According to director John Boorman, Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Bill McKinney in the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. However, Kubrick was so unsettled after viewing McKinney's performance in Deliverance that he declined to meet with him, saying he was simply too frightened at the idea of being in McKinney's presence. Kubrick then hired Tim Colceri to play Hartman. Colceri never got to play the role, as former US Marine Corps Drill Instructor R. Lee Ermey, consultant for the Marine Corps boot camp portion of the film, performed a demonstration on videotape in which he yelled obscene insults and abuse for 15 minutes without stopping, repeating himself or even flinching - despite being continuously pelted with tennis balls and oranges. Stanley Kubrick was so impressed that he cast Ermey as Hartman. Colceri was bitter but accepted Kubrick's consolation prize of a small role as a helicopter door-gunner.
Stanley Kubrick was well known for having a very small crew on set. On one occasion, after the electrician finished lighting a set, Kubrick told him, "Okay, this is how I want the scene lit and I'm not going to change it." Kubrick then sent the man to fix some wiring in his house.
Vincent D'Onofrio gained 70 pounds for his role as Pvt. Pyle, breaking Robert De Niro's movie weight-gain record (60 pounds) for Raging Bull. It took him seven months to put the weight on and nine months to take it off with physical training.
Michael Herr, a very close friend of Stanley Kubrick, helped write much of the screenplay, particularly the part set in Vietnam. His contributions to the script are based largely on his own experiences as a reporter covering the war. Like Joker and Rafterman he was essentially freelance and allowed to travel anywhere in the country. Additionally, the scene where Joker and Rafterman watch the crazed gunner in the chopper machine-gun civilians is taken directly from "Dispatches", Herr's memoir of his experiences.
R. Lee Ermey was involved in a jeep accident during the making of the movie. At 1:00 a.m. one night he skidded off the road, breaking all the ribs on his left side. He refused to pass out, and kept flashing his car lights until a motorist stopped. In some scenes you'll notice that he does not move his left arm at all. Stanley Kubrick claimed in an interview that it took four and a half months before Ermey could return to work in which production simply had to be suspended since he was involved in all the remaining scenes.
Stanley Kubrick's frequent cinematographer John Alcott was approached to shoot the movie but turned it down, instead focusing on US-based projects, and Alcott's focus puller Douglas Milsome took over his duties. Filming took about six months and was shut down for 20 weeks from June 1985 to September 1986. Alcott died of a heart attack at end of July 1986.
Some scenes of the ruined city of Hue were shot at a dockyard on the Isle of Dogs, London, that was scheduled for demolition. The ruins of Hue in the sniper and final nighttime scenes were shot at the Beckton Gasworks in London's East End, which was also slated for demolition. In some shots there is a rock in the background that looks very much like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick said it wasn't intentional, but only noticed while watching the rushes. Beckton Gas Works was used a year before for the movie Biggles: Adventures in Time.
Most actors auditioned for their roles by submitting videotapes of themselves performing a scene in Vietnam. Stanley Kubrick and the studio placed ads throughout the US for young aspiring actors to send in audition tapes for the film. They received around 3000, of which Kubrick personally watched about 800.
Much, if not all, of R. Lee Ermey's dialogue during the Parris Island sequence was improvised. While filming the opening scene, where he disciplines Pvt. Cowboy, he says Cowboy is the type of guy who would have sex with another guy "and not even have the goddamned common courtesy to give him a reach-around". Stanley Kubrick immediately yelled cut and went over to Ermey and asked, "What the hell is a reach-around?" Ermey politely explained what it meant. Kubrick laughed and re-shot the scene, telling Ermey to keep the line.
The videotape demonstration was not the only factor which got R. Lee Ermey the role as the drill instructor. Ermey went to Stanley Kubrick and asked for the part, as the actors on the set were, in his opinion, not up to snuff. When Kubrick declined, Ermey barked an order for Kubrick to stand up when he was spoken to, and the director instinctively obeyed. That sealed the matter, and Ermey won the part as Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann.
