The Empty Balcony: Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket is a comedic tour de force. At a younger age, the idea of growing up and coming face to face with R. Lee Ermey in a cold and brutally lit recruit barracks was an uneasy thought indeed, if not downright intimidating. Being on the cusp of every youngster’s wild transition from the coddling environment of elementary school to the hormonally-driven torture of middle school, I looked upon the visage of Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as the great and enduring symbol of social intimidation. He was mean, he was loud, and, like the most effective bullies, there was never any correct answer to his questions, no way to put brakes on the shit heading in a person’s direction once his sights were set. There was even a classic bullying staple in evidence as Ermey’s character ruthlessly forces Private Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) to choke himself, a unique twist on the old ‘stop hitting yourself’ routine.

Was this what the future held? Was growing up just going to be a series of continuing transitions into the waiting arms of unpleasant people? Thankfully no, for most of us. Ermey’s portrayal of a Marine drill instructor was an accurate representation of methods used to indoctrinate our nation’s young and gird them for armed conflict.

The further I get from that age, and especially the further I get from childhood, the more Ermey’s screaming, foul-mouthed, and sometimes sexually-charged outbursts make me howl with laughter. The very idea of being frightened by someone like that, with whom one would only be exposed for as long as they are in boot camp, is ludicrous. As impressive as Ermey was at making me uneasy once upon a time, I now watch his performance with an equal amount of awe. Now I am able to combine that reverence with a new appreciation for how darkly funny director Stanley Kubrick’s vision for this film was, and how well Ermey played into that.

“Hell, I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister!”

“Looks like the best part of you ran down the crack of your mama’s ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress! I think you been cheated!”

“You had best square you ass away and start shitting me Tiffany cufflinks, or I will definitely fuck you up!”

Words of wisdom. Poetry, even. And all this in the first scene, with the rest of the cast barely participating in a role beyond that of robotic set pieces, capable of barking little more than “Sir, yes, sir!” and “Sir, no, sir!” The first half of this film, while attempting at times to focus on Matthew Modine’s Private Joker and D’Onofrio’s Pyle, was in fact made for Ermey. The role of a lifetime, as it were. His portrayal was so spot-on, so appropriate for the character, it is obvious he was not acting, he was doing nothing less than reliving, for the benefit of Kubrick’s lenses, his past as a real Marine D.I.

The first half of the film is R. Lee Ermey as stand-up comic. Brutal and mean-spirited, yes, but no less so than someone like Bill Hicks could be during his more bitchier sets. Just sit back and remember that he’s not yelling at you. When one laughs at the ridiculousness of it all, Ermey’s burly, tattooed Marine arm is not going to come bursting forth through the screen demanding a good choke and a ballsy sound-off ‘like you got a pair’. Once that separation has been made, one can appreciate just how much immaturity it takes to prepare young men for very mature wars.

Where once I cast off the second half of the film as inferior to the first, my awakening to the darkly comedic aspects of the film have, in my mind, remade the second half into a strong counterpart.

Shifting the scene from the closed life of the Parris Island recruit depot to the chaos of Vietnam, Kubrick makes a jarring transition. But look closely, and one sees quickly that he brought along a reliable friend from the island. The second half is not as strong as the first (Ermey just brightened things up too much to not be missed for half the film), yet it displays the overall theme of ridiculousness just as effectively. Dark hilarity ensues during the horrors of war as portrayed by Kubrick, just as it did in the tense recruit barracks. One scene sticks out.

Another barracks, different in many ways from the barracks at the recruit depot, which audience and cast has just left. Instead of stark white lines, harsh fluorescents, polished floor, and bald, pale men dressed in sterile-white boxers, the barracks in ‘Nam look improvised. Far from precise, far from scoured and washed by the busy hands of thousands of recruits. Instead, it’s a tent. There’s clutter and contraband everywhere. The sanitized hum of the fluorescent tubes has been replaced by the meek light of bare bulbs. It is here, in this scene, that we see the Marine recruits of Parris Island returned to the ranks of humankind. They are rough and abrasive, in need of a change of scenery to make the transition complete, but they are no longer locked under the disapproving eye of the drill instructors. In Vietnam, people are only trying to kill them.

They laugh, they joke, they converse unrestrained by the thought that lurking behind every door, bunk, and foot locker is one of those angry sergeants, waiting to bust some heads.

They also tell foolish tales about their own personal bravery. This motley cast lounging under the canvas is showboating. Talking shit. All being reporters for Stars and Stripes, they have logged more time as rear-echelon fucks, the pogues they make light of, than the grunts they claim fellowship with. Their meek displays of toughness are to be tested soon. This fine evening happens to be Tet 1968, and their jawing is broken up by incoming mortar fire. Taking up defensive positions, Private Joker, who had been playing up his own courage when the mood was light, just seconds before, states nervously, not only for himself, but for all the glory-seekers in attendance, “Man, I hope they’re just fuckin’ with us. I’m not ready for this shit.” Amen, brother.

So goes the rest of the film. Kubrick captures the absurdity of these young Marines’ circumstances in war in nothing less than a sublime manner. They are slave to whim, laden with insults as sharp as bayonets, and clearly at the mercy of the generals. It is only the bullets that seem to keep them grounded, and it is only when hot metal flies that the film closes in on the bloodshed, reminding the viewer that this is, indeed, a war movie.

Kubrick doesn’t pretend to be searching for glory, nor for answers. His movie is effective in its embrace of the absurd — an apt description of Vietnam. His mastery is preventing the film from wallowing in tragedy, thus crossing over into heavy-handed melodrama, the likes of which weighed down Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It’s not that good war movies need to be light-hearted and fancy-free. But what better way is there to portray tanks and rifles, blood and guts, than as absurd? What better way to depict wasted lives burdened by the joys of living, than with one of the blackest satires ever to make its way to the screen?