This piece was written as a part of my weekly column on CraveOnline.com about masculinity and the cinema, The Myth of Macho. The piece can also be found on the original online publication site here.
So glad to welcome you back once more into the burly but accessible folds of what we like to call around here the Myth of Macho. This series is a collection of pieces designed to explore the various film works based on, or dealing with, issues of masculinity. These pieces of cinema range from the exuberantly popular and well-regarded to the heinously misjudged, but they all share one common theme: many have not been examined on the gender-level that they perhaps deserve and/or require.
We began this week’s edition of The Myth of Macho by studying a few key issues such as modern iconography (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and social issues (Lethal Weapon). But what of a film that blends politics, masculinity and the extremely sensitive psychic space of the young adult male body? Within this week’s installment, we are going to look at the Male Body, and what that means in the context of war. To Stanley Kubrick, war was a brilliant and beautiful canvas upon which to explore many of his incisive meditations on the human condition and its relation to politics and authority. Full Metal Jacket (1987) is no exception. This film, however, presents us with a special case in that it was meticulously authored to center on youth circumstances and generational disparities.
Full Metal Jacket, in all its visual and narrative glory, creates a harsh and terrible landscape that brings this film closer to a coming-of-age-horror picture like Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) than a simple war picture about the Vietnam experience. In a sense, there is a certain underlying notion within the movie that war-is-men-is-youth-is-hell. While there are many themes in and around the film, it is the displayed modes of masculine behavior, performed feelings of physical insecurity and humiliation and the underlying genuine loss of self that create a filmic environment by which Full Metal Jacket becomes not simply a Kubrick film nor a war film, but a Kubrick-horror-war film.
It is no secret that war is terrifying, even more so, the Vietnam War and all of its possibilities. But how might a filmmaker create an even harsher environment for the viewer? The answer: add the altogether far too terrifying landscape of the developing male body. While Full Metal Jacket is no Cronenbergian body horror flick, it most certainly calls upon us to look at some of the more real and non-negotiable issues that young men and women have to face: the development of self-esteem and self-worth when it comes to their physical development and actual ability.
While De Palma may have predicated the adolescent-body-as-object-of-terror concept in a different manner, it’s not an accident that the first scene of Carrie White’s disintegration comes in a locker room: this is the preparation site for physical activity and performance. It is also the site of the greatest humiliation if your body does not work/look the way you want it to, on or off the “field.” Kubrick, on the other hand, decides to tackle the subject within the scope of boot camp, one of the most significant areas to test a young man’s mental, physical and psychological performance. Kubrick sets up Full Metal Jacket with some of the most difficult to endure and painful-to-watch sequences of a young man being psychologically destroyed and emotionally broken due to his still-developing corporeal form. This is not just enacted by his drill sergeant, but also by his peers. As a young person coming of age, being ripped apart by authority and “friends” due to size and ability is beyond devastating. These are all external assets that may or may not be able to be fully controlled and are, most certainly, not a choice: your body was given to you, without your own consultation, and if it is too tall, too small, too bulky, too clumsy… these things make growing into adulthood a great deal more difficult and confusing than those who, like the Baby Bear’s porridge, got something that was “just right.” Thusly, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character of Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence exists in this film as a young man who is quite literally trapped in his own skin; the body is his ultimate war zone.
Full Metal Jacket opens to the sounds of Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam,” and for the entirety of the song’s progression, post-credits, we watch as a variety of young men get their heads shaved. We see hair falling to the floor in huge clumps, the barber doing his job with a medical precision while young men sit there with varying degrees of terror, solemnity, and determination. The loss that registers on each boy’s face is significant. It is in this scene that the line between civilian and military participant is drawn, and it is done through the removal of one of the highest attributes of male (or female) pride: the hair. Not only is the reception of the crew-cut an illustration of each new soldier’s physical submission and accepted conformity to the rules and regulations of the military body, but it also platforms the elimination of one of the physical assets that lends a young man the ability to have pride in his aesthetic. Like entering a monastery and relieving oneself of worldly possessions (alongside a head shaving), young men without their tresses have relinquished the ability to control their individuality based on physicality. On a generational basis, the folk who would find this experience the most traumatizing are teenage boys.
