“In Vietnam, the wind doesn’t blow. It sucks”
Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film is a harrowing foul-mouthed and violent Vietnam War drama that explores the madness in us all.
A group of new recruits arrives at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, for 13 weeks of basic training – and the dehumanising process of turning boys into men.
Key amongst the new recruits are Private James T “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine), Private “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard) and Private Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” by sadistic drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey) who is hell-bent on turning the obese, inept recruit into a lethal killing machine by inflicting constant pain and humiliation upon him.
Hartman finds an “illegal” doughnut in Lawrence’s footlocker and things go downhill: Hartman states that the 75-man platoon will be punished for every mistake Lawrence makes while he will be spared.
One night the platoon exacts vengeance on Lawrence with a “blanket party”; they hold him down in his bed and beat him with towel-wrapped bars of soap.
After this incident, Lawrence seems to become a model Marine (and a surprisingly good marksman).
Following graduation, Joker is assigned to a Military Journalism unit while most of the remaining platoon members are assigned to Infantry. Having drawn Fire Watch (barracks sentry duty) on his ﬁnal night at Parris Island, Joker discovers Lawrence in the latrine, looking deranged and loading his M-14 with live ammunition (pictured below).
Joker attempts to persuade Lawrence to return to his bunk, but Lawrence starts to drill while loudly reciting the Riﬂeman’s Creed, awakening Hartman and the rest of the platoon. Hartman confronts Lawrence and tells him to drop his weapon, at which point Lawrence kills Hartman and then himself.
Then Full Metal Jacket moves forward, from the surrealism of combat duty to the full-scale horror of Vietnam itself. The scene switches to Da Nang, South Vietnam, in January 1968.
Joker, now a corporal, is a journalist for Stars and Stripes who works alongside photographer Pfc. “Rafterman” (Kevyn Major Howard). Both men are afforded the opportunity to enter the battlefield when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces launch the Tet Offensive with simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam.
While Joker struggled to maintain his individuality at boot camp, he regains it in Vietnam (he has a ‘Born to Kill’ message on his helmet and wears a peace sign badge on his body armour to highlight Kubrick’s recurring motif of duality), where he must learn to control his fear.
Accompanied by Rafterman, Joker is sent to Phú Bài where they meet “the Lusthog Squad” and Joker is reunited with Cowboy, who is now a sergeant.
Joker joins Cowboy’s squad as they enter the city of Huế, losing their platoon commander, Lt. Walter J. “Touchdown” Schinoski (Ed O’Ross), to enemy ﬁre in the process.
Cowboy takes command after squad leader “Crazy Earl” (Kieron Jecchinis) also perishes. When the squad becomes disoriented Cowboy orders “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood) to scout the area.
A well-hidden Viet Cong sniper opens ﬁre, wounding Eightball while he is in an open area between buildings. The squad medic, “Doc Jay” (John Stafford), is also wounded while attempting to rescue Eightball.
When Cowboy orders a withdrawal, “Animal Mother” (Adam Baldwin), the squad’s M-60 machine gunner, disobeys him and attempts to save his comrades, but Doc Jay and Eightball don’t make it out alive.
A sniper kills Cowboy, and Animal Mother takes over the squad and coordinates their attack. Entering a building, Joker discovers that the sniper is a teenage girl (Ngoc Le) with an AK-47. When he tries to shoot her, his riﬂe jams so Rafterman shoots her instead.
As the squad converges on her, the mortally wounded sniper begs to be put out of her misery while the men argue the merits of killing her versus letting her suffer. Animal Mother decides to permit a mercy killing – but only if Joker does the killing.
After some hesitancy, Joker shoots the stricken girl, and his fellow Marines congratulate him on his kill.
The whole film climaxes as the platoon moves through the city at night, silhouetted against raging ﬁres with the Marines performing a surreal sing-along of The Mickey Mouse Club theme tune.
In voice-over, Joker states, “I’m in a world of shit, yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid”.
Because Kubrick refused to travel any distance, Full Metal Jacket was shot entirely in Britain.
Renting a disused gasworks in Beckton, East London, Kubrick created a huge and spectacular outdoor set of the wrecked city of Huế. Signs and wall advertisements in Vietnamese and other embellishments (including 200 imported Spanish palm trees and 100,000 plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong) were added for effect – though some sequences, it must be said, lack tropical realism.
Bassingbourn Barracks in Cambridgeshire doubled as Parris Island.
One of the most important films of 1987 with excellent performances all round, especially from ex-Marine drill instructor Lee Ermey as (what else) the sadistic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, who has a fine line in motivational speeches;
“God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see! He plays His games, we play ours. To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls. God was here before the Marine Corps, so you can give your heart to Jesus – but your ass belongs to the Corps! Do you ladies understand?”
Private James T “Joker” Davis
Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman
R Lee Ermey
Kevyn Major Howard
Lieutenant Walter J “Touchdown” Schinoski
Private “Snowball” Brown
Da Nang Prostitute
Papillon Soo Soo