I Love The Corps!

“They are lean and hardened… tough, capable, jaded. They combine the specialised techno-combat training of the twenty-first century fighting man with those qualities universal to ‘grunts’ through the ages.”
~ Aliens script.

Though Rambo: First Blood Part II bears James Cameron’s name, with Aliens the writer/director deliberately sought to avoid the shoot-‘em-up moral vacuum of both Rambo and other 1980’s actioners. “After Rambo I’m not interested in making a film where people are running around and shooting each other and getting into the moral complications of saying, ‘well, just because they are wearing a different uniform from another country, it’s okay [to kill them]’.”

There would be no human-on-human violence in Aliens (bar some deviousness courtesy of Burke), with the weaponry solely focused on the Alien army. The result is a movie featuring “violence without the guilt” and a high-tech, off-world Vietnam-styled romp.

“There’s a whole list of science fiction going back to the twenties that explores the idea of the military in space,” noted Cameron, “but it hadn’t really been done in film.”

Space warfare and human-alien battles in literature can be traced back to the early twentieth century, from War of the Worlds in 1898, to the first space opera, The Skylark of Space, in the 1920’s, through to more serious sci-fi fare like The Forever War. However, if there was to be one direct ancestor to his movie (other than Alien, of course) it would be Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers. “[Read] Starship Troopers if you want to see where Aliens was inspired,” Cameron said in 2009.

Heinlein’s sci-fi classic tells the story of space marines (the Mobile Infantry) who traverse the galaxy to battle “bugs”, a race of violent, technological creatures described as looking like “a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider.” Though Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film adaptation presented the bugs as being mindless, primitive rampagers, Heinlein’s novel describes them as being technologically sophisticated—the bugs carry particle beam weapons into battle and can fling asteroids at enemy planets (the bugs in the movie can too, though, being an unsophisticated species, it’s not explained exactly how they can do this.)

Though Verhoeven’s film is satirical and cartoonish, Cameron noted that “the original story by Heinlein is pretty serious. The last line of the book, and he means it absolutely seriously, is, ‘to the everlasting glory of the infantry.’ He was celebrating the ground-pounder, the dogface, but in a futuristic context.” Heinlein himself explained that his novel “glorifies … the mudfoot who places his frail body between his loved home and the war’s desolation.” The book’s arguable championing of the underdog trooper married it, thematically, to Alien’s blue-collar universe, which presented the worker class as protagonists and the unseen Company as an antagonist alongside the Alien itself.

Aliens and Vietnam: “While I was doing research [for Rambo] I’d read every book I could get my hands on about Vietnam,” Cameron explained. “That research was still very much in my head while I was finishing Aliens … the Vietnam analogy in Aliens is absolutely intentional.” For Cameron, the Vietnam war demonstrated “how technology didn’t work … these technologically advanced soldiers succumb to a technologically inferior but much more determined enemy … The film is obviously informed by a lot of the imagery from Vietnam; the idea that they put painted flowers on their helmets and things like that, and there was a real discipline problem. Of course that was amongst a lot of the draftees at that time. So we’re kind of mixing our metaphors a little bit here.”

Cameron and Rambo Part II: “I came rather late to that,” James told The Hollywood Reporter in 1986. “I actually thought the first one was a pretty good film. That’s what attracted me to the second one, the underdog story. I was kind of fascinated by Vietnam at that point and what a weird and surreal kind of war that was. So my approach to it was a lot heavier, a lot more character. I just ran into Sly (Stallone) recently, and he was saying that when he looks back on it -although he doesn’t have any regrets- in a way he wished he could have done the script that I wrote because they did wind up throwing out about the first half of it. They kept a lot of the action. They just kind of made it a ‘Mission Impossible’ thing – for me it took on kind of a superhero-type quality. I thought it was much more interesting to kind of explore this traumatized character. Maybe I’ll get to use that stuff somewhere else. I used a bit of it in Aliens, having them come back from something they were traumatized by. There was a bit of that delayed stress syndrome stuff in Aliens they didn’t use in Rambo II.”

Cameron’s space marines would be an amalgam of influences from Heinlein as well as the original Alien. The concept of brow-beaten, space-warring soldiers meeting their ignominious deaths on the other end of the galaxy segued perfectly with the original Alien’s presentation of brow-beaten, space-faring corporate officers. Less truckers in space, more grunts in space.

