Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a war film based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford. The title refers to the type of ammunition used by infantry riflemen. The film follows a squad of U.S. Marines from their basic training through their participation in the Vietnam War.
A group of new recruits in the United States Marine Corps
has just arrived at Parris Island
for basic training
. Their drill instructor
is Gunnery Sergeant
Hartman (R. Lee Ermey
), who wastes no time in starting the process of making these civilians into Marines. The Vietnam War
is in full swing, and his job is to produce trained killers who will not hesitate when the decisive moment arrives. The film's first section focuses on the physical and psychological treatment of the recruits, in particular Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio
), whom Hartman gives the derisive nickname "Gomer Pyle
Hartman immediately pegs Pyle as a misfit. He is socially awkward, overweight, out of shape, and afraid of heights. He has trouble coping with the physical rigors of recruit training and does not respond well to orders and procedures. These deficiencies get the constant attention of Hartman, who punishes him to encourage him to perform better as well as a lesson to the others. Hartman ultimately appoints the protagonist "Joker" (Matthew Modine) as Pyle's squad leader, bunkmate, and mentor, stressing that Joker will set Pyle straight, or else. Pyle eventually begins to straighten up and become a more disciplined recruit on some fronts, but forgets to lock his footlocker before a barracks inspection. Opening it, Hartman finds a contraband jelly doughnut inside and immediately puts a new rule into effect: every time Pyle makes a mistake, Hartman will punish everyone else in the platoon because they are not helping Hartman by encouraging Pyle to work harder toward becoming a Marine. Shortly afterward, the other recruits gang up on Pyle during the night and give him a blanket party, pinning him to his bunk and beating him severely. Joker, the last one to hit Pyle, covers his ears once he is back in his bunk to block out the latter's moaning and sobbing.
Over the next few days, Joker realizes that Pyle has become sullen and withdrawn. Pyle begins to detach himself from the platoon as well as the rest of reality. His expert marksmanship impresses Hartman, but Joker becomes worried upon watching Pyle carry on conversations with his rifle. On completing their training, everyone in 3092 platoon, including Pyle, graduates and is assigned a Military Occupational Specialty, the most common being 0300-Infantry (one notable exception is Joker who is assigned to 4212-Basic Military Journalism). On the platoon's last night on Parris Island, Joker is assigned firewatch (guard) duty, during which he discovers Pyle in the head (toilet) loading his rifle with live ammunition. Frightened, Joker attempts to calm Pyle as he loses his grip on reality and begins shouting and executing drill commands. The noise awakens Hartman, who rushes into the head and orders Pyle to put down the rifle. Pyle shoots Hartman, killing him, then sits on the toilet and kills himself as a stunned Joker looks on.
The second part of the film opens in Vietnam in January, 1968. Joker is a Sergeant and a Marine Combat Correspondent with Stars and Stripes. He has been assigned to a Marine public affairs unit with "Rafterman" (Kevyn Major Howard), a combat photographer. One day in a meeting while reading reports and pitching article ideas, Joker tells his superior, Lt. Lockhart (John Terry), of a rumor that the Communists might launch a large attack during the Tet Holiday. Lockhart is dismissive of Joker's information. However, soon thereafter, the Tet Offensive begins and the Marine base is attacked. During the offensive, Joker fights in his first battle when elements of the North Vietnamese Army attempt to overrun the base.
The next day, the PA staff learn from Lockhart about the enemy attacks all over Vietnam. Joker is ordered to Phu Bai, a Marine forward operating base near the ancient Vietnamese city of Hué, to cover the combat taking place. Rafterman tags along, hoping to get some combat experience. En route to their new assignment, Joker and Rafterman meet a crazed door gunner (Tom Colceri) on an H-34 Choctaw who is shooting every Vietnamese person he sees on the ground, on the assumption that they are all Viet Cong.
