Many know actor R. Lee Ermey for his role as the nightmarish drill sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. But what if you could see him carry that performance through another film, say, as a badass platoon protecting a tiny firebase during the Tet Offensive? Welcome to Firebase Gloria.
Tarantino boasts owning an original 35mm print of this film, and with good reason. Not since Turkey Shoot has a film tickled so many of my grindhouse g-spots. This is a goddamn rumble out in the rice patty, where the man in the black pajamas came for a fight and is going to leave with an American flag sticking out of his ass and a dollar pinned to his shirt…
This film makes a couple of really bold moves. First, it may be the only film I’ve seen on the subject of Vietnam that gives its own narrative to the Vietcong, and does so to make a greater point about the politics at play during this war. The Vietcong, who were at that time true nationalists fighting an occupying force, were essentially being fed into the wood chipper during the Tet Offensive for the purpose of thinning their ranks so as to strengthen external political influence in Vietnam. While I knew about the horror stories of American soldiers who died during the offensive, I had no idea how many Vietnamese had also been killed, upwards of 55,000 soldiers over the course of a few days.
But fuck ‘em. Because while the film does a great job of showing the Vietcong as human beings with real motives, it doesn’t make any efforts to vilify the American soldiers by portraying the Vietnamese as “me so humble” peasants being bullied by thick-headed American marines. Quite the opposite; the Vietcong are ruthless bastards who rape women and stack children’s bodies like cordwood. The Americans, albeit cowboys in this film, still make the point clear that they’re fighting an enemy that will do anything to win. And by the end you’re just as happy to see the cavalry as you were in Black Hawk Down when the apaches rode in and mowed down the ‘skinnies.
R. Lee Ermey, holding up the decapitated head of a corporal who let his guard down during night watch, is just as iconic when he’s explaining his “disappointment” in the late corporal to the platoon as he was barking orders at Private “Pile” in Full Metal Jacket:
“This is Corporal Miller. He’s dead. Hell, the whole gun crew’s dead. And to add insult to injury, Charlie took the fifty-fucking caliber machine gun with him. I don’t have any respect for Corporal Miller anymore, because he allowed his troops to relax. They let their guard down for five fucking minutes, and Charlie took advantage of it. Look at ’em, Goddammit!”