Full Metal Jacket (1987) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.

  • A two-segment look at the effect of the military mindset and war itself on Vietnam era Marines. The first half follows a group of recruits in boot camp under the command of the punishing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The second half shows one of those recruits, Joker, covering the war as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, focusing on the Tet offensive.

  • The lives of several young men who undergo Marine Corps basic training and are then shipped off to Vietnam. The main character is J.T. 'Joker' Davis who, along with all the other new recruits, constantly has to deal with their demanding Drill Instructor, Gny. Sgt Hartman. One recruit in particular, Leonard 'Gomer Pyle' Lawrence, is having a particularly hard time, especially after DI Hartman punishes the entire squad anytime he screws up, which is often. It all leads to tragedy. Davis makes it through and soon finds himself in Vietnam working as a combat journalist where he gets to see the horrors of war first-hand during the Tet offensive.

  • A two-segment story that follows young men from the start of recruit training in the Marine Corps to the lethal cauldron known as Vietnam. The first segment follows Joker, Pyle and others as they progress through the hell of USMC boot-camp at the hands of the colorful, foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The second begins in Vietnam, near Hue, at the time of the Tet Offensive. Joker, along with Animal Mother, Rafterman and others, face threats such as ambush, booby traps, and Viet Cong snipers as they move through the city.

  • Full Metal Jacket begins by following the trials and tribulations of a platoon of fresh Marine Corps recruits focusing on the relationship between Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and Privates Pyle and Joker. We see Pyle grow into an instrument of death as Hartman has foreseen of all of his recruits. Through Pyle's torment and Joker's unwillingness to stand up against it the climax of part one is achieved with all three main characters deciding their fates by their action or inaction. The second chapter delves into Joker's psyche and the repeated referral to the fact that he joined the Corps to become a killer. When his mostly behind the scenes job as a combat correspondent is interfered with by the Tet offensive he is thrust into real combat and ultimately must decide if he really is a killer.

  • During the Vietnam War private 'Joker' -the narrator, a future author- and his class are put through the US Marine indoctrination and training under DI Gunnery Sergeant Hartman's verbally and physically abusive, sex-obsessed style. It's all far worse for fat simpleton Pyle, who keeps doing everything wrong, even when gentle Joker is appointed his personal tutor, until peer pressure becomes group bullying. On their last day at Paris Island, when everyone graduates, the psychological time-bomb explodes. Only intellectual Joker isn't assigned to jungle duty but as military war correspondent. He's unwilling to play the deceptive propaganda game and violence catches up even in the 'safe' city Hue.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The story opens in the late 1960s at Parris Island, South Carolina, the U.S. Marine Corps Training Camp, where a group of young Marine recruits, after having their heads shaved, are being prepped for basic training by the brutal Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), whose orders are to "weed out all non-hackers". Hartman gives each of the Marines nicknames; one pragmatic recruit who talks behind his back becomes "Joker" (Matthew Modine); a Texas recruit becomes "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard). And finally Leonard Lawrence, a 6-foot 3-inch, 280 pound, slow-witted recruit with low intelligence and ambition becomes "Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio), and the focus of Hartman's brutality, because the overweight recruit cannot keep up with the other more physically fit recruits in the grueling obstacle courses.

    Hartman leads the recruits through endless running, marching and rifle drills. When Pyle mixes up right from left, Hartman slaps him viciously and makes him walk behind the platoon with his pants around his ankles while sucking his thumb. On the obstacle course, Pyle can't perform pull-ups or climb to the top of one of the higher obstacles, receiving torrents of verbal abuse from Hartman.

    One morning during muster, Hartman asks Joker if he believes in the Virgin Mary. Joker responds that he doesn't, angering the Catholic drill instructor. The clearly religious Hartman gives Joker a vicious backhanded slap and orders Joker to change his answer. Joker stubbornly refuses, stating that he believes that Hartman will only "beat him harder if he reverses himself." Hartman immediately promotes Joker to squad leader for having the courage to stand up for himself. However, Hartman also gives Joker the difficult job of being Pyle's personal instructor. Off on the sidelines over the next few days, Joker helps Pyle through the obstacle courses, shows him how to operate and clean his rifle and how to make his bed. However, all of Joker's effort is later proven to be a waste.

