From the War Room to Parris Island
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Introduction “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” once remarked Plato. What the famed philosopher means in this statement is that while specific wars may come and go, the concept of war will forever persist. War has existed since mankind was first able to feel contempt, that is to say, it has always existed. The dead, however, have seen the end of war for it is a truly human phenomenon, experienced only by the living. The universality of this experience has lead to war being the subject of many pieces of literature and art. From Homer’s classic epic, The Iliad, to the more modern anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, literature and art have lamented the inevitability of war. Perhaps the best way to grasp the inevitability of war is to understand its multifaceted nature. What better medium to explore this concept than film. While literature can be complex, film itself has many elements to it. One of the most influential filmmakers who focused on war was Stanley Kubrick. While Kubrick may be most famous for films such as The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, the auteur’s filmography also includes a variety of war films. In fact, his directorial debut, Fear and Desire, was a strong political statement about the effects of war on everyone who encounters it (Britannica). What makes Kubrick so important in the discussion of the depiction of war is the diversity of his films. From the conflict to the genre, each of Kubrick’s war films is unique in the way that they approach the concept of war. Two particularly different films from Kubrick’s war film repertoire are Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. While Full Metal Jacket deals with the effects of war on people from boot camp to actual combat, Dr. Strangelove gets to the root of war, addressing what causes and escalates it. Although the two films may seem starkly different, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket compliment each other as anti-war films due to their emphases on the humanity of war. Together, the films cohesively illustrate the way mankind creates wars and the subsequent effects of war on mankind. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Released in 1964, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was Stanley Kubrick’s only war film that was released during the war it criticized. The film, which centered around the Cold War, was also the only film that did not focus on ground combat as seen in Paths of Glory, Fear and Desire, and Full Metal Jacket. Instead, the film concentrated on nuclear war and the political and military figures who orchestrate it. The film begins when Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper orders a nuclear attack on the USSR. The attack is sparked by a fear, as he reveals to his executive officer, of fluoridated water. Ripper believes this is a part of a Soviet Union plot to destroy the United States. The information regarding the attack is brought to the Pentagon’s war room. There it is discovered, through a visiting ambassador, that the American nuclear attack could potentially trigger a Soviet bomb designed to wipe out all existence. It is also revealed that the massive bomb cannot be dismantled. The film revolves around the efforts of both the USSR and United States in their attempts to prevent the nuclear attack all with the looming threat of complete annihilation. In the midst of their almost childish competition with each other, the USSR and the United States had created weapons with the potential to wipe out the entire human race. When the hypothetical threat became imminent, the two countries were required to work together. However, they faced many roadblocks such as bureaucratic inefficiency, poor communication, and internal conflict. The most significant roadblock is the countries’ inability to overcome their egos. The first of these roadblocks is the incapability of governments to efficiently attend to matters of war. This can be seen in Colonel Mandrake’s struggle to reach the president, despite having the cancellation codes which could save humanity. Early in the film, Brigadier General Ripper addresses this issue, stating that “today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought”. However, it is Ripper’s paranoia and instability that sets the bombs on their path to complete destruction. Indeed, war is too important to leave to the politicians, but it is too volatile to leave to generals. Brigadier General Ripper’s paranoia not only manifests in the form of a nuclear attack but it also inspires ground combat between American soldiers, as well. Ripper’s voice is heard over the intercom of the Burpelson Air Force Base warning that the “Communist enemy” could come in the form of fellow Americans. This ultimately leads to a ground conflict on the base between soldiers, ironically creating a battlefield next to a sign which reads “Peace is Our Profession”. Communication also poses a significant roadblock in the overall conflict. All but one of the B-52 planes sent to attack the Soviet Union were shot down. Even with the cancellation codes, it is impossible for the remaining B-52 to be reached due to damage to its radio. This also contributes to the overall feeling of inevitability as the audience watches Colonel Mandrake struggle to decode and share the cancellation code which is ultimately pointless. Perhaps the most significant obstruction is the countries’ inability to overcome their own egos. Competition is what ultimately lead to this situation. Yet, the leaders fail to recognize this, continually finding ways to one-up each other as the chaos unfolds. Even in apologizing the president states to the Premier, “don’t say that you’re the more sorry than I am because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are”. This childish attitude, even in the face of imminent danger showcases the humanity of the conflict. Brigadier General Ripper reveals that his revelation about the Soviet Union’s fluoridation plot occurred after he felt tired after intercourse. This feeling of personal inadequacy lead to the nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union and, ultimately, the