I take a look at one of the most famous Vietnam War movies.
This film is divided into two distinct parts.
The first starts when a group of Marine boot camp recruits arrive at Parris Island, South Carolina. Their drill instructor, Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), is brutal, constantly attacking and humiliating the recruits. Among the recruits are J.T. Davis (Matthew Modine), nicknamed “Joker” when he makes a wisecrack during the opening lecture, and Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), nicknamed Gomer Pyle due to his ineptitude, weight, and joviality. Pyle proves to be incompetent, but eventually starts to improve when put under Joker’s care. Unfortunately, he still messes up and Hartman institutes a policy that punishes everyone but Pyle for his mistakes. Eventually the squad beats him in his bed, after which Pyle starts behaving perfectly, but having a mental breakdown. The recruits graduate, including Pyle, but on the last night on Parris Island, Joker finds Pyle on the toilet loading his rifle and doing drills. Hartman confronts Pyle and Pyle kills Hartman and himself in front of Joker.
The second starts in 1968 as Joker, is a war correspondent in Vietnam. Joker claims he has gone into combat, which most of his fellow Marines seem to doubt, aside from Pvt. Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), Joker’s photographer. Despite Joker talking about the potential for the Tet Offensive, he is ignored, leading to the Marines having to defend their base from the attack. The next morning, Joker is sent to Phu Bai, where Joker is reunited with “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard), a member of his recruitment class. Joker accompanies Cowboy and the Lusthog Squadron through the Battle of Huế, where platoon commander “Touchdown” (Ed O’Ross) gets killed. After the Marines hold a funeral, they declare the area secure and are interviewed by American journalists, giving their various opinions on the war and Vietnam.
The next Squad Leader, Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis), is killed by a booby trap, putting Cowboy in charge. The squad gets lost and Cowboy orders squad member Eightball (Dorian Harewood) to scout the area. Eightball and Doc Jay (Jon Stafford), the field corpsman (medic), get shot by a sniper who intentionally wounds them. Cowboy tries to bring in tank support, but it’s too far. The angry machine gunner, Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), defies Cowboy’s orders and tries to save the wounded, discovering there’s only one sniper. Cowboy gets killed by the sniper, leaving Animal Mother in charge. He leads a charge on the sniper. Joker discovers that it’s a small Vietnamese girl. Rafterman shoots her, but she begs to die. Animal Mother refuses the mercy kill unless Joker does it. He kills the girl, and the Marines head home to the Mickey Mouse March.
I almost wish I’d kept this as a surprise, because when the prompt said “Film with a Character with Your Name in It (Joker),” I wanted to find a movie that didn’t include the Batman villain, because it was too easy. Plus, I was going to do Mask of the Phantasm yesterday. So, I wracked my brain to think of a movie that had a character named Joker, and, lo and behold, I got a Kubrick film. Unless there’s a movie of Persona 5 that I don’t know about, this was my best option.
So, my recollection of this film was that the first act was clearly the superior one, and I don’t think that’s changed. I will say that I do appreciate the second half more now, but it can’t quite keep up with the unbelievably tight film style of the training. For starters, R. Lee Ermey’s performance as Hartman is one of those iconic roles that you can’t ever forget, like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector or Julia Roberts as Vivian in Pretty Woman. When I think of a drill sergeant, I will never think of anyone but R. Lee Ermey screaming at the top of his lungs at a group of terrified youths. To tell you how good he is, R. Lee Ermey ad-libbed some of his lines in a Stanley Kubrick film. Stanley Kubrick was one of the craziest directors of all time and a consummate perfectionist, meaning he did not suffer deviation from his vision. The only other person he ever allowed to ad-lib was Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, and that’s because Sellers was just as crazy an actor as Kubrick was a director. Ermey was originally just supposed to be a technical advisor, but when he provided an instructional video of how to berate privates to the actor who was supposed to play Hartman (Tim Colceri), Kubrick instead gave him the role. No one can blame him, because Ermey nailed it so hard that Kubrick often only asked him for 2 or 3 takes. For context, Kubrick made Tom Cruise do 90 takes of walking through a door.
However, Ermey’s almost completely matched by Vincent D’Onofrio as Private Gomer Pyle. D’Onofrio plays a character who is basically too stupid to realize that he should quit. As Pyle, we constantly see him broken down by Hartman, berated, almost to an inhuman degree, but he makes it through a bit with Joker’s help. However, after the rest of the recruits, including Joker, join in on a “Blanket Party,” Pyle just completely breaks. So much of it is focused on D’Onofrio’s eyes. D’Onofrio’s look goes from “mostly not understanding, but kind and yearning” like a puppy, to “empty, focused, and ruthless” like a starving timber wolf. Pyle doesn’t even speak that much throughout the movie, which makes D’Onofrio’s transformation even more stark, because it’s mostly non-verbal. When the final scene comes and we realize how thoroughly Pyle has been broken, you know what’s going to happen. You’ve watched the creation of a complete sociopath from a normal, if dim, human being. Even worse, you’ve been told that this is what made him a good soldier, until the end. It’s a demanding portrayal, but D’Onofrio stepped up.
The second act doesn’t contain any of those stand-out performances. Not that Matthew Modine or Adam Baldwin or any of the other actors are bad. In fact, they’re really good performances, but they can’t keep up the intensity of the two from the first act. Adam Baldwin tries, but part of it is that we’re introduced to a number of characters in the second half and they just don’t get enough time each to become stand-out. Instead, the movie focuses more on what war is supposed to be like for the people who are involved in it. It feels a bit disjointed at times, especially compared to the first act’s linear nature, but I think that was supposed to reflect the disjointed and confused nature of the war. It’s mostly focused on character studies.
Joker, in accordance with his name, wears a peace sign on his jacket and writes “born to kill” on his helmet. He says it’s a statement on the duality of man. Most of the soldiers get offended by the peace symbol, despite the fact that peace is supposed to be the endgame of war. I think it’s supposed to be a commentary on the fact that, pursuant to the training they’ve undergone, these men are designed and focused solely on war. Without war, they lose purpose. Ultimately, though, the entire group is just caught up in something larger than their comprehension, and they’re just trying to get through it the only way they know how. At the end of the film, we see them marching to the Mickey Mouse Club theme, which I think is supposed to be a commentary on them being but children manipulated by the forces behind the war. Or maybe it’s just catchy.
Overall, this is a great movie, and I think everyone should watch it. Also, yes, I’m aware that Kubrick did Paths of Glory before this movie, so he had already done a war film.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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