Colonial Marine concept by Terry English. Cameron opted for a more real-world look to his Marines, rather than the tight-fitting uniforms of Star Trek or the head-to-toe shock suits of Star Wars. Though Cameron had extensively studied the Vietnam war, he admitted in 2003 that he basically “knew nothing about the US Marine Corps at the time, although curiously, while I was making this film, my youngest brother joined the Marines and was in for six years. I now know a lot more about the Marines and they are much more disciplined than these people … These guys are definitely Vietnam-era regular army, toward-the-end-of-their-tour kind of motif.”

Also derived from Starship Troopers was the term “dropship” and the Marines’ verbal eye-roll term “bug-hunt”, and at one point, Cameron admitted he had been “toying with the idea of having the Marines have battle suits,” much like the Mobile Infantry of Heinlein’s soldiers, who battle their bug enemies whilst encased in power armour. Cameron had toyed with a form of power armour in his amateur filmmaking debut, Xenogenesis, and though he scrapped the idea of suit-encased soldiers for Aliens, the concept still turned up, in a way, in the form of the powerloader.

“Among the troopers dress discipline is lax,” says the script, “fatigues customized and emblazoned with patches. Drake’s tunic is cut off to a vest and has ‘Eat the apple and fuck the Corps’ stencilled on back. ‘Peace Through Superior Firepower,’ ‘Pray for War’ and ‘I’ve Served My Time in Hell: Cetti Epsilon NC-104’ are some others.”

“I encouraged the actors to customise their own costumes and armour,” Cameron explains in the film’s commentary track, “[to] personalise everything, to give the impression that they had been out a lot, that they were seasoned, that they had been away from commanding authority on their own a lot and were good enough at their jobs that they were allowed these kinds of latitudes. And obviously, this is a continuation of the motif from the first film, where they’re wearing Hawaiian shirts and all kinds of strange stuff, all of which was a new idea in science fiction. People always wore uniforms on spaceships. That’s how it worked from Star Trek on[wards] … Alien broke that mould and it just seemed so right to people. They recognised the archetype immediately, ‘Oh, these guys are truck drivers’ … And so the idea here was extrapolated to a military unit that’s worked at the extreme fringes of human civilisation.”

As Cameron said, he encouraged the actors to customise their own costumes and armour to create a lived-in look for the actors and to emulate and continue the used universe from the original Alien. “Jim had a bunch of stuff on the table,” explained Mark Rolston, “and he just said, ‘have at it guys.’ And he left for four or five hours and we had a ball.”

Cameron went on to explain the influences on his future soldiers and the vibe he tried to get across: “The sense of the dramatic relationships from these 1940’s, 1950’s war films, which sort of portrayed the common soldier, was more what I was looking for. The dialogue itself, the idiom, is pretty much Vietnam-era. It’s the most contemporary American combat ‘warspeak’ that I had access to. I studied how soldiers talked in Vietnam, and I took certain specific bits of terminology, and a general sense of how they express themselves, and I used that for the dialogue, to try and make it seem like a realistic sort of military expedition, as opposed to a high-tech, futuristic one. I wanted to create more of a sense of realism rather than that of an interesting future.”

James summarised his Colonial Marines in a court document (concerning litigation over Avatar) as thus: “Aliens contained the idea of a gritty future military that seemed a logical extension of a contemporary military. Prior to Aliens, military characters in science-fiction movies were either the white-armoured drones of Star Wars or they were clad in skin-tight spandex and brandishing laser pistols, as in Star Trek and Forbidden Planet. Aliens created the sub-genre of military sci-fi, the so-called ‘grunts in space’ approach, in which the characters were common Marine corps ‘groundpounders’ (grunts), who talked like war-weary Vietnam or WWII-era fighters, had aged and worn camouflaged battle armour, and carried bullet-firing automatic weapons [rather than lasers.]”

He concluded that, “The look and feel of the military characters in Avatar has its roots in my own work, the film Aliens.”

Casting the Colonial Marines was a rather uneventful affair, save for the hiring and firing of James Remar. “We had shot two weeks of the movie [with Remar] before [Biehn] arrived,” said fellow Colonial Marine Ricco Ross at a cast reunion, “and  James Remar had a different sort of Hicks, and because he was the first one [in the role] the cast had sort of gotten used to each other, we had that camaraderie thing going on, and then all of a sudden [Remar] was out, and here comes this newcomer, and I was like, ‘damn, just like that, huh?’ And then Mike came in there and Mike was playing his thing, and his thing went the other way with it, and I went, ‘okay, okay,’ and then the next thing you know it was on and cracking and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m sold, I’m sold.”

