by Mike Felker
Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 28-30
In contemporary Hollywood soldier movies, there's a marked contrast between the "war is hell" genre, recently depicted in Oliver Stone's PLATOON and Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET, and the glistening muscularity and male camaraderie of a "war is glory" film like TOP GUN. Both PLATOON and FULL METAL JACKET seem to depend on a documentary-style approach to fictional film. They refuse the mythical or allegorical aspect of APOCALYPSE NOW or the convoluted, heavily ironic plot of THE DEER HUNTER.
Like earlier films, especially BATTLE CRY and TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH, PLATOON does evoke the heroism and romance of men at war, but it also emphasizes the despair, violence, boredom, filth and drudgery experienced by soldiers who fought in Vietnam in the United States' longest war. In contrast, FULL METAL JACKET's main character is a military journalist. In this film the Vietnam War is presented through the eyes of a "disinterested" observer. The film gives viewers none of the sense of participating vicariously in combat, as PLATOON does. However, FULL METAL JACKET does grip the viewer in its first section, which shows the cruelty of Marine basic training.
FOUL MOUTHED FASCINATION
FULL METAL JACKET shows the 1968 odyssey of one Marine, Private Joker, played by Matthew Modine, as he goes from bootcamp's hell to Vietnam's hell. The first part of the movie brillantly depicts Marine basic training, showing the terror, anxiety, and confusion inflicted on recruits. We see recruits dehumanized and abused in a prison-like environment until they become "the few good men" the Marine Corps wants. The first 45 minutes of FULL METAL JACKET should be mandatory viewing for every young person thinking of joining the armed forces. It accurately previews the "world of shit" they will enter.
With all its horror, this segment is filled with a malicious but funny humor. Racial slurs, sexual comments, insults, and obscene instructions are screamed at the recruits by their demonic drill instructor. The instructor's verbal sadism is spellbinding in its outrageous, dazzlingly vulgar imagery. His torrent of words becomes a vicious, perverse joke. For example, the drill instructor tells a recruit to clean a toilet until it's "so clean the Blessed Virgin Mary would be proud to take a dump in it." On another occasion, the D.I. promises that some day these recruits will shoot as accurately as the Texas Tower sniper who shot 13 people in Austin in 1966 or as Lee Harvey Oswald — both of whom learned their excellent marksmanship in the U.S. Marine Corps.
This riveting boot camp sequence ends falsely. The sardonic drill instructor gets shot by a crazed recruit, pushed over the edge by mistreatment, and the recruit then commits suicide. In fact, drill instructors do not die in boot camp; recruits do. According to the 1985 Department of Defense Report of World Wide U.S. Active Duty Military Casualties, between October 1979 and September 1985, over 8,500 military personnel died in training accidents. Many such accidents were caused by arrogant drill instructors determined to impress recruits with the need to be tough.
In PLATOON, director Oliver Stone has also pinpointed the language used by U.S. troops. Fuck becomes the prevailing verb, adjective, and adverb. And the language is defensively heterosexual. The GI's often use blatantly homophobic language, often calling each other cocksucker. The film shows the ambiguity in this type of language. A macho verbal stance appears as a defensive facade. Life in the combat zone is both womanless and sexually charged. And we see genuine affection among some members of the platoon, which here is expressed in a rare moment of calm and trust as some of the soldiers dance together to Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears."
THROUGH THE PROTAGONISTS' EYES
In PLATOON, writer-director Stone drew on his experiences as a grunt, a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam. Apparently the film offers a fairly accurate account of Stone's own time spent "in-country." Charlie Sheen plays Taylor, the Stone character, a college dropout a few years older than the teenage draftees serving with him. A few more years of experience and that bit of college allow him to perceive the war intellectually and philosophically. The narrative traces Taylor's metamorphosis from a naive, callow volunteer into a brutal, yet seemingly still "honorable," soldier with some shreds of his sanity and humanity intact.
Stone depicts the details of U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam perfectly. He shows how soldiers tragically blurred Vietnamese civilians and "the enemy." The soldiers lived in the bush for weeks at a time, wearing the same set of scuzzy fatigues, always feeling dirty. They felt exhausted from humping six to ten kilometers each day with full pack and battle gear, and doing that for weeks at a time. Even 19-year olds felt like 65. The heat they felt was a baking, noxious climate in the cleared rear areas or a sodden, fetid presence in the jungle. You had swarms of mosquitoes around your head at night and felt disgust at finding leeches sucking your blood. You were afraid of being "in-country," afraid that your own ignorance and inexperience could kill you and others.
