‘I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be “Sir”. Do you maggots understand that?’
In 1987 Stanley Kubrick made his first film in seven years – since The Shining – and came up with a brilliant essay on the futilities and dehumanising effects of war. A brutal, incisive anti-war film, it revels in the ugly details of both boot camp and battle. It’s set at the time of the Vietnam War, but it could be any war. Born to kill? Yeah, right!
Following the pattern of its source novel, The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, it is a film split into two distinctive acts. In the first part, the sadistic gunnery drill sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey) whips the U.S. Marine raw recruits – among them a reporter Private Joker (Matthew Modine) – into shape as killing machines for Vietnam. But Hartman pushes them too far and then a terrible tragedy happens in the soldiers’ barracks.
In the second act, the trained marines are sent into deadly combat in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, where they encounter the bloody street fighting in Hue. Joker is now covering the war as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes.
Which part of the film shows events that are more violent, abusive and disgusting? Neither, of course, they’re both part of the same tragic story of the Universal Soldier.
Kubrick, still keeping the faith with his heartfelt, liberal-minded theme about the insanity of war that he explored famously in Paths of Glory (1957), unfolds an incredibly bleak vision of war through this piercing and violent tale, sometimes infused with flashes of unyieldingly black ironic humour. Both acts of the movie are based on tried, tested and true situations. But this is a story that needs to be told over and over and Kubrick makes the old situations fresh, vibrant and relevant all over again by staging them with astonishing power and conviction.
The actors and director provide blueprints for just exactly how to do this. J Lee Ermey gives a stonking, scary performance as the incredibly abusive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, who really enjoys the brutal boot camp training. He’s the perfect embodiment of this appalling archetypal character. Matthew Modine is a marvel as pragmatic U.S. Marine whose plan is just to observe, lay low and survive if only he can while Vincent D’Onofrio is heartrending as the desperately picked-on Private Pyle.
Made in Kubrick’s adopted home of Britain, with the London Docklands, then a pre-Olympics wasteland (so near to central London too!) standing in incongruously but surprisingly convincingly for the killing fields in Vietnam.
Kubrick said: ‘I allowed Lee Ermey a certain degree of freedom and he generated some of the film’s best lines.’
There was a single Oscar nomination for best screenplay based on material from another medium (Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford). Shamefully, it won no Oscars or Golden Globes. But the London Film Critics voted Kubrick director of the year for the movie.
Kubrick was unlucky that Oliver Stone’s film Vietnam War film Platoon won the Best Picture Oscar the year Full Metal Jacket was released and slightly overshadowed it. But it did well at the box office, gathered good reviews and is now revered as a classic movie and one of Kubrick’s best.
Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam War memoir Dispatches and Oscar-nominated contributor to two classic films of the Vietnam conflict – Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket — died on 24 June 201 after a long illness, aged 76.
© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 324
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