To create a realistic effect during Vietnam battle scenes, DP Douglas Milsome experimented with a camera with a shutter thrown off sync. This effect was reused in another war movie, Saving Private Ryan.
The inscription "I Am Become Death" is written on Animal Mother's helmet. This is a quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita, spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer after the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo.
The entire film was shot in England (Pinewood Studios and Bassingbourn Barracks). Footage of an actual graduation ceremony at Parris Island was used in the film, with an insert from England added to it. For the final battle scenes set in Hue, Stanley Kubrick was able to use the abandoned gasworks town of Beckton on the River Thames. Researchers painstakingly went through dozens of shots of the real Hue in order to make sure Beckton looked authentic, and palm trees were brought into the area to create a tropical effect.
In several of the Vietnam scenes a Red Ryder B.B. gun can be seen in the squad leaders pack, and in the scene where "Vietnam: The Movie" is being filmed he is holding it in his hand as the camera crew goes by. The weapon is in fact an M-79 40mm Grenade launcher affectionately known as "THUMPER".
Advertisements for this film were censored in some parts of Canada due to the tagline "In Vietnam the wind doesn't blow, it sucks." At that time, Canadian censors had not yet decided whether the phrase "it sucks" (or "this sucks") was obscene.
To make Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann's performance and the recruits' reactions as convincing as possible, Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio, and the other actors playing recruits never met R. Lee Ermey prior to filming. Stanley Kubrick also saw to it that Ermey didn't fraternize with the actors between takes.
His shirt on Parris Island reveals that Pvt. Joker's real name is J.T. Davis. This is a deliberate reference to Spec. James T. Davis, the first officially recognized U.S. casualty in Vietnam, who was killed in 1961.
The term "full metal jacket" refers to the type of small arms ammunition used in warfare, as heard in Private Pyle's famous line spoken on the toilet, "7.62 millimeter, full... metal... jacket." Full metal jacket ammunition has a copper coating covering the lead core of its projectile.
In the first part of the movie, in the sequences inside the barracks during the drill, a special lens was designed to keep every single soldier in focus. Stanley Kubrick intended that no one was special and they all had the same treatment.
Stanley Kubrick shot a scene in the Norfolk Broads where a Westland "Wessex" helicopter (flown by a stunt pilot) was required to fly low down along a canal (the area doubling for paddy fields) while someone fired a heavy machine gun out of the doors. The scene was shot at dawn and the local police were supposed to have warned fishermen but there was a communications problem. The many fishermen were awoken by a US helicopter apparently machine gunning their "positions". The Wessex itself was subsequently damaged during filming when the tail rotor got pushed into an obstacle while the copter was parked.
The gasworks town of Beckton (used for the climatic battle in Hue) was also used in the film Nineteen Eighty-Four. Incidentally, some of the buildings seen were designed by a French architect who also worked in Hue.
Tony Spiridakis (Captain January) was deleted from the final print. In the screenplay, Captain January has the longest dialog scene - which was the first scene of the movie to be shot. Rehearsal was done in one week and filming of the scene was shot in 4 weeks. However, during post-production, Stanley Kubrick realized that the off-screen actor performing the scene with Spiradikis was completely out of timing and decided to scrap the scene. All of his scenes were subsequently cut out.
In the Sea Tiger editorial scene, an American flag was seen at the back of the Quonset hut. This was Gustav Hasford's nod to his fellow combat correspondent Bob Bayer who donated photographs and various items for set decoration of the movie. The flag seen was also his and it contains signatures of all First Marine combat correspondents of 1967-68.
The 7.62mm full metal jacket round that Pvt. Pyle refers to was the standard infantry round leading up to the Vietnam War. It was used in the M-14 infantry rifle that was designed during WWII and manufactured up until the Vietnam war era. Although the M-14 was used in the Vietnam War the M-16 had replaced it as the standard rifle. The M-16 uses a 5.56mm round.
