“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.
Seen through the eyes of Matthew Modine as a bright Marine recruit covering the war as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, it begins at Parris Island – a South Carolina boot camp – with the dehumanising process of turning boys into men, key amongst them Private “Joker” (Modine), Private “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard) and Private “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio, pictured below).
Here we watch the pain and humiliation inflicted on a fat, screwed-up mental case by sadistic drill instructor Hartman (R Lee Ermey) who is hell-bent on turning sensitive recruits into lethal killing machines.
Then Full Metal Jacket moves forward, from the surrealism of combat duty to the full-scale horror of Vietnam itself.
Set at the time of the Tet offensive, we see the soldiers reduced to robots, and the once-dignified Vietnamese people, bartering everything from their dogs to their daughters in desperation to stay alive.
Joker struggled to maintain his individuality at boot camp but later 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.
During battle, Cowboy is killed by a sniper, who the Marines discover is a young Vietnamese girl. Joker eventually shoots her.
The whole film climaxes with a surreal sing-along of The Mickey Mouse Club theme tune.
Because Kubrick refused to travel any distance, Full Metal Jacket was shot entirely in Britain, with palm trees uprooted from Spain.
Renting a disused gasworks in Beckton, East London, Kubrick created a huge and spectacular outdoor set of the wrecked city of Hue, 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 Leonard Lawrence (“Gomer Pyle”)
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman
R Lee Ermey
Kevyn Major Howard
Lieutenant Walter J “Touchdown” Schinoski
Da Nang Prostitute
Papillon Soo Soo