Cpl. Dwayne Hicks -- Michael Biehn (replacing James Remar)

Cpl. Dwayne Hicks — Michael Biehn (replacing James Remar)

In an 1986 issue of Galactic Journal magazine, Cameron cited Remar’s departure as being due to creative differences, and according to the article he “refused to elaborate” further on the issue. As it turned out, Cameron was keeping quiet for the sake of Remar’s privacy. “I was initially cast as Corporal Hicks,” confessed Remar, who continued to appear in film and recently on TV as Harry Morgan in Showtime’s Dexter, “and I was fired after a couple weeks of filming because I got busted for possession of drugs, and Michael Biehn replaced me.”

Dereliction of Duty: In a 2010 interview with player.fm, Remar explained: “I had a bit of a row with the director of Uncommon Valour, and I’d spent a few days, too many days, up partying, and I was fired and replaced by Patrick Swayze. You know, everyone wanted to hire me. And as soon as I got fired from Aliens I landed back in the United States and they gave me a job in Band of the Hand. So I wasn’t paying attention, you know? I wasn’t paying attention to my problem at all … I wasn’t focused and I fucked it up.”

Remar’s drug problem did more than lose him his job and perspective; it made him a pariah in the eyes of the man who kickstarted his career. “Walter Hill put me on the map,” he said, “and getting fired from Aliens alienated me from him for twelve years. Walter didn’t hire me again for twelve years. And I know why: because I made him look bad. Y’know, it was fucked up. I was sober almost eight years and he put me in Wild Bill, and it was such a treat man, to be able to work with him again. It felt like coming home.”

“I had a terrible drug problem, but I got through it,” Remar concluded. “I had a great career and personal life, and messed it up with a terrible drug habit.”

When the production let go of Remar, Gale Anne Hurd called up Biehn with one question: “is your passport in order?” Biehn, who had portrayed the elegiac and feral resistance fighter, Kyle Reese, in Cameron’s previous movie The Terminator, snapped up the opportunity to play Hicks: “I was there, man. There wasn’t a question in the world.”

Funnily enough, when Biehn first read the script months before being cast, he initially fancied himself in the role of Hudson. “I had just done Hicks’ [heroic type] role in The Terminator,” he said in 1986, “and was looking for a role that took me over the top and out a little bit. [Hudson] was a guy who starts out very, very confident and braggadocious. He was a very funny character and had a lot of funny lines. Then he gets into battle and starts wimping out. Maybe he’s a coward and has to fight that within him – whether he’s a coward or not. Then towards the end of the movie he goes out with a blaze of glory. There was a real up-and-down quality to the character with a lot of conflict.”

The Hudson role went to fellow Terminator actor Bill Paxton and Biehn eventually caught up with the part of Hicks. According to Biehn, at first Hicks’ character was too close to the hotwired state of mind as Kyle Reese (probably the direction that Remar played the character) and so the actor and director modified the character until both were happy. “Hicks is a kind of Rock of Gibraltar,” says Biehn, “and everybody looks up to him.”

“He’s just a steady hand, he’s the calming effect on the group. There are many different personalities that are all sort of clashed, and this is a guy who’s been through it a few times … he has been around a while, and he takes things very slowly, and listens to people, and he’s the one you can always count on in a bad situation. He’ll be the one who doesn’t lose his head; the quintessential hero.”

“I think Hicks is one of the smarter characters,” Biehn continued, “because he’ll take a step backward before he takes a step forward. He realises early on that he’s going to need -they’re all going to need- [Ripley’s] experience and expertise. It’s just a situation where you have a woman who’s very strong and dependable. Hicks realises that and respects her for it.”

Pvt. Hudson — Bill Paxton

“[Aliens] is about being pushed to the limit,” explained Cameron, “and finding the resources to act … Hudson’s a perfect example. He’s the character who seems to be the coward of the group – always whining and complaining, but, in one last burst, he gets it together.”

“[Hudson] was the most relatable to audiences because he was deathly afraid, as most of us would be,” Bill Paxton said of his character. “I mean, for every Ripley or Hicks, there are a million Hudsons.”

