Stanley Kubrick turns his attention to Vietnam in this bleak and emotionally draining representation of a conflict that was the perfect subject for which to turn the accepted war movie cliches on their heads.
The story throws you in the deep end of a marine boot camp where conscripts are stripped of all sense of individuality to be turned into killing machines, a process ferociously undertaken by one of the most hateful characters you’re ever likely to see on screen. You do not grow to admire and respect this man as you do in most militaristic flag wavers; he is a ruthless sadist who punishes every tiny error with the kind of physical and emotional abuse that would be deemed unconscionable in any other environment. He even holds up a mass murderer and assassin as figures to be admired and only considers private Pile – the victim of his systematic humiliation – worthy after he has reached psychological breaking point. Once the action shifts to Vietnam, Kubrick’s unsentimental documentary style places you in the thick of the battlefield where the slightest hesitation, act of compassion or humanity is punished by death and he makes no attempt to emotionally manipulate or preach simplistic anti-war messages. In his inimitable style he exposes the ugly truth about war; without their monstrous drill sergeant’s brutal teachings they wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in this environment so within the context of war, cruelty is right. Cruelty works.
And any society that was built on militarism has this fact as its foundation; even one whose figurehead is a lovable cartoon mouse.