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The Making Of Full Metal Jacket

‘It is not intended to be either pro-war or anti-war. It is concerned with the way things are.’ Stanley Kubrick’s cold and typically cocksure assessment of his bootcamp to bloodbath Vietnam vision was delivered in an indignant letter penned when the film hit censorship troubles in Australia. But twenty years on the director’s argument pinpoints the reason for Full Metal Jacket’s sustained and unswerving relevance; there is truth in the film, a truth mirrored in the wars that surround us now in Iraq and Afghanistan, like echoes of America’s South Asian struggle.

Much of the time it’s a truth only partially grasped. Liberal critics and peaceniks have treasured the film as a savage indictment of conflict, while in his memoir of the first Gulf War (the basis for Sam Mendes’ ‘Half Metal Jacket’ Jarhead) Anthony Swofford revealed how young soldiers whoop and holler at the onscreen brutality (‘filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man’). Kubrick, of course, was way ahead of them all. If the film has a message it’s delivered by Matthew Modine’s insouciant Sergeant Joker when he’s torn a new one by a Colonel for his non-regulation attire. ‘You write “Born to Kill” on your helmet, and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?’ ‘I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, Sir. The Jungian thing, Sir’.

‘The Jungian thing’ was also at the heart of Platoon, released just months before Full Metal Jacket, although Oliver Stone’s pairing of smiley Willem Dafoe and scarred Tom Berenger as a sort of Sergeant Jekyll and Staff Sergeant Hyde was a more obvious and audience-friendly treatment of the same material. Both films were part of a wave of Vietnam movies rolled out from Hollywood after the watershed one-two of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, a deployment of devastating introspection delivered in two-hour bursts: Gardens Of Stone, The Hanoi Hilton, Hamburger Hill, Good Morning, Vietnam. The United States was a country waking up to itself and what it had been through.

Kubrick was waking up, too, from the seven year slumber which followed the release of The Shining. He was stirred into action by ‘The Short-Timers,’ a novel by Gustav Hasford based on the former Marine’s experiences in Vietnam. Gripped by the book’s ‘tremendous economy of statement,’ Kubrick set about turning it into a script, hiring Hasford along with Apocalypse Now co-writer and Vietnam war correspondent Michael Herr. The basic structure was already in place – Joker and his fellow Marine recruits hump their way through the dehumanising hardships at the Parris Island training facility before graduating to the horrors of the Tet Offensive in the city of Hue. In fact, aside from a few character names, the only thing changed was the title. While referring specifically to a type of copper-covered ammunition, Full Metal Jacket suggested a world of uncompromising military might. It was perfect; like Kubrick’s film, the new title was frank and unflinching, stern and stylised.

Matching the story itself, the filming was broken into two distinct halves – the bootcamp and the battlefield. But against the apparent logic of putting the actors through their paces before unleashing them into combat, the halves were shot in reverse order, with the production only moving to the studio-based barracks after weeks of location work on the Vietnam-doubling Beckton gas works in East London.

Modine, who had first heard that he had the part from a bitter Val Kilmer in an actor’s hangout in LA, moved to London with his wife for the shoot. Already a veteran of two Vietnam films – roles in Streamers and Birdy had shaped his early career – the actor was hand-picked by Kubrick, and unique in not having to record an audition tape for the director (notoriously meticulous, Kubrick sorted through 1000s of videos to find his eventual cast).

Derelict and decayed, the gas works were chosen by Kubrick because they had been constructed along the same basic architectural principles as the period Vietnamese city the film was recreating, ‘all in this industrial functionalism style of the 1930s, with the square modular concrete components and big square doors and square windows,’ the director said. The crew spent six weeks knocking corners off buildings and toppling chimneys before covering what was left in Vietnamese shop fronts, adverts and propaganda. 200 palm trees were flown in from Spain (‘they don’t speak English and look sad,’ lamented a sensitive Modine), four M41 tanks were borrowed from a Kubrick-loving Belgian army Colonel and S55 choppers were leased and painted Marine green. To complete the illusion art director Anton Furst stacked huge steel crates around the site to obscure any unwanted elements from the shot. ‘The containers are timeless and colourful,’ Modine wrote in his on-set diary. ‘Rusty red. Dull yellow. Orange. Plain steel. An efficient and inexpensive way to block out England.’