When Joker and Rafterman land outside Huế, they meet Lt. Walter J. Schinowsky, aka "Touchdown" (Ed O'Ross), who commands the platoon in which Joker's boot camp friend "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard) is serving. Touchdown directs them to a mass grave of 21 civilians killed by the North Vietnamese Army. Afterwards, Joker finds Cowboy (also a Sergeant), second in command of the Lusthog Squad, whose M-60 machine gun carrier is a nihilistic Marine nicknamed Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). Joker then accompanies the squad during the Battle of Huế, during which Touchdown is killed and a Marine nicknamed Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis) takes command of the squad. As "Craze" leads the men on a patrol through a ruined section of the city, another squad member is killed by enemy fire.
The squad is called up for patrol again, this time north of the Perfume River which divides the city of Huế, where enemy forces are believed to be hiding. Craze comes across a toy rabbit in a ruined building and picks it up, triggering an explosive booby trap that kills him and leaves Cowboy the reluctant squad leader. The squad becomes lost in the ruined buildings, and a sniper wounds two of their comrades, Doc Jay (Jon Stafford) and Eightball (Dorian Harewood), with the intention of drawing more of them in. As the squad maneuvers to try to locate the hidden position, the sniper finishes off the wounded men and kills Cowboy as well.
With Cowboy dead, Animal Mother assumes command of the remaining Marines. Using smoke grenades to conceal their advance, the squad approaches and enters the building being used by the sniper. Joker finds the sniper on an upper floor, but his rifle jams as he tries to shoot. The sniper, an adolescent Vietnamese girl, spins around and opens fire, pinning him behind a column. Rafterman arrives and shoots the sniper, saving Joker. As Joker, Rafterman, and Animal Mother and other marines of the company stand over the mortally wounded girl, she begins to pray weakly in Vietnamese. After a pause, she begs in English to the Marines, "Shoot me," over and over. Joker and Animal Mother argue over this request. Animal Mother initially wants to leave her to be eaten by rats, but changes his mind; he will allow a mercy killing only if Joker, who has much less combat experience, performs it. After a pause, Joker shoots her with his pistol. The film concludes with the Marines' rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club march as their reunited platoon marches into the night toward their bivouac.
Cast and characters
- Matthew Modine as Private / Sergeant James T. "Joker" Davis, the protagonist-narrator who claims to have joined the Corps to see combat, and to be the first one on his block with a confirmed kill. He witnesses Pyle's insanity in boot camp, but nevertheless becomes a "squared away" Marine. He later serves an independent-minded combat correspondent accompanying the Lusthog Squad in the field.
- Adam Baldwin as "Animal Mother": The nihilistic M-60 machine gunner of the Lusthog Squad, Animal Mother is contemptuous of any authority but his own, and attempts to rule by intimidation. Animal Mother believes victory should be the only object of war. In The Short-Timers, he is a New Yorker who joined the Marines to avoid going to jail for stealing a car.
- Dorian Harewood as "Eightball": The black member of the Lusthog Squad, insensitive about his ethnicity (e.g. 'Put a nigger behind the trigger'), and Animal Mother's closest friend. The sniper shoots him repeatedly in attempt to lure the others into the open, before killing him.
- Kevyn Major Howard as "Rafterman": Rafterman is a combat photographer with the Stars and Stripes office with Joker. He requests permission to accompany Joker into Huế and ultimately saves him by shooting the sniper.
- Arliss Howard as the Texan Private / Sergeant "Cowboy" Evans who goes through boot camp with Joker. He becomes a rifleman and later encounters Joker in Vietnam, taking command of a rifle squad. In The Short-Timers, Joker kills Cowboy, in sacrifice, after being severely wounded by a sniper expecting to trick the squad to rescue so he may shoot them all. In Full Metal Jacket, he quickly dies of a sucking chest wound, while in Joker's arms, surrounded by the few remaining members of his squad.
- Ed O'Ross as Lieutenant Walter J. "Touchdown" Schinowski: The commander of the Lusthog Squad's platoon, he was a college football player at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is killed in an ambush outside of Hue City.
- John Terry as Lieutenant Lockhart: The PIO officer-in-chief and Joker's assignment editor. He has combat-reporting experience, but uses his officer rank to avoid returning to the field, he says on account of the danger and the bugs, rationalizing that his journalistic duties keep him where he belongs, "In the rear with the gear."
