In Stanley Kubrick’s extraordinary filmography 1987s Full Metal Jacket appears toward the backend when it comes to quality. Far from a bad film, Kubrick’s Vietnam war movie suffers from a disjointed narrative that, whilst compelling, feels more like two tableaus rather than an enthralling whole.
The film was based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers released in 1979 which Stanley Kubrick read twice in 1982, calling the work, “a unique, absolutely wonderful book”, sparking the director’s initial interest in adapting the novel. Drawn to the book’s dialogue, Kubrick reported that he found it “almost poetic in its carved-out, stark quality”, subsequently he set out writing the screenplay alongside co-writer Michael Herr.
Due to the director’s major fear of flying, Full Metal Jacket was shot in England from 1985 to 1986 under particularly extraordinary circumstances. Using a number of eclectic locations, including the Norfolk Broads, former Beckton Gas Works, as well as the Isle of Dogs, Kubrick attempted to recreate the ruin of Vietnam on home soil and ultimately didn’t replicate its scale.
Scenes of Vietnam’s open country were filmed across the River Thames, supplemented by 200 imported Spanish palm trees and 100,000 tropical plants from Hong Kong. Unbelievably, the director also had a plastic replica jungle flown in from California, only for him to turn round and say, “I don’t like it. Get rid of it”.
Following the release of the Vietnam war film, Stanley Kubrick’s film was judged against other films of the genre, with even the director himself judging his creation against previous depictions of the war that lasted from 1955-1975. Speaking of the wide variety of war films during this period of time, Kubrick commented, “I liked both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter – but I liked Platoon more”. Even comparing it to his own film, Kubrick noted, “I liked it. I thought it was very good. We weren’t too happy about our M16 rifle sound effects [on Full Metal Jacket], and when I heard M16s in Platoon, I thought they sounded about the same as ours”.
The classic, Vietnam war thriller from Oliver Stone starred Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and Willem Dafoe and followed a platoon caught between the differing morals of two sergeants. Stanley Kubrick went on to deconstruct the precise reason he loves Stone’s film so much, noting, “The strength of Platoon, is that it’s the first of what I call a ‘military procedural’ that is really well done, where you really believe what’s going on. I thought the acting was very good and that it was dramatically very well written”.
Continuing, Kubrick states, “That’s the key to its success: it’s a good film. It certainly wasn’t a success because it was about Vietnam. Only the ending of Platoon seemed a bit soft to me in the optimism of its narration”.