“I figured he was a guy who had been raised by his mother for some reason,” Paxton continued. “He wanted to be a pilot, but really cut it, IQ-wise or test-wise. He’s not good under a test situation. So, he ended up joining the Marines, but he wanted to be in it just for a while.”

In the film, Hudson complains that he was only a matter of weeks from being out – the reason, according to Vasquez actor Jenette Goldstein, that he was so overly rattled by the film’s events: “Hudson was supposed to get out of the marines in four weeks,” Goldstein said, “which is what made him flip.” That also explains the joke  stencilled on the back of Hudson’s armour, which is tailored by actor Bill Paxton to read: “Contents under pressure. Do not puncture.”

Paxton was a long-time friend of James Cameron. The two had worked together building movie sets for Roger Corman before Cameron took to directing, and Paxton appeared as a blue-haired punk in the opening of The Terminator, and would later take roles in future Cameron movies such as True Lies and Titanic.

Concerning his audition for the role of Hudson, Paxton explained: “I was renting a little place in Twickenham above a sweet shop, and remember running down the stairs, looking through the window to see the time and going, ‘Shit, shit, shit, I’ve overslept!’ I had to take a train, then a bus, then jog the last mile to Pinewood.”

For the audition, Paxton continues, “Jim had given me a cardboard mailing tube and said, ‘Here’s your plasma pulse rifle.’ Then he stood on chairs, finding angles to film me running around, yelling. I came out feeling pretty bad. I thought I’d been way over the top.”

The feeling that he was playing the character more energetically than required followed Paxton into the first days of shooting: “The first thing I shot was in the cooling towers set, when Ricco [Pvt. Frost] says, ‘It’s hotter than hell in here,’ and I go, ‘Yeah, but it’s dry heat, man!’ And at the time I was thinking, ‘This character’s going to wear out his welcome fast. The audience is going to want to feed him to the monsters.’ But Jim was using me in a brilliant way. He’s like a pressure-release valve – Hudson gives you a breather.”

“Here’s something most people don’t know: I was actually in negotiations to do Police Academy 2. I was offered more money than I had ever seen, and I was ready to take it, but I had auditioned for Aliens in England just before the 4th of July weekend.

When I came back from that trip and then I didn’t hear from Jim, that’s why about a month, five or six weeks after Weird Science came out, I got this offer to do Police Academy 2 and I’d already given up on doing Aliens.

So my agent at the time, Hildy Gottlieb, was trying to negotiate a deal with me for Police Academy 2, but what held up my deal was that they wanted to tie me up for a Police Academy 3, if there was such an animal. So that left my deal kind of hanging in the air, and that’s when I got a call from Hildy at the 11th hour, who says, “You’re gonna be getting a call in about 10 minutes from Jim Cameron, who’s calling you from London, and he wants to offer you the part of Hudson.” And I’m just like, “Oh my God! But what about Police Academy 2?” She said, “Don’t worry. Their own greed has knocked them out.” And I ended up doing Aliens for half of what I would’ve made on Police Academy 2, but one thing I learned very early on is that you take the jobs that you can get with the good directors.”
~ Bill Paxton, AVClub interview, 2012.

Hudson’s gung-ho swagger and paper-thin courage, as well as his quotable and panic-stricken dialogue, endeared him to many viewers, just as Cameron and Paxton had hoped (though some do find the character to be ingratiating, just as some are unable to bare Alien‘s equally tear-stricken Lambert.) Michael Biehn told Empire magazine in 2009: “[Bill] was so great in that movie. That excitable guy. I still hear video games and stuff … I’ll be walking by my son’s room and hear quotes from Bill’s dialogue.”

Pvt. Vasquez — Jenette Goldstein

“Vasquez is younger than the rest,” reads the Aliens screenplay, “and her combat primer was the street in a Los Angeles barrio. She is tough even by the standards of this group. Hard-muscled. Eyes cunning and mean.” Along with Pvt. Drake, she is a juvenile hall recruitee.

“I had seen Alien,” Jenette Goldstein told Starlog magazine, “but I had no idea this was a sequel. It had been so long ago, it didn’t even occur to me. I thought it was about actual aliens, you know, immigrants to a country … I actually came in wearing high heels and lots of makeup, and I had waist-length hair.” Goldstein secured the role after preparing more thoroughly in a second audition. Her alien-immigrants goof was referenced in the film, where Hudson mocks her aboard the Sulaco, “she thought they said illegal aliens and signed up!”

