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  • Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies

Born to Kill: S. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as Historical Representation of America's Experience in Vietnam

  • Rich Schweitzer
  • Center for the Study of Film and History
  • Volume 20, Number 3, September 1990
  • 10.1353/flm.1990.a400423
  • View Citation

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Additional Information

Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) , no less subjective than some literary and historical treatments of Vietnam, conveys a nuanced historical argument to simultaneously address the audience's hearts and minds.


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Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket". Portrayal of the Vietnam War

Term paper, 2013, 16 pages, grade: 1,3, patrick spieß (author), inhaltsverzeichnis, 1. introduction.

2. Historical Event 2.1 Vietnam War 2.2 Filmic presentations and film-historical context

3. Full Metal Jacket and its historical context

4. Depiction of the Vietnam War in Full Metal Jacket

5. Methodical Analysis of scenes

6. Conclusion


The Vietnam War was a traumatic event of the recent American history. Due to harsh criticism both at home and abroad of the American involvement in Vietnam, the film industry struggled to produce notable Vietnam War films during the conflict. Only in the late 1970s Hollywood came up with significant films that were trying to came to terms with the past. Down to the present day, the film industry has produced a number of Vietnam War films. What is special about these films is that they show a high level of diversity. In this seminar paper I will examine how the Vietnam War is portrayed in Full Metal Jacket and outline its context in relation with other filmic presentations of the Vietnam War. In particular, I will focus on the drafting and military drill of young men, as well as on the effects that the drill and the war itself had on recruits. I will first introduce the historical event the film is dealing with and outline its filmic presentations and film-historical context. Then I will briefly introduce the film and provide information regarding its historical context. The central question of this paper is, which specific perspective is illustrated in Full Metal Jacket and to what extent the film can be classified along other Vietnam War films. In resuming thoughts I will first establish what stance Full Metal Jacket takes towards the Vietnam War and how this perspective is created. Finally I will introduce selected scenes and examine the method of the film in portraying the Vietnam War.

2. Historical Event

2.1 vietnam war.

The Vietnam War was a part of a conflict in Indochina that has lasted for thirty years. The conflict occurred 1945 as a result of a resistance movement of the Vietnamese communists against the French colonial rule and led to a civil war between North and South Vietnam. From 1960 the United States started to support South Vietnam, firstly by dispatching military advisors and from 1965 by the massive use of their armed forces. From 1973 United States forces were gradually withdrawn and 1975 Vietnam was unified under communist rule. 1 In the following I am going to focus on the recruitment of American soldiers, the training in the boot camps, as well as the assignment for the war in Vietnam. These are the central aspects, Full Metal Jacket is dealing with.

During the war period between 1964 and 1973 approximately 8,615,000 men served in the armed forces of the United States. There were two ways of entering the military: men either volunteered or were drafted. Roughly 2,215,000 men were drafted and had to serve for two years in the armed forces. All men at the age of 18 had to register for the draft. However, since the Korean War ended in 1953 and the armed forces were well filled, the military took steps to reduce the number of potential recruits to a prudent level. As a result, all men between 18 and 25 were in a primary pool. This led to an average age of 22 for a soldier fighting in Vietnam, which is very young. In comparison to World War I and II, where the average age was about 26. Theoretically, all recruits were treated equally, regardless of race or class. Practically, however, the draft fell mainly on minorities and the working class, while especially middle- and upper-class whites could avoid induction. 2

All recruits were required to complete a basic training, which usually lasted for eight weeks. The basic training at boot camp "was as much psychological as it was physical, designed to disabuse a recruit of his civilian preconceptions and teach him to think like a soldier." 3 Boot camp training had basically three aims: firstly, to identify and eradicate their weakness; secondly, prepare them for combat in Vietnam; and, thirdly, promote coherence and fraternity among the recruits. 4 These goals are directly linked with the military strategy of the United States, namely counterinsurgency and attrition. This strategy included search and destroy missions, in which platoons were inserted into hostile territory by helicopters and were supposed to search the Viet Cong and their base areas, destroy them, and withdraw instantly. Moreover, many free-fire zones were established, in which any unidentified person was considered as an enemy, and soldiers were permitted to shoot anyone. Hence, this strategy required the production of a soldier, who would not recognise potential targets as fellow human beings, and kill anyone without hesitation. 5

