SPOILER ADVISORY: If you haven’t seen Full Metal Jacket, watch it before reading this article. Watch it if you don’t read this article. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again whether you read the article or not.
The casualties of the Vietnam War went beyond soldiers and civilians. The geopolitical morass engulfed journalists, novelists and correspondents trying to get the information out of jungles, rice paddies and cities under siege. Filmmakers trying to untangle the truths in hindsight were swallowed by the scope of the collective trauma of the conflict. Martin Sheen almost gave his heart to play in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Bitter partisan rivalries erupted from the camps of Coming Home and Deerhunter. But Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is one of the most horrifying glimpses into war ever captured on celluloid. Like many great films, it was as much a runaway train wreck as the war itself.
Kubrick held throughout his life that education was meaningless, but his films are as much history lessons as they are historic. He hired aerospace experts to help design his 2001: A Space Oddessy, creating an atmosphere so realistic that some people today believe he faked the 1969 moon landing on a back lot (those people are of course morons). Kubrick is a mythical storyteller but the stories about him are just as mythic.
The 1987 war movie Full Metal Jacket looms large in the Kubrick legends. It is a classic film which was constantly on the verge of derailment during production which continued running long after the tracks ran out. The movie began as an adaptation of a book and is the subject of a book. Full Metal Jacket Diary, written by Matthew Modine, who played Jokerman the film, takes some of the myth out of the legendary director, while playing into the very stories that made him legendary.
To hear the stories, every Kubrick production was a runaway production. Visions change during the process of shooting, pages are added, characters cut. Sometimes entire premises are rethought. Kubrick proceded at a leisurely frantic pace. He could shelve a project for years to get the timing right. That’s what puts Kubrick in the ranks of Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam. They all produced legendary runaway productions, some of them never even seeing the projected light of a theatrical release.
Full Metal Jacket was in production from August 1985 through September 1986. The crew took a three-month break from shooting while R. Lee Ermey, the drill sergeant playing the drill instructor, recovered from a car accident. Ermey broke all the ribs on one side of his body. Oliver Stone got Platoon greenlit by arguing that Kubrick was already making a movie about the unfilmable Vietnam War. Full Metal Jacket took so long to finish that Platoon beat it to theaters by six months. The film premiered on June 17, 1987 and had its wide release on June 26.
We have extensive notes on the shoot because Kubrick encouraged Modine to keep a diary and let the actor take pictures of the set and the production. Modine figured the diary would be a part of his actor’s prep for playing a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes. Modine, while never losing his pride in the finished film, complained that making it was a miserable experience. He confirmed the reports that shooting dragged forever as Kubrick’s multiple takes had no apparent rhyme or reason, even as they were so constructed with such detail that cameras were set to within an eighth of an inch.
The moped hooker scene, for example, took so long to shoot that the telling spans chapters of Modine’s book. Full Metal Jacket actors almost mutinied when Kubrick broke union rules to keep them working long past overtime for the sometimes eccentric director. Modine tells about how Kubrick gave him directions via radio to get to an outhouse because he’d locked himself in and didn’t want to tell anyone listening in on the shortwave.
Similar complaints about Kubrick’s indulgences plagued many of his films. Tom Cruise got an ulcer making Eyes Wide Shut. Malcolm McDowell never stopped calling Stanley a bastard for scraping his cornea while making A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick tricked George C. Scott into overplaying the role of Gen. Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by telling the actor he was doing practice takes that wouldn’t make their way into the final film. They did.
During the shooting of The Shining, Kubrick terrorized Shelley Duvall to break her down to her most “emotionally fragile” state. What Kubrick couldn’t do by berating her, he did by takes. Some legends say Kubrick shot the scene where Jack Nicholson threatens Duvall’s Wendy with a bat 127 times. That was too many times at bat for Duvall, who had a breakdown and flashbacks for months.
Modine said he had to fight to be in the delivery room when his wife gave birth. Modine tells about a pissing match he had with Kubrick about whether he could leave the set to be with his wife when she was having a breach birth and needed an emergency cesarean section. Modine had to threaten to cut himself and get sent to the hospital himself in order for Kubrick to back down.
To be fair to Stanley, Modine made the director sit through a lot of Kubrick meets God jokes. He also never seemed to answer the questions Kubrick was asking, but giving answers that he thought Kubrick wanted to hear. Modine bemoans in retrospect how he should have stuck up more for the actors, but at the time he was new at star treatment. Star treatment by Kubrick is vastly different than from other directors.
Modine opens the book personally. He was just starting to make money as an actor. He bought a house with his wife. Val Kilmer was talking shit about him. Modine may or may not have gotten the role of Joker because of Kilmer. He tells a story about how he and actor David Allen Grier were out to dinner in New York City when Modine saw Kilmer looking at him and cursing. Grier went over to see what was what, and Kilmer bitched that Modine was cast in some Vietnam movie that Stanley Kubrick was making. Modine said he wasn’t aware of it, but hey, what a great idea. He sent in clips from Birdy as an audition. Kubrick cast him in spite of the clip he never watched which he deemed a shouting match.
