In college, we were sitting around the commons area of the dorm and the 1999 Oscars were playing. Stanley Kubrick had just passed away a few weeks early at the age of 70. They were playing snippets of his movies as part of a memoriam. Then, suddenly, Full Metal Jacket came up. And someone in the dorm who probably never watched another other Kubrick movie sat up amazed, “He made that movie?”
FMJ was Kubrick’s penultimate movie and the last movie to be released while he was still alive. Released during the summer of 1987, it seemed to come on the heels of the Oscar-winning Platoon. There was also Hamburger Hill released in late summer of 1987. Vietnam was popular again with even the first two Rambo movies having something to do with the war. Then you had the Missing in Action movies. By the time Brian DePalma got around to directing Casualties of War, you were wondering had the market been too saturated.
But while some movies seemed similar, FMJ took a different approach, by following one Marine from his early days at basic training on Parris Island, S.C. to being in the middle of the Tet Offensive of the winter of 1968. Strangely, the first part of the movie, this Marine, J.T. Davis (Matthew Modine) nicknamed “Joker” by his senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey in a tour de force breakthrough performance) functions more like a supporting character.
Hartman and Pvt. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is called “Gomer Pyle” because of his obesity and slow-witted mind, take up much of the focus of first half which takes place entirely on Parris. Hartman is a foul-mouth, vulgar, crude instructor who believes that the only way to train Marines is turn them ugly, mean, aggressive and most importantly, violent. Pyle is the subject of most of Hartman’s cruelty that includes hurling profanity-laced insults, criticism of his physical appearance and even physical abusive. Ermey, a Marine himself, has been critical of the violent part saying that it wouldn’t happen or at least as extreme as his character does it. However, other Marines say it could happen since they were often told to look forward during formation and training.
Pyle can’t do the fitness obstacles much to Hartman’s anger. Part of me wonders why Pyle would even pass his fitness test to get into the Marines. My guess, he was drafted or signed up at a small-town recruitment office that got him approved. D’Onofrio gained 70 pounds to play Pyle. However, when Pyle’s constant mistakes and inability to perform the basic tasks keep invoking Hartman’s ire, he punishes the rest of the squad to the point they give him a “blanket party.” At night when he sleeps, four privates throw a blanket over Pyle’s bunk bed and hold him down, while Pvt. Cowboy (Arliss Howard) covers his mouth. The other privates including Joker each hit him with a towel that they have wrapped around a bar of soap.
Eventually, Pyle loses his mind, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Even though Hartman compliments him on his shooting skills at the firing range, it’s too little too late as Pyle shoots Hartman and then himself late one night in the head of the barracks. Both D’Onofrio and Ermey are so wonderful in these roles that you almost wonder how Kubrick can top the rest of the movie. Some have argued that he didn’t.
The second half of the movie takes place in Vietnam, first in Da Nang then in Hue as Joker, now a sergeant himself, is writing for the newspaper Stars and Stripes. As they witness the Chinese New Year one night, the base in Da Nang is hit during the Tet Offensive. The firefight is over very quickly but their Lieutenant Lockhart (John Terry) says it’s bad everywhere else. When Joker cracks a joke about whether Ann-Margaret will still visit, Lockhart sends him to cover the Battle of Hue with his combat photographer, Pfc. Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) who is rather inexperienced.
At Hue, Joker reunites with Cowboy, also now a sergeant. But another sergeant, Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) isn’t too happy to see either Joker or Rafterman who he belittles. Joker says he’s a combat correspondent but has a peace symbol button on his uniform and “Born to Kill” written on his helmet. With his hulking body and M-60, Animal Mother is what Hartman would like in Marines. Even though Cpl. “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood) is his friend, he still harasses him with racial slurs and jokes.
After doing battle at Hue, they find themselves accidentally lost when their platoon Lt. Walter Schinoski (Ed O’Ross) is killed and now Cowboy is the highest ranking non-commissioned officer and assumes command. Eightball is shot by a sniper when trying to find an alternate route resulting in another Marine being shot trying to rescue him. And Animal Mother and Cowboy come to an argument when he tries to run after them to take the sniper down.
In the end, it’s Rafterman and Joker who take down the sniper (Ngoc Le) who they are surprised to realized is just a young teenage Vietnamese girl. Joker finally realizes that despite all the wisecracks and his behavior, he has done what the Marines have trained him to do – kill. Animal Mother is now the leader of the squad but there’s almost a sense that Joker shooting the sniper to put her out of her misery has earned him their respect now, even from Animal Mother.
