R. Lee Ermy would eat Mel Gibson’s face
War is hell, and it’s never more fun to watch than through the safety and comfort of the silver screen. Hollywood’s love affair with the war film is well known amongst both cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. It’s no secret to historians that the victor in war is the one who writes the history, and it is difficult to argue that America is top dog in the business of winning wars. What is interesting is how American war films choose to portray its prolific history of armed conflict. More often than not, the typical American war film portrays its military in the most positive light it can manage, or the studio risks losing all cooperation from the real military itself in providing fighter jets, rifles, aircraft carriers, servicemen and equipment to the production in the hopes of not only saving money and conveying realism, but more importantly winning the approval of the most powerful and advanced armed forces the world has ever known. On the other hand, this has not stopped a handful of maverick filmmakers from exposing the painful truth of many American wars; that despite all the good the United States believes it does, reality is not so black and white, and occasionally history looks at us* as the bad guys; the aggressors, the tyrants, the invaders, the Great Satan.
To examine this duality, two American war films will be analyzed for their portrayal of the good guy vs. bad guy conflict: The Patriot (Roland Emmerich, 2000) and Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987). The former stars Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger as South Carolina farmers just before, during, and immediately after the American Revolutionary War; the latter features Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Adam Baldwin as U.S. Marines throughout the controversial Vietnam War. Although the films deal with very different conflicts that are separated by nearly 200 years, it is sobering to point out that war changes very little over the centuries, and these films, separated in release by slightly more than a mere decade, are logical and fascinating subjects to compare and contrast the two clashing points of view on American led war.
First, a brief history lesson is necessary to place these films into proper context: The Revolutionary War was for the Americans a conflict for independence from the British Empire, which controlled the original 13 colonies with an iron fist, gradually tightening its grip with military intimidation, aggressive and unfair taxation (without representation,) and political and social tyranny whenever the colonists wanted more rights and greater freedoms. Eventually, the colonists took up arms and revolted, and with the help of military support from France (without which it is debated that the revolution would have ever succeeded,) the 13 colonies won their independence and became a new sovereign nation. The Revolutionary war is generally looked back on by historians as more or less a good thing that happened; the first and one of the greatest military victories by America that invokes pride and (of course) patriotism.
Vietnam, on the other hand, was and is considered a quagmire, a mistake, an embarrassment, and an ultimate failure on the part of the United States government its armed forces. Allied with the South Vietnamese, the U.S. waged a bloody and savage campaign with the Soviet supported North Vietnamese. Considered by many historians to have been nothing more than a war by proxy for the United States and the Soviet Union, the general goal of the conflict was containment, and for the U.S., this meant stopping the spread of communism. At the cost of a terrible loss of life, the goal was not reached and the South fell to communist takeover in 1975, one year before the United States Bicentennial.
The Patriot takes the form of a classic Hollywood epic, harking back to such films as Lawrence of Arabia or Gone with the Wind, utilizing traditional narrative form involving a clear cut protagonist who begins the story in relative stability, who then encounters a problem that must be solved, leading to a conflict with a clear cut antagonist that drives the plot through its up and downs, the drama in the film being the result of the audience rooting for the hero against opposition. Eventually, Mel Gibson overcomes the evil British villain in the climax and makes a change in his character called the arc; he is now a different person than he was at the start of the film. From this point, all loose ends are tied up in a cute bow as we move toward the resolution and end with denouement. The film lives up to its name by embracing the pro-America agenda to a generous level. Here, the lines are drawn into distinctly black and white sides, or in this case, blue and red. The Americans are clearly good, wholesome and innocent victims to the bluntly savage tyranny and brutality of the British army.
Full Metal Jacket, in stark contrast, is filled with ambiguity, symbolism, and an unconventional narrative structure. The film is split into two distinct halves, each with a very different tone and setting. The first half deals with our young and raw recruits in Marine boot camp. Here they have their heads shaven bald to mark the end of their old lives, and then their personal identity is torn away and obliterated by the relentless and unforgiving draconian methods of the cruel and vicious drill instructor, played with a genius candor by Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermy, whom in reality is in fact a former Marine drill instructor. All of this is in an attempt to grow the boys into men by forcefully stripping them of all innocence, to prepare them for war by transforming them into killers, or in other words, Marines.
The second half of Full Metal Jacket centers exclusively on the war itself. The main character Joker is now a journalist deployed to Vietnam as a war correspondent just as the Tet offensive is unfolding. The most prominent theme engaged with at this point is the duality of man. Good and evil. We see American G.I.’s machine gunning innocent farmers as their UH-1 Huey passes overhead. We see American G.I.’s pose for a picture with the corpse of a fallen Viet-Kong. They pay for prostitutes and eventually murder a child. In their defense, that child killed half of their squad like it was shooting goldfish in a toilet.
Full Metal Jacket is one of the more negative portrayals of American military released in recent memory. In a broader sense concerning the scope of this essay, the duality could be expressed that a film like The Patriot reflects what we wish to be like (or for the cynics, what we pretend to be), while a film like Full Metal Jacket reflects how we really are, but are too afraid to face.
*this was written for an American history class. if you’re not American, just pretend you are. Like Mel Gibson does :)
Fun Fact: The Patriot is the only movie Roland Emmerich has ever directed where the entire world wasn’t blowing up at the same time.
This entry was posted on August 1, 2013 at 5:22 pm and is filed under Film Essays, Movie Reviews with tags 1987, 2000, american history, american revolution, army, British, cold war, Film, full metal jacket, heath ledger, history, Hollywood, marines, mel gibson, Movies, R. Lee Ermy, Roland Emmerich, Soviet Union, stanley kubrick, the patriot, united states, vietnam, Vincent D'Onofrio, war, war film. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.