When I first saw FMJ I must admit to not being that impressed. There was something about it that felt a bit ‘off.’ Looking back now, despite its clear attention to detail and craftsmanship in terms of script, structure, performance, editing, cinematography et al, the sum of these parts seemed unrealistic, but not in a deliberate theatrical way, it was more that the locations felt fake, which had the unfortunate effect of undermining the credibility of everything else going on screen.
Now, it could be that my critique fell into line with the fact that one’s personal reaction to films is often time specific and generational. When I watched the film that first time it no doubt suffered from inevitable comparisons to the swathe of other Vietnam pictures being released at the time, films that all shared enough common traits as to establish a sort of unofficial sub-genre – where a film depicting events in the context of the Vietnam conflict became known as a ‘Nam film: a shorthand for depictions of sardonic grunts going about their particular branch of the war business on an incredible sliding scale of enthusiasm, ranging from psychopathic enjoyment to melancholic helplessness, the pathos / bathos of both being amplified by hip dialogue and proto-hipster curated soundtracks featuring period classic rock.
Full Metal Jacket bears the Kubrick trademark of being able to be both an adherent genre film and also a subversion. This may have been the parent to some of my difficulties. An obvious reaction would be to say that my main difficulty came from the simple fact that it wasn’t a jungle film. But actually, as an avid schoolboy reader of military history, I was very aware that Vietnam was not fought purely in the bush so that wasn’t really it. In fact I would say that I probably was too aware of this fact as I thought then, and still think now, that, whilst the second and third parts of the film were clearly shot on location, not a studio backlot, it still felt incredibly staged: the streets seem too wide, the explosions and bullet hits too perfectly timed, the black smoke in the background somehow too obvious…
As time has passed my aesthetic judgement of the film has stayed the same but my feeling of its worth as a cultural document has completely changed. At the time of that first viewing, I wasn’t aware that the film was indeed shot in the East, albeit one rather closer to home than the one that I had in mind. Once I did find that out I became subsequently fascinated by the creativity involved in turning an old gasworks in the industrial UK into a war-torn city in the Far East*.
What the film does achieve is a very open invitation for us to consider the reality of war but it also raises the question as to whether a constructed image can ever be an authentic representation of something that most people today will not have experienced first hand. Whilst my interpretation has been to the negative a very important fact to note is that veterans of Vietnam and other Theaters hold the film up as being one of the most authentic representations of military life, both on the home front and on the ground in the conflict zone, ever captured by the cinema.
Let’s look at another Kubrick with strong combat content as a contrast – Barry Lyndon, despite being famously painterly in the creation of its mis-en-scene, feels infinitely more real. One reason for this perhaps is that the 18th Century paintings which were the visual reference material that inspired the films aesthetic are also the only reference material with which we can compare and contrast the film. They are not reliable sources of information in the empirical sense, more that they themselves are works of art that make their own representations of the reality of the period in which they were created, making the film a simulacrum in that it is making a representation of something that in itself is highly representational. Ultimately this means we can be more forgiving of a film like Lyndon and its attempts at mediating reality as we simply don’t have other material to hand against which to judge it.
With a creative product that is attempting to recreate recent history, such as the Vietnam war, there is, of course, a wealth of archive visual material. For example, it is incredibly easy to find documentary photographs and moving footage from that we can then compare Full Metal Jacket with, not least the ones that were the productions own source material. The public mind tends to hold these up as being the absolute benchmark of authenticity simply because they are analogue representations of a given periods’ reality of time and place. A still or moving photograph is the result of a mechanical process, meaning that should we see two images of the same subject, the difference between them being that one is a hand drawing, the other a photograph, we immediately perceive the result of light hitting a chemically treated substrate or a light-sensitive piece of electronics as being able to better mediate reality than somebodies brain operating a hand which, in turn, is operating a pencil and paper. The assumption is that a photograph is free from the kind of direct emotional engagement that is expressed in hand-rendering, a process that we accept as a means of skewing reality to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, we could go further and ask ourselves whether the more a drawing looks like a photograph, the more we read it as being a ‘better’ representation of its subject?
In his excellent book, The Reality Effect, author Joel Black brings up a similar point. He makes the claim that the 20th Century was largely experienced via the moving image, meaning that rather than real life being replicated via the moving image the effect has been that the moving image has actually re-framed what our feeling for what reality actually is. In other words, if real-life appear to measure up to what we expect from having seen similar representations of other events on-screen, be it cinema, TV or device, then we now question their authenticity real.
If we apply this to talking representations of warfare, specifically Vietnam and later conflicts, these are events that now for the majority of people are only experienced via newsreel and movies. In that sense, the screen version of reality now sets the bar for what the actuality of the war is for the majority of people, we might therefore then question which version is the one that finds its way into the historical record?
We can test that hypothesis by looking at stage plays that take war as their subject. Theatre by its very nature is a more reflexive medium. It has the benefit of actual live human performances to confuse the intelligence but its staging will forever be framed by the proscenium arch and therefore, Brechtian in intent or not there will still be an element of reflexivity inherent in the medium, in the sense that by performing a play it is very apparent that it is a piece of art and not an actual recording of the war in question. Plays such as Warhorse are still incredibly emotive and yet clearly stage plays. A more ‘realistic’ approach is found in the staging of a play like Journeys End, unfolding in small scale sets in close to real time and yet it to is clearly a staged performance. And yet that has nothing to do with reducing the effect of the film nor does it take away from the intent behind the piece in terms of that of the makers and performers. Indeed, it could be that it is all the more emotive and affecting because it is not a real piece of archive material originating from the war.
We can look towards famous war archive material such as Roger Fenton’s ‘Valley of Death’ photograph of the Crimean war or Ken Jarecke’s famous image of the immolated corpse captured on the infamous Highway 80 during the 1st Gulf war as being figureheads of war documentary, and yet both of those can also be questioned in terms of the reality that they are capturing. Of course, again their subjects are real in the sense that they have been frozen in time by an analog process but within that, there is a certain amount of construction. Fenton moved in cannonballs so the environment looked more like what the imaginations of those back home would think the environment looked like. Therefore it cannot be said to be ‘authentic’ and real in the documentary sense.
Likewise the Gulf War images, particularly the immolated bodies in burnt out vehicles on Highway 8 would perhaps be the ultimate as they are the camera in pure observation mode. But again they are problematised as they lack context. Perhaps our first reaction is to gaze at the horrific effects of immolation and feel empathy for the unfortunate individual but that would be to assume that the person in question is an innocent, collateral damage of an unfair war. We can assume that our reaction would be somewhat different were we to find out that the same person was an insurgent who had deliberately driven himself into a military convoy. In that sense vital details external to the topic are missing to the point that it has to be questioned how ‘real’ are these images?
So what is the reality that the film is trying to present? The answer is that it is showing a retrospective impression of the Vietnam war through art. It is not purporting to be scientifically factual but rather create enough of a sense of an actual time and place that it is able to communicate the messages that are its actual intention, perhaps that war is complicated, that people on both sides in a certain conflict will have their humanity abused for the good of those in power, be they on conflict for sociological reasons or just purely for power. Taking this all into account, would the film have explored its themes any better if it had been an objective documentary shot within the actual ruins of Hué City?
* Interestingly, long time Kubrick collaborator Leon Vitali alluded to the fact, that the Beckton site was chosen due to the fact that the gasworks itself was designed by the same architects as also worked in Tao which gives the enterprise another level of resonance although I personally haven’t been able to find a reference and, in our interview, Jan Harlan also made no claim to that fact either.)