Stanley Kubrick had nothing but praise for R. Lee Ermey's skills as a performer. Kubrick originally was going to write dialogue for Ermey's character himself, but he became so impressed with what Ermey improvised, that he decided it wasn't necessary. He just let him ad-lib, something practically unheard of for a Stanley Kubrick film. Ermey's performances were so faultless that Kubrick only needed 2-3 takes to get his scenes filmed, also extremely rare for a Kubrick film.
R. Lee Ermey actually slapped Vincent D'Onofrio in the scene where he knocks his hat off. It was D'Onofrio's idea. Unfortunately for him, he forgot about Stanley Kubrick's perfectionism. He had to endure take after take of real slaps.
All the out door scenes during basic training were filmed at Bassingbourne barracks in Cambridgeshire. In WWII this was an 8th Airforce bomber base, home to the 91st Bomber Group. This was the Bomb Group that the Memphis Belle belonged to and the base is where all 25 of her missions were flown from. (Matthew Modine starred in the movie Memphis Belle as the pilot of the plane on its final mission.)
Val Kilmer auditioned for the part of Pvt. Joker. According to Matthew Modine, Kilmer confronted Modine in a restaurant and challenged Modine to a fight because he believed that Modine had stolen the part from him. But Modine was not even aware of the film at the time. Modine later sent Kubrick footage from Vision Quest and won the part.
Lines from the scene in which Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and Private Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) are approached by the Da Nang Hooker (Papillon Soo) were sampled in 2 Live Crew's 1989 hit "Me So Horny" on the album 'As Nasty As They Wanna Be'. The exchange between Joker and the hooker - "What do we get for ten dollars? / Every t'ing you want. / Everything? / Every t'ing." - is used at the very beginning of the song. While the "Me so horny. Me love you long time" sample is used in the chorus of the song, as well as throughout. If you listen carefully to the samples at the very beginning and end of the song, you can hear Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'", which plays under the original scene in the movie. The song also contains a sample from Which Way Is Up?.
According to an interview with Vincent D'Onofrio, the production schedule for the film was so drawn-out that lead actor Matthew Modine got married, conceived a child with his wife, the child was born, and then turned 1 year old...all during the course of filming.
Stanley Kubrick had extensive phone conversations with writer Gustav Hasford over the screenplay, to discuss the adaptation of his novel into a movie. He eventually wanted to meet with Hasford in person, even though co-screenwriter Michael Herr tried to talk Kubrick out of this, as he thought Hasford was a 'scary man'. The meeting took place at Kubrick's house, but it went so bad that Hasford was kept out of the writing process for the remainder of production. Hasford later considered legal action to obtain a full writing credit on the screenplay.
For the final battle of Hue, 200 pine trees were imported from Spain and a few thousand tropical plastic plants were imported from Hong Kong. Plastic trees had previously been flown in from California, but upon seeing them, Stanley Kubrick reportedly said: "I don't like it. Get rid of it."
In his memoir, Matthew Modine claims that Stanley Kubrick didn't want him to leave the set to be present at his wife's delivery, and he threatened to injure himself in order to get to the hospital before Kubrick relented and allowed him to leave.
Stanley Kubrick's daughter makes a cameo appearance during a scene in Vietnam where Joker and Rafterman encounter a mass open grave. She can be seen wielding a motion picture camera, shooting into the open grave for a few moments. Vivian Kubrick was also the film's composer, credited as Abigal Mead. According to her, the name was based on Abbott's Mead, the mansion where the Kubricks lived from 1965 to 1979. It was located near to MGM's Borehamwood studio.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Mickey Mouse is referred to at the end of both segments: when Hartmann enters the head to confront Joker and Pyle, he cries "What is this Mickey Mouse shit?" ("Mickey Mouse" was GI slang for something - or someone - that was petty, stupid and senseless); and Joker and company sing the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club as they march through the burning city. A third Mickey Mouse reference is in the press room: a Mickey Mouse figure can be seen near the window behind Pvt. Joker.
In the first draft, Mickey Mouse was only referred to once, and Joker was the one to be killed in the end. Hartmann was originally called Gerheim. In the final draft, Cowboy was the one that was killed in the end and another Mickey Mouse reference was added at the end (the Club theme).