- Kieron Jecchinis as "Crazy Earl": The squad leader, he is forced to assume platoon command when Platoon Leader Lt. Touchdown is killed. Touching a booby-trapped toy kills him. As in the novel he carries a BB gun, which is visible just before he dies.
- Jon Stafford as Doc Jay: A Navy corpsman attached to the Lusthog squad. He is wounded by the sniper while attempting to drag Eightball to safety; the sniper uses a subsequent automatic burst to finish them both off when Doc Jay attempts to indicate the direction of the sniper.
- Vincent D'Onofrio as Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence: An overweight, clumsy, slow-witted recruit who is the focus of Hartman's attention for being incompetent and fat, making him the platoon scapegoat. After a blanket party from the rest of the platoon for failing almost everything and earning them collective punishments, he turns psychotic and talks to his rifle, "Charlene", yet he becomes a disciplined Marine. In The Short-Timers, Leonard Pratt is a skinny, awkward Alabama boy who shoots Gerheim, then himself, in front of everyone in the bunkhouse section of the barracks. In Full Metal Jacket, he shoots Hartman while in the bathrooms, and then himself in front of Joker. The humiliating nickname Gomer Pyle originates from a likable, but dim character from the American television program the Andy Griffith Show who eventually enlists in the USMC.
- R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: the stereotypical Parris Island drill instructor who trains his recruits to transform them into Marines. In The Short-Timers, the character is named "Gerheim" and potbellied; he is a Second World War veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
- Tim Colceri as the door-gunner, the Loadmaster and machine gunner of the H-34 Choctaw helicopter transporting Joker and Rafterman to the Tet Offensive front. Inflight, he shoots at civilians, while enthusiastically repeating "Get some!", boasting "157 dead Gooks killed, and 50 water buffaloes too." When Joker asks if that includes women and children, he admits it stating, "Sometimes." Joker then asks, "How can you kill women and children?" to which the door-gunner replies jokingly, "Easy, you just don't lead 'em so much!...Ha, ha, ha,...Ain't war hell?!" This scene is adapted from Michael Herr's 1977 book Dispatches.
- Papillon Soo Soo as Da Nang Hooker: An attractive and scantily-dressed prostitute who approaches Joker and Rafterman at a street corner during the first scene in Vietnam. She is memorable for the phrases "Me love you long time," "Me so horny" and "Me sucky sucky", which were later sampled by 2 Live Crew in their song, Me So Horny.
- Peter Edmund as "Private Snowball": African-American recruit, the butt of jibes about from Hartman about "fried chicken and water melon", and famous for informing him that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from "that book suppository [sic] building, Sir!".
Stanley Kubrick contacted Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam War memoir Dispatches
, in the spring of 1980 to discuss working on a film about the Holocaust
but eventually discarded that in favor of a film about the Vietnam War. They met in England and the director told him that he wanted to do a war film but he had yet to find a story to adapt. Kubrick discovered Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers
while reading the Virginia Kirkus Review
and Herr received it in bound galleys and thought that it was a masterpiece. In 1982, Kubrick read the novel twice and afterwards thought that it "was a unique, absolutely wonderful book" and decided, along with Herr, that it would be the basis for his next film. According to the filmmaker, he was drawn to the book's dialogue that was "almost poetic in its carved-out, stark quality." In 1983, he began researching for this film, watching past footage and documentaries, reading Vietnamese newspapers on microfilm from the Library of Congress
, and studied hundreds of photographs from the era. Initially, Herr was not interested in revisiting his Vietnam War experiences and Kubrick spent three years persuading him in what the author describes as "a single phone call lasting three years, with interruptions."
In 1985, Kubrick contacted Hasford to work on the screenplay with him and Herr, often talking to Hasford on the phone three to four times a week for hours at a time. Kubrick had already written a detailed treatment. The two men got together at Kubrick's home every day, breaking down the treatment into scenes. From that, Herr wrote the first draft. The filmmaker was worried that the title of the book would be misread by audiences as referring to people who only did half a day's work and changed it to Full Metal Jacket
after discovering the phrase while going through a gun catalogue. After the first draft was completed, Kubrick would phone in his orders and Hasford and Herr would mail in their submissions. Kubrick would read and then edit them with the process starting over. Neither Hasford nor Herr knew how much they contributed to the screenplay and this led to a dispute over the final credits. Hasford remembers, "We were like guys on an assembly line in the car factory. I was putting on one widget and Michael was putting on another widget and Stanley was the only one who knew that this was going to end up being a car." Herr says that the director was not interested in making an anti-war film but that "he wanted to show what war is like."