In order to achieve this, the drill instructor took a key role during basic training. Drill instructors “shouted at, kicked, cursed, harassed, and humiliated the recruits," 6 so that they learned quickly to obey orders immediately without thinking. Furthermore, the military sought to promote collectivity by shaving the recruits heads and shipping all their belongings back home. Anything that could remind a recruit of his civilian life was taken away. 7 The training was both physically and psychologically hard. Recruits who performed poorly were constantly abused. Especially drill instructors had a down on underachievers. John Ketwig remembers that his drill instructor nicknamed a chubby recruit “Fatso” and abused him regularly shouting “You’re fat! Fat! FAT. You’re a fat, filthy, fucking pig, aren’t you, boy?”. 8 Drill instructors picked on poor recruits not only because of personal antipathies, but also to encourage the strong recruits to assists the ones who are struggling, and thus promote a sense of team spirit. Additionally, boot camp training sought to turn young men into marines, airmen and so forth. They were thought of the history, traditions and heroes of their service. All recruits should see each other as brothers and stand up for each other in combat. 9 James Westheider collected many memories of boot camp recruits, and generally speaking, for the majority boot camp training was a negative experience and even few recruits broke under the abuse and committed suicide. 10

2.2 Filmic presentations and film-historical context

When talking about filmic presentations of the Vietnam War, David Willock puts forward that there is a high diversity of Vietnam War films. 11 However, he defines four major categories: firstly, the Vietnam Veteran film investigating the struggle with the reintegration of Vietnam Veterans into society. Secondly, films depicting the Vietnam War as a catalyst for violence in the United States. Thirdly, revenge films illustrating a hero who is able to succeed, whilst the entire United States army failed to do so. And finally, combat films taking place during the period of American Brunswick: Rutegrs University Press, 1990), 30.

involvement in the war. 12

During the conflict itselft only one Vietnam film of note was produced. The patriotic film The Green Berets was basically a war presentation in romantic western style. One of the reasons why the American film industry was reluctant to produce Vietnam War films was the dilemma of criticising the Vietnam War on the one hand, without disparaging American ideals on the other hand. In the late 1970s the film industry finally came up with a first batch of notable films like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now that were basically emphasising the futility of the war. A third group of Vietnam War films, occurred in the early 1980s, were focusing on the veterans victimisation and revenge, for example the Rambo series. Eventually, critics outline a fourth phase of films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s including Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth. These films are characterised by their more realistic depiction of the war, and thus are a reaction against the earlier films that tended to mythicise and glorify American heroism. 13 The majority of films are prone to illustrate a mythic-ideological, predominantly individualised point-of-view. Often the story is driven by a personal tragedy and ends in an adolescent bildungsroman. 14

With regard to the film-historical context, most Vietnam War films share common icons and conventions. The two most common icons are the M16 rifle and the Huey helicopter. These icons represent the military superiority of the United States compared with the village culture of the Vietnamese. They constantly remind the viewer of the inefficient use of technology and the fact that military superiority was not enough to assure the victory. Moreover, many films feature similar conventions. Especially in films made from the late 1970s, the futility of the involvement both politically and militarily appears as a convention. Additionally, the lack of visual contact with the enemy is one convention of many Vietnam War films. The view is often extremely limited, so that the enemy is mostly hidden and attacks from the

1 Cf. Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford:University Press, 2008).

2 Cf. James E. Westheider, The Vietnam War (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), 31-107.

3 Ibid., 51.

4 Cf. Ibid.

5 Cf. Michael Klein, "Historical Memory, Film, and the Vietnam Era," in: From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (New

6 Westheider, The Vietnam War, 51.

7 Cf. Brandon Johnson and Robert A. Goldberg, “Boot Camp Violence: Abuse in Vietnam War-era Basic Training,” The University of Utah’s Journal of Undergraduate Research 6 (1995): 8.

8 Cf. Westheider, The Vietnam War, 56.

9 Cf. Johnson and Goldberg, “Boot Camp Violence,” 9.

10 Cf. Westheider, The Vietnam War, 57.

11 Cf. David E. Whillock, "Defining the Fictive American Vietnam War Film: In Search of a Genre." Literature/Film Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1988): 245.

12 Cf. Ibid., 246.

13 Cg. Winfried Fluck, "The' Imperfect Past': Vietnam According to the Movies," in The Merits of Memory. Concepts, Contexts, Debates, ed. Hans-Jürgen Grabbe and Sabine Schindler (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2008), 361f.

14 Cf. Tony Williams, "Narrative Patterns and Mythic Trajectories in Mid-1980s Vietnam Movies," in Iventing Vietnam. The War in Film and Television, ed Michael Anderegg (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 118.

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"UK frost can kill palms": Layers of reality in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket"

Profile image of Karen Ritzenhoff

Full Metal Jacket is said to have been accurate in the depiction of human ambiguity and the crisis of masculinity experienced by male soldiers in fighting and sometimes killing the enemy in Vietnam. Kubrick showed the "blood and gore of war", at that time rarely depicted on American nightly news. The film dismantles as mythical the news reports by fictional journalists that are featured in Full Metal Jacket's second half. Candid sound bites that were actually recorded in the field by marines and camera teams may never have been aired in the US, because they were too critical of the futility of war. Kubrick's staging of Vietnam in an abandoned gas factory complex in industrial Britain is a similar tour-de-force of make-believe. This tension between representation and concealment is at the core of my argument in this essay.

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