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FULL METAL JACKET/ 25 years of obsession and control in Kubrick’s second to last film

LEONARDO LOCATELLI comments on the movie Full Metal Jacket, and on Stanley Kubrick’s evolution as a director, and the evolution of his themes of obsession and control.

Scene from the film Scene from the film

Obsession. Control. Obsession with control. Control of obsession. These have always been considered the very epitome of the topics covered by the not many works for the screen of Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), and not only because of his legendary meticulousness as a director. The penultimate chance to see these two keywords of his films exercised and displayed was offered by the 108 minutes of a scathing war movie that came out a quarter of a century ago. Exactly twenty-five years ago, between June 17 (the day of the preview in Beverly Hills) and 26, 1987, Full Metal Jacket came out in U.S. theaters.

The movie is based on the story Born to Kill (The Short-Timers) by Gustav Hasford, who also worked on the script together with the director and the writer Michael Herr, and the title comes from the full metal jacket 7.62 caliber bullets used in the army. It is set first in a training camp of the Marines, a real factory of death professionals, and later in Vietnam, cut in two by the Tet Offensive, to then arrive at the final sequence, one of the most powerful of this film and of Kubrick's films in general. It is almost as if it gives a last, definitive visual concreteness to the Vietnamese saying (“I walk in the valley of Death, but I'm not afraid of the Devil because I am the Devil”). In the scene, one of the soldiers that the viewer has come to know only as “Joker” (Matthew Modine), in company with his fellow soldiers, marches in the night lit by the flames of the fires broken out in buildings reduced to rubble singing the Mickey Mouse Club Song (“We play fair and we work hard / And we’re in harmony / M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E / Forever let us hold our banner high / Boys and girls from far and near / You’re welcome as can be / M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E / Who’s the leader of the club / That’s made for you and me? / M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E”) and inserts a devastating final realization (“I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I'm in a world of shit... yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid”).

Exactly thirty years separate these images from those that, almost like a mirror, ended another masterpiece by the same director, Paths of Glory, 1957, when Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), a “survivor” of the spectacle of rampant cynicism offered by his superiors and before his immediate return to the Franco-German front in 1916 with his regiment, asks his subordinate to let the soldiers have a few more minutes, as they were moved by the German song of a frightened young girl in tears, who had been mocked by all up until a few moments before as an enemy, a war prize (“A faithful soldier, without fear/ He loved his girl for one whole year/ For one whole year and longer yet/ His love for her, he'd ne'er forget… And when the youth received the news/ That his dear love, her life may lose/ He left his place and all he had/ To see his love, went this young lad... A long black coat, I must now wear/ A sorrow great, is what I bear/ A sorrow great and so much more/ My grief it will end nevermore”).