To some people, Stanley Kubrick was a master of film, a figure as broad and artistically authentic as Hitchock.
I’m not one of those. There is but one motion picture directed by Kubrick that is any good, that I would watch when the mood struck me: ‘Full Metal Jacket’. I find the latter half of the movie unremarkable, but the first part is engaging, a celluloid temple to the profane and most ill-tempered of personal insults, a moulding of young men to prepare them for the crucible of war. And that only succeeds because of the casting of R. Lee Ermey as a Gunnery Sergeant at Parris Island.
It’s not for the faint of heart or the refined of ear. But anyone who has watched this movie will remember the Gunnery Sergeant.
The actor who portrayed this loud curmudgeon passed away this week of pneumonia at the age of 74, an undignified passing for a former Marine, but an unfortunately typical one for a man of his age.
The passing of Winnie Mandela in this last fortnight meant very little to me as a South African. The passing of Barbara Bush most recently meant more to me as she was a strong conservative woman and I admired both her husband as well as her son, George W. Bush very much. To my political palate, ’41 and ’43 were decent presidents and decent men.
However it is the passing of R. Lee Ermey that caused me to reflect on a falling tree that is a man. The terrible Tourettes tour-de-force that Ermey brought to his role was forged in his time as a drill sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. For the most part, the US Marines churn out decent men who make it in society, and who also have the benefit of being able to kick bad-guy butt when the situation demands it.
According to a brief bit of research, the Corps can be traced back to the formation of Continental Marines on 10 November 1775 during the Revolutionary war. Thereafter the Marines saw duty against the Barbary pirates in the attempt to take Tripoli.
It makes you think, Tripoli seems to have had its problems for a long time.
The Marine Corps has seen action in every war that America has been a part of: the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and most recently the War on Terror. Stick a pin in a map of the Middle East and odds are Marines have fought bravely there.
I compare the generally quiet and otherwise unremarkable life of R. Lee Ermey with the attention-seeking former FBI director James Comey who has fallen from grace but in a stunning bout of ill-timing decided to release his memoirs, called ‘A Higher Duty’, with what many law enforcement careerists agree is hubris and pettiness.
Washington D.C. is Rome. Back-stabbing, leaks, character assassination, sabotage and outright lying is the norm. James Comey found himself thriving in such an environment. R. Lee Ermey was a soldier and an actor. Not in the typical Hollywood sense where an actor is a hypocrite, akin to a medieval ‘fool’. In later years when Hollywood producers became more aware of his conservative politics, Ermey was black-balled.
He took it like a man. And here is the rub. What Ermey, and other genuine men teach me is that a man has honour.
An unpopular notion, an un-cool idea, but honor: doing the right thing at all times and making it right when you do it wrong.
And that’s what I’ll remember about Gunny.