Cast: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, Ed O’Ross
Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford)
SUMMARY: In 1967, during the Vietnam War, a new group of U.S. Marine Corps recruits comes to Parris Island, South Carolina for basic training. They are immediately set upon by their drill sergeant, Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey), who renames several of the recruits – they become Privates “Joker” (Matthew Modine), “Cowboy”, “Snowball” and “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio). Joker attracts immediate attention for speaking out of turn, but it is Gomer Pyle who becomes the object of Hartman’s wrath. Pyle repeatedly makes mistakes, from not properly following drill commands to not getting dressed the right way. Hartman continues to harass him at every turn, but eventually, he realizes that his efforts have been unsuccessful. When Joker dares to contradict him one evening, Hartman makes Joker the new squad leader, and orders him to personally assist Pyle. Joker proves to be a much more patient (and calm) instructor, and Pyle makes drastic improvements in all areas. However, during inspection one night Hartman discovers a jelly donut in Pyle’s footlocker – which he is forbidden to have. Hartman then decides that instead of punishing Pyle for his mistakes, he will punish the rest of the company and force Pyle to watch. After a few days, the other recruits fight back at Pyle: they wrap bars of soap in towels, and beat Pyle with them one night. Much to the dismay of Pyle, Joker joins in the punishment (not wanting to cause division with the others). After this, Pyle becomes a model Marine recruit: his drilling is flawless, he has memorized the required passages, and he maintains his personal effects meticulously. However, Joker becomes worried when he notices that Pyle has started to talk to his rifle. When the recruits graduated, they are given their new assignments. Joker, who worked on his school paper in high school, is assigned to a journalism post, but most of the others (including Pyle) are assigned to the infantry. On their last night on Parris Island, Joker is on watch in the dormitory when he finds Pyle in the bathroom. Pyle has a crazed look in his eyes and seems mostly unresponsive to Joker’s inquiries – he just keeps loading his rifle with real bullets. When Pyle starts to recite the Rifleman’s Creed, it awakens Hartman, who also comes into the bathroom. He attempts to talk Pyle down, first gently and then roughly, ultimately ordering him to drop the rifle. Instead, Pyle shoots Hartman dead at point-blank range. He then puts the rifle in his own mouth and kills himself as well.
The next time we see Joker, he is stationed in Vietnam as a correspondent for the servicemen’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes. He is usually paired with photographer Private Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), who is bored with their cushy assignments, and wants to experience real combat. Joker frequently annoys his commanding officer with his questioning of military policy and strategy: on one occasion, he brings up a rumor that the Vietnamese are planning to attack on Tet. His superior immediately shoots this down as ridiculous, but Joker is soon proved right when the Tet Offensive is launched. The next day, Joker and Rafterman are sent on assignment to Phu Bai. Joker is thrilled to learn that his old friend Cowboy is stationed in the area, and he manages to arrange a reunion. He goes with Cowboy’s squad when they go out on a mission (part of the Battle of Hue), where they quickly find themselves involved in combat. Eventually, the Marines are victorious; afterwards a camera crew comes by to conduct interviews and get footage of the soldiers, all of whom treat the crew derisively. The next day, the squad is sent out on patrol. They are not expecting any trouble, but when their squad leader is killed by a booby trap, they are forced to adapt. Cowboy becomes the new leader, but he and the navigator soon realized that they have veered off course, and are now lost. Cowboy sends out one man to scout the immediate area, only to have this man shot by a sniper. Cowboy orders the others to stay put until reinforcements arrive, but the group’s doctor goes to the wounded man. He is also shot by the sniper. Over the radio, Cowboy learns that no tank support will be coming; realizing that the sniper will just pick them off as they come, he orders the squad to retreat. However, one of the men refuses to listen, and instead charges forward. He is able to learn the sniper’s location from the wounded doctor, but the two wounded men are then shot several times more, killing both. Forced to follow the rogue soldier, the other members of the squad charge forward, intent on finding the sniper. While planning their next move, Cowboy is shot and killed. The others manage to infiltrate the building and find the sniper, who turns out to be a teenage girl. Joker attempts to shoot her, but his rifle jams; instead it is Rafterman who opens fire on her; he seriously wounds her, but does not kill her. The remaining squad members gather around the girl, who begins begging for them to shoot her. The new squad leader wants to let her die, but Joker insists on doing something: the squad leader ultimately agrees to shoot the girl, provided that Joker is the one to do it. After a few moments of hesitation, Joker kills the girl. Joker then develops a haunted look, one that the men call the “thousand-yard stare”. As they march back to camp, the men sing the “Mickey Mouse March”; in a voiceover, Joker notes that although he is in the midst of hell, he is glad to be alive.
MY TAKE: Vietnam movies are different from most other American war movies, because you know that things will end badly: there’s not going to be any triumphant victory at the end of the movie, or even as an epilogue. It was an unwinnable hellhole, and everybody now knows that. This immediately creates a somber mood for any Vietnam movie. This one seemed very realistic in its depiction of the war, but it almost seems like a second act, with basic training being the first act. We know that a lot of soldiers came back from Vietnam with PTSD, because of what they saw, which was obviously way worse than anything they went through in basic training. However, this basic training is shown to be potentially damaging in itself, as it pushes Pyle into madness. I don’t get the impression that Hartman was trying to do this to Pyle: I think he really was trying to motivate him in the established way (everybody knows drill sergeants are mean pieces of work). It does make sense in a way: somebody that is constantly singled out and punished will not want this to continue, so he will remedy his mistakes. Unfortunately in Pyle’s case, this abuse went too far. This is the reason that I’m scared of Vincent D’Onofrio when I see him on TV ads for Law and Order: Criminal Intent – the look in his eyes when Hartman comes into the bathroom will haunt your dreams. It’s kind of like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs: anytime somebody is that convincingly crazy, I can’t help but think that it’s not entirely fake. The real scene-stealer, though, is Lee Ermey, who played Hartman. Ermey actually was a drill instructor in the Marine Corps, so his portrayal is entirely accurate (he actually made up most of his lines). Most of the time, the threats and abuse he yells at the recruits are serious, but once in a while one of them is sort of amusing. Luckily for the men, they didn’t laugh. I was a little surprised that Hartman didn’t notice that something was wrong with Pyle, or that he kept pushing him. Although their job is obviously to get young men ready for the war, you would think that there would be a point when the drill instructor knew it was too much. Even at the end, Hartman kept yelling at Pyle. I was much more understanding of Joker’s method: when facing a lunatic with a loaded weapon, speak nicely and act calm.