I’ve not had much experience of war films, and am ignorant particularly of, perhaps even to the point of being offensive, the Vietnam war. That being said, the film didn’t really need contextualising. War is always terrible, no matter who’s siding with who or where it takes place.
But allow me to backtrack; the opening of the film, which was actually filmed at Pinewood Studios very near where I live (I was helpfully told) was much more interesting than I had expected, with plenty of humour and well developed characters I felt I could understand. The film opens on the shaving of their heads, giving just a glimpse of their real selves before they become uniform. I liked that. It was also much funnier than I had expected. It felt impermissible that I should be laughing at first, the sergeant in charge being so rude and aggressive towards his terrified recruits, but it wasn’t long before I saw the funny side, his nicknaming them his “ladies” cracking me up every time. Their ridiculous marching songs even more so; “This is my rifle this is my gun, this is for fighting this is for fun!” (Watch it and it’ll make sense!). The humour used is understandably dark however, especially when interjected with the harsh and sometimes sinister motions the recruits have to go through. Their chanting is haunting, reminiscent of cults and religious sects and the ‘training montage(s)’ painful to watch. It certainly made me feel lazy and unfit, curled up with my beer and nibbles on the sofa! I was lulled, as am I’m sure the film wants you to be, into rooting for Pyle so was naturally shocked and horrified when he ‘turned’. I challenge anyone to forget that stare of death!
After their graduation there is a lull between the intensity of the training and the start of the real fighting, where the character of Joker is explored a bit further and revealed, to me at least, to be considerably more favourable. Sure, I didn’t enjoy his bargaining with the prostitute but he’s a writer! A creative type! More quirky and likeable then the remaining cast of Action Men with his badges and now iconic, helmet.
The scenes of war themselves were what really swung me to the true power and iconic status of this film. It appears my love and admiration for war literature has transpired to film as I found the entire sequence utterly engrossing. The shock, the horror; the intense, raw emotions of pain and fear contrasted so starkly with the hollow, blank unemotional state of those who had seen too much. It was the silence that I found especially hard hitting, the tension unbearable as they waited for the shots to start up again. It was increasingly hard to watch and yet increasingly hard to look away at the same time. The camera angles increased the sensation, focussing not (entirely) upon explosions and big guns as I had supposed but on their very human, very terrified faces. You could see the very lengths and breaths of the human condition in them. That final gunshot provoked a pang of emotion, and an involuntary flinch.
The Mickey Mouse marching song at the end was the absolute last thing I had expected, and yet the juxtaposition was so brilliant. Men walking and killing in an unimaginably hellish landscape of shattered brick and fire, singing a song of their their childhood, which they are now utterly removed from. It was strange, sad and yet oddly very, very darkly comic. Words that to me sum are an appropriate summary of the entire film.
I will certainly not be underestimating war films in the future!