I just changed my profile image to one of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and after doing that I thought it would be interesting to tell the story behind arguably the best scene in this classic Kubrick war movie.
The average movie-goer is probably not familiar with the actual meaning of ‘full metal jacket’, but it’s also probable that anyone who see’s the movie of the same name will have a fuller understanding, not to mention a fairly harrowing virtual experience. Released in 1987, directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket recieved some mixed reviews but nobody claimed it wasn’t a memorable flick.
In the opening scenes of the movie, a group of recruits gets an introduction to boot camp from Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the Senior Drill Instructor. Hartman is played – if that’s the word – by R. Lee Ermey, and to this day it is doubtful if any actor past or present could have been more convincing in the role.
According to the record, Kubrick did not choose Ermey for the part. In fact the little-known actor was hired as a technical consultant based on his experience in the military, but his talent as a character actor went far beyond his technical expertise. Ermey submitted a video of himself as a drill sergeant, lambasting troops for 15 minutes straight without once hesitating or repeating himself. Kubrick was so impressed that he changed his mind and hired Ermey to replace Tim Colceri, who had originally been cast in the role.
*Another version of the story has Ermey watching the filming and deciding the actors and action were not authentic, so he went to Kubrick to ask for the part of Hartman. Kubrick declined, but Ermey, in full drill sergeant mode, snarled, “Stand up when you’re talking to me,” and the director reflexively stood up – and hired Ermey for the role.
After all, an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Service with multiple decorations and honours plus actual drill sergeant experience had to be something of an expert on the subject. Add to that a real talent for acting and you have the ear-splitting, foul mouthed and fearsome drill sergeant of privates’ nightmares.
Stanley Kubrick is well known for meticulous, attention-to-detail perfectionism in his direction, so it was highly unusual for him to give Ermey almost free rein in many of his scenes, most notably his opening harangue to the hapless young men lined up before him at Parris Island. To watch and listen to Ermey-as-Hartman is shocking, scary and absolutely riveting; not for the squeamish, for sure.
Interviews after the film’s release revealed that not only did Ermey have considerable latitude in his choice of dialogue and action, Kubrick deliberately kept him away from the actors who played the roles of his trainees/victims before filming began. That incredible ‘induction speech’ with its wildly graphic, vulgar and politically incorrect lines was unrehearsed, and delivered with such raw venom and utter confidence that it’s a wonder those young men didn’t break and run.
Overall the filming of Full Metal Jacket was a gruelling experience for many of the cast members, but for Ermey there were further complications. During filming – after hours – he was in a Jeep accident and broke several ribs on his left side. Kubrick halted production of Ermey’s scenes until he recovered enough to work, but in several of those scenes he never moved his left arm.
If you haven’t seen it, knowing in advance that it’s almost entirely Ermey, not a pre-scripted speech, is more than impressive; it’s terrifying. As a character actor, R. Lee Ermey can truly be said to live the part.