Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone filmed their Vietnam War epics in the Philippines. Michael Cimino and Brian De Palma shot theirs in Thailand. Stanley Kubrick chose Norfolk.
The New York-born filmmaker resided in the UK from 1961 until his death in 1999, originally crossing the Atlantic to film his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita before choosing to stay in Hertfordshire permanently. Wishing to stay near his home and hamstrung by his fear of flying, Kubrick chose to spend the rest of his career making movies in the British Isles. This required the director to recreate a large section of New York’s Greenwich Village in Pinewood Studios during the production of Eyes Wide Shut, but his greatest challenge was transforming British locations into the war-torn Vietnam of the 1960s for his 1987 picture Full Metal Jacket which hits the 35th Anniversary mark this year.
Norfolk is featured most prominently in Kubrick’s movie during a harrowing scene where Matthew Modine’s Private Joker takes a helicopter ride across Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, sharing the flight with a psychopathic machine gunner out to kill anyone he sees in the fields below. Kubrick chose to have the Norfolk Broads stand in for the rivers, swampland and rice paddies of the delta. Years later, the James Bond movie Die Another Day would mirror Kubrick’s thinking, passing off farmland in Burnham Deepdale as the paddy fields of North Korea.
Although set in a Marine Recruits Base in South Carolina, Full Metal Jacket’s first half was filmed at Bassingbourn Barracks in Norfolk’s neighbouring county: Cambridgeshire. When watching the sequences where the fearsome Gunnery Sergeant Hartman leads the recruits in marches around the base, sharp-eyed viewers will notice the British road markings trodden over by the platoon. Much of the rest of the film was shot in the East of London, particularly in the abandoned complex of gasworks at Beckton. This location was used to double for the bombed-out broken streets and tower blocks of the Vietnamese city of Hué in the film’s final act, where Private Joker and his platoon engage in bloody urban warfare against Viet Cong forces and fall prey to the expert marksmanship of a lone sniper.
It’s a testament to Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism and technical mastery that every single one of Full Metal Jacket’s locations works as a convincing stand-in for American and Vietnamese cities, fields and military bases. Kubrick’s Vietnam War movie received a somewhat mixed critical reception on its 1987 release, drawing criticism from Time Out London and the American critic Roger Ebert, who infamously gave the movie a thumbs-down on his
TV review show and compared it negatively to Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Over time, however, Full Metal Jacket has become seen as a haunting and indispensable war movie classic, worthy of standing alongside Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove.
Full Metal Jacket looks damn good at thirty-five. Kubrick’s trademark Steadicam tracking shots are icily beautiful, as intricately precise as a complex mathematical formula and as graceful and light as a pirouette. Through his almost superhuman power to craft unforgettable imagery and haunting scenes of primal violent anguish, Kubrick makes his own statement on the inhumanity and despair of the Vietnam War with the eye of an artist and the guts of a hardened veteran.
Stories of war always interested Kubrick and he returned to them frequently, telling tales of World War One, the Seven Years’ War, the Cold War and World War Two in addition to the war in Vietnam. The constant theme in his pictures, even beyond his war films, is institutional dehumanisation. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex has the very essence of his humanity (free will) taken from him by a dictatorial state. In Dr Strangelove, humanity dooms itself to annihilation by trusting an automated computer system with total control over the most destructive nuclear device ever created. In Full Metal Jacket, a group of young men with colourful personalities and a streak of rebelliousness are reduced into soulless killing machines through the sadistically brutal training of their drill sergeant. It may well be the most upsetting movie that Kubrick ever made. We follow Private Joker, named for his iconoclastic humour and cynicism, as he loses all traces of his humanity and relishes only his own continued existence.
A more disturbing theme is laid bare. Through sly innuendo, Kubrick hints at his belief that the masculine codes of war have synthesised the sex drive and the urge to kill in Dr Strangelove, but here he is as explicit as he can possibly be. The marines are dealt out homophobic abuse and treated to sexual humiliation by their drill sergeant until their shooting improves, by which point their masculinity is intimately linked to their abilities with an assault rifle. Kubrick tells us that to condition these young men into embracing the taste of violence, they are taught that to be virile, they needed to be able to kill, and kill well.
To this day, Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War epic remains one of the most prestigious productions to have ever been filmed in Norfolk, drawing international film stars and an expert movie crew to East Anglia. Its haunting themes, exquisite cinematography and stunning set-pieces are made all the more impressive by the fact that they demonstrate what can be achieved by a talented director in British locations. When one is watching Full Metal Jacket, Norfolk is Vietnam. This achievement should always stand as a testament to Norfolk’s suitability and legitimacy as a location for all manner of movies to be made. If Norfolk was good enough for Stanley Kubrick, then it’s good enough for any director in the world.
Written by Frank Evans