    During a routine evening inspection, Hartman, noticing that Pyle's foot locker is unlocked, searches it and finds a jelly doughnut; food is strictly forbidden in the barracks and Pyle is not permitted to eat donuts because he's overweight. Enraged, Hartman decides that from then on instead of punishing Pyle for each transgression, he'll punish all the other recruits in the platoon. A few nights later, the angry recruits attack Pyle with soap bars wrapped in towels while Cowboy gags him and a few others hold him down on his bed with a blanket. At first, Joker is reluctant to attack Pyle, but after Cowboy persuades him, Joker hits Pyle longer and harder than most of the others. In his bunk, Joker covers his ears, ashamed at himself for his actions, while Pyle howls in pain.

    After the traumatic experience, Pyle slowly begins to go insane but also shapes up and becomes the fastest and best rifleman, especially after Hartman lectures the platoon on how Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman were both crack riflemen trained in the Marine Corps. Hartman is impressed with Pyle's shooting skill and his marked improvement in training. Later, when Joker sees Pyle talking to his rifle and staring off into space blankly, and not responding to interaction, he realizes that Pyle is losing his mind ("Section 8"), and confides in Cowboy about Pyle's growing mental breakdown. By the end of basic training, Pyle clearly has been completely dehumanized by its rigors.

    After graduation Hartman assigns each recruit a MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), most of them as 0300 (Infantry). One exception is Joker who is assigned as a 4212 (Basic Military Journalism). On the platoon's last night on Parris Island, Joker draws fire watch (guard patrol), during which he discovers Pyle in the bathroom loading his M-14 rifle with live ammunition. Frightened, Joker attempts to calm the insane Pyle, who begins blankly shouting, executing drill commands and reciting the Rifleman's Creed. The noise awakens Hartman, who angrily confronts Pyle and demands that he drop the rifle. When Pyle refuses and does not respond, Hartman hurls further insults at him. Pyle responds by shooting Hartman dead, and then aims the rifle at Joker. Joker pleads with Pyle, who lowers the rifle and nods, possibly in recognition of Joker as a friend. Pyle sits down on a toilet, places the muzzle of the weapon in his mouth and pulls the trigger, killing himself.

    One year later, Joker is in Da Nang, reporting on the Vietnam War for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He and his partner, combat photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), meet a prostitute (Papillon Soo) in the streets and encounter a thief (Nguyen Hue Phong) who steals Rafterman's camera. Walking back to their base, Rafterman remarks how US military forces are there to help the South Vietnamese but they frequently take advantage of them. He also wants to join Joker in the field and get a good story. Joker tells him he won't take him along for fear of Rafterman being killed. They return to their base for a press meeting with their commanding officer, Lt. Lockhart (John Terry), who reviews their latest news offerings and gives some of his corps new assignments and shares new directives about reporting standards. Joker, however, wants to go to the front lines to get a good story. Joker also remarks that there's a lot of talk about the Tet holiday ceasefire and how it may be broken by enemy forces. Lockhart scoffs at the idea, saying that the Vietnamese will simply go about their usual celebration of the holiday.

    That evening in the barracks, Rafterman talks with the others GIs about wanting to go into combat, as Joker claims he has done. One of the other GIs mocks Joker, saying he knows Joker has never been in combat because he doesn't have the "thousand-yard stare." The sound of nearby artillery fire interrupts their argument. The North Vietnamese Army are attacking and attempting to overrun the base in what turns out to be the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Joker's unit returns fire but the base is not attacked as heavily as other locations.

    The next day, the staff learns about enemy attacks throughout South Vietnam. After Joker cracks wise about Ann-Margaret's impeding (but likely cancelled) visit to the GIs, Lockhart sends Joker to Phu Bai, a Marine forward operating-base near the ancient Vietnamese city of Hue, to cover the combat taking place in the area. Rafterman accompanies him, hoping to get some combat experience. During the helicopter ride, Joker and Rafterman encounter an insane door gunner who shoots indiscriminately at unarmed Vietnamese civilians on the ground, boasting about his ability to kill.

