The Vietnam war waged between 1955-1975 was not the straightforward battle America expected it to be, spending in excess of $828 billion in a conflict that would last 20 years and claim the lives of 58,000 men. Attempting to stamp out the embers of growing communist ideals, America was ultimately viewed as the loser of the war, with the event becoming a contentious conversation throughout US culture in the second half of the 20th century.
Invading the country for rather hazy reasons, the war became viewed as a political game, where the American army exercised its power and financial superiority with the use of excessive force, killing over two million Vietnamese civilians through their actions. In this war, and many others like it, the idea of the ‘individual’ is stripped away, with soldiers acting as one highly-programmed body, destroying autonomy as each soldier adopts the morals of the pack.
This is the idea that underpins Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 1987 Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket, a film that tells the story of the lives of soldiers dehumanised by their profession. Created over a decade after the conflict, Kubrick demonstrates a masterful grasp on the psychology of such a brutal and oppressive system of forced compliance, though does little else to demonstrate any novel concepts.
Indeed, Kubrick’s message is undoubtedly true, war does destroy the individual, reducing them to a cog in a well-oiled machine or something a lot darker if that individual is not properly maintained, though let’s not pretend that this idea is exactly novel, with stories of war having explored this same concept for generations. It only takes the viewer to cast their minds back to Francis Ford Coppola’s superior movie Apocalypse Now, released eight years before Kubrick’s film, to see this message brought to cinematic life.
The duality of man, between carnal killer and autonomous citizen, is indeed a fascinating construct, though Kubrick hardly tackles the subject with much flair or insight at all, leaving it to flail in the air with limp impact. In trying to demonstrate the fading of human individuality he leaves the film craving spontaneous characterisation, with each individual feeling like a cold cog in his own cinematic machine.
Where Kubrick succeeds in demonstrating these themes, he does so with the sacrifice of personality and character, making the film feel constructed, artificial and devoid of spirit. This is less of a problem in the first act of the movie that feels well assembled, if a little fractured, in comparison to the shapeless second half that explores a version of Vietnam that feels devoid of the country’s real-life vibrancy.
Filmed in England due to Kubrick’s own severe fear of flying, the movie attempted to recreate the rural Vietnam environment by importing 200 palm trees from Spain, alongside 100,000 plastic plants from Hong Kong. The result does very little to help the film’s already empty sense of character, coming up particularly short when compared to the cinematic mastery of the likes of The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Apocalypse Now.
Reused, reskinned and shot from several different angles, the set design is illustrative of the film’s overall shortcomings, failing to live up to the standards of the genre set by Coppola, Oliver Stone and Michael Cimino. Though far from a disaster, Full Metal Jacket feels like Kubrick’s most conventional work, and for a director who is known for his masterful proficiency, ‘average’ simply shouldn’t be enough.