Some reviews criticised the lack of authentic location shooting – some even going so far as to suggest it was disrespectful to the memory of US casualties – but Kubrick was stubbornly satisfied. ‘It looks absolutely perfect, I think,’ he said. ‘There might be some other place in the world like it, but I’d hate to have to look for it. I think even if we had gone to Hue, we couldn’t have created that look. I know we couldn’t have.’ Modine, on the other hand, was stunned by the location’s versatility. ‘One corner has metamorphosed into a typical street in Danang,’ he recorded. ‘A beautiful pagoda is being constructed off in a field. In another corner is the destroyed city of Hue.’

The sites Modine saw constructed were to stage the film’s standout moments. Played out on the street corner was the iconic hooker scene, the dialogue of which is now so culturally embedded as to have spawned a specialist jargon for cheap oriental eroticism (‘Baby, me so horny’). Meanwhile, the pagoda and its courtyard saw the reunion of Joker and his Parris Island cohort Cowboy, along with Cowboy’s hard-headed squadmate Animal Mother; it was during rehearsals for this scene that Modine and Kubrick decided Joker would impersonate John Wayne, giving perfectly ironic voice to the film’s notion of the ‘phoney tough and the crazy brave.’

But it’s the Hue-set sequences that are the most effective. The ruin and rubble landscape provides the backdrop for a series of post-combat CBS Newsreel interviews, allowing Kubrick to have his Marines go eye to eye with the camera and spell out their motivation; ‘Do I think America belongs in Vietnam? I don’t know. I belong in Vietnam.’ ‘What do I think of America’s involvement in the war? I think we should win.’ Modine took his dialogue from ‘The Short-Timers,’ grinning elusively that ‘I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill.’

As the shoot wore on the complexity of the Hue battle sequences, combined with Kubrick’s determined perfectionism, laid a strain on the cast and crew. As well as agonising over frame composition – he once demanded the grips dig through solid concrete to sink his camera for a low-angle shot – the director gave very precise instructions to his actors. ‘He’s not afraid to give a line reading,’ revealed Dorian Harewood, who played Eightball. ‘By that I mean he will actually speak and act the line exactly as he wants the actor to do it.’ Modine recorded a similar experience (‘Your inflection at the end of the sentence. It goes upwards. Could you go down at the end?’), and both actors agreed that Kubrick’s search for the perfect delivery was partly behind his well-documented habit of racking up the takes. ‘Stanley seems to have an unwritten law that he doesn’t want to print anything until at least 15 takes,’ continued Harewood. ‘That’s very trying for actors who go into a downward spiral. I’ve seen at least 60 takes.’

The final moments before the climactic sniper encounter – with Joker, Cowboy and the squad ducked behind a waist-high wall – proved particularly gruelling to film. Decidedly un-Vietnamese cold weather reduced the already slow pace to a crawl. Gas heaters were brought in to eliminate the actors’ foggy breath, but left them hoarse and voiceless, and the shoot eventually stretched for weeks. Morale nose-dived, and serious fatigue gripped the camp for the first time. ‘Days can’t be measured by the rise and set of the sun but only by the next call sheet,’ wrote a grasping Modine. ‘The call sheets are blending into a reminder of things yet to be done. But the calls sheets lost their purpose long ago.’ Before momentum was lost entirely, though, things were finished, and the production was whisked away to a belated bootcamp.

Standing in for Parris Island was a Territorial Army barracks in Enfield. The production’s new home bore witness to a distinct aesthetic break – after the menacing, rumbling combat-cam sequences shot at Beckton, Kubrick’s treatment of the training camp was all cold, hard-angled precision. Slow, purposeful tracks along stiff lines of regimented recruits were broken up with symmetrical compositions of the sleeping quarters and heads (this the only deliberately unrealistic set in the movie, with Kubrick building the rows of naked, polished toilets in a London studio because it seemed ‘funny and grotesque’).

