Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987, and is hailed as one of the best war movies ever made. It was released around the same time as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” which won the Oscar for best picture that year, and both films, along with Apocalypse Now (1979) are well known for their unique artistic and cynical portrayals of the Vietnam war.
One of the reasons that Full Metal Jacket is unique is Kubrick's celebrated and ingenious visual direction. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, and a man of many eccentricities, but great focus. Full Metal Jacket was shot mostly in East London because Kubrick was afraid of flying (even though he had a pilot’s license) and generally hated traveling very far from his home in any direction. He was a task-master when it came to making movies and possessed a focus that was almost unbreakable.
Actor R Lee Ermey recalls an incident before the shooting of the film when Kubrick drove his wife’s SUV distractedly into a ditch while pointing out a shooting location in the distance to the rest of them. As the car lay on its side off the road, Kubrick climbed out of the window and stood on top of the car continuing to point and talk about the location to the startled passengers without even breaking his flow.
This degree of focus is not just an empty quirk however, because when you see any of his movies, the perfection of the visuals and attention to detail is vividly apparent in every shot.
Full Metal Jacket begins with a montage of fresh-faced young marine recruits having their heads shaved to the calming sound of slide guitar and Johnny Wright’s country drawl singing “Hello Vietnam”.
America has heard the bugle call And you know it involves us one and all I don't suppose that war will ever end There's fighting that will break us up again Goodbye my darling, Hello Vietnam A hill to take a battle to be won
Kiss me goodbye and write me while I'm gone Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.
This serene into is then followed by one of the most jarring dialogue sequences you can find in American film. The same recruits are lined up in their barracks at Parris Island, South Carolina, which is a US Marine Corps Training Camp. They are being prepped for boot-camp for the first time by the brutal Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey). He barks viciously at them, hurling sharp insults that are at once obscene, violent, and sometimes comically intense.
As he goes along verbally tearing each recruit apart, he gives them the nicknames by which we will know them for the rest of the film. In this introduction we are witnessing a kind of brutal rechristening. Taken as fresh, doe-eyed youngsters, these men are being given new identities, and their old ones will be taken apart with the sledgehammer that is Hartman.Gunnery Sergeant Hartman played by R Lee Ermey, is seen drilling his recruits in a screenshot from the movie. He improvised most of his colourful dialogue. Ermey invented these lines so naturally that he astounded his fellow actors as well as Kubrick, who made a rare exception when he let him ad-lib his lines.
Among others there is The "Joker" (Matthew Modine), who earns his name from his attempt at trying to talk behind the sergeant’s back. Another is the lumbering, dull-witted Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is renamed "Gomer Pyle", because his original name is apparently not manly enough. He cannot stop grinning at the sergeant’s endless string of obscenities and receives a shocking physical reprimand that takes away the last smile he will smile for the rest of his stay.
With this brutal intro we too are then prepped for the kind of thing we are about to witness. This sequence itself is as loaded with meaning both on and off-screen. R Lee Ermey, actually earned his acting career from playing the sergeant’s character. Initially he was not even cast for the role, instead was supposed to use his military background (he was a retired drill sergeant) to serve as a technical adviser and help with accuracy and realism. He would train the actors to act like soldiers and was also helping out in the casting process during auditions for the roles of extras.
Actor Tim Colceri was originally cast in the role of Sergeant Hartman, but Ermey knew that he could play the role better. So in the pre-production days, when Colceri would get hoarse and tired from shouting and playing sergeant opposite the hundreds of auditioning actors, Ermey would take over and deliver a performance that to him, was perfectly natural. He explains himself in an interview for the documentary Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil: “I interviewed all the background extras, and I interviewed these people as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, knowing that that has to go to Stanley Kubrick. I worked it out so that Stanley had to watch me being his drill instructor whether he liked it or not.”