On April 30, 1975 the unpopular war in Vietnam ended with the final withdrawal of American troops. By 1978, the plight of soldiers in the war had become less taboo to address, especially with the new wave of politically motivated directors adding their spin on the experiences, some of which had actually served in Vietnam during the war.
Beginning with the 1978 movie The Boys in Company C, there was an onslaught of great (and not so great) films that depicted the average soldier coping with the war and its devastation. Everyone knows the movies now regarded as classics: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon, all of which won Oscars in one category or another.
Most of the movies that focused on the war involved Army personnel, but a few featured Marines. he most outstanding of these, in my opinion, was the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket. Incredibly, as great as this movie was, it was virtually snubbed by the Oscars committee. It only garnered one (ONE) nomination, and that was for Best Adapted Screenplay. It should easily have been in the running for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and the most egregious snub, I think, a nomination for R. Lee Ermey as Best Supporting Actor. Maybe it wouldn’t have won any, but surely it should have been recognized more.
OK, basically Ermey was playing himself, I grant. Interesting fact: Ermey was only on hand as a consultant, because in a former life he was a DI in the Marines. The story goes he was asked to show the actor how a DI intimidated and reprimanded recruits and he did such a good job, spending 10-15 minutes cursing at the recruits without repeating a single phrase, that Kubrick decided that Ermey was the real ideal actor for the role. At least the Golden Globes made up for the faux pas by nominating him…
Full Metal Jacket (1987):
The movie begins in late 1967. On Parris Island a group of new recruits begin their training. The opening scene shows the recruits getting their heads shaved, to the strains of “Hello, Vietnam” by Johnny Wright. Note: As far as I know this is the only film that ever had its actors in true regulation haircuts for the roles. Kudos to the actors who agreed to it. I get my hair cut that way now for comfort, but in 1987 I was proud of my shaggy do.
At recruit training they are introduced to their DI, Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Hartman declares his role from the outset, belittling each and every recruit, but in particular he has a special dislike for comedians, and gives Private Davis (Matthew Modine) the name “Joker”. He also has a dislike for the obviously mentally troubled Private Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) whom he designates as “Gomer Pyle”.
During training it becomes clear that the focal characters are Joker and Pyle. Pyle, for his part, is a classic screw up. He can’t seem to do the physical training and he also can’t seem to abide by the diet that his superior enforces on him. Eventually Hartman decides to punish the rest of the platoon for Pyle’s screwups, which leads to a memorable scene where they beat him with mallets made of soap bars wrapped in towels. hich pretty much sends Pyle over the edge. In peace time he would have been washed out, but apparently the Marines needed every warm body they could get for the war effort so his gradual decline is ignored.
Leading up to a climatic scene in the recruit training portion in which Pyle snaps completely. This is one of the more memorable scenes in the movie.
The second half of the movie transfers to Vietnam, where Joker is a reporter for the Stars and Stripes. And he is still the comedian. (He wears a helmet that has “Born to Kill” stenciled on it, but also wears a non-regulation peace symbol on his uniform). But he desperately wants to get to where the action is.
He gets his wish when his superior sends him on a mission to go see what is happening with the troops in Phu Bai. On his way he joins up with a squad which has a buddy from his training crew, “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard), so named by Sgt Hartman because he hails from Texas.
The squad is put into action, and along with “Animal Mother” (Adam Baldwin), a gung-ho kill-em-all type and several others they get caught in a situation where there is a deadly sniper, who kills a couple of the Marines, including Cowboy.
The gritty battle scenes in this film are pretty graphic, but then anyone who is familiar with Kubrick’s work can expect nothing less.
A personal reminiscence: When I came to San Marcos to attend Southwest Texas State University (now called Texas State University), Dr. Rebecca Bell-Metereau taught a class “Film and Prose Fiction”. The class would read books then watch films that had been based on the books. The first semester I was here, she had a Kubrick focus, and the movies were Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita and maybe a couple of others. Istill kick myself over not having heard in advance of the class. I would have loved the experience. I was a history major, but I would have taken it just for the Kubrick focus.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.