With Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick laid bare the absurdity and cruelty of war through the callousness of French Generals treatment of their own men. With Full Metal Jacket, he sought to specifically deal with the transformation of young men into killing machines, as exemplified by Sergeant Hartmann: “Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills.” He found the key in what he described as the “tremendous economy of statement” of Gustav Hasford’s short novel, The Short Timers.

Hasford was a combat correspondent with the Marine Corp in Vietnam, and Matthew Modine’s character Joker was shaped by his experiences. Kubrick signed up another ex-war correspondent, Michael Herr, the writer of the narration for Apocalypse Now.  They worked together on the script in what Herr wryly described as “one phone call lasting three years, with interruptions.” With Kubrick, on any project the script is always fluid. One thing he loved, despite his reputation for repeated takes, was improvisation, and actor contribution, so long as it was good.

During rehearsals, the actor signed to play the antonymously named drill instructor, Sgt. Hartmann, got a sore throat from repeatedly yelling at the T.A recruits being auditioned on tape for the training segment of the film. R. Lee Ermey, a veteran drill instructor and technical advisor, saw his chance and stepped in, slipping right back into his old role. As he correctly surmised, Kubrick was sold on his performance, and cast him in the role, allowing him free reign to run with his endlessly inventive invective. “It was quite clear that Lee was a genius for this part, ” Kubrick said. “I’ve always found that some people can act and some can’t, whether or not they’ve had training.”

Kubrick had expressed interest in Matthew Modine for the main role of Joker, and Alan Parker, his director on Birdy, sent him video tape of him performing. But it was only when he saw Modine finished at the end, just “being”, that kubrick saw what he wanted: a certain stillness, a wry observation of his surroundings. Modine had recommended an old friend, Vincent D’Onofrio, for the role of gormless Leonard, aka Gomer Pyle (after the initial introduction, none of the marines are referred to by their actual names. The fact that they retain their nicknames or adopt new ones suggests a part of their old identity has been subsumed by the “lean, green, killing machine”).

The resentment Joker begins to feel for Leonard as he baby-sits him through training (he never refers to him as Pyle, even after the “blanket party” beating, suggesting an unwillingness to bend completely to brutality) spilled over into Modine’s own feelings towards his friend. He believed kubrick, with his long, endless retakes, was manipulating his actors into fully inhabiting their roles. “If I were directing a movie, wouldn’t I employ similar tactics?” he mused in his book, Full Metal Jacket Diary.

The shoot ran for thirty nine weeks, over twice the estimated eighteen. Kubrick achieved the impossible, and made the abandoned Beckton gas works in East London stand in for the bombed city of Hue, during the North Vietnamese Tet offensive in 1968. He even shipped in two hundred palm trees from Spain. For the training camp at Parris Island in Carolina, he used the Territorial Army barracks in Enfield. Here, the camera slowly tracks around the room, following Hartmann around the carefully regimented, symetrical bunks, lockers, and recruits. For the sequence where he jogs them around their bunks, repeating “This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this (groin) is for fun” Kubrick was insistent they all were precise and uniform in their movements. “Guys”, he would say, “some of you are only jerking(your groin) twice. In time to the rythm of the words, please.” The recruits are like insects, scuttling around the polished floor. Later, in Vietnam with green combat gear and hugging the blasted urban landscape, the transformation will be complete. As if they are cockroaches, the only survivors of the apocalypse around them.

After the harrowing training segment (albeit with a scarily hilarious turn from Ermey), the sequences in Vietnam are full of grim humour. Although Joker’s John Wayne act (“A day without sunshine is like a day without blood”) is shaken when the NVA attack his base during the night. Perversely, the Vietnam sequences were shot first, and it was here that Kubrick encouraged Modine’s Wayne impression. In the novel, he and Rafterman, his photographer, hook up with his old pal Cowboy and the Lust Hog squad in a cinema, mocking John Wayne’s film, The Green Berets, full of “the phony tough and the crazy brave.”  In the film, they meet in a courtyard, and Joker and Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) square off as if they are overgrown schoolboys, albeit Lord Of The Flies style – armed to the teeth, with no parental control. As Crazy Earl says, revealing his “friend”, a dead enemy soldier, “We’re jolly green giants, walkin’ the Earth, with guns!” A comment as much on U.S military / industrial power swamping Vietnam, and latterly Iraq.

Interviewed during a lull in fighting by a CBS news crew, the squad offer up their thoughts on the war. Joker lulls them with a seemingly cultured take on his enforced “tour” – “I wanted to meet interesting, stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill.” I talked in my addendum piece Kubrick The Klown?  about “the Jungian thing”: Joker, to the indignation of a Colonel, wears a piece button and has “born to kill” scrawled on his helmet. Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother in law, states that Kubrick, without explaining it too broadly, wanted to suggest that everyone in the film wore a mask, to survive, to get through what war requires them to do.

Kubrick’s precision applied as much to the seeming chaos of the Hue war scenes, his camera hugging the “blasted heath” as it prowls along with the crouching Marines. He once had the crew dig through solid concrete for one such shot. Gas heaters used to elimate un-Vietnam like foggy breath caused breathing problems for the actors, out in the rubble for weeks on end, working on the same scene.Keith Denny, the costume designer recalls, “It was the end of day, with the sun going down, and the light was absolutely perfect. Stanley asked two of his actors to walk towards the camera, nice and natural, with this fantastic light in the background. But they were over-tired…Anyway, they just wouldn’t take the route that he wanted. “Come on guys, it’s not complicated.” He wasn’t angry. he just sounded quietly disappointed that no one else could see the shot that he saw. No one else cared enough to try and get it. Like I say, he didn’t lose his temper, but as he turned around, I swear there was a tear in the corner of his eye. Stanley cares , and compared to him, other directors are just professional hack-workers earning a living.”

Up until the climax, when the squad are pinned down by a lone sniper, symbolising the holding off of a superpower by a tiny indigenous force, the enemy have been faceless. Kubrick wanted the reveal of the sniper as a young girl to be shocking. As she begs for deaths release from her wounds, Joker reluctantly gets his interview wish, finishing her off. His thousand yard stare tells the true tale of how he feels though. As Modine put it, “It is the moment that Joker dies and has to spend the rest of his life alive.”

Tim Pelan writes for Culture Deluxe, and can be found on Twitter

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