“Vasquez and Hudson are paired together throughout the film as each other’s foil,” Goldstein observes. “He says everything, whether it’s important not to, and she says absolutely nothing unless it’s important. That was Vasquez’s attitude: she had no one or nothing, so she was the logical choice for [taking] point. It made perfect sense to the commander. Who would you put in that suicidal position? Someone who couldn’t care less, and whether it’s a man or a woman doesn’t really matter.”

“Wierzbowski, Drake, and Vasquez are fieldstripping light weapons with precise movements,” the script reads as the Marines prepare to begin their mission. It goes on: “Vasquez likes the feel of the guns, the weight, the authority.” Goldstein explains, “I wanted Vasquez to seem like she only really lived when she was carrying a gun. It became part of her, and everything clicked into being. Then again, that gun was so heavy, there was only a certain way you could walk with it.”

“Vasquez is gun-toting because she’s a soldier,” she continues. “That’s her job. Ripley is forced to carry a gun. It’s not the weapons, but the human spirit. At the end, the weapons are shown to be ineffective. It was showing how ill-prepared the army was, and how all the bluster counted for nothing.”

For her character’s explosive death scene in the colony vents, Goldstein explained: “I had to get all slimed up. I think Vasquez is just so angry that it has finally got to her. Rather than being scared, she’s pissed off she’s about to die.”

Pvt. Drake — Mark Rolston

Drake awakens from his cryo-sleep aboard the Sulaco “looking surly,” according to the script. “He’s young,” it goes on, “but street-tough. Nasty scar curling his lip into a sneer.” With Vasquez, he forms a close platonic duo with a shared history. “[Vasquez] slaps Drake’s open palm and clenches it into a greeting which is part contest. It gets rougher. Painful. Until she cuffs him hard and they break with vicious laughter. Dobermans playing. Conscripted from juvenile prison, the two of them were trained to operate the formidable ‘smart-guns’. That is part of their bond.”

“Every young man’s favourite thing to do is to get up and go play with guns,” said Rolston of the role, “that’s kinda what it was – we just strap on and go on some sort of a sojourn, a journey.”

“Actors have to tell white lies at times,” he told Empire magazine,  jocularly admitting to having blagged his way into the role of Drake: “I had just done Revolution, and I made it sound as if I had the next-best role to Pacino!” In 2012, Rolston again said, “I told the biggest lie about my role in Revolution, which sparked an interest in Gale Anne Hurd because she thought I was some hot shit. But no, really, I had the smallest role in that … and got the part [of Drake.]” He added, “so moral of the story is, whenever you can – lie.”

Rolston remembered walking into Cameron’s office for a meeting about the part and seeing the walls plastered with conceptual images and designs for the movie. “I think all of us knew as soon as we read the script, Cameron’s script, I mean talk about a page-turner, honestly, to read it you would rip right through it. And I remember in my last meeting with Gale and Jim I was in his office and there was artwork, you know, his shot list, in pictures that he drew -he’s an amazing artist- plastered around the room. It was extraordinary. So that gave me the idea that I was in some really quite unique.”

Concerning Cameron, Rolston appraised him, saying, “he’s the most detailed and exacting person. A lot of the [bad] reputation is bogus, I mean look, he does these massive films where there’s a lot at stake and the truth is James Cameron knows every single job on the set, except for mine. He’s not an actor. But he does know everyone’s jobs and if you’re not doing it correctly then he doesn’t suffer fools, so I think all the rumours about him being a megalomaniacal director is sort of unfounded,” (Michael Biehn expressed the same sentiments about Cameron, almost verbatim.)

Drake is one of the last casualties within the colony hive. Pushing back towards the APC, Vasquez unloads her smart-gun into a nearby Alien, “blowing up the thing’s thorax. A spray of bright yellow acid slashes across Drake’s face and chest, eating through him like a hot knife through butter. He drops in boiling smoke, reflexively triggering his flamethrower…”

Drake’s death: a reminder of the lethality of getting too close to an Alien under attack.

 

VASQUEZ: Drake! He’s down!
HICKS: He’s gone! Forget it, he’s gone!
VASQUEZ: (irrational) No… no he’s not, he’s–

According to Rolston, his character’s death scene was one of the first he shot for the film. “It was my introduction to action filmmaking,” he said. “I mean talk about being thrown in the deep end. Four hours in make-up and then having chemicals put all over you that bubbled and fizzed. It was pretty amazing.”

