Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Written By: Gustov Hasford (novel) Stanley Kubrick, Gustov Hasford, and Michael Herr (screenplay)
I think this is a perfect movie. It is Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece. There are many movies that I love and many that I will say are great but there aren’t many I ever call perfect. This is one of the ones I do though; it is an incredible film on a level above all others I describe that way. This movie means something where so many mean nothing. It has a purpose that transcends everything that most movies are made for. This movie will be forever remembered and loved because it is special, because Stanley Kubrick is an amazing filmmaker and because it tells a different story about the war.
Admittedly this is a movie I never understood until I actually understood The Vietnam War. I studied history in college and took an entire class specifically about the war. It was after that class that I revisited this film and recognized how great it really was. Before that I remembered always giving up during the half way point where the story goes from boot camp to Vietnam and the story seems to change so dramatically. The film almost feels like a comedy for the first half during the boot camp section but once it moves overseas it moves like the experience of those men. It changed dramatically, it became real, and it became something those of us that weren’t there could never understand. The first time I saw this movie I knew nothing about the Tet Offensive, or anything at all about the Vietnam War for that matter. I would imagine that everything after the boot camp half of the movie must be confusing to a viewer who doesn’t know anything about the Tet Offensive. For those that don’t know, the Tet Offensive was a major coordinated offensive counter strike from the Vietcong on a major Vietnam holiday during the war in 1968. At the time Americans were under the impression we were winning the war, but suddenly there was a major nationwide attack that changed everything. This movie eventually settles around that event and it is important to understand what actually happened when watching this film. The Tet Offensive occurred in 1968 during the Tet holiday in Vietnam in which no fighting was supposed to be done. It was a serious coordinated offensive attack all over North and South Vietnam that caught US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise and hit hard. It happened during a time the war was still developing for people back home in the US and many people were under the impression the Vietcong was nothing to worry about and we were beating them. The Tet Offensive proved not only that we weren’t easily defeating the Vietcong but that they were in fact a serious opponent as well. It then went on to take the war to the next step that would go on for another four years or so. The Tet Offensive was a significant event in The Vietnam War and I would suggest that anybody interested do further research about it because I am just getting this information from memory. The Vietnam War overall has a really fascinating history that everybody can learn from, I would suggest anybody and everybody to read about that war.
From the very beginning of this film you can see how great it is. I love the opening with all the recruits having their hair shaved off. They all have such different kinds of hair and hairstyles and they all begin to look so similar without them. It suggests the loss of identity, they are in the first stage of being stripped of who they are and molded into something different. The Marines are masters at making men into machines and this movie gives us a window into what it was like during the 60s. The fact that they are Marines at all makes this a different Vietnam film and that was something else I never understood when I was younger. Men were drafted into the Army prior to and during the Vietnam War, but not the Marines. The men we see in this film weren’t drafted, they volunteered to go, and it was their decision. That changes everything about this movie and their war experience in general. I think the strangest thing is that a guy like Private Pile was even able to get in, but there are probably men finding they aren’t cut out for what they decided to do every day in the Marines.
Private Pile’s role in the movie is very interesting and the part is played well by Vincent D’Onofrio. His character’s inability to get with the program is something that happens all of the time and this movie offers a great opportunity to see an example of it. The marines are tough, you get that seeing this movie if you don’t already know it, and some men just aren’t cut out for it. Private Pile obviously didn’t have what it took but the Marines don’t accept failure as an option. His drill instructor only got harder and harder on him until those efforts proved fruitless and then he made the whole squad suffer in his place. That led to the hazing that we see with the soap wrapped in towels. I think that scene is incredible because you can see that Joker knows he shouldn’t join in, but his own frustrations with Pile overcome him and he ultimately gives Pile the worst beating of anybody. When Pile actually goes crazy it’s clear that it was only a matter of time and it turns into such a dramatic and hard hitting scene.
A major part of what made the first half of the film so great was the performance of R. Lee Ermey. He brought his own personal experience to the role and made it so much more real for the viewer. Ermey spent over a decade as part of the Marines and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He actually served for over a year in Vietnam during his service so I’m sure he his opinion had a lot of weight during filming. Although there is no telling how suggestions were taken on a Stanley Kubrick set. Ermey’s role was so incredible that his career ballooned afterwards and he is still popular today. He is an interesting and enigmatic actor who I have always liked; he has such a unique and intimidating voice. He is perfect for so many roles.
