Pyle and Joker's Dual Narratives: Individuality and Group Identity in Stanley Kubrick's Marine Corps

By Perel, Zivah | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Pyle and Joker's Dual Narratives: Individuality and Group Identity in Stanley Kubrick's Marine Corps


Perel, Zivah, Literature/Film Quarterly


Full Metal Jacket revisits the Vietnam War in a way that, according to many critics,1 spends more time critiquing Marine Corps culture and brutality in general than it spends delving into the issues particular to Vietnam. Kubrick's2 Marine Corps, these critics argue, dehumanizes its men and reshapes them into desensitized killing machines who lack a strong individual identity once they go through basic training. The success of the Marines that Gunnery Sergeant Instructor Hartman trains rests on the strength of their collective identity. However, Kubrick's focusing of his narrative so explicidy on Privates Pyle and Joker and their vasdy different experiences adapting to the Corps asserts that it is these men's individual identities that shape the Marines they will become and the Corps as a whole. Through the dual narratives of Pyle and Joker, Kubrick represents the service as a space where individual identity can survive, despite the tremendous pressure to conform.

According to Terrence Rafferty, Kubrick's Vietnam "looks, very self-consciously, like the bombed-out European landscapes of World War Two movies (the climactic scenes set in Hue were shot in South London)" (258). Kubrick does more than just nod to World War II movies; throughout the film he invokes much of their ideology. Yet, Kubrick also refuses to buy into the romanticizing of war that appears in jingoistic wartime texts that uncritically support America's military endeavors. Thomas Doherty observes this ideology in other Vietnam War movies that repeatedly allude to John Wayne in an attempt to debunk "the on-screen firefights and backlot heroics of the classical Hollywood combat films" (25-26). He elaborates on Full Metal Jacket specifically: "No Warner-Brothers-style platoonery. This is a film short on reaction shots and nearly bereft of eyeline matches: the vantage is distancing, almost antiseptic, as scrubbed-down as the squad's ghosdy white barracks lavatory" (27). Kubrick relies on and breaks from the tradition of American war movies, and in so doing keeps Full Metal Jacket indialogue with past representations of the service while adapting his film to the Vietnam War and his own world view. World War II narratives had promulgated the notion that soldiers could retain an individual identity within the military system by the start of the conflict in Vietnam, yet negotiating this identity during a war as controversial as Vietnam made for issues previously unexplored in war narratives. Evan Carton, writing about the tendencies of Vietnam War narratives, notes previous work that establishes the trend of Vietnam War narratives in taking '"personal experience for historical and political knowledge'" and establishing a '"personalist epistemology' [that] informs even documentary accounts of the war" (296). Carton also observes the phenomenon of the "private yet collective identity" (295) that formed a "realm of collective or transpersonal identity, rather than competitive individualism" (296). What Carton observes is the method of understanding and processing the war that Kubrick adapts, which stems from the inadequacy of applying the methods established after the experiences of earlier wars.

Pyle's Story

Throughout their eight-week training on Parris Island, Hartman's squad is visually and audibly represented as a group. The camera's repeated refusal to frame the men individually contributes to the argument that the camera begins what Hartman finishes; the men cease to function individually and instead conform to the mold Hartman sets. From the opening shot of each man given the standard military buzz cut to Hartman's constant taunts reminding the men that they are "all equally worthless," Kubrick emphasizes the part of the Marine Corps that forces men into a collective identity. During their lineups, the recruits stand beside their beds on the perimeter of the room while Hartman remains the solitary figure in its center, responding to him with a collective voice that resurfaces each time the men march and sing in cadence. …

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