R. Lee Ermey at the premiere of the remake of the 1971 horror classic “Willard” on March 12, 2003, in Hollywood. (Jim Ruymen/Reuters) After R. Lee Ermey’s death on April 15, the U.S. Marine Corps’ official Twitter account posted a video of the Gunny, as his character was known, from Stanley Kubrick’s bracing Vietnam War film, “ Full Metal Jacket “:
The tribute was met with some sniggers from folks who thought the Marine Corps foolish to post a gif from an antiwar film satirizing the dehumanizing effect of basic training and armed combat. A more thoughtful disquisition on the effect Ermey and Kubrick had on a generation of Americans came from Anthony Swofford, the author of “ Jarhead ,” in the New York Times. As the headline of his essay put it, Ermey and Kubrick “seduced my generation and sent us to war.”
“What we saw felt beautiful and profane and dangerous — normal American kids transformed into war-ready combatants through barbarism and violence and the best marksmanship training in the world. It was both terrifying and thrilling to watch,” Swofford wrote, noting that during a recent rewatch he found himself laughing at some of the Gunny’s famous insults, giggles that horrified his wife.
Swofford was right to laugh, of course: Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Ermey) is something like a demented stand-up comedian during the opening six or seven minutes of “Full Metal Jacket,” part one-liner master, part insult comic, part psychotic fitness instructor. There’s a reason one of the recruits, a hulking pile of blubber nicknamed Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) by the Gunny, can’t stop smiling as Hartman makes his rounds instructing the recruits on the levels of filth they now find themselves in, informing them that he hates all of them equally — and informing them in the vilest way possible.
The simple fact of “Full Metal Jacket’s” opening 45 minutes — and the reason that it can be both beloved by the Marine Corps and despised by people who find the military to be a backwater of reaction — is that Kubrick plays the scenes more-or-less straightforwardly. The only moment when the language of cinema invites us to judge the recruits and their teacher negatively is during the blanket party scene, when Pyle is gagged, immobilized in his bed, and beaten for failing to get his act together. The film is shot in the blue of night; the score takes on an artificial quality, the synthesizer work calling to mind a more artistic version of the “ Friday the 13th ” theme.
That horror-film interlude aside, we see the destruction and re-creation of men into fully conscious weapons of war — not mindless robots; as Joker (Matthew Modine) says during a brief moment of narration, the corps has no use for unthinking drones — in a way that feels ambivalent, a way that can be both celebrated by the corps and seen as suspicious by those who hate and fear the military and what it does. And that ambivalence was only […]