obliteration of mankind. In this way, Stanley Kubrick satirizes how wars are started as a result of human flaws. This can connect all the way back to the Trojan War featured in The Iliad which began after Paris kidnapped the wife of Menelaus. Thousands of men died as the result of a personal dispute. War is inseparable from humanity because it sprouts from mankind’s worst qualities of contempt and vengefulness. These are aspects that all people are predisposed to, making their earliest appearances in childhood as reflected in the childish behavior seen in Dr. Strangelove. Despite being filmed during a time where color films were becoming more popular, Kubrick opted for Dr. Strangelove to be filmed in black and white. This decision, whether intentional or not, reflects the black-and-white mentality shared by many Americans during the Cold War. The solemnity of the black and white visuals makes for an excellent contrast to its humorous tone. This contrast highlights the absurdity of war. Full Metal Jacket 23 years after Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick released what would be his final war film: Full Metal Jacket. Although both films dealt with American opposition of Communist ideology, Full Metal Jacket dealt specifically with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. As one would expect from a Vietnam War film, it dealt less with the politicians and generals orchestrating the war and more with those who had to bear the brunt of policy. The film follows Private Joker and his fellow Marines from their time in boot camp on Parris Island to their deployment to Vietnam. During their time in boot camp, the military goes to great lengths to turn the young men into savage, weapon-wielding pawns sent to do the government’s bidding. This is done through the humiliation and dehumanization of the men by their drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Although Private Joker and many of the other Marines are able to come out of the process seemingly unchanged, Private Pyle meets a tragic end after a mental breakdown. The other marines are not entirely unaffected by the training, however. This becomes apparent in their deployment in Vietnam. It becomes apparent that the training and the war have significantly impacted the marines. At first, we see this shocking attitude toward violence through the perspective of Private Joker who works as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Joker, who is often mocked for his lack of experience in actual combat, is thrown into combat after the Tet Offensive. He is reunited with Marines he attended boot camp with and develops an even stronger bond with them. However, it is apparent the Marines have become desensitized death as they laugh and pose with a dead Viet Cong soldier. It becomes apparent that he too has become somewhat desensitized towards the violence in which he lives. “I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture and kill them,” Private Joker remarks in an interview. However, it is apparent that Joker still experiences the hesitation to kill when faced with the opportunity to take the life of an enemy sniper. Ultimately, his training and his experience win over and he is changed. Private Joker and the American troops are not the only ones who are affected by the war. The film showcases how many civilians living in Vietnam were impacted by the war. From stealing to prostitution, many people were forced into desperate situations as a result of the war raging in their home country. Full Metal Jacket showcases the many ways that war affects people, from the preparatory basic training to the combat itself. War can destroy people both physically and mentally. However, it can also forge an intense bond between soldiers. Furthermore, the film illustrates the effects war has on civilians. Perhaps Full Metal Jacket’s most striking deviation from Dr. Strangelove is the use of color. All of Stanley Kubrick’s previous war films were shot in black and white, some due solely to the technological limits of the time and others out of choice. Full Metal Jacket not only features color but uses it as a storytelling device. For example, the portion of the film set at the Parris Island boot camp utilizes colder, gloomy tones compared to the gritty, saturated colors seen in the second half. Moreover, Full Metal Jacket, though it has its moments of comedic relief, is a far more serious film compared to the absurd Cold War satire that preceded it. Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket As Complementary Films Despite both films being made by Stanley Kubrick and being categorized as “anti-war”, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket do not appear to have much in common. However, the one aspect the films share is a glimpse into the humanity of war. Humans are the only species who advance their technology to destroy each other. It is, and always has been, in our nature to wage war amongst ourselves. Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket are indeed very different films. However, it is their differences that allow them to compliment each other as war films. War is a complex concept that is difficult to fully grasp. There are many elements that go into war from its conception by powerful leaders to its execution carried out by loyal soldiers. To better understand war it is imperative to examine who shapes it and who is shaped by it, which both films offer insight into. The humorous Dr. Strangelove offers a sharp commentary on the role of world leaders in nuclear proliferation. Through its black-and-white lens, the film allows viewers to see the absurdity of war which, from a distance, seems laughable. Additionally, it showcases the role human flaws play in the escalation of war. For the people in the War Room, war is but a concept. This concept becomes a nightmarish reality for the Marines in Full Metal Jacket. Through a blood-spattered lens, the audience bears witness to the devastating effects war can have on both soldiers and citizens, from training to the battlefield. War can change people both mentally and physically, most often for worse. Ultimately, it can shape mindsets, feeding into the cycle of war. While it is our humanity that shapes war, it is war that also shapes us.