1987’s Full Metal Jacket is Stanley Kubrick’s riveting classic about U.S. Marines who survive the brutality of basic training only to be caught up in the horrific 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. The film is based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, and screen writer Michael Herr (Apocalypse Now), lend their literary talents to the production of the film.
Matthew Modine (“Joker”), Adam Baldwin (Sgt. “Animal Mother”), Vincent D’ Onofrio (Pvt. “Gomer Pyle”) Arliss Howard (“Cowboy”), and R. Lee Ermey (Gunnery Sgt. Hartman) make up the cast of this amazing Vietnam war movie. Like Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Kubrick’s incredibly underrated eighteenth century military period piece Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket is shot for shot, and line for line Kubrick at his finest.
The film is most notable for Ermey’s improvisation in many of the scenes. During the production Ermey was made the military technical adviser for the film and he so desperately wanted to try out for the role of Sgt. Hartman. Kubrick had seen and admired Ermey’s portrayal of SSgt. Loyce in The Boys in Company C and felt that he wasn’t tough enough for the role.
Ermey submitted a videotape audition to Kubrick where he was insulting a group of British Marines while bystanders began pelting him with oranges and tennis balls. Ermey never flinched, repeated himself or broke character for the entire fifteen minutes of the recording. Kubrick reversed himself and finally gave Ermey the job saying he “was a genius for the job.”
According to Kubrick’s memoirs, Ermey wrote nearly fifty percent of his own dialogue, over a hundred and fifty pages worth of insults for the role being that he was an actual DI during Vietnam and knew how he should play the ruthless Sgt. There was more improv on the set of Full Metal Jacket than any other of Kubrick’s films. Kubrick believed that most actors were expendable and that only thing that mattered was the shot.
In one scene, Ermey barked an order off-camera to Kubrick who instinctively rose up out of his director’s chair and stood at attention while Ermey gave orders to the cast and crew. Matthew Modine recalled how he was legitimately intimidated by Ermey in the boot camp scenes in the beginning of the film.
Modine and the rest of cast had to endure Ermey’s tirades for over ten hours at a time. Modine and the rest of the actors were also put through rigorous basic training and had to perform many of the physical activities that many Marines go through in basic training such as obstacle courses, target shooting, and long marches.
Kubrick was known for his rebellious, yet remarkable bankable nature as a director. Since the early 1970’s following A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick had immigrated to England where he lived until his death in 1999. Almost the entire production of the film was shot in Cambridgeshire, England which is on the outskirts of East London. The Beckton Gasworks facility which was soon to be demolished, doubled for the smashed landscape of the NVA occupied city of Hue during the last half of the film.
Kubrick and his production coordinators used photos from the 1968 battle to recreate the destroyed city. Kubrick had a wrecking ball brought in to smash holes in some of the buildings to give it that “battle worn look”. Many fake tropical palm trees were flown in to transform the English countryside into central Vietnam. Kubrick also was able to get his hands on four M-41 medium tanks from a Belgian Army Colonel who was a great fan, and a few Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw helicopters which was the work horse of the U.S. Marine Corp in Vietnam.
Full Metal Jacket has always been a favorite of mine which I watch time and again because of Kubrick’s masterful direction, endlessly quotable dialogue, amazing photography by Douglas Milsome, and because it is such a fantastically, well acted, and written film. When Ermey is on screen especially in the first few minutes of the film, you really see where the film is going and just how painful and exhausting it is to turn regular men into razor sharp, trained killers.
When Sgt. Hartman asks to see Pvt. Joker’s “war face”, you can see the look of fear and intimidation on Modine’s face as this real life Drill Instructor is shouting within a few inches of his face. If Kubrick had decided to go with another actor, the film would have failed in my humble opinion. No one but Ermey can pull it off and look good with just two or three takes.
Full Metal Jacket was yet another major hit for Kubrick which made over forty-six million dollars in the United States and Great Britain alone in 1987. Kubrick had attempted several times to make the film and was sidetracked with a Holocaust production and a version of Napoleon which he never was able to begin.
When principle photography began on Full Metal jacket, Kubrick was able to pull it off and make a film he knew audiences would expect him to make. It is a fantastic film with an amazing soundtrack and a psychologically draining score which plays out wonderfully as the Marines assault Hue City and live through the horrors of Vietnam.
Full Metal Jacket is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Disc through Warner Bros. Home Video, and can be rented through Netflix or Blockbuster on Demand.