One scene earlier in the movie where Hartman looks like he’s impressed by the Marines is when they recite The Rife Creed at lights out. Hartman looks over them like he’s finally trained them well. It’s reminds me of the phrase “Putting all your kids to bed.” He feels some sense of accomplishment even if it’s for that one moment.
The movie was filmed in the United Kingdom as Kubrick had a fear of flying and after the problems on Spartacus, he wanted to make movies as far as he could away from Hollywood. Since the Battle of Hue was in an urban setting, they used the Beckton Gas Works in the London Borough of Newham. This is a change of pace from Platoon, which is entirely set in the jungle and only interior scenes take place at the base camp. Bassingbourn Barracks was used to double for Parris Island.
Modine would describe the filming process as difficult as Ermey would basically hurl insults at him, Arliss Howard, D’Onofrio and the other actors for about 10 hours a day. They had to have their heads shaved once a week to avoid continuity problems. Ermey was only initially hired as a technical advisor as he had worked on An Officer and a Gentleman. Tim Golceri, who has a small role as a door gunner shooting down Vietnamese people from a helicopter, was originally cast as Hartman. But Ermey campaigned heavily for the role even sending Kubrick a home video of him speaking insults of the top of his head while being unphased with oranges being thrown at him off camera.
Kubrick ended up using Ermey and even allowing him to improvise most of his dialogue, something Kubrick hardly ever did. Since Kubrick was known to be a strict director who would take days or weeks to film just one scene, it was a surprise. Some of Ermey’s insults actually made Kubrick laugh. When Ermey criticizes Cowboy and talks about a “reacharound,” Kubrick actually stopped filming to ask what that was. When told, he reportedly had a good laugh it took him a while to get back seriously into filming.
Filming took long. Kevyn Major Howard has said he was on production for 17 months, a good five months longer that if he had served one tour of duty in Vietnam. Harewood reportedly spent one month lying on the ground to film the part when he is being shot by the sniper.It’s been reported that Modine wasn’t Kubrick’s first choice as he had originally wanted Anthony Michael Hall but negotiations took eight months that were unsuccessful.
Despite criticism that he made Scatman Crothers walk through a door 100 times on the set of The Shining and then crying in relief on the set of Bronco Billy due to Clint Eastwood’s fast-paced style of directing, Kubrick had his own breakdown while setting up a scene. The production crew had accidentally killed a family of rabbits during an explosion scene. Kubrick was a huge animal lover and was distraught. He shut down the production for the rest of the day so he could go home. Years after he died, it was discovered he would leave people pages of detailed instructions on how to take care of the family pets whenever they went on vacation.
It’s also reported that after filming had wrapped, Kubrick called Modine, Arliss Howard, D’Onofrio and others back in for the opening sequences of them getting their heads shaved. The actors were reportedly not happy about this as their hair had grown back out. Rumor has it production was so long for Modine that him and his wife had conceived their son Boman during the early days of production, then he was born on Nov. 8, 1985 and they were celebrating his first birthday before it was all through.
At the box office, the movie was a huge success earning $120 million worldwide. But it divided some critics who felt the boot camp scenes were the movie’s strongpoints. Gene Siskel, who raved about it, and Roger Ebert who dismissed it with a two-and-a-half star review and a thumb down, argued on their show. Part of Ebert’s criticism was misguided as Hue is a more urban setting. Regardless, many other critics have considered it one of the best, if not the best, military war movie ever, especially considering how Kubrick and his production were able to make several areas in the UK look like South Carolina and southeast Asia.
But probably it’s biggest legacy is on pop culture. Almost every line of dialogue spoke by Ermey is known by people who haven’t even seen the movie. The rap group 2 Live Crew would use dialogue between Modine and Papillon Soo Soo as a prostitute in their iconic song “Me So Horny” which takes its title from a line she says. This was only her second role in a very short career and its still memorable among frat boys and dudebros to this day. That scene and another with Harewood with another prostitute have entered the pop cutlure lexicon as well.
However, despite the popularity, box office and critical acclaim, the movie was only nominated for one Oscar, Best Adapted Screenplay for Kubrick, writer Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, whose novel The Short-Timers on which the movie is based. Some people have felt Ermey and D’Onofrio were snubbed. Ermey did received a Golden Globe nomination.
As the Marines celebrate their 247th birthday on Nov. 10 and Veterans Day on Nov. 11, people will forever remember this movie even if they don’t know Kubrick directed it or that Ebert didn’t really care for it.
What do you think? Please comment.