As I am finishing the first book in the Accursed Kings (Les Rois maudits), I came across a particularly interesting paragraph or two.
The setup is that Philip IV has just lost his advisor, the Keeper of the Seals. In the fictional account we, the reader, know that there is foul play involved. Historically, that is not evident and even within the story the assassins seem to have got away scot-free*. Upon said minister’s untimely death, the King moves quickly to seize his important papers so he can get abreast of any critical issues facing the kingdom. While reading, the King begins to see himself as others see him and, in doing so, has difficulty recognizing himself. The remarks from the letters he reads in the fictionalized scene are actually real descriptions of him that have survived to this day.
Now hold that thought.
Recently, there has been a transgender activist in the news. She(?) has been traveling around the country, visiting various legislative buildings, and holding up a sign that says ANAL SEX. Someone I know actually went up and asked her why she was doing this. She explained that she is advocating for First Amendment rights. This set off some private discussions as well as a news article** or two, all wondering about the appropriateness and effectiveness of this particular demonstration.
It is a common for recent expressions of “activism” to involve vulgarity, similar to the well-publicized wearing of “pussy hats.” Left-wing demonstrators carry signs, sometimes related to the cause and sometimes just because, with explicit language on them. “Slut” and “vagina” seem to be particular favorites. I’m sure I’ve seen others but, in general, creativity does not seem to be valued. Having seen it more than a few times, I think I have an idea of what they are trying to accomplish. There is a feeling among a segment of the left that their political opponents will lose their shit if they see certain words or phrases in writing, in public. What the endgame is beyond that, I’m not sure. I guess conservatives, driven stark raving mad by the word “slut,” will no longer be able to effectively advocate for the conservative agenda.
While this view of conservatives is apparently common, I’m not sure I can think of a single conservative who falls into this category. An example of the yawning gap between how one sees one’s self and how others see us, despite the absolute belief that the image that we hold is the correct one.
Of course, this led me to reminisce about my own youth. When I was but a teenager, I had a girlfriend who was convinced that I was both religious and a prude. She delighted in playing me some of her favorite recordings; Ozzy and Iron Maiden, for the devil imagery, Rocky Horror Picture Show, for its explicit expressions of sexuality, and various other songs/bands which contained expletives in one form or another. I never tried very hard to dissuade her of her conception of me, but I also never quite understood from whence it came. After all, like Philip the Fair, I was familiar only with the me I grew up with.
I had, I suppose, a typical teenage boy’s fascination with the occult, despite never really getting into bands like Iron Maiden (I was a Pink Floyd guy). While I may not terribly prone to public ejaculations containing profanity, I was generally game for taking in an explicitly-sexual reference. I also considered myself something of a connoisseur of the swear word.
My father, a military man, had a colorful vocabulary when provoked and, at some point in middle school, I had taken to trying out his (perhaps somewhat dated) arsenal on my fellow students. While the reception was less positive than I expected, I continued to appreciate the ability to express oneself with color all through high school. I also liked stumbling across a good round of swearing hidden in popular media; the movie Patton or the Back in Black album come to mind as particular examples.
The pious and prudish boyfriend of my young girlfriend simply bore little resemblance to my own self-perception. So it goes.
Oddly enough, that titillation that comes with finding a naughty word tucked into the every day didn’t end with my teenage years. Well into my thirties I recall the joy of finding the hidden f-bomb at the beginning of a Green Day song and my adult siblings not particularly sharing my amusement. It is a little strange and not entirely sensible. Let us just say that I am one to appreciate a good bout of cursing, particularly when done with style.
When I use a phrase like cursing with style, the first thing to come to mind might be R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. His portrayal of a drill instructor defines, for many, what boot camp must be like. At least for those who haven’t had the pleasure of being treated to actual drill instruction. The character’s ability to weaponize profanity is frequently quoted and will surely be for generations to come. To paraphrase Sergeant Harman (and mix up a few movies to boot); Marine Drill Instructors die. That’s what they’re there for. But the tapestry of obscenity that they weave will live forever.
Sadly, Gunnery Sergeant Ermey left this earth on April 15th of this year.