Kubrick comes off as a bit of a mad genius. What makes me love him is his approach. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants, makes everything up as he goes along, shoots everything and figures he’ll create order from the chaos in the editing room. Kubrick started as a photographer and wasn’t afraid of long periods in dark rooms, with or without red lights. The man who allowed Kubrick to be that mad genius was Leon Vitali, his unflappable and non-inflammable assistant, a cigarette always in his mouth dropping ashes on the piles of paper he carried on his chest.
Full Metal Jacket was based on Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel The Short-Timers. Hasford was a Marine who had also served as a combat correspondent during the Vietnam War. Kubrick wrote the screenplay with Hasford and Michael Herr. War correspondent Herr wrote the Vietnam War memoir Dispatches.
Hasford was barred from the production because he wanted a full credit and threatened to sue. He sneaked onto the set camouflaged as an extra. Full Metal Jacket got a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for Kubrick, Herr and Hasford. Hasford died in 1993 at age 45.
The book The Short-Timers is divided into three sections, “The Spirit of the Bayonet,” “Body Count,” and “Grunts.” “The Spirit of the Bayonet” is Private James T. “Joker” Davis’ introduction to Marine Corps boot camp. Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim rips the men apart and puts them back together again as killing machines. Joker makes friends with “Cowboy” Lance Corporal Compton and “Gomer Pyle” Leonard Pratt (Leonard Lawrence in the movie), the barracks fuckup who is a wrench in the mean green machine. He kills himself and the drill instructor, not in that order, in front of the whole platoon. In the book, the Gunnery Sergeant dies telling Pyle he’s proud of him because he is truly a killer.
“Body Count” finds Joker assigned as a war correspondent for the Marines and Stars and Stripes in 1968. Joker gets promoted to sergeant and his sent with his photographer, Rafter Man, from Da Nang to Phu Bai to cover the front lines after the Tet Offensive. Joker gets knocked out by a concussion grenade and dreams his way through a battle. When he wakes up he finds out the squad leader went nuts and attacked the NVA with a BB gun and the platoon commander got killed by a friendly grenade.
The grenades may be friendly, but Joker gets busted to rifleman for wearing a peace sign button. Rafter Man gets a taste for human flesh. A fellow marine named Winslow. Trying to one-up Joker, Rafter Man takes a yellow piece of the dead soldier’s flesh, as big as a “John Wayne cookie, wet with blood,” makes sure everyone in his hooch know what he has and puts it in his mouth. Rafter Man thinks he’s going to throw up, but he swallows it. He gets done by tank that also took out a Vietnamese girl and a water buffalo.
Joker stops talking to Rafter Man after he dies. Talking to dead people is not a healthy habit for a living person and lately Joker has been talking to “dead people quite a lot.” At least since he made his first confirmed kill, “talking to corpses began to make more sense than talking to people who had not yet been wasted,” the book says.
“Grunts” is the jungle mission where Cowboy’s squad encounters the sniper outside of Khe Sanh. Three marines go down, the company commander becomes a babbling idiot and Cowboy orders the squad to pull back. The machine gunner Animal Mother refuses to leave the wounded men behind and threatens Cowboy, who makes Joker the squad leader while he kills the three wounded soldiers. “Marines never abandoned their dead or wounded, Mr. Squad Leader, sir,” he explains. Cowboy gets hit by the sniper, can’t shoot himself, and Joker has to put him out of his misery. In the movie, when Cowboy dies you can see a building in the background that looks like the alien monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In the book, Marines are separated into groups. A “short” or “short-timer” is a soldier who’s coming up on the last 13 months of his tour of duty. A “lifer” doesn’t necessarily mean being a career marine. Lifers go through life acting like it, treat other marines like they are there by some divine providence. “A lifer is anybody who abuses authority he doesn’t deserve to have. There are plenty of civilian lifers,” Joker says. In the movie, Joker is mocked for his lack of the thousand-yard stare, but he’s not a lifer. “Poges” are any Marines who don’t have combat positions, like mechanics, cooks and the guys who do the paperwork. A “grunt” is a basic rifleman.
In the book, the grunt Animal Mother loves killing. It doesn’t matter if they are friendlies or “gooks,” who he says understand grunts better than anyone. He brags about fragging officers and is reprimanded for raping teenage girls. In the movie, of course, Animal Mother becomes the leader of the pack that’s made for you and me, probably the best use of the Mickey Mouse March in the arts. After all, the U.S. was in the world of shit called the Vietnam War to protect Disney’s interests. In the book, Animal Mother is much a broken machine as Private Pyle, Kubrick turned him into a hero in the movie.
