Part one here
Of all the movies in this set, Full Metal Jacket bears the least resemblance to its principal source material: The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford.
Stanley Kubrick was not reverential in his treatment of the works of others. The Hungarian composer Ligeti took legal action against Kubrick when his composition Aventures was modified without his permission for the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stephen King didn’t care much for Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Judged on its own merits FMJ is tough viewing. The first time I saw it, back in 1987, I overheard a conversation from two rows ahead just as the lights went down. ‘Jeff said it starts out funny and then it changes all of a sudden.’ Jeff wasn’t telling any fibs there, was he?
Gustav Hasford was a part of the film’s production team for a while but eventually fell out with Kubrick. And there’s no denying that his novel was – let’s say it, let’s use the word – butchered in the transition to a script. The Short-Timers is not difficult reading. Unlike Michael Herr’s Dispatches – a broad and somewhat rambling meditation on the war – Hasford’s book is straightforward and cold in the scenes it paints. Kubrick however saw the book not as a whole but as a collection of parts to be used or discarded as required. He expanded the first section, omitted the second, and reworked the final third almost beyond recognition. It’s a mark of Kubrick’s cinematic skills that Full Metal Jacket plays as a seamless whole. Reading The Short Timers after seeing the movie however is akin to strolling unsuspecting into a minefield. Rafterman, for example: the grunt who makes a jeering comment about the Congressional Medal of Honor in the film has the misfortune to be run over by a tank in the book. An American tank at that.
The waronterrornews blog points out a more interesting alteration. Both book and movie depict the shooting of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (in the book, Gerheim) by platoon weakling turned master rifleman Leonard. In the movie Hartman berates Leonard for making a racket after lights out; Leonard takes him out mid-sentence and then shoots himself. The book takes a different angle…
…instead of the – yes, shocking – but conventional filmed moment where Leonard shoots a babbling, yelling Hartman we now have Gerheim/Hartman’s pivotal realization that he has done it – that he has succeeded in turning Leonard/Pyle into a cold-blooded killer just as he intended.
Now, you can interpret the “Private Pyle, I’m proud…” statement a different way if you want, but Hasford wrote: “His eyes, his manner are those of a wanderer who has found his home. He is a man in complete control…He smiles. It is not a friendly smile, but an evil smile…”
I’m sorry, but there’s no mistaking that – Hartman/Gerheim knows that Pyle’s about to shoot him, and he’s content with this outcome.
Why did Kubrick alter that? It’s a darker, much better scene.
Special tribute of course must be paid to R Lee Ermey, who created in Gunnery Sergeant Hartman the most memorable military screen presence of the late 20th century. Ermey was originally hired as an off-screen consultant. An actor had already been cast as Hartman. Ermey presented Kubrick with videos of himself giving the Hartman treatment to extras and won the role.
Lothar-Günther Buchheim was not happy either with Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of his tale of submarine warfare Das Boot. (I’m tempted to devote the next post in this series to ‘satisfied authors’. But since they’re obviously as rare as rocking-horse poop…) Herr Buchhiem dismissed the result as American action rubbish combined with German propaganda rubbish. I’ve seen American action rubbish set on a submarine. It was called U-571 and its makers belong at the bottom of the Marianas Trench with concrete neckties. I can’t agree with the ‘Nazi propaganda’ verdict either. Das Boot is about the crew of a German U-boat, but there’s not much that’s grand or noble about their operations. They are dutiful soldiers rather than enthusiastic followers of Der Fuhrer. For submariners more than any other field of the military, getting home was the greatest victory of them all. The book and the movie make this point quite baldly right at the start:
So much for schoolboy stories about the silent killers of the sea.
Whatever Herr B failed to find onscreen, I’d personally nominate Das Boot as one of the best war movies ever from any nation. It is intensely atmospheric. My first viewing was at the Luna Outdoor Cinema on a hot summer night. The film is equally spacious as it opens with a car driving along the French coast to the submarine pens. The submariners indulge themselves in a wild night of boozing before setting out the next day. Cleverly, the film’s opening sequences put me at ease and then narrowed the focus down. When the depth charges began exploding around the sub I was right there with the crew, hardly daring to breathe, waiting for the blast that would rip our small metal tube apart.
The director and the cameraman put everything into recreating the claustrophobia of submarine life. Junior officers who ate with the captain were seated in the passageway. If someone had to get through they were obliged to stand up and make way. When a British warship suddenly appears, bearing down on the U-boat, all available men run to the nose to accelerate the dive. The camera goes with them, jumping and dodging. The actors playing the crew were not permitted to go outside during the day so they would have the proper pallor of the undersea sailors.
Like A Rumor of War, Das Boot was originally made for television and then recut for the big screen. Several versions exist. I own the Director’s Cut DVD which runs 3 1/2 hours, and this compares very favourably with the book. The only significant loss is from close to the end of the book, when the lone pro-Nazi officer on the U-Boat makes an error that nearly results in a neutral ship being torpedoed.
Final words from a comment on the film at IMDB:
The brilliance of Das Boot is that it makes you realize that while the sailors it depicts are “the enemy,” they’re just men like any other country’s fighting men; they aren’t Nazis, they aren’t political, they’re men at the forefront of a war far removed from the comforts of an office where they play god with the lives of men they’ll never see.