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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

“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, it begins at Parris Island – a South Carolina boot camp – with the dehumanising process of turning boys into men.

Key amongst the new recruits are Private “Joker” (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.

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 the final night at Parris Island, Joker discovers Lawrence in the latrine, looking deranged and loading his M-14 with live ammunition (pictured below).

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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, whereupon 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.

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 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 – now a corporal and a correspondent for Stars and Stripes – 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, 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?”

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Private James “Joker” T Davis
Matthew Modine
Private Cowboy
Arliss Howard
Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence 
Vincent D’Onofrio
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman
R Lee Ermey
Rafterman
Kevyn Major Howard
Eightball
Dorian Harewood
Animal Mother
Adam Baldwin
Lieutenant Walter J “Touchdown” Schinoski
Ed O’Ross
Lieutenant Lockhart
John Terry
Crazy Earl
Keiron Jecchinis
Payback
Kirk Taylor
Private “Snowball” Brown
Peter Edmund
Doorgunner
Tim Colceri
Da Nang Prostitute
Papillon Soo Soo

Director
Stanley Kubrick