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R. Lee Ermey Will Be Remembered for One Role. And That Was Enough

It’s hard to think of many actors who became as legendary as R. Lee Ermey did for just 40 minutes of screen time. From the moment he first strolled through the milky gray barracks of “Full Metal Jacket” as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, screaming into the faces of his recruits, popping off taunts like firecrackers, you knew in your bones — you just knew — that you could forget every movie drill sergeant you’d ever seen. This is what those guys were really like. Everything about Ermey seemed to be made of leather: his face, his neck, his vocal cords, his soul. He wasn’t a Southerner (Ermey was born and raised in Kansas), but his voice had the sinewy contours of a mean drawl, and he turned the act of raising it into a thrilling feat of domination. Every word he spoke would be more than just heard. It would be etched onto your f—king brainpan.

And what words they were! The fiendishly over-the-top threats and insults flew out of Ermey’s mouth from moment one, and they were more than just “colorful.” They were voluptuous in their baroque sadism, their dirty purplish fusion of joy and hate. Ermey, a former U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant, was originally hired as a technical adviser on “Full Metal Jacket,” and it was totally his idea to take over the role of Sgt. Hartman. He waged a campaign for it, showing Stanley Kubrick an instructional video he’d made as a kind of demo tape. It didn’t take Kubrick long to realize that no actor could match the found-object, lower-depths-of-the-Marines quality that Ermey brought.

He wrote almost all his own dialogue, improvising dozens of hours of flamboyantly hostile basic-training patter, and the result sounded like the world’s most obscene graffiti turned into redneck grunt poetry.

Much of it, of course, was scabrously funny. “You’re so ugly you could be a modern-art masterpiece!” “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts? Didn’t your mommy and daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?” “I want that head so sanitary that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in there and take a dump!” “I will give you three seconds, exactly three f—king seconds, to wipe that stupid grin off your face or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skullf—k you!”

Hartman was the drill sergeant as apocalyptic insult comic. Yet the more you listened to it, the more you realized that his herky-jerky monologue of abuse was so mesmerizing because it expressed…a worldview. One that you couldn’t just dismiss. Ermey’s Hartman is nothing if not an equal-opportunity hater, with a weirdly liberated quality to his homophobia (“I’ll bet you’re the kind of guy that would f—k a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around!”).

After a while, his tough-nut pensées begin to add up to something, a vision that says: If these words hurt you, then what are sticks and stones — and guns and grenades — going to do? Steel yourself; put your emotions on ice; kill your self-pity; or you won’t survive. Hartman starts off as a stylized figure, a satirical gung-ho American fascist out of Kurt Vonnegut, but the key to Ermey’s performance is that we like Hartman, and grow to respect him (sort of), in the same way that the recruits do. He may seem like a lunatic, but that’s because he’s training these men to do something insane. It’s called war.

If it sounds like I’m turning Hartman into, you know, a good guy, then that too may strike you as a little insane. But “Full Metal Jacket” is one of my favorite films (I’ve seen it dozens of times, and went to see it every day for a week when it first came out), and what I think a lot of people — even Kubrick fans — don’t understand about the film is that it’s not nearly as acerbic and cynical about war as many believe. It’s a film that mutates and evolves in tone and outlook as it goes along. The trick of “Full Metal Jacket” is that it draws on “counterculture” attitudes only to disarm them.

Many viewers love the Parris Island sequence, and Ermey’s performance in it, because its exuberant bootstrap nihilism seems to fit all too snugly into their knee-jerk liberal view of the military as an extreme, dehumanizing, and even debased institution. “Full Metal Jacket” is, after all, a movie about Vietnam, a word that tends to evoke the Pavlovian response of “War — bad!” And the movie makes no political or moral defense of the tragic and wasteful morass that the Vietnam War was.

Yet Kubrick’s view of what it means to be a soldier is far more ambivalent. Matthew Modine’s Joker starts off as a detached ironic cut-up, facing off against Hartman, but by the end of the basic-training sequence his compulsive jocularity has begun to compete with a more sobering view of what his place in the military is; he’s a Joker who morphs into a soldier. And in the cauldron of Vietnam, as captured in the sniper episode of “Full Metal Jacket” that may be the single greatest sequence in any war film, he discovers how to be a brave one. Bravery, along with the mysterious code of military fellowship, is a major part of what “Full Metal Jacket” is about, even though those things aren’t the first to leap to mind as Kubrickian themes.

And the film plants the seeds of those ideas in the reckless charisma of R. Lee Ermey’s performance. His Hartman is a bug-eyed fanatic, but not a monster; his spirit is strange and scary, but that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary. In “Full Metal Jacket,” Ermey showed us something we hadn’t seen before (not fully), and it was funny and shocking and horrifying and, in some screwy way, weirdly admirable. It was the spirit of combat, alive on screen in every hypnotically garish and fearlessly shouted word.

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