Dir: Stanley Kubrick | Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford | Cast: Matthew Modine, R Lee Emey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, Dorian Harewood | US Action thriller 116′
The last film to be released during Kubrick’s lifetime is a bleak and violent look at the Vietnam war through the eyes of recruits moving from the brutal US Marine training bootcamp into the nightmare of active service overseas. Pessimism combined with dark cynicism gives us a flavour of what came before in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove.
The first half of the film is extremely loud and shouty, focusing on the recruits’ dehumanising and draconian training programme. Although it makes for grim viewing there’s a certain visual symmetry at work here echoing Leni Riefenstal’s Olympia (1938), although the dialogue is coarse and sweary, and full of racist bigotry as you might expect given the all-male environment where the men are toughened up and whipped into shape. There then follows a brutal and melodramatic baptism of fire before the men head to Vietnam, where top recruit and military journalist Pvt Joker (Modine) decides to try his hand in the front line: “a day without blood, is like a day without sunshine”. Kubrick maintains a cold-eyed distance throughout the mayhem and hard-edged horror. There is no attempt to bring out the humanity of these men who are now reduced to killing machines, murdering anything that moves as they fight for their own survival in the dog eat dog delirium. Kubrick’s message is clear: War is no place for decency. You come away not knowing or caring about any of the characters. Stunned and saddened by the senselessness of it all. No pity or poetry here. MT
BFI STANLEY KUBRICK RETROSPECTIVE | APRIL-MAY 2019 at BFI Southbank