Once the story goes into Vietnam we see such a different film because it is such a different world over there. The men over there are all half mad, and the ones that aren’t half mad are totally bat shit crazy. These were young men that went overseas to fight that war and they went into quite a mess. They entered a world full of death and uncertainty. Eventually they begin to question what they are even doing there because they don’t know anymore. They are told they are there to help the South Vietnamese gain their freedom from the Communist but more often than not they find themselves fighting the men that they are supposed to be there to help. This was a common problem in Vietnam because the South Vietnamese troops were just as likely to turn around and fight the Americans as they were to fight the enemy. This makes the whole purpose of the war confusing to the soldiers in the field and eventually they all have to question why they are there. The one thing that they all do know for certain is that they are there to kill, and that is what they do, but it makes them crazier and crazier as time passes. With the individual interviews you see being recorded in the film you get a wide range of opinions about the war from the people involved. It’s also really interesting to see how the craziest ones (Animal Mother) can put on a nice face for the cameras.
The individual interviews were a really incredible part of the movie because they are so informative but they can also be confusing to people who know little about the war. Vietnam was, at the root, more of a political war than anything else and it is just an unfortunate reality that many many people suffered because of it. The Vietnam War was fought to combat the growth of Communism in the East. There was The Domino Theory that suggested if one country fell to Communism they all would and it became the position of the United States to not allow the Communist to gain ground in South East Asia. This led to the creation of the South Vietnam democracy by the US government and that was who we allied with during The Vietnam War. The truth of it all is that the nation of South Vietnam never really existed; it was just set up by the US government to give us somebody to fight for. We would get natives from South Vietnam, train them to fight, and then put them in the field and back them up. Those people didn’t care whether or not they had freedom though. The whole thing was ridiculous and in reality the whole war was just a big mistake that went too far and many different men continued making more mistakes and took things farther. It wasn’t a winnable war because there was no side that could win. We couldn’t win because we were just helping, but the country we were helping didn’t really exist. You can’t force freedom down the throats of people who just want foreign people to leave so they can go home to their farms and villages to live life as they always had. The South Vietnamese soldiers in the field would more often than not turn and fight the Americans because their hearts weren’t in it for freedom. Democracy made no difference to them and they weren’t going to die for it. In a nutshell this is why the war was so ridiculous, and it accomplished nothing but death and destruction for both sides.
This movie makes several strong statements about the war but they are wasted on people who don’t understand the conflict. For those of us that do understand, this movie is more than moving and it can teach us plenty about the war. The Vietnam War is one of the most interesting conflicts I have ever studied and I would encourage anybody interested in history to learn as much as you can about it. It was an awful situation, as all wars are, but there wasn’t much glory in this war as there was in the ones that came before it i.e. WWI or WWII. This movie shows us the effects the war had on the soldiers and on the country of Vietnam as well. It says a lot about guerrilla warfare and how unfair it all is. In the end the squad loses several important characters and risk quite a bit to resolve the situation. All of them end up at the mercy of one single person and it turns out to be a girl that was doing all the killing. That says a lot about the war right there. They never knew who the enemy was, where they were, or how many of them might be waiting to attack. These men had it hard, and their lives were on the line. It’s unfair to make assumptions about them or pass judgment on the things that they did because we weren’t there and we don’t know. They were dying for people who might very well turn around and shoot them while they were focused on the enemy. Every day was a struggle just to survive and danger was around every corner. That situation would wreak havoc on the minds of any of us, and we can’t hope to understand what it was like for those that were involved.
I might not have said this before watching the movie again for this review but I now feel that this is without doubt Stanley Kubrick’s finest work. That is only my opinion but I consider it a perfect film and it is now my favorite of all his movies. It didn’t win any awards, but Platoon may have stolen all the Vietnam thunder at the Oscars the year before. Kubrick was a perfectionist and people had difficulty working with him because of that but his efforts paid off in spades with this movie. Matthew Modine also did a great job in the lead role. I think this kind of role should have propelled him on to the next level of stardom but it didn’t. He has remained in the background of movies for a long time but he has never really become that headline actor I think he had the potential to be. This summer we will be able to see him in the background of another film but this time a big time movie. Modine will be playing a small role in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, which I think many of us are looking forward to.
I think I have sufficiently gone on forever about this movie but there is plenty I haven’t even mentioned. Among the many things I haven’t mentioned is the soundtrack. The music in this movie is excellent and does a great job of setting the tone for the film all around. This is a graphic movie but a movie about The Vietnam War that isn’t graphic is a waste of your time. It was a graphic conflict; there is no point to sugarcoating it. Bad things happened on all levels and as a nation I think we learned a lot from the conflict. For example I think soldiers are treated differently today specifically because of that war. There are also many ways in which we didn’t learn from the war as we entered such a strikingly similar conflict in Iraq. I will side step the tangent that will lead me down though. I think this is a perfect movie and I have LOVED watching it again. I actually lost a fight with Amber about watching it a second time to write an even longer and better review. This movie isn’t one that she can appreciate so she won’t be adding in her own review. Don’t let that discourage you though; this movie is worth your time. If you don’t understand this movie then I suggest you educate yourself and watch it again. This is a great movie and I would recommend it to anyone.
NEXT MOVIE: Galaxy Quest (1999)