During the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, a group of Marine Corps recruits arrive at Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp. Drill Instructor Hartman employs forceful methods to turn the recruits into combat-ready Marines. Among the recruits are privates “Joker”, “Cowboy”, and the overweight and dim-witted Leonard Lawrence, who Hartman nicknames “Gomer Pyle”.
Pyle is initially inept at basic training, but slowly improves after Hartman pairs him with Joker. However, when Hartman discovers a contraband doughnut in Pyle’s foot locker, he adopts a collective punishment policy, punishing the rest of the platoon for Pyle’s mistakes. One night, the recruits haze Pyle with a blanket party; Joker reluctantly participates. Following this incident, Pyle reinvents himself as a model recruit and shows expertise in marksmanship. This impresses Hartman, but worries Joker, who notices Pyle talking to his rifle and believes he may be suffering a mental breakdown.
The recruits graduate and receive their Military Occupational Specialty assignments. Joker is assigned to Military Journalism, while most of the others – including Cowboy and Pyle – are assigned to Infantry. During the platoon’s final night on Parris Island, Joker discovers Pyle in the bathroom loading his rifle. Pyle executes drill commands and loudly recites the Rifleman’s Creed, waking the others, including Hartman, who storms into the bathroom, insults Pyle and orders him to surrender the rifle. Pyle shoots Hartman dead and then kills himself, while Joker watches in horror.
In January 1968, Joker – now a sergeant – is a war correspondent in South Vietnam for Stars and Stripes with Private First Class Rafterman, a combat photographer. Rafterman wants to go into combat, as Joker claims he has. At the Marine base, Joker is mocked for his lack of the thousand-yard stare, indicating his lack of war experience. They are interrupted by the start of the Tet Offensive as the North Vietnamese Army unsuccessfully attempts to overrun the base.
The following day, the journalism staff is briefed about enemy attacks throughout South Vietnam. Joker is sent to Phu Bai, accompanied by Rafterman. They meet the Lusthog Squad, where Joker is reunited with Cowboy. Joker accompanies the squad during the Battle of Huế, where platoon commander “Touchdown” is killed by the enemy. After the Marines declare the area secure, a team of American news journalists and reporters enter Huế and interviews various Marines about their experiences in Vietnam and their opinions about the war.
While patrolling Huế, Crazy Earl, the squad leader, is killed by a booby trap, leaving Cowboy in command. The squad becomes lost and Cowboy orders Eightball to scout the area. A Viet Cong sniper wounds Eightball and Doc Jay, the squad medic. Cowboy learns that tank support is unavailable and orders the team to prepare for withdrawal. The squad’s machine gunner, “Animal Mother”, disobeys Cowboy and attempts to save his comrades. He discovers there is only one sniper, but Doc Jay and Eightball are killed when Doc Jay attempts to indicate the sniper’s location. While maneuvering toward the sniper, Cowboy is shot and killed.
Animal Mother assumes command of the squad and leads an attack on the sniper. Joker discovers the sniper, a teenage girl, and attempts to shoot her, but his rifle jams and alerts her to his presence. Rafterman shoots the sniper, mortally wounding her. As the squad converges, the sniper begs for death, prompting an argument about whether or not to kill her. Animal Mother decides to allow a mercy killing only if Joker performs it. After some hesitation, Joker shoots her. The Marines congratulate him on his kill as Joker stares into the distance, displaying the thousand-yard stare. The Marines march toward their camp, singing the “Mickey Mouse March”. Joker states that despite being “in a world of shit,” he is glad to be alive and is no longer afraid.
Full Metal Jacket is a 1987 war film directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick and starring Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio and Adam Baldwin. The screenplay by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford was based on Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers (1979). The storyline follows a platoon of U.S. Marines through their training, primarily focusing on two privates, Joker and Pyle, who struggle to get through boot camp under their abusive drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, and the experiences of two of the platoon’s Marines in the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. The film’s title refers to the full metal jacket bullet used by soldiers. The film was released in the United States on June 26, 1987. It was the last of Kubrick’s films to be released during his lifetime.
Full Metal Jacket received critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Kubrick, Herr, and Hasford. In 2001, the American Film Institute placed it at No. 95 in their “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills” poll.