Bootcamp brought with it a new star in the lean shape of R. Lee Ermey. The former Marine drill instructor had served in Vietnam before being medically discharged and settling in the Philippines. There he met Francis Ford Coppola, and served as technical advisor on Apocalypse Now. It was while he was doing the same job on Full Metal Jacket that Kubrick decided Ermey was a better fit for Gunnery Sergeant Hartman that the actor he’d originally hired, convinced by watching footage of Ermey tearing into potential TA extras on an audition video.

‘It was quite clear that Lee was a genius for this part,’ explained the director. ‘I’ve always found that some people can act and some can’t, whether or not they’ve had training.’ Kubrick liked Ermey’s style so much that he incorporated many of his improvised insults – ‘You had best unfuck yourself or I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck’ – into the film. The more caustic and super-realistic the better – Kubrick was investing in the Hartman character all the brutality, ignorance and cruelty of the Corps., all the qualities that were brought to bear on America’s young men to turn them into killers and ready them for war.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Hartman’s treatment of the inept Private Pyle. Played with pitch-perfect pudgy incompetence by Vincent D’Onofrio, Pyle is Hartman’s dramatic counterpoint, his failures giving meaning to the drill instructor’s arch control freakery. In the end, Hartman turns Pyle’s fuck-ups on the whole platoon, punishing the others for his mistakes until they reach breaking point and retaliate with a vicious soap-beat blanket party.

Modine had originally recommended D’Onofrio to Kubrick, but by this stage of the shoot the actors were on such bad terms that Modine had bought a punch bag to prepare for what he considered the ‘unavoidable’ coming to blows. The bad feeling bled ominously into their on-screen relationship. ‘I am having to deal with him a lot since this started,’ wrote Modine, referring to his character’s forced pairing with Pyle. ‘Teaching him how to make his bed. Teaching him how to clean his rifle. How to stand to attention. There is such anger and tension between us both. He looks at me with that moronic look and I want to slap him.’

It was the cathartic blanket party which exhausted Modine’s anger towards his co-star (‘I do want to kick his ass for being such a fucking dickhead, but I take no pleasure in this towel beating’). Afterwards, Modine suspected Kubrick of manipulating his actors, much like Hartman turns his troops on one of their own. ‘We are being altered,’ he wrote, pondering ‘If I were directing a movie, wouldn’t I employ similar tactics?’

With the interiors for the sniper showdown still to be shot, the climaxes to the film’s twin halves were to be filmed back to back. First came Pyle’s nightmare meltdown in the scrubbed white-tile barracks bathroom. Things were held up while the special effects team figured out a way to pull off Pyle’s brain-scatter suicide, offering extras £20 a pop to let off squibs attached to the back of their heads. The explosives left the volunteers dazed and the problem unsolved, until Modine pointed Kubrick in the direction of To Live And Die In LA. The director studied the film’s shotgun headshot in slow motion, discovering – and deciding to copy – its old-fashioned sleight of hand. ‘It was some special effects guy with a catapult flinging guts into the poor actor’s face!’ an astonished Modine reported. The effect was duly recreated, using pasta and make-up blood.

Bootcamp wrapped, production moved to Pinewood studios for its final phase. Edgy about over-runs effecting future commitments, Modine asked Kubrick if there were to be any further delays. ‘What!’ replied the optimistic director. ‘Three days! You walk into the building, shoot the girl and we’re done.’ In fact Modine missed out on two films, one of which, Good Morning, Babylon, actually commenced and completed principle photography during this extended ‘three days.’ In the end, though, Kubrick and crew got what they needed – high-speed footage of the fragile, female sniper spinning, bullet-blast squibs exploding as she falls to the floor, before Joker stands over her rasping, praying body and ends her life. Much has been made of the savage irony of the narrative afterword – Joker and squad marching out of Hue singing the Mouseketeers theme (‘M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E’), claiming the city in the name of culturally bankrupt capitalism – but a more damning and hopeless closure precedes this moment, in the 1000-yard stare Joker delivers direct to camera. It is, as Modine says, ‘the moment that Joker dies and has to spend the rest of his life alive.’

This text original appeared in Total Film # 133

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