This scene reveals the subtraction of physical pride, the amputation of previous esteem based upon a mirror image, and the “gulp” factor that each young man seems to be experiencing as he loses the part of his anatomy that also likely represents his connection with women. What young man (in general) doesn’t have his hair ruffled by a sweetheart, mother or aunt? The hair is an intimate physical realm and it is laid waste to. In a greater sense, this is where every soldier’s battle begins: in a conflict within himself in regards to his personal attachments and his contract with the military organization.
As boot camp begins, we are introduced to the ever-so-charming Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by real-life military figure, R. Lee Ermey. During this first scene with Hartman, this theme of the eradication of self and total surrender to the military body becomes indisputably clear. Several young soldiers lose their actual names to the whim and analysis of the drill sergeant who berates the entire set of Marines based upon various “transgressions,” ranging from skin color to body type to speaking out-of-turn. While Hartman loudly emphasizes that his concern is not based on any kind of bigotry or discrimination but for the greater good of the Marine Corps (“Here you are all equally worthless. And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?”), the dehumanization and humiliation of these young men creates a significantly inhospitable environment. After re-naming several men, he attacks Pvt. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) based upon physical stature, looks and his family (“You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece! What’s your name fat body?). Hartman then renames Lawrence “Gomer Pyle” and physically assaults him due to the fact that the young man cannot change his facial expression. This scene begins the offensive on the young man that only ends in abject tragedy.
As boot camp progresses, it becomes clear that, while Hartman has an unearthly flair for humiliating all the young soldiers in quite individual ways, it is Pyle who suffers the most. While Hartman’s insults and derisions are generally accompanied by a certain amount of military “I’m doing this for your own good/I’m looking to see you succeed” comments, the ferocity with which he attacks Pyle is fiery and non-stop. A tall and large young man, not only does Pyle have a difficult time completing every physical training task that his peers seem to fly through, but the abuse received as a result of his physical ineffectiveness is always predicated on the “fatbody” identity given him by Hartman on the first day or upon his intellectual inferiority.
The icing on the basic training hell that Private Leonard Lawrence is living comes with the downfall of his relationship with the other soldiers in the barracks. It also comes in the shape of a jelly donut. D’Onofrio’s face has effectively conveyed every bit of internal pain that this young man has suffered, whether by his own embarrassment at being unable to complete the courses or through the inconceivable devastation he feels at being publicly humiliated by Hartman, both physically (being choked, slapped around) or simply being screamed at and being told how ugly, slimy, slovenly and “disgusting” he is. His blank expression and small slow smile express the heart-rending innocence of a young teenage boy trying to develop into a man through the process of military comradery and through conscription into the Official American Process of Making You A Man: military service. However, that young teenage boy cannot seem to make the same transition as his Marine Corps peers.
On a routine check one night, Pyle is discovered to have pilfered a jelly donut and hidden it in his footlocker. The response from the drill sergeant is one that not only creates a feeling of animosity towards the soldier with the sweet tooth from the other young men, but it also serves as the final straw that breaks his own mental camel. As Hartman reprimands Pyle, he states, “Private Pyle has dishonored himself and dishonored the platoon. I have tried to help him. But I have failed. I have failed because YOU have not helped me. YOU people have not given Private Pyle the proper motivation! So, from now on, whenever Private Pyle fucks up, I will not punish him! I will punish all of YOU! And the way I see it ladies, you owe me for ONE JELLY DOUGHNUT! NOW GET ON YOUR FACES!” As the platoon does push-ups, Pyle is forced to eat the doughnut.
The next night, the entire platoon gets up in the middle of the night and beats him with soap wrapped in towels as he howls in pain. He looks desperately at Joker, the soldier who has been his one true friend and confidante during the last few weeks. Pyle’s expression reads, “Et tu?” to which Joker savagely hits Pyle repeatedly, mirroring the rest of the platoon. When the violence upon his body is completed, Private Cowboy declares to Pyle’s tear-stained face, “Remember, it’s just a bad dream, fat boy.” To this young man, what might have been just a “bad dream” was actually a living nightmare. The eradication of his relationships and the attack on his physical form translated to one thing: being “born again hard.”
Much like the “fatbody” label or “Gomer Pyle” name, this was a term that Hartman came up with. Unlike the previous terms, it was meant to be complimentary after seeing Pyle’s efficacy at rifle economics. Unfortunately, that “hard”ness in Pyle represented an authentic psychotic break. While Pyle had finally become successful at a boot camp activity, it was too little too late. His face no longer registered innocence and joy or even youth for that matter. It was empty, cold and devoid of emotion. While continual references are made throughout this first section of Full Metal Jacket to the Marine Corps training creating “killers,” it is Pyle’s face that shows this more than anyone else’s. His “war face” is that of a wounded young man, a teen who has lost more than his peers in a platoon, a teen whose fight has been won by the limitations of his own body and the outside world punishing him for that which he cannot completely regulate.
Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence finally understands the feeling of rage after the other young men beat him into what they see as submission. He feels rage against the situation he has been put into, he feels rage against being abandoned by his support system, he feels rage against the physical form that has failed him in getting to the goals he desired: acceptance, companionship and respect. This rage gets transmogrified into his relationship with his weapon, the object over which the platoon prays, “This is my rifle. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of our enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.“
Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence graduates with rage and knowing that his rifle is his best friend. This sequence of events occurs not because he wishes to “be a killer” but because he has no alternative in his estimation. He has naturally achieved the look discussed later in the film, the “thousand yard stare.” As defined by character Payback this “stare” is something a Marine gets, “after he’s been in the sh*t for too long. It’s like… It’s like you’re really seeing beyond. I got it. All field Marines got it.” The difference between Payback and Pyle is that Payback was speaking from the perspective of a soldier who has seen combat. Pyle got the look from having experienced combat as well, but in an entirely separate manner.
Both Payback and Pyle were “in the sh*t.” As we watch Pyle completely unravel, he is quite clear about this point. Joker is on guard duty on the last night of basic training, just after graduation and military assignments have been given out. He enters the bathroom to investigate the noises that are coming from the tiled-space, and finds Pyle sitting on a toilet quietly loading his rifle with live rounds, his face a twisted mess of psychosis and internal pain. Uneasy, Joker says to Pyle, “Leonard, if Hartman catches us in here, we’ll be in a world of sh*t.” The young man looks up from his gun and says to Joker in a slow and frightening manner, “I am… in a world… of SH*T!”
Not unlike Carrie White during the prom sequence, Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence has been driven to the edges of what he can take through a final conclusive severing of peer-relations. As Carrie destroys those who hurt, humiliated and destroyed her sense of self-worth mentally and physically, Leonard/Pyle seeks to destroy those who refused him entry and acceptance to their masculine world. The violent finale of this bathroom sequence drives the point home. While Leonard/Pyle has succeeded in being technically proficient and made it to the military assignment stage, his trauma is so great that (to him) he has been at war the whole time, and this is the apex of the battle.
Within Full Metal Jacket we bear witness to a young man whose body gets attacked on every level… by “friendly fire.” Thus he will use his body to fight back. Hartman’s eradication of Pyle’s self-esteem or worth may not have been his main goal, but it was the result of his actions. As the elder statesman believed, he was trying to “toughen him up,” make sure he was a good representative of his “beloved Corps” and a good soldier. Private Leonard Lawrence aka “Gomer Pyle” was not, however, equipped to handle that kind of sadism. As a young teen developing into a young adult man (both physically and mentally), his body is an area of much discomfort in the first place. Being reminded on a daily basis how his physical form doesn’t work, is a location of disapproval and revulsion leads directly to severe emotional and psychological distress.
The body of the young man is under a different kind of attack and stress than the body of the young woman, especially when it comes to situations involving war. A young man whose physique and/or skill are unmanageable in his eyes (Leonard’s comments to Joker, “Everyone hates me… I can’t do anything right”) only creates heightened self-doubt/self-loathing. This, of course, results in disaster on an epic scale, especially if weaponry is available. The body becomes a space of horror for the individual, who then strikes out, causing nothing but horror for those he sees as the enemy, whether it is on the battlefield or simply in boot camp. It is a chain reaction, leading us to consider the varying degrees of sensitivity in human beings on the whole; guys have feelings too.
Full Metal Jacket is a fascinating film on many levels, one of the more important ones being the study of the male body and how that relates to the development of masculine ideals. Was Private Lawrence not a “real man” due to his faults and imperfections? Did Joker betray the concept of the “masculine bond” when he participated in attacking Leonard with his platoon? Who is really at fault, when all is said and done, for Hartman’s merciless military behavior and Leonard’s reaction to his military experience? More importantly, are these things applicable to our own world or modern situations? This discussion of Kubrick’s work is a key part of our Myth of Macho series in that it raises all of these questions and causes us to truly think on these issues. These are not topics that should be left alone. Please join me next time for more of a look inside the masculine cinema and the figures that have created it.