Kubrick filmed Full Metal Jacket locally. The Bronx-born director moved to Great Britain in 1962 when he was filming Lolita. To make the English countryside look like Vietnam, Kubrick flew 200 palm trees in from Spain and hundreds of thousands of jungle plants from Hong Kong. Kubrick spent two months meticulously destroying the abandoned Beckton Gas Works to make it match a 1969 photograph of the ruined city of Hue. Modine called the gas works an environmental disaster area that got the cast and crew sick.
The Parris Island sequences were shot at the Bassingbourn Barracks army base in England. R. Lee Ermey was a real-life Parris Island Marine drill sergeant during the Vietnam War. Kubrick hired him as a technical adviser but he wanted to play the drill instructor Hartman. Ermey had a role in Apocalypse Now, but that wasn’t good enough for Kubrick. Ermey played his first drill sergeant role in The Boys in Company C, but that wasn’t mean enough for Stan. Ermey auditioned with a 15 minute tape of him improvising insults while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls. He got the gig. Kubrick let Ermey write his own lines and he came up with about 150 pages of insults.
Kubrick took all he’d learned from his direction of Shelly Duvall and put it in boot camp. The movie opens with the actors getting their heads shaved, this causes a psychological dissociation. The actors had to have their heads shaved once a week during the boot camp. The boot camp scene is about as accurate as you can get in the movies. I had a Marine friend who told me his drill instructor kicked the guy next to him in line and broke his nose for cracking wise. The movie shows the platoon throwing Pyle a blanket party over a donut. It is now routine to see the multitudes pay for the sins of lesser marines and to witness boot camp educational shouting matches.
Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio had their own matches as they played hearty games of quien es mas macho. To portray Private Gomer Pyle, D’Onofrio gained 70 pounds for a total weight of 280 pounds, beating the previous record set by Robert De Niro, who put on 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. The extra weight tore the ligaments in D’Onofrio’s legs and he had to get surgery to fix it.
Arliss Howard played Private/Sergeant Robert “Cowboy” Evans. He says he’s a Texan but he’s actually from Kansas. Adam Baldwin played the M60 machine gunner Sgt. “Animal Mother.” Animal Mother has “I Am Become Death,” a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, etched on his helmet.
Dorian Harewood, from Billy & Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure, played Cpl. “Eightball,” the black guy with the bookoo boner. In the book he’s the surfer dude Daytona Dave. Kevyn Major Howard played Private First Class “Rafterman.” Ed O’Ross played the Lusthog Squad’s platoon commander Lt. Walter J. “Touchdown” Schinoski.
John Terry played Stars and Stripes’ assignment editor Lt. Lockhart. Kieron Jecchinis played squad leader Sgt. “Crazy Earl.” He had a BB gun in his holster. John Stafford played HM Doc Jay. Bruce Boa played the colonel who asked about Joker’s helmet. Joker explains that wearing the peace sign alongside “Born to Kill” on his M1 helmet has something to do with Jungian philosophy and the duality of man.
Papillon Soo Soo played the Vietnamese hooker in the forever-to-shoot moped scene. She had been in the James Bond film A View to a Kill. Her “Me so horny” and “Me love you long time” lines were sampled in 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
Tim Colceri, who was originally supposed to play Sgt. Hartman, was recast as the helicopter door gunner who recites lines from Herr’s Dispatches about how many women and children he’d killed. “You guys ought to do a story about me sometime cause I’m so fucking good! That ain’t no shit, neither. I’ve done got me 157 dead gooks killed and 50 water buffaloes, too! Them are all certified,” he says. Joker asks if he’d killed “Any women or children?” When he say he sometimes does, Joker asks how he could shoot women and children and the gunner says “Easy, you just don’t lead ’em so much! Ha, ha, ha, ha. Ain’t war hell?”
Kubrick originally wanted The Breakfast Club’s Anthony Michael Hall to play Joker, but the talks went on too long. Bruce Willis had to turn down a role in the movie because he couldn’t get out of his TV series, Moonlighting. Stanley’s daughter Vivian Kubrick wrote the score under the name Abigail Mead.
A full metal jacket is a bullet used by infantry riflemen. The bullet has a copper coating that prevents it from deforming or breaking apart on impact. The bullet allows for higher muzzle velocities than bare lead. It prevents damage to bones from steel or armor-piercing core materials. A box of Winchester 5.56 55-Grain Full-Metal Jacket bullets costs $10.84 at Walmart.
Full Metal Jacket cost about $30 million to make and sold about $46.4 million worth of tickets. It is the only major film about the Vietnam War that focuses on urban warfare instead of the jungle. Kubrick is a fetishist. The geometric framings and the haunting close-ups are exacting, emotional razor blades that cut into the subconscious, creating treasured nightmares that last a lifetime. Full Metal Jacket is the only Kubrick movie, besides Dr. Strangelove, that runs under two hours. It is so layered that it can seem like a longer picture. It is an education.