The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket presents the hardcore instruction of soldiers at the Parris Island training camp. The brutal behavior of the drill sergeant Hartman is meant to transform boys into men and men into killing machines. When Private Pyle fails to successfully make the transformation, he is subject to psychological torture to the extent that he loses his mind. Indeed, he becomes a killing machine, but he kills his own ‘creator’, turning his anger upon himself in the end. The basic training program at Parris Island offers an image of a world in which no traces of the ‘soft’ or the feminine traces of a man’s personality can survive.
This is a patriarchal world in which men are supposed to become the ultimate soldier, cruel, though and masculine, thus returning to the basic condition of the man, as a hunter and as a warrior and abandoning the image of the civilized, domesticated family man, feminized by a life spent in an office and in the comfort of his own home. Therefore, it can be argued that, in essence, the film represents a critique of the American training programs for soldiers which remove the feminine side of soldiers, and with it, all traces of mercy and kindness and instead reinforces the myth of the ‘real’ man, who is defined by violence and lack of fear.
The first scene of “Full Metal Jacket” shows private’s heads being shaved, in a ritual of ‘passage’ into the world of real ‘men’, for whom the hair as ornament is not necessary any longer. Meeting sergeant Hartman is yet another step in the ‘immersion’ process into the patriarchal world of the camp. The soldiers that are presented to the viewers do not illustrate the idea of real men. They do not have tall, heavy bodies, they are not muscular, and do not have determined and ruthless expressions on their faces. Rather, they are presented as slender, or chubby, scared or nervous. They are boys and as boys, they have attributes of femininity, both physically, and psychologically. Sergeant Hartman’s contempt at the sight of the new soldiers is obvious. He calls them ‘ladies’ as a sign of his contempt for their feminine appearances and lack of masculine skills. His role is to make them into real men, and for this reason, he mocks everything soft and feminine in them. He thus asks private Joker to show him his ‘war face’ and asks both private cowboy and Private Pyle if they are homosexual, thus suggesting their lack of masculinity and challenging them to show him that the opposite is true. He declares to Private Pyle, “I don’t like the name Lawrence, only faggots and sailors are called Lawrence”.
In the film, Private Pyle is the most feminine of all soldiers, because his soft body, and his mild, gentle behavior. As Sturken explains, “Pyle is the emblem of unmasculine, soft and without discipline, whose femininity is a threat to the purpose of the Marine Corps. He must either be trained as a killing machine or discarded”(112). Pyle’s transformation however destroys both him and his creator, as he ends killing Sergeant Hartman, and himself. His final face expression is however one that would have been applauded by Sergeant Hartman, that of a killer. It contrasted powerfully with his initial expression, as he kept smiling in front of Hartman’s abuses, as a sign of his soft personality. This transformation is so radical that may be analyzed as a critical commentary of the filmmaker in regards to the toughness of the training soldiers receive. Sturken (112) argues in this respect that Full Metal Jacket is remarkable for examining the brutal and misogynistic training of American soldiers in preparation for war, and also the unstated belief that in order to survive in the war, one must kill the feminine inside.
Not only is making men ‘manly’ is necessary for their own survival, but also it is crucial in transforming them into weapons. By excluding the feminine, Hartman and the training program tries to exclude all the attributes that are associated with femininity, such as mercy and kindness. When Harman tells soldiers that their weapons will be the only women they will lay their hands on, in fact, he excludes women from their male group, but also, as Pursell (221) shows, to is meant to expugnate women from the soldiers psychologically. The language of the commander is meant to remove women “even from the sexual act” (Pursell 221), and to create instead a ‘brotherhood’ among soldiers, that excludes any feminine characteristics. The symbolical killing of women within soldiers is a kind of genocide, according to Pursell which facilitates the real-life genocide (221). The filmmaker’s critical voice can be heard both in the persona of Private Pyle, who will refuse to comply, but also in the persona of Private Joker, who finally will. He undertakes the role of John Wayne, who stands as the most masculine American figure, and kills as defenseless enemy, thus gaining his place among real men.
As this paper tried to show, training programs for soldiers who go to war are meant to remove the feminine side of the soldiers, shaped my centuries of civilization, and to exclude them entirely, both from the group, and from the soldiers’ own minds. What should remain is the uncivilized, undomesticated male, the warrior, the hunter and the survivor, who knows no mercy and fear. In Full Metal Jacket this process is criticized by the construction of two characters, Private Pyle and Private Joker, both representatives of the ‘feminized men’. Pyle, the feminine emblem of the film, will fail to make the transformation, and end up killing himself and the drill soldier, whereas Private Joker, who does succeed, become John Wayne, the incarnation of the true American male. However, ironically, it is Pyle who ultimately behaves as a killing machine in the final moments of his life, whereas Joker’s only murder is one of compassion. Perhaps then, what the film tries to suggest, is that brutally removing femininity from boys in order to transform them into men will in fact remove their own humanity and set them on the road to destruction.
- Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Matthew Modine, Alan Baldwin. 1987. Film.
- Pursell, Michael. “Full Metal Jacket: The Unravelling of Patriarchy”. Film Quarterly 16.4 (1988):218-225.
- Sturken, Marita. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The aids Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering. Berkley and LA: University of California Press. 1997. Print.