Years ago, during my senior year of high school, my AP History teacher taught us about Vietnam by bringing in a movie. He explained that the movie featured some “adult language” and was not always easy to watch. He also said that it was the most realistic portrayal of basic training ever put on film. Seeing as how he was a former Marine himself, we took his word for it.
That movie, of course, was Full Metal Jacket. The class loved the movie, though not in the way that our teacher was hoping. He was hoping that we would pick up on the film’s anti-war theme but instead we were all obsessed with Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann, the tough-as-nails drill sergeant played by R. Lee Ermey. It didn’t matter that Hartmann probably wouldn’t have welcome any of us into his beloved corp. (The majority of the class may have had Private Joker’s wit but they also had Private Pyle’s physisque.) From the minute that Hartmann started yelling at the recruits, the class thought he was the coolest and toughest sonuvabitch of all time. We were supposed to be learning that war was Hell and dehumanizing but we just wanted to listen to Hatmann yell about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and her pink panties.
Looking back, I feel bad for my teacher. He wanted to show us the horrors of Vietnam and instead, he ended up with a bunch of students who wouldn’t stop chanting, “I don’t know but I’ve been told/Eskimo pussy is mighty cold!” Every class debate, there was always a chance that someone would respond to an opposing argument by saying, “You wouldn’t even have the common courtesy to give him a reach around!”
I won’t even get into the number of times that, for the rest of the year, the term “skull fuck” was used in class discussions.
Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war film. The first half may be dominated by Sgt. Hartmann turning the recruits into “perfect” killing machines but the second half features those machines being picked off, one-by-one, by an unseen sniper in a bombed-out building. All of Hartmann’s words about the brotherhood of duty are meant to ring hollow as we watch one teenage girl gun down Marine after Marine. Perhaps they would have if Hartmann had been played by anyone other than R. Lee Ermey.
One reason why Ermey was so believable as Hartmann was because he actually had been a drill instructor. In 1961, R. Lee Ermey was 17 years old and had two arrests for criminal mischief on his record when a judge told him that he could either go to jail or he could join the military. Ermey chose to enlist. He served in the Marines for 11 years, getting a medical discharge in 1972.
He began his film career as a technical advisor to Francis Ford Coppola during the shooting of Apocalypse Now. This led to him playing Sgt. Loyce, a drill instructor in The Boys of Company C.
(The shooting of Apocalypse Now was so drawn out that The Boys of Company C actually ended up getting released a year before Coppola’s epic.)
Originally, Ermey was only hired to serve as a technical advisor on Full Metal Jacket. It wasn’t until Ermey put together an instructional video for Tom Colceri, the actor who had previously been cast as Sgt. Hartmann. When Full Metal Jacket‘s director, Stanley Kubrick, saw the tape, he replaced Colceri with Ermey. (Colceri still appears in the film. He plays the helicopter door gunner who brags about shooting 50 water buffalo.)
Kubrick not only gave Ermey his most famous role but he also allowed Ermey to improvise much of his dialogue, something that was practically unheard of on a Kubrick set. Kubrick also said that it usually only took 2 or 3 takes for Ermey to give him what he was looking for. That was a high compliment from Stanley Kubrick, the man who, during the filming of The Shining, made Scatman Crothers do over a hundred takes of one scene.
Ermey’s performance as Hartmann was so iconic and so quotable that it has become the standard by which all other film drill instructors are judged. It also made Ermey a much-in-demand character actor. Many of the roles that Ermey played were designed to capitalize on his fame as Hartmann. He played the a ghost of a drill instructor in The Frighteners. He was the voice of Sarge in three Toy Story films.
In a few films, R. Lee Ermey got a chance to show that he was capable of more than just playing variations on Sgt. Hartmann. In Prefontaine, he played the legendary coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman. He was a police captain in Se7en and the father of a murdered girl in Dead Man Walking. In the two remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he was Leatherface’s equally depraved uncle.
R. Lee Ermey died yesterday at the age of 74 but his performances will live on forever.
RIP, Sarge. Thank you for making AP History fun.