For this entry I’ve decided to try being a bit less conversational and a bit more scholarly (for lack of a better word). Apologies in advance if this little experiment doesn’t work out as planned, or proves to be unbearably boring. Here goes…
Full Metal Jacket is a film that’s difficult to wrap one’s head around. It deals with a variety of serious subjects. These include the psychological effects of basic training, and the difficulty of commanding a squad in the midst of combat. At the same time, much of the film – particularly the dialogue – is extremely humorous. Of course, this is no accident.
There’s a scene in the movie where a Colonel questions a marine about why he has a peace symbol button on his body armor, and yet has “Born To Kill” written on his helmet. The marine replies, “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir… The Jungian thing.” To me, this line basically sums up Kubrick’s intent with making Full Metal Jacket. Every person has two sides. Every hero is capable of villainy, and every villain is capable of heroism.
Fitting in with this idea of duality, the movie is divided into two parts. The first part is set on Parris Island, where a group of recruits train to be marines. The second part occurs in Vietnam, around the time of the Tet Offensive.
Both halves of the film rely heavily on black comedy. The first half is dominated by the presence of Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann, played oh so memorably by R. Lee Ermey. Playing a drill instructor came naturally for him, since that’s exactly what he was in real life.
There have been all kinds of stories written about Ermey’s performance in Full Metal Jacket. Among them was that many of his lines were ad-libbed, which was virtually unheard of for any movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick gained notoriety with some actors because of his perfectionism. It was not unusual for him to have his actors perform dozens of takes. Steadicam operator Garrett Brown recalls that one of the scenes in The Shining took 148 attempts. By contrast, most of Ermey’s scenes in Full Metal Jacket were accomplished in just two or three takes.
The first half of Full Metal Jacket works extremely well because of the Hartmann character. For all his outrageously abusive verbal bravado, he seems to be harmless enough at first. But he’s capable of overstepping those bounds and becoming a genuinely terrifying individual. Specifically, his unrelenting torment of hapless Private Leonard Laurence (whom he derisively nicknames Gomer Pyle) escalates rather quickly.
Pyle, played by a virtually unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio (who gained 70 pounds for the role), is a source of much amusement early on. His fellow recruits seem unconcerned about his poor performance until they are issued a fateful ultimatum from their drill instructor. “From now on, whenever Private Pyle fucks up, I will not punish him,” says Hartmann. “I will punish all of you!” This poses a particular issue for Pyle’s squad leader, known to us only by his nickname, Private Joker.
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