit: Alamy)

Robert Muller, who was paralysed from the chest down in Vietnam and subsequently founded the humanitarian organisation Veterans for America, regularly appears as a guest speaker in Kuznick’s classes. Muller tells the students that the boot camp Kubrick recreated in Full Metal Jacket is exactly the same as his own experience.

“The film is a comment on the sadism, the cruelty and the malleability of human nature,” says Kuznick. “Muller has said, ‘They take little butter-balls like me and turn them into killing machines. I went from being a good guy to going over to Vietnam, and laughing at seeing women and children being wasted.'”

The second half of Full Metal Jacket follows Joker (Matthew Modine) and his platoon to the Vietnam War, where we see the true horrors of the Tet Offensive unfold, all as the soldiers become increasingly blasé about death. “He wants to debunk movie clichés about war in general, and about the Vietnam War in particular,” says Abrams.

Full Metal Jacket was, in part, Kubrick’s response to the increasingly macho action films of the 1980s. Kubrick and his fellow screenwriters Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford wanted to eradicate the action movie stereotype. So when Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) runs to save a wounded Eightball (Dorian Harewood), bullets are strewn over his shoulders with a bandolier, much like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando.

“That’s an image that we take from Vietnam War movies. It’s a culturally processed image. Kubrick must have known that it wasn’t authentic. But he didn’t care because he was interested in the image of the hyper-masculine Vietnam soldier, which he puts into this racist character,” explains Abrams. “At the same time, though, he’s the soldier who actually runs in to save Eightball. That just makes the image all the more complex.”

Some have seen Full Metal Jacket as an attempt to understand human evil (Credit: Alamy)

Some have seen Full Metal Jacket as an attempt to understand human evil (Credit: Alamy)

Kubrick spent most of his career ensuring that every aspect of his films was at the very least original and different. While most other Vietnam films were primarily set in the jungles of the country, Kubrick instead focused Full Metal Jacket on urban warfare, turning East London into the city of Huế. The likes of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Apocalypse Now ended with at least an inkling of hope, reflection, or realisation. Not so for Kubrick – and particularly not for Full Metal Jacket. “There’s no Hollywood ending. There’s no deeper understanding. There’s no sense of learning from the experience really. It’s just a sense of pessimism,” says Kuznick.

For Abrams, this only underlines just how deep Kubrick’s understanding of war and its impact was. “He abhorred war and the social and political structures that send people to do unimaginably horrific things. As [Sigmund] Freud got older, he wrote about the death instinct and the human proclivity towards destruction and self-destruction. Kubrick grappled with that more profoundly than any other filmmaker.”

That’s especially true of how Kubrick depicted technology and machinery in his films. Not only does HAL murder Frank in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Full Metal Jacket is named after the casings around bullets, while Dr Strangelove’s plot is focused on the imminent launch of the doomsday device that will cause a nuclear apocalypse.

Veteran Western character actor Slim Pickens played Air Force Major TJ "King" Kong, the B-52 aircraft commander (Credit: Alamy)

Veteran Western character actor Slim Pickens played Air Force Major TJ “King” Kong, the B-52 aircraft commander (Credit: Alamy)

“Kubrick deals with the connection between the human death instinct and the machines we created to wreak havoc, destruction, and do the killing for us. He does so better than any other filmmaker, too,” insists Kuznick. “He knows there is something deeply irrational and absurd about human beings who create machines that will only end life on the planet.”

Such a negative viewpoint of the world probably helps to explains why, even though he was the most celebrated director of his generation, Kubrick was never rewarded with an Academy Award for his obvious talents. “He didn’t play the publicity game,” says Abrams. “In his early years, sure, he wanted to win an Oscar. But by the mid 60s, he’d slowed down. He makes as many films between 1953 and 1964 as he does afterwards because he was more interested in making sure his films delivered something new, and that he didn’t repeat himself.”

Which probably explains why Kubrick kept on coming back to the war genre. It was so rich in action, drama, emotion, and themes of grief, ego, sacrifice, and guilt, that Kubrick could go from searing the politics of war in Paths of Glory, to satirising the insanity of nuclear bombs in Dr. Strangelove, before finally showcasing the human cost of battle in Full Metal Jacket, without coming close to duplication. All of which he achieved while proving that he was the master of both transfixing and enlightening his audience at the same time. 

So, while it may be a shame that Kubrick only made 13 films, perhaps we should just be grateful for the ones he gave us. 

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