    When they land outside Hue, Joker and Rafterman meet and talk to a lieutenant, Touchdown (Ed O'Ross). He tells Joker, who is looking for his old friend Cowboy, that he's Cowboy's commanding officer. However, before Joker and Rafterman meet the squad, they follow up a rumor about Vietnamese civilians who are reported to have been executed by the Viet Cong. They go to the mass grave and find over 20 bodies in a mass grave that have been covered with lime. Joker talks to a lieutenant who confirms that the deceased were told by the Viet Cong they'd be "re-educated" at a public meeting and were massacred when they arrived. As they wrap up their coverage, Joker is approached and lectured by a belligerent colonel (Bruce Boa) who demands to know why Joker wears a peace symbol on his body armor when he also has the words 'Born to Kill' written on his helmet. Joker suggests it has to do with the "duality of Man" according to Jung. The cynical colonel doesn't believe him and tells him to "get with the program".

    They later meet Cowboy's unit, the Lusthog Squad, and Joker is finally reunited with Cowboy, who has been promoted to sergeant and is second-in-command. Joker accompanies the squad during the Battle of Hue. As they approach Hue under tank cover, several mortar rounds land in front of them, killing Lt Touchdown. Another Marine nicknamed Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis) takes command of the squad. The group goes into battle and quickly comes under enemy fire from a nearby building. Afterward, the squad is interviewed by a touring combat news team, and they share their experiences and opinion of the war. A little while later a South Vietnamese Army soldier and pimp (Tan Hung Francione) with a prostitute (Leanne Hong) visit the resting Marines to offer her services to them.

    A few days later, the squad goes out on patrol again, this time in the factory-ruins north of the Perfume River which divides the city of Hue, where the Americans believe enemy forces have hidden themselves. Crazy Earl comes across a toy rabbit in a ruined building and picks it up, triggering an explosive booby trap that kills him, leaving Cowboy as the reluctant squad leader. The squad becomes lost in more ruined buildings, and a unseen sniper (Ngoc Le) pins them down wounding two of their comrades, first Eightball (Dorian Harewood), and then Doc Jay (Jon Stafford) when he tries to drag Eightball to safety. The sniper refrains from killing the wounded men, with the apparent intention to draw more of the squad into range. Cowboy, unable to get tank support for the squad, orders everyone to pull out and leave Eightball and Doc behind. The M-60 machine gunner, Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) disregards Cowboy's orders to withdraw, charges into the clump of warehouse buildings, and locates the sniper. As the squad maneuvers to try to locate the sniper's position, Cowboy is shot through a hole in one of the buildings. He is rushed behind one of the blown-out buildings where the squad tries to keep him alive; they fail and Cowboy dies in Joker's arms.

    Animal Mother assumes command of the remaining Marines and angrily declares, "Let's go get some payback." Using smoke grenades to conceal their advance, the squad enters the building and searches for the sniper. Joker finds the sniper on an upper floor, but his rifle jams as he tries to shoot. The enemy sniper, a teenage girl, spins around, opening fire with her automatic rifle, pinning him behind a column. Panicked, Joker drops his rifle and draws his sidearm, however he is unable to shoot back. Rafterman arrives and shoots the sniper, saving Joker. As Animal Mother and other Marines of the squad converge, she begins to pray in her native language, then repeatedly begs (in English) "shoot me", prompting an argument about whether to leave her to die from her wounds or to put her out of her misery. Animal Mother decides to allow a mercy killing only if Joker performs it. After some hesitation, Joker shoots her with his sidearm. The Marines sarcastically congratulate him on his first kill as Joker stares into the distance, having finally gotten his dehumanized "thousand yard stare".

    The film concludes with a night time shot of Joker, Rafterman, Animal Mother, and all the rest of the platoon marching through the burning ruins of Hue toward their bivouac for the night, singing the 'Mickey Mouse March'. Joker states that despite being "in a world of shit", he is glad to be alive, and is no longer afraid.

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