30 years ago Stanley Kubrick delivered the last indisputable masterpiece of an already illustrious career, Full Metal Jacket.
Arriving in the wake of Apocalypse Now and Platoon, on initial release Full Metal Jacket was a modest box office success and received little attention from critics and reviewers alike. It’s only in the decades since and via repeat viewings that the film has garnered the devoted following it so richly deserves.
A truly unique film experience, offering a depiction of the Vietnam War that few other movies can truly compare to, the only thing more astonishing than Full Metal Jacket are the stories behind the making of the movie. Here are 19 things you never knew about Full Metal Jacket.
The idea for Full Metal Jacket first came about when Stanley Kubrick contacted Michael Herr about working on a film about the Holocaust. Herr was a war reporter during the Vietnam conflict and had authored the bestselling book Dispatches but did not want to return to the subject matter. After deciding to switch focus to Vietnam, tt took Kubrick three years to persuade Kerr to write a script.
Initially, Kerr and Kubrick struggled to find a suitable story to adapt, until stumbling upon Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers in a literature review. Kubrick then spent the next few years researching Vietnam further, watching hours and hours of documentaries in his home before getting Kerr to start work on the script.
While Herr wrote the first draft of the screenplay, that script went through several major changes, with Kubrick regularly calling Herr and The Part-Timers’ Hasford with requests for specific scenes and changes, which were then written and posted to the filmmaker. It made it difficult to ascertain who was responsible for the finished script, something Hasford later considered taking legal action over.
At one point Kubrick suggested Herr and Hasford visit his home in England for dinner. Something Herr thought was a very bad idea. According to Herr, Hasford was “scary man, a big, haunted marine.” “I advised him against it,” Herr said. “I told Stanley I didn’t think they’d get on.” Kubrick insisted though. Cut to the resulting dinner and Kubrick ended up passing Herr a note that simply read: “I can’t deal with this man.” Herr’s role in the production was greatly diminished from that point on.
Kubrick came up with the name Full Metal Jacket after coming across the phrase in a gun catalogue. It refers to a type of small arms ammunition used in warfare which is designed to pass through a person without greatly expanding or breaking up. Kubrick saw it as a commentary on the absurdity of trying to make civilized rules about war.
R. Lee Ermey, who played Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, was actually a former US Marine drill instructor who was originally hired to serve as technical advisor on the film. While on set, he asked if he could audition for the role as he felt many of the actors up for the part were not up to scratch.
Kubrick initially told Ermey he was not vicious enough for the part, so Ermey demonstrated his suitability by demonstrating his technique on a group of Royal Marines who were being considered for extras. These exchanges were wholly improvised and filmed with Kubrick later not only casting Ermey but adapting some of his words into the finished script.
Not all of Ermey’s line were improvised though. The actor worked closely with Kubrick on developing the script but would occasionally throw in the odd comment off the cuff, like when he told Private Cowboy he was the type of guy who would have sex with another guy “and not even have the goddamned common courtesy to give him a reach-around”.
Matthew Modine only landed the part of Private Joker after The Breakfast Club’s Anthony Michael Hall was fired from the production, Hall spent eight months preparing for the role but constantly clashed with Kubrick over his perfectionist style and the demanding shooting schedule in place.
Val Kilmer apparently believed Modine stole the part from him and eveen confronted him in a restaurant over the claim. At that point, Modine claims he was not even aware of the film and, if anything Kilmer’s claims convinced him to send footage to Kubrick to try and land the part.
Vincent D’Onofrio only heard about Full Metal Jacket through Matthew Modine. He auditioned for the role at home, filming himself in army fatigues with a video camera to land the part of Private Pyle. Even so, when Kubrick first called him regarding the part, D’Onofrio hung up, thinking it was a hoax.
D’Onofrio gained an astonishing 70 pounds for the role of Private Pyle, breaking the 60-pound weight-gain record Robert De Niro set for Raging Bull at the time. It took him seven months to put the weight on and nine months to take it off again, during which time he suffered ligament damage in one of his knees.
Several major actors either missed out on parts or turned down roles. Denzel Washington read for the part of Eightball but missed out to Dorian Harewood, while Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to play Animal Mother but had to decline as he was starring in The Running Man at the time. Bruce Willis even claims he was offered the lead role of Private Joker in the film but had to turn it down as he had just landed a job on the series Moonlighting.
The whole film was shot in England partly because that’s where Kubrick was based and also because he was famously afraid to fly. The abandoned gasworks town of Beckton on the River Thames was painstakingly transformed to resemble Hue, using dozens of photographs, and palm trees airlifted in. The dockyard on the Isle of Dogs, which was due for demolition, were also used along with the Bassingbourne Barracks in Cambridgeshire.
Some shots and scenes took weeks to complete. The scene of the soldiers advancing on a sniper-occupied building after the shooting of Eightball took four weeks while the bathroom mop scene involving Joker and Cowboy at the start of the film required 62 takes.
In contrast, Cowboy’s death scene required just five takes while Ermey’s initial monologue took only three takes to complete. One day, during filming ,a family of rabbits was accidentally killed. Kubrick, who was famously fond of animals, got so upset he cancelled filming for the rest of the day.
Vivian Kubrick, Stanley’s daughter, actually makes a brief cameo appearance during the scene in Vietnam when the soldiers encounter a mass open grave. She is the lady holding a motion picture camera, taking snaps of the site
Originally Tony Spiridakis’ character Captain January, had the longest dialogue scene in all of Full Metal Jacket, running some four pages in length. However, in post-production Kubrick realised the actor off-screen performing the scene with Spiridakis was completely out of timing. The solution? To cut the scene and Spiridakis out of the film entirely.
All the lines used in the scene where Private Joker and Private Rafterman encounter a Da Nang hooker went on to be sampled on the 2 Live Crew hit single Me So Horny. They include “What do we get for ten dollars? / Every t’ing you want. / Everything? / Every t’ing.” and “Me so horny. Me love you long time” sample is used in the chorus of the song, as well as throughout. You can even hear the hooker’s “Me sucky sucky” during the hook.
There was originally supposed to be a scene in which, upon killing the sniper, Animal Mother would chop off the young girl’s head and throw in out of the window. It was cut from the final film but Kubrick kept hold of the prop for the decapitated head, in among his personal belongings.
Modine told Philadelphia radio station WMMR’s Preston & Steve Show on May 19, 2017, that Joker was supposed to die in the script but during a row with director Stanley Kubrick, Modine blurted out that Joker should live.
Kubrick asked him to explain why and Modine said that the character had seen his drill instructor die in basic training along with the recruit he tried to help. He had also seen his only friend die in his arms in battle and had a teenage girl sniper by his own hand. He, therefore, had to live on to experience “the real horror of war.” Kubrick told him there and then “that’s the end of the movie.”