Welcome to That One Scene, a semi-regular series in which Task & Purpose senior reporter James Clark waxes nostalgic about that one scene from a beloved movie.
Few films capture the spirit of Marine Corps boot camp better than Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War drama, Full Metal Jacket.
Adapted from The Short-Timers, a novel by Marine veteran Gustav Hasford, Full Metal Jacket is a case study in Marine Corps myth and culture. It runs like a current throughout the film, from the swamps and rifle ranges of Parris Island, South Carolina, to the jungles of Vietnam and the streets of Hue City.
But nowhere is it more present and memorable than in the verbal, physical, and mental abuse meted out to the protagonist, Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) and his fellow would-be Marines, by their menacing drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, played by the late R. Lee Ermey.
More specifically, that moment when the freshly buzz-cut recruits meet the man who will torment and transform them into “ministers of death, praying for war.”
When I first watched Full Metal Jacket, I was a sophomore in college. Within a year, I was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. That’s not a coincidence. There’s something about that scene that left an indelible mark, and it ensured beyond a doubt that I joined the ranks of “the phony tough, and the crazy brave,” as the narrator calls the Corps.
The entire seven-minute scene is one prolonged dive into depravity, pain, and verbal abuse, with Hartman performing like a virtuoso whose medium is profanity. And as a kid who grew up relatively coddled in a Bay Area, California suburb, it also felt a little bit like a dare: Could I deal with that?
And I know I’m not alone.
“It throws down a challenge because when you watch something like that, you see something that’s extremely difficult to do, and probably outside of your comfort zone,” said Maj. Josef Patterson, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Media Liaison Office, which works with the entertainment industry, providing support for military-focused productions.
“And for the few that it attracts, that’s what they’re looking for, that was the hope. A movie like that, that some people are going to view as ‘oh dear lord, I’ll never do that.’ Then there are those few who are like ‘I could do that.’”
The undeniable impact of that scene can largely be attributed to Ermey’s performance as a one-man whirlwind of furiously delivered insults, something he picked up during his time terrorizing recruits as a real-life Marine Corps drill instructor.
“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon,” Hartman rants, as he coolly marches through the squad bay. “You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day, you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings. You are nothing but unorganized grab-ass-tic pieces of amphibian shit!”
With his wide-brimmed hat, Hartman is like a rabid Smokey The Bear in service alphas, more interested in burning the forest down with you in it than preventing wildfires. He is somehow both unbridled chaos and tightly wound order, his ferocity permitted to reign free within the confines of Parris Island. Hartman is both horrifying and mesmerizing, all at once. If you can endure that — endure him — then you can endure anything, the scene seems to suggest.
Anthony Swofford, a Marine Corps veteran and the acclaimed author of Jarhead, put it best for the New York Times in April 2018 following Ermey’s death:
Hartman had hooked us with the promise that he — this leather-faced, battle-hardened beast — could turn young, soft, irrelevant boys into the most lethal human killing machines in history. “Full Metal Jacket” wasn’t the only reason I joined the Marine Corps, but it was a major one. The Gunny pointing his finger in a recruit’s face while shouting profanity, hurling insults at the recruits’ manhood and mothers and posing questions and insinuations about their sexuality indoctrinated us with the idea that coded racism, physical abuse and psychological hazing went hand in hand with becoming a man. For my generation and those to come, the Gunny secured the already-supercharged drill instructor stereotype into one of the most recognizable characters in movie history.
Despite the scandal that would ensue if an actual drill instructor were filmed behaving like Hartman, the Corps has significantly benefited from Full Metal Jacket’s dramatization of recruit training. And why should that be a surprise? A generation of aviators, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, Rangers, and SEALs signed up thanks to Top Gun, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, Black Hawk Down, or Lone Survivor.
But with Hartman’s tirade in Full Metal Jacket, the sales pitch isn’t what you’ll do in the Marine Corps; it’s can you make it through boot camp to do it.
“I enlisted on my 17th birthday and I was like a recruiter’s dream,” said Patterson, who admits that he marched right into the recruiter’s office with the swagger that only comes from those who have no idea what they’re getting into.
“I walked in there all cocky and confident, and this staff sergeant looks me up and down… and he’s like ‘so you want to be a Marine, huh?’” Patterson said. “Then he goes ‘sit down and watch this.’ And he puts on Full Metal Jacket, with the boot camp scene, and R. Lee Ermey there just going up and down the squad bay, doing his thing.’”
“And I left much less confident, but by the time I got to boot camp, I had a pretty good idea, at least in my head, of what kind of to expect.”
Now, 33 years after its release, it continues to shape and inform generations of Marine recruits.
“Even back then, I think the film did a great job at capturing that,” Patterson said. “And I think the Marine Corps has done a great job at using it.”
Full Metal Jacket, and Ermey’s performance as Hartman, drew many of us to serve with the promise of a crucible, and its reward of eternal bragging rights.
However, the allure of that one scene, as iconic as it is, is paper-thin. As Swofford wrote in his Times article, “it was rather useless stuff for the veteran trying to piece it all back together.”
He’s not wrong. Recruit training, after all, is just the start — a few short weeks that felt like an eternity of abuse to prepare men and women for the rigors and risks of military service but offers little guidance on what to do after.
Hartman never answers the question: What becomes of that “minister of death” once he’s pulled the trigger? What becomes of his identity when it’s taken away, when the war is done, or at least, his part in it is?
Despite the scene’s complicated legacy that encourages us to wear the bullshit we endured as Marines like a badge of honor, Hartman’s diatribe remains an iconic moment. Years after we’ve enlisted, served, deployed, and gotten out, that one scene still manages to bring us back to that time, and what it felt like at that moment: Caught between wanting to know what it’s like — to go to war, be in combat, to be that person you never thought you could, to endure what you never imagined you would — and the actual knowing.
For seven rage-filled minutes, we get to inhabit the naive skin of our younger selves, before clicking off the television and returning to the lives we have now with the hard-earned lessons and knowledge that came after we left the depot.