In contrast, after FULL METAL JACKET moves from boot camp to Vietnam, the film's vividness deteriorates. As in PLATOON, the protagonist in FULL METAL JACKET is enlightened and somewhat detached. But because he is scripted as a military journalist, Private Joker is given a more detached role, physically and emotionally, than PLATOON's grunt narrator. When Joker is assigned to cover the story of a Marine combat company during the 1968 Tet Offensive, his role as journalist rather than combatant distances us from feeling the "war" part of the film or from identifying with the mutual concern combatants had for each others' lives. Furthermore, in visual terms, the film follows Joker in his journalist role by its visual format. It presents a series of "television news interviews" with the soldiers, and all these sections come off as flat and staged.
FULL METAL JACKET is in many ways just another war movie, not an anti-war movie like PLATOON. Certainly there are problems with PLATOON. The narration gets preachy, and some scenes border on a John-Wayne-gung-ho sensibility. At the end of PLATOON we see a dedication: "To the men who fought and died in Vietnam." This insults all the women veterans who served there and the eight women whose names are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Flaws aside, PLATOON's uncompromising honesty is an eloquent, if violent, response to RAMBO. PLATOON does "teach others what we know" about the horror and futility that was Vietnam, the beast that is all war.
FULL METAL JACKET also refuses to glamorize war, and Kubrick tries to convey how absurd the military is as an institution. Marines in combat here come off as brave, honorable, and often confused. However, FULL METAL JACKET never looks at why we were in Vietnam in the first place or at the war's repercussions. It refuses to depict any Vietnamese sympathetically — only as killer, prostitute, and thief. Never does this film or any other popular U.S. film about the war explain the Vietnamese people and their struggle. In U.S. films, the Vietnamese merely provide a backdrop to our soldiers' macho posturing and ethical questioning.
In an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, former real-life Marine drill instructor Lee Ermy, who played the nasty drill instructor in FULL METAL JACKET and acted as military advisor to Kubrick, stated the following:
I feel that as a documentary-style film, FULL METAL JACKET never succeeds in the way that PLATOON does. Not only do FULL METAL JACKET's viewers feel uninvolved with plot and characters, but the sets also fail to convey any sense of Vietnam in the late 60s. It uses buildings that are too glitzy and stylized. Urban ruins here have a stagy, bombed-out grandeur but do little to impress us with war's destruction.
The film does show briefly the cruelty inflicted by U.S. troops, but for the most part our soldiers seem like goodhearted boys who, in spite of their intense training, have no idea how to conduct themselves in a war. In one sequence, a soldier is killed from a booby-trapped child's toy. No Marine I ever met was that dumb. For me, that went beyond any plausible suspension of disbelief. I am no military strategist, but if all our forces had acted as stupid as this group of Marines does when confronting a lone sniper, the war would have been over in 1965 rather than 1975.
I found the ending of FULL METAL JACKET especially difficult to deal with due to its insensitivity and inaccuracy. After a day spent in combat which has cost several Marines' lives, including that of a well-liked lieutenant and a beloved hospital corpsman, the company marches through spectacular, luridly flaming ruins, lustily singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. Here Kubrick was trying to show the absurd irony of the Vietnam War and perhaps the soldiers' emotional resilience. But veterans of any war would agree that combat deaths depress the survivors. Most Vietnam veterans still feel remorse over their comrades' deaths in Vietnam. I found this rousing chorus of M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e at the end of FULL METAL JACKET upsetting and insulting.
In PLATOON, a GI states, "If you make it out of here, every day of the rest of your life is gravy." At the time, if a soldier did make it through a year's duty in Vietnam, it did seem as though the rest of his life would be gravy. I myself was a hospital corpsman with the First Marine Division in Vietnam from December 1969 to December 1970, and I still am concerned with the war as a social fact as I am an active participant in the Veterans Speakers Alliance. As we veterans always knew and by now the rest of the U.S. public has learned, none of our lives has been gravy. We've brutally felt as the war's legacy ostracism from mainstream society, Agent Orange's deadly effects, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But we vets also know about the obscene tragedy of war, a knowledge that most U.S. citizens lack. Our country is increasing its militarization, and we face an increasing possibility of war in Central America. As a vet, I am grateful that Oliver Stone shared this kind of knowledge in PLATOON, and I hope that his film helps prevent the next generation's becoming cannon fodder in another senseless war.