To honor his passing, I re-watched Full Metal Jacket last night. I occasionally watch clips of his performance on YouTube and even have some of his insults mixed in with my digital music, but it has been a few years since I watched the whole film. His is an outstanding performance.
He almost didn’t play the role.
I’ve read or heard the story a number of times and in a number of different ways. Ermey was brought on board with the Full Metal Jacket production as an advisor and had to convince a reluctant Stanley Kubrick to give him the part. Some of the versions of these stories conflicted with others, so I found an interview he did shortly after the film was released so as to get the details of the story straight from the horse’s mouth, so to say.
He was not, as I had always assumed, a newcomer to filmmaking at that time. After his release from the Marines, he went to Manila to get a college education. While trying to make ends meet, he did some acting in various Filipino television commercials. That work eventually led to several acting roles in Filipino productions and a modicum of local fame. When Ermey heard about Francis Ford Coppola and the Apocalypse Now production coming to the Philippines, he was eager to get involved. He got some of his connections in Filipino show business to get him onto the Apocalypse Now set as an extra. Apparently, because he looked the part, that got him into an impromptu speaking role as a helicopter pilot in the signature Ride of the Valkyries scene of the movie, giving Ermey his first Hollywood acting role.
When Kubrick started filming Full Metal Jacket, Ermey had already played a drill instructor, portraying Sgt. Loyce in the Hong Kong production of The Boys of Company C. That movie was also filmed in the Philippines immediately after Ermey finished working on Apocalypse Now and is similar in structure (boot camp then deployment) to Full Metal Jacket.
Some of the story that I’ve heard attached to Full Metal Jacket actually comes from Ermey’s experience on The Boys of Company C. Specifically, there was a story about his being hired as an advisor to coach the actor playing the drill instructor and that his demonstrations were so impressive that he was moved into the actual on-screen role. This experience was from the earlier movie and its director Sidney J. Furie, not Kubrick.
As with The Boys of Company C, Ermey was hired by Kubrick as a technical advisor on Full Metal Jacket. Ermey was familiar with the source material, however, and greatly desired the on-screen role of the drill instructor (Sgt. Gerheim in the novel). Part of Kubrick’s objection to Ermey in a lead role was that he didn’t think he could be mean enough, based on having seen his performance in The Boys of Company C. Anyway, he was told, the part had already been filled and a contract signed.
Several stories that aren’t true are nonetheless somewhat based in reality. One story goes that all of Hartman’s scenes are improvised, something with which Kubrick would never have abided. Another says that Ermey made his own audition tape, involving performing the lines while having things thrown at him, and that tape sold Kubrick. Also not true.
What really happened, as told by Ermey, was that the staging of the Paris Island scenes came at the end of filming, after the Vietnam scenes were completed. At that point, well into the project, a team (including Ermey) had to select a new group of extras to portray the background characters in the barracks. Rather than interview recruits one-by-one, Ermey decided to dress as a drill instructor and basically act out the opening scene from the movie. The reactions of the recruits were then filmed, allowing the best to be selected and hired. After the first set of “interviews,” Kubrick laughed at Ermey saying that he had told him he couldn’t audition, but he saw he found a way anyway. He had Ermey’s version of the scene sent to be transcribed so as to replace the scripts dialog with Ermey’s version. He also asked Ermey to record the other major Hartman scenes, ad-libbing the dialog, so that the script could be revised there, too. After seeing Ermey as Hartman in all those scenes, Kubrick finally gave him the part.
When I read his obituary, one phrase that stood out a description of him as “kind and gentle soul.” Such words seem quite out-of-place for those who only know him as Sgt. Hartman and for his TV personality. But watching him in that old interview, the description clearly matches his demeanor. I guess that says something about the duality of man.
Full Metal Jacket is divided into two parts. The first half shows the main character, Private Joker (Mathew Modine), and his platoon attempting to survive boot camp under the instruction of Sergeant Hartman. The second half takes place some indeterminate time later in Vietnam. Joker is now a seasoned Marine and has been promoted to Sergeant himself. We find him acting as a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes. The movie portrays a few days around the Tet Offensive and the reoccupation of Hue City (events distributed over about a month of real time).
