Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released on June 26, 1987, in the United States. Set twenty years prior to that, the film presented the full blast of just how horrible the Vietnam War was on its soldiers. Most memorably, it featured this week’s birthday boy, Vincent D’Onofrio, as Leonard Lawrence, known to his fellow Marines as Gomer Pyle. There is not one person who has seen this film that does not immediately think of D’Onofrio’s portrait of a Marine losing his mind during basic training when the film is mentioned, and with good reason: D’Onofrio’s Pyle is haunting for reasons we don’t want to admit. He’s the horror we don’t want to think about: the dutiful soldier that is bullied by his comrades and drill instructor to the point of madness and murder.
You can’t help but feel for Pyle on some level. He doesn’t seem terribly bright. He confuses left and right, something I think a lot of us are guilty of doing more than we care to admit. He’s overweight (fun fact: D’Onofrio put on about 70 pounds for the role, which was the most amount of weight gained for a film at the time). And when we first meet him, he’s not exactly taking his training seriously: he can’t stop smiling at Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant (R. Lee Ermy), which earns him the ire of the drill instructor. I don’t know about you, but that makes him far more like me than anyone else, as I have the propensity to burst into giggle fits when I need to be serious (really, you can’t take me anywhere). So when his drill instructor starts laying into him, we know that we’re about to witness this guy getting torn to shreds. What we’re not entirely ready for is the brutality of his treatment, and it starts immediately with Pyle being instructed to choke himself. His drill instructor isn’t content to wrap his hands around the young man’s throat – he forces Pyle to lean in for his physical punishment, completely defeating the fight or flight response. From there, he’s screamed at, belittled for being out of shape, and used as a scapegoat for the group, as his incompetence results in punishment for everyone but him. In return, his peers not only reject him – they savagely beat him with bars of soap as he’s held down. Make no mistake, this rejection and constant abuse is something from which the mind reels.
Through this treatment, we get to see a transformation into the end goal: a killing machine. Pyle does manage to improve and start to become what his drill instructor wants: a Marine that will be able to survive battle. Our favorite drill instructor – and trust me, Ermy is perfect in this role, and apparently ad libbed most of his lines – lets the group know this up front. These boys are going to war, and it’s his job to make sure that they will serve that purpose well. When Joker (Matthew Modine) makes a snarky comment at first, we expect his punishment to be horrific for mouthing off to his drill instructor; however, he gets kudos for his honesty, in part due to his response for joining the Marines: he wants to become a killing machine. Joker establishes himself as an apt pupil with the same goal as his superior, and he can perform the tasks at hand. Pyle doesn’t belong; therefore, he has to be shaped into something that can be of benefit to the end goal as a destructor of life. He needs to be broken down so that the pile of human putty left in its wake can be refashioned as his instructor sees fit. One could argue that this process helps the men survive; without it, they would not be hardened enough to make it through the battlezone experience.
The problem with the example of Pyle is that while it’s initially successful, we also get to witness how this treatment can warp someone well beyond the goal of controlled weapon and into a cautionary tale of how the psyche can break beyond repair due to inhuman treatment. Depsite everything, Pyle does make headway in his training. Let me be honest: I would never make it in the armed forces. Ever. I have no mind-to-mouth filter, and I don’t appreciate being yelled at constantly. I would be a pre-transformation Pyle: I’d laugh at the wrong moment, sneak in jelly donuts, and wouldn’t be able to do a single pull-up; I deeply respect anyone that can hack it in the armed forces. What Kubrick presents, and what D’Onofrio so beautifully articulates in his performance, is a man that should have been sent packing but is forced to honor his committment and become something he is not cut out to be, regardless of what it turns him into. We watch as he is choked, slapped, degraded and socially isolated. We watch him struggle. We watch as he’s beaten. And there’s not a thing we can do about it. We’re horrified at his treatment, and we’re just as horrified when we stare at D’Onofrio talking to his loaded rifle. We’re terrified when we see the look on Pyle’s face, and the smile will haunt you for some time. We hate that smile because we know where it’s going. We hate that we just watched someone get pushed to the brink, then get shoved over the edge. We hate it because that could easily be some kid you know.
In the end, Ermy’s Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant gets what he wanted: a killing machine. The problem is that there is nothing human left at the end of it, and that killing machine not only backfires, but is of no use to its employers. Sometimes, you can push someone to the edge, and that person digs in, finds the strength, and comes out of it stronger than anyone thought possible. Full Metal Jacket reminds us of the horrifying flipside to that: sometimes, a pushed person will simply go over the edge. Not all horror stories need to have monsters and goblins; sometimes, they just need humanity stripped away.