Full Metal Jacket (1987): Kubrick’s Vietnam War Film, Starring Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey

Stanley Kubrick’s powerful Vietnam War film, his first work since “The Shining” in 1980, follows a squad of U.S. Marines from boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, to the embattled streets of Hue in Vietnam. 

The film, based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, who was a combat correspondent during the war, has more in common with the earlier imaginative and surreal “Apocalypse Now” (1979) by Francis Coppola than with the starkly realistic “Platoon,” which swept the Oscars in 1986, including Best Picture and Best Director for Oliver Stone. 


The film is composed of two separate segments, tied together in an intriguing (violent) way, and leading to a devastating finale. 


The first reel, set at the marine camp, details the shavings of the recruits heads, the assignment of generic names, and the brutal physical training. This part is dominated by Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), a hard-nosed, foul-mouthed drill instructor whose goal is to transform his raw recruits into killers machine-like killers devoid of any emotion or conscience. Barking obscenities, racial insults and tirades at the innocent youths, forcing them to sleep with their rifles, he strips them of any pre-conceived humaneness as he instills in them Marine Corps loyalty and pride. 


He’s hammering out “full metal jacks,” the rifle cartridges that hare the field ammunition of the combat marines. As models, he cites the mass murderer Charles Whitman and assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. “These individuals showed what one marine and his rifle can do!” he boasts. 


The central figure in the first chapter is an intelligent recruit who is quickly subdued by the sergeant. Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) is an awkward, fat boy whom the instructor browbeats and terrorizes until he is transmogrified into an exemplary recruit with a penchant for raw violence.


The rest of the narrative takes place during the Tet offensive in the once-beautiful city of Hue, now reduced to rubble. 


The hero of this part, and the only developed character, is Private Joker (Matthew Modine), who has become a combat correspondent for a marine paper that specializes in manipulating words for bureaucratic expediency. He acknowledges that “search and destroy” missions will be known as “sweep and clear.” He also symbolizes the ambivalence of the war with his peace emblem sewed on his jacket and the slogan “born to kill” painted on his helmet. “We run two types of stories here,” his editor-lieutenant briefs his writing staff. “Grunts who give half their salary to buy gooks toothbrushes and deodorants, winning heart and minds; and combat actions that result in a kill, winning the war.”


The last reel describes the squad of grunts and their frustration with an elusive sniper, concealed in an abandoned building, who has seriously mauled the small patrol–and turns out to be a girl. Their revelations about this enemy and the war in the final shattering scenes how the director has masterfully arranged events so that the spirit of the sergeant hovers over his disciples. 


At the time of release, some critics faulted the film for its lack of realistic look as it was not shot in the jungles of the Philippines (like other Vietnam combat movies). The movie was shot entirely in England.  Kubrick and his designers imported trees from Spain and planted them in a vast, deserted land in London’s East End. They also found a military barracks outside London that stands in for the tale’s Parris Island. 

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Adapted): Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford


Oscar Context:

The winners of the Adapted Screenplay Oscar were Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci for “The Last Emperor,” which swept all the Oscars. The other three nominees were James Dearden for “Fatal Attraction,” Lasse Hallstrom, Reidar Jonsson, Brasse Brannstorm and Per Berglund for the Swedish serio-comedy, “My Life as a Dog,” and Tony Huston (John Huston’s son) for “The Dead.”




Private Joker (Matthew Modine)

Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin)

Leonard Lawrence, Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio)

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey)

Eightball (Dorian Hareway)

Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard)

Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard)

Walter J. Schinowski, Lt. Touchdown (Ed O’Ross)

Doc Jay (Jon Strafford)

Lt. Lockhart (John Terry)



Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick

Camera: Douglas Milsome

Editor: Martin Hunter

Music: Abigail Mead

Production designer: Anton Furst

Art direction: Rod Stratford, Leslie Tomkins, Keith Pains

Costumes: Keith Denny

F/X: John Evans


Running Time: 116 Minutes