At some point, Kubrick wanted to meet Hasford in person but Herr advised against this, describing The Short-Timers author as a "scary man." Kubrick insisted and they all met at Kubrick's house in England for dinner. It did not go well and Hasford was subsequently shut out of the production.
Through Warner Brothers
, Kubrick advertised a national search in the United States. The director used video tape to audition actors. He received over 3,000 video tapes. His staff screened all of the tapes and eliminated the unacceptable ones. This left 800 tapes for Kubrick to personally review.
Former U.S. Marine Drill Instructor R. Lee Ermey was originally hired as a technical adviser and asked Kubrick if he could audition for the role of Hartman, but the director, having seen his portrayal of Drill Instructor SSgt Loyce in The Boys in Company C, told him that he wasn't vicious enough to play the character. In response, Ermey made a videotape of himself improvising insulting dialogue while being pelted by people off-camera with oranges and tennis balls, which he did with a group of British soldiers who auditioned for the film with the scene where the recruits first meet Hartman. Ermey, in spite of the distractions, rattled off an unbroken string of insults for 15 minutes, and he did not flinch, duck, or repeat himself while being hit with the oranges or tennis balls. Upon viewing it, Kubrick gave him the role, realizing that Ermey "was a genius for this part," and estimates that Ermey came up with 150 pages of insults, much of it being improvised on the spot, a noted rarity for a Kubrick film. According to Kubrick's estimate, 50% of Ermey's dialogue, especially the insults, were written by the former drill instructor, and Ermey usually needed only two to three takes per scene.
The film was photographed in England
, in Cambridgeshire
, on the Norfolk Broads
, in Newham
, East London
. A former RAF
and then British Army
base, Bassingbourn Barracks
, doubled as the Parris Island Marine boot camp. The disused Beckton Gasworks
portrayed the ruined city of Huế. Kubrick worked from still photographs of Huế
taken in 1968 and found an area owned by British Gas
that closely resembled it and was scheduled to be demolished. To achieve this look, Kubrick had buildings blown up and the film's art director used a wrecking ball to knock specific holes in certain buildings over the course of two months. Originally, Kubrick had a plastic replica jungle flown in from California but once he looked at it was reported to have said, "I don't like it. Get rid of it." The open country is Cliffe
marshes, also on the Thames
, with 200 imported Spanish palm trees
and 100,000 plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong
Kubrick acquired four M41 tanks
from a Belgian army
colonel who was a fan, Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw
helicopters which were actually Westland Wessex
painted Marine green, and he obtained a selection of rifles, M79 grenade launchers
and M60 machine guns
from a licensed weapons dealer.
According to Matthew Modine, it was a tough shoot as he had to have his head shaved once a week and was yelled at by Ermey for ten hours a day while shooting the Parris Island scenes.
At one point during filming, Ermey had a car accident and broke all of his ribs on one side and was out for four and half months. Cowboy's death scene shows a building in the background that resembles the famous alien monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick said the resemblance is an "extraordinary accident."
During filming, Hasford contemplated legal action over the writing credit. Originally, Hasford was supposed to receive an "additional dialogue" credit but he wanted full credit. The writer took two friends and snuck onto the set dressed as extras only to be mistaken by a crew member for Herr.
A score for the film was written by "Abigail Mead" (an alias for Kubrick's daughter Vivian). According to an interview which appeared in the January 1988 issue of Keyboard Magazine, the film was scored mostly with a Fairlight CMI synthesizer (the then-current Series III edition), and the Synclavier.
For the period music, Kubrick went through Billboard's list of Top 100 Hits for each year from 1962-1968 and tried many songs but "sometimes the dynamic range of the music was too great, and we couldn't work in dialogue." The music included in the film is as follows:
The sequence that includes "Surfin Bird" was included in UGO's Top 11 Uses of Classic Rock in Cinema