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Opinion R. Lee Ermey made ‘Full Metal Jacket’ a movie that Marines and antiwar protesters could love

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 really possible through the efforts of Ermey, himself a drill instructor in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

“Full Metal Jacket” does not hit its satirical stride until the warriors under Ermey’s watch go off to war. There’s something darkly comic about breaking a man, remolding him into a killer of the highest caliber, and then sending him thousands of miles to fight a war for which there is no clear objective and for which there is no real will to win on the home front. We move from the training grounds of Parris Island to a tent filled with combatants masquerading as journalists — or vice versa.

Far more important in the war than learning how to fire a rifle is learning how to win the PR war: “Chili, if we move Vietnamese, they are evacuees. If they come to us to be evacuated, they are refugees,” Lt. Lockhart (John Terry) instructs his crew of propagandists at Stars and Stripes. “In the future, in place of ‘search and destroy,’ substitute the phrase ‘sweep and clear.’ Got it?”

We get it: It’s a farce, an absurdity. Forcing Marines to care about the minutiae of word choice is a sick joke, a waste of training. Why subject men to the brutality of basic when you could’ve just given them a copy of “The Elements of Style“?

Ermey denied that he was playing himself — “nobody can be that nasty,” he told the New York Times at the film’s initial release — but confirmed, “it was all real.” The beauty of “Full Metal Jacket,” especially its first half, is that reality. It’s an object lesson in the way great art is open to multiple interpretations and in the way our own views of the world can shape and distort the way we see that art. As such, one can understand why the Marine Corps would celebrate Ermey’s greatest role, just as one can understand why those who hate Ermey’s beloved corps believe it to be a host body of the dread toxic masculinity.

Speaking only for myself, I am far more sympathetic to the Marine Corps’ view of Ermey and “Full Metal Jacket”: Kubrick’s film portrays harshness with purpose and suggests the true horror of war is taking such purposeful men and unleashing them on a populace when the suits back home have nothing more than public relations objectives in mind. It’s a masterpiece, and it earned that distinction only because R. Lee Ermey brought to life one of film’s most indelible creations. RIP, Gunny.

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