However, neither his death scene nor the attack in the hive was the high point of the shoot: “I think the most amazing thing I saw was when the Queen Alien was introduced. I was on set that day and there were literally eighteen guys with pullys -I mean puppetry, she was a puppet! Massive puppetry!- and to see that be created … that was amazing to me to see simple puppetry transformed into a monster.”

Pvt. Frost -- Ricco Ross

Pvt. Frost — Ricco Ross

Ricco Ross passed on the opportunity to work with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket in order to join Aliens. “I’d just gotten cast in Full Metal Jacket, which overlapped Aliens by about a week,” he told Empire magazine. “Jim Cameron said that if Stanley Kubrick released me on time I could start in Aliens a week late, but Kubrick was known for going over schedule and wouldn’t let me go. I had to make a decision. It was hard! Kubrick wouldn’t let anyone read Full Metal Jacket. You just got pages. So being able to read Aliens, I just got a feeling that it was the right choice.” Having been told to customise their armour by Cameron, Ross inscribed the name ‘Heath’ (short for ‘Heather’) on his armour plate, encased in a love heart.

Frost meets his end as collateral damage – torched by Dietrich after she is pulled into the air by an Alien. The immolated Frost runs, tumbles over a catwalk railing, and plummets to his death. “I had a conversation with James when I first read the script,” Ross told onemetal.com, and said: ‘Y’know, I’m taken out pretty fast here.’ He said ‘That is the idea, we’re trying to make this a female vehicle, and we can’t have some big Marine hanging around when the action gets crazy, as you wouldn’t be picking your nose – you’d be out there doing it.’ He wanted to create a situation where there was nobody left, and [Ripley] has to do it, even though she’s afraid. She has to conquer that fear and take on the task.”

“One of the strong points of Aliens,” Ross continued, “was that the action didn’t start for a while, and so it gave the audience a chance to become attached to the different characters. Then, when Frost -or whoever- got taken out, you felt for that guy. You’d think, ‘oh no, not already.’ So I think that as an actor I would have liked to have been in it longer, but in terms of the total project it was a good thing.”

Frost’s death was performed by stunt double Clive Curtis. “I could foresee it would look spectacular,” he said of the stunt. “Plus, the stunt made sense: it was not a stunt for a stunts sake. I thought it emotionally charged … I vaguely remember being set alight then having to find my way (acting all the time) completely blinded by flames (and remembering not to breathe) for about fifteen feet before hitting the railing, which stood about three-four feet in height, before falling approximately eight feet, to be put out by my colleagues.”

Sgt. Apone — Al Matthews.

“Apone is stocky, grizzled, with peregrine eyes,” describes the screenplay. “He runs it loose and fair, but only because he knows his people are the best.” The Apone of the movie is a little more fiery and harried by his troops than he is in the script, and was portrayed by Vietnam veteran, Al Matthews. Apone’s fate is to be abducted within the Atmosphere Processor and cocooned. Likely, he is quickly impregnated but killed by the exploding reactor before the Alien within him can erupt.

Matthews talked to Alien Experience about his casting and time on set: “I was shooting a film called (in Europe) The American Way, in the States it’s called Riders of the Storm with Dennis Hopper. James Cameron asked to see me, he read my CV, and that was that. I asked James how long did it take him to make up his mind, he said ‘thirty seconds.'”

Matthews’ Marine experience proved handy not only for himself but the other actors too: “I was the only person in the movie not pretending to be a Marine, in fact I taught the other actors how to look and act. Mr. Cameron was pleased with my input … I did not have to act, I was just my normal self. Al Matthews and Sgt. Al Apone (bet you didn’t know his first name was Al, we did that as a joke) are the same person.”  Matthews told Empire magazine: “Jim asked me to train them, and the main thing I had to teach those guys was never point a weapon at somebody, and never walk around with your finger on the trigger.” Unfortunately, James Remar, during his stint, didn’t quite pay attention, and blew a hole in Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors set.

Of his overall experience, Matthews said, “James Cameron is one of the finest directors I have ever had the pleasure of working for. A good director casts actors to help them tell their story, a great director does the same thing, but with a slight difference, a great director bothers to ask his actors their opinions. James Cameron is a great director, he let me do my thing, he placed his trust in me. I am very proud of that fact.”

