“But always remember this: Marines die. That's what we're here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means YOU live forever.”
–Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket
Watching a particular movie to commemorate a day or season is certainly nothing new. However, it’s begun to grow beyond Christmas movie marathons in December and Halloween movie marathons in October, and I for one couldn’t be happier. Groundhog Day (1993) on February 2nd. Star Wars (1977) on May 4th. V for Vendetta (2005) on November 5th. Mean Girls (2003) on October 3rd? Fetch.
I’m assuming November 10th is a less popular one, but for the past several years it’s a day that I’ve celebrated with a viewing of Full Metal Jacket (1987) in honor of Marine Corps birthday.
[The United States Marines were founded on November 10, 1775, and thus the day before Veterans Day has affectionately been known as "Marine Corps Birthday" ever since.]
My first exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece came when I was around eleven years old, and my dad (a Marine Corps vet himself) sat me down to show me what he called “the most realistic boot camp scene he’d ever seen.” It only took about two minutes into the opening scene, right around the time Gunnery Sergeant Hartman tells Pvt. Joker “You can come over to my house and fuck my sister”, before my dad realized that it might’ve been a bit too realistic for an 11-year-old, but it certainly made an impression on me.
But my dad isn’t the only Marine who’s praised Full Metal Jacket for its accuracy, and it’s this authenticity that’s stuck with me for years. If this is truly how we prepare our young men for war, that says an awful lot about war (and how we value — or don’t value — these young men preparing for it). And it’s worth noting that, despite this movie being about the unpopular Vietnam War, Kubrick did not at all intend for it to be an anti-war film — he’d already made one of those thirty years earlier with Paths of Glory (1957) — but instead just a straight-forward, no-judgment depiction of what war is.
And what war is is dehumanizing on both sides. It’s no coincidence that the only real speaking parts for the Vietnamese people in the second half of the movie go to either prostitutes or men trying to sell prostitutes to the soldiers. And how the US soldiers talk about the prostitutes (and Vietnamese in general) makes it very clear exactly what they think of them as people. Obviously, dehumanizing the other side makes them easier to kill.
What’s less obvious is how much the US soldiers are dehumanized to become US soldiers. The Marines at Parris Island must be broken down completely by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and then rebuilt as fearless killers. The United States doesn’t want personalities and individuals; they want faceless, obedient, uniform killers. That’s why the opening shots of the movie are of the men getting their heads shaved, losing their individuality and becoming uniform. And Gunnery Sergeant Hartman telling them that they “are not even human fucking beings” as he paces the barracks. And Kubrick using a custom-made lens to film Hartman’s pacing to ensure that every single recruit that he passes remains in focus, emphasizing how many there are and thus how little each matters individually.
And why Gunnery Sergeant Hartman gets violent when Pvt. Joker shows a bit of his individuality by speaking out of turn. And why Hartman doesn’t even allow them to use their actual names (we never even learn Joker’s or Cowboy’s real names, or Animal Mother’s, Rafter Man’s, Doc’s, or Eightball’s for that matter), literally stripping them of their previous identities. And why they practice marching in step with each other for weeks before they ever pull the trigger on a rifle — uni-fucking-formity.
The second half of the movie is quite a shift from the first half (beginning with a jarring cut from a violent death scene to a comedic scene with a Vietnamese prostitute), but the audience can’t appreciate the combat aspect of the Vietnam War without first understanding what these soldiers had to go through just to get there.
You need context for Pvt. Joker’s cognitive dissonance regarding the peace sign button on his jacket and his “Born To Kill” mantra on his helmet, and for his sarcastic detachment from this ‘war thing’ that he displays throughout the second half. Without seeing boot camp (and hearing that Joker joined the Corp, by his own words, “Sir, to kill, sir”), you lose how much weight his actions in the film’s closing minutes have on him and his humanity.
Ultimately, the movie is about the horrors of war and an explanation of how those involved can stand it. The answer is that they are molded to do so; in fact, they are molded to enjoy war, to pray for it (and to have an oddly sexual relationship with their rifle, which creates an uncomfortable association between sex and taking a life).
As two halves of a whole, the film first shows how these men become the way that they are (boot camp), then shows the way that they are (Vietnam). This is made clear in the final shot of the movie, of the soldiers marching in front of a burning Hue city and singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, reminiscent of the nursery-rhyme chants during P.T. at Parris Island. The soldiers and their actions are a result of their training, which is what allows them to see and do unspeakable things and then immediately (and blissfully) sing a song from their childhood. Dedicating the first half of the film to show this training provides the audience with crucial insight into the experience of the war in the second half of the film, insight few war movies give.
Happy 240th birthday, USMC. Semper Fi, Ooh rah.