Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket, follows two Marine privates (played by Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio) from boot camp all the way through to one of the largest campaigns in the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive.
Of all the memorable aspects of Kubrick’s film, perhaps the most talked about is the story of R Lee Ermey, who played the role of foul-mouthed drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Here’s a few reasons why the man’s legacy remains legendary.
He was a decorated war veteran
From 1961-71, Ermey served in the US Marine Corps and retired on a medical disability with the rank of staff sergeant. Later, due to services rendered, he was given the honorary rank of gunnery sergeant (which, coincidentally, was the rank he’d end up playing in Full Metal Jacket). His war awards include Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Bronze Service Star, Good Conduct Medal and Marksman Badge.
He was never meant to star in 'Full Metal Jacket'
As he had on previous war films, Ermey was on Kubrick’s set as a technical adviser for the actor intended to play the gunnery sergeant. It was a particularly important behind-the-scenes role for a thorough man like Kubrick. Ermey went above and beyond, recording tapes and writing stacks of pages worth of authentic drill sergeant dialogue to inspire the actor.
He landed the role just by being himself
When Kubrick heard the tapes and read the dialogue, it became clear Ermey was the only man to play the role. These writings and recordings were riddled with some of the most original “motivating” insults Kubrick had ever heard and it not only led to the recasting, but to Kubrick doing something he rarely did throughout his career – he let Ermey write every single bit of his own dialogue.
He came up with rants such as…
"Are you quitting on me? Well, are you? Then quit, you slimy f***ing walrus-looking piece of s***! Get the f*** off of my obstacle! Get the f*** down off of my obstacle! NOW! MOVE IT! Or I'm going to rip your balls off, so you cannot contaminate the rest of the world! I will motivate you, Private Pyle, IF IT SHORT-D***S EVERY CANNIBAL ON THE CONGO!”
It sparked a long-lasting career
After Full Metal Jacket, which earned him a Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes, Ermey ended up in Mississippi Burning (1988), Fletch Lives (1989), Toy Soldiers (1991), Sommersby (1993), Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), The Frighteners (1996) and, of course, the Toy Story series voicing the role of Sarge. He guest starred in TV series The X-Files, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Scrubs and House, and has since made a niche for himself as a voice actor for animated films, most recently in Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (2012).
He has parodied his role in 'Full Metal Jacket'
In 1996’s The Frighteners, the Peter Jackson horror comedy starring Michael J Fox, Ermey was tasked to send up his role from Full Metal Jacket as a ghost. In fact, you’ll find that in most comedies or animated comedies that include the role of a drill sergeant, chances are they’re some version of Ermey. Having an entire on-screen archetype based on your natural talent for hurling military insults as a motivational tool is something not many actors get to experience.
Watch Full Metal Jacket on Friday 15 December at 8:30pm on SBS.