Like Kubrick with R. Lee Ermey on Full Metal Jacket, Cameron gave Matthews some free reign over his material. “I met Al Matthews,” explained Daniel Kash, who played dropship co-pilot, Spunkmeyer, “and he was a really scary guy and he’d been in Vietnam … He was living in England because he hated America. All that stuff he did was all improvised.”

“I liked Alien,” Matthews continued, “it was a great film, but I loved Aliens, not just because I was in it, but because of the action. That movie scares the shit out of me, and I was in it! God! I could not wait to touch the little creep that popped out of that girl’s chest. I first saw it undressed, but when Stan and his boys had dressed that damn thing, I was really ready to kick ass, film or not! Sorry, it still gives me the creeps to think about it. I think the Aliens ticket has been overworked, no more, it’s downhill from here.”

“My fondest memory on Aliens was this: We were trying to get my whole squad into the APC as quickly as possible. Man, we must have done ten takes, on the very last take, we got it right. Once we were all in, in a military manner, we had the take in the can. Suddenly the door opened and I shouted, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I was tired and I knew the opening of the door would screw the sound and we would have to go again. I turned towards the door with smoke coming from my nostrils. There was Miss Weaver holding the biggest birthday cake I had ever seen in my life, and wearing the warmest smile ever! The whole cast and crew knew it was my birthday, and they were all in on it. I was so embarrassed, I broke down and cried. There was Sgt. Apone, bawling like a baby.”
~ Al Matthews, Alien Experience interview, 2006.

William Hope played newbie Lt. Gorman, whose incompetence nigh-on costs the Marines their lives inside the Atmosphere Processor, but who sacrifices himself in a failed attempt to save Vasquez within the colony ducts. Though subject to a heroic end, he still dies with “asshole” ringing in his ears.

Other Marines in smaller roles include Cpl. Ferro, the dropship pilot played by Colette Hiller; Pvt. Spunkmeyer, the co-pilot played by Daniel Kash; Cpl. Dietrich, a medic Marine played by Cynthia Scott; Pvt. Crowe, who is killed by explosives within the Alien nest and was played by Tip Tipping; and Wierzbowski, possibly abducted or mangled off-screen and played by Trevor Steedman. Wierzbowski also has the honour of being the subject of his own fan-site.

Ferro (Fly the Friendly Skies) and Spunkmeyer. “I went in,” said Daniel Kash, “for Hudson’s role, and I said to these two assistants, ‘Guys, tell whoever wrote this to re-write it – I think it’s silly.’ And then I got a re-call and went back, and realised that the two assistants I was pushing around were James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd! And Cameron said he really liked my coat, so I told him if he gave me the part, it was his. So, when he gave me the part I gave him the coat.” The trade seemed to have been worth it: “Aliens is an amazing thing in my pocket, a landmark thing. On my gravestone it’ll say, ‘Well, his career wasn’t that great, but he did Aliens.'”

When it came to portraying the Marines, Cameron put his actors through a boot camp experience. Captain Dale Dye, a decorated military vet and go-to man for the military in movies, was yet to found Warriors, Inc., a boot camp organisation tooled to train actors for military roles. This trend began with Dye’s work on Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which began filming almost six months after full production began on Aliens. With no dedicated service for roughing his actors into shape, Cameron relied on “special forces guys” according to actor Mark Rolston, who portrayed Drake. Cameron elaborated: “we had them out humping out the woods behind Pinewood studios yelling cadences and carrying rifles and that sort of thing.”

The boot camp regime helped the actors, according to Jenette Goldstein: “We began to feel like we were together in a unit.” The only actors not participating in the military workouts were Michael Biehn (since he replaced James Remar further into the shoot), Sigourney Weaver, and Paul Reiser (Burke). “It’s good, I think,” said Weaver of her non-participation in the drills, “[because] Ripley isn’t one of them and there’s a sort of distrust on both sides.”

Cameron went beyond drilling the Marines, and appealed to their bellies as well. “Cameron would rent a whole restaurant,” revealed Kash, “and spend a lot of money making us have a great time. I guess that was his way of making the atmosphere like he thought it should be. Maybe part of it was making us bond as a unit.”