For me, the first part is all Hartman/Ermey and is enjoyable to watch in that light alone. The second part is something of a mixed bag. I would have to characterize Full Metal Jacket as an anti-war film, although not your typical anti-war film. Yes it focuses on the dehumanization necessary to turn a young man into a soldier, a killer. It also portrays the American soldiers in a less than flattering light. At the same time, it also includes the slaughter of civilians by the communists, leaving the impression that for all our flaws, we Americans remain the good-guys. The soldiers themselves are generally patriotic and ready to do their duty, which includes being eager to kill the enemy.
I suppose, more than being anti-war, it may being trying to suggest something about the duality of man. The Jungian thing.
From a technical standpoint, a few things really bother me. The trigger discipline is for shit. Every soldier runs around with their fingers wrapped around their rifle’s trigger. It’s a good thing the guns are obviously replicas. Now, I’ve actually seen a number of Vietnam era photos with triggers inappropriately covered, but I can’t imagine anything like what we see in the film could have happened without a lot more friendly-fire deaths. Especially since (problem 2), the soldiers are constantly aiming their rifles at the backs or sides of their squad-mates. That bothers me even more. I guess I’ve been well-conditioned. The mere sight of a gun-barrel sweeping across living person gives me the heebie jeebies and that horror occurs throughout every combat scene in the second half of the movie, as well as some of the meandering-around scenes. Sgt. Ermey, where are you now?
The third thing that bothered me, although it was not a all atypical for war movies pre-Saving Private Ryan, is the use of special effects for gunfire without regard to how the actual gunfire would look. Bullet strikes on flesh occur with an explosion of red paint. There are also several scenes where the platoon peppers a building with fire directed at an unidentified target. Obviously, filming did not actually involve shooting up a building. Instead, pyrotechnics would have been placed on the target to simulate it being hit. And quite a pyrotechnic show it is. The 5.56 rounds from the M-16s are apt to explode upon hitting wood, creating a fiery spectacle. Afterwards, those same rounds have left grapefruit-sized holes in the outer wall of the building. Kubrick was known for his perfectionism, so I wonder why he didn’t have a keener eye for this. This just really gets to me. Of course, I didn’t really think about it so much in previous viewings. Kubrick was aspiring to maximal realism but, as I said above, the bar for war movies in the 1980s was lower than it is today.
Like me, critics generally found the second part less satisfying than the first part. Their criticisms were different that those above, of course, and I can’t really agree with many of those complaints. A common theme was a lack of cohesion in the second half of the film. Some were concerned about the lack of a clear moral message. One must remember that Full Metal Jacket was released in a wave of late-eighties Vietnam-themed films. It was said, at the time, that enough distance had finally intervened since the war that Vietnam was a finally a suitable subject for film-making. Pronouncement like these come with expectations.
I think the key problem is trying to view the two parts of the film separately. A motif in the second half fits together with something from boot camp. Because, as we hear, being trained to be a Marine does not make you a combat veteran. You are not changed – are not born again – until you are “in the shit.” The second half of the movie is necessary to complete Joker’s training; to complete his transformation. To finally find his war face. Similarly, Animal Mother essentially is the same person as Private Pyle. Just in Animal Mother’s reality, he didn’t snap before he went to Vietnam. And so on.
Attempting scholarly analysis of Kubrick’s films spending only a few hours on a Saturday afternoon is a fool’s game. I should really read the book.
*The term scot-free has nothing to do with Scotsmen, notwithstanding jokes to the contrary. The term is one that rattled around between Old French and some Germanic languages. In England, a sceat (pronounced “shat”) was a Anglo-Saxon silver coin or, as sceatt a term for money. As variations of the term, by the Normans, began to be associated with land, a “scot” could be used to mean a tax or a fee. Thus, getting of “scot-free” means that you’ve successfully avoided paying taxes.
**It occurred to me that, essentially, asking my readers to google “ANAL SEX” would be a tad cruel, but I seem to have lost my link to that article.