Ferro’s off-screen encounter with a saboteur Alien, about to put the ‘drop’ into ‘dropship’. “I’ve met some incredible people through Aliens,” Colete Hiller told Empire magazine. I just wonder, ‘Who are these people who know my lines better than I do?’ Her strongest memory of the shoot is a diva moment in protest at having to shave her head: “They told me, ‘It’s okay, look at Jenette!’ and I just bawled… I was going to get married shortly afterwards so I made them buy me a long, blonde wig! I don’t know what came over me! I never actually wore it.”

What set Cameron’s Marines apart from the other military movies of the time was his portrayal of female soldiers. Though female pilots like Ferro were not entirely uncommon, co-ed deployment and women taking point -the most dangerous position in the patrol- were anomalous, if they occurred within the US Army at all. “In a science fictional sense, there’s something in this film that I haven’t seen done,” Cameron said. “It’s an amalgam of SF with another tried-and -true movie genre, the war film about the small, close-knit group of men under pressure. In our case, it’s men and women, which is an opportunity you can only do in science fiction because the co-ed combat force hasn’t happened yet.”

Male and female soldiers had, at the time, only recently been trained together, an ‘experiment’ that began in 1976/7 but came to an end by 1982. The website army.mil notes that: “women in the Army had opportunities equal to men to receive defensive weapons training, but could not be assigned to direct combat positions.” In 2010, women in the US military were granted the opportunity to work aboard submarines. In 2012, the US military eased restrictions on the roles that women can fulfill, opening up around 2,000 positions, or 3% more jobs for female officers.

Taking the complete equality ethos further, Cameron had even scripted a scene where the men and women of the Colonial Marines shower together. This went unfilmed, but a scene paralleling it appeared, curiously enough, in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.

The shower scene was scripted thusly:

High pressure water jets and a blast of hot air when you step out… a drive-through car wash for people. Through the swirling steam Hudson, Vasquez and Ferro are watching Ripley dry off.
VASQUEZ: Who’s the fresh meat again?
FERRO: She’s supposed to be some kind of consultant. She saw an alien once.
HUDSON: Whoah, no shit? I’m impressed.
APONE: Let’s go, let’s go! Cycle through!

The scene was not filmed apparently due to the actresses being unwilling to pose nude for the film; another reason may be that building a shower room set was economically unfeasible for the carefully budgeted film, which could not even extend to afford a series of cryo-tubes (mirrors created the illusion.) The dialogue was simply shuffled into the briefing scene prior to the beginning of their drop to LV-426.

Cameron’s rag-tag Colonial Marines came under scrutiny in some corners,  despite the fact that they were not meant to be representative of real-life Marines, but late Vietnam-era draftees of the sort later seen in Platoon. Still, the criticism stuck with Cameron, who later said, “My youngest brother John David Cameron fought in Desert Storm as a U.S. Marine. Thankfully he returned in one piece, but my anxiety over his wellbeing during the US liberation of Kuwait, in which he saw active combat (his unit re-took the airport in Kuwait City), left an indelible impression. I wanted to tell the story of a Marine. The values of the Marine Corps, as I had learned them from my younger brother, greatly impressed me, especially their motto of ‘adapt, improvise and overcome.’ While I had used Marines in Aliens, I had not captured the spirit of Marines, and I wanted to do it better.” This led Cameron to make the protagonist of Avatar a well-meaning Marine who defies the genocidal company and P.M.C. enemy of the film.

When signing a petition to push Gearbox into including female multiplayer characters in their Aliens: Colonial Marines game, Cynthia Scott said “At that time [of filming] James Cameron stated that it was essential to his vision to include a ‘unisex’ fighting force of the future, and this was emphasized by the crucial plot points women contributed in Aliens and subsequent films.”

Ricco Ross, in his support for multiplayer females, explained that, “Aliens was a ground-breaking movie largely because of the females in it … another reason for the film’s success was its multi-racial casting, that went beyond tokenism … There was a scene Jim had in the original script that was never shot because of budget constraints, where the Marines (nude men & women) showered together in the same shower room. Black, white, brown, male, female. That was a subtle yet very strong theme that will be lost with the absence of a multi-racial, sex, class united front.”

“We were Marines,” Ross concluded, “united, fighting against creatures from another planet.”

“Bug Stompers — We Endanger Species.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “I Love The Corps!

  1. David

    Cool topic and good writing, Johnny! The individual characters stand out so perfectly in that movie, that there was one other element that wasn’t mentioned here: alchemy! I think there was just a touch of luck and magic, with all the stars aligning. I don’t think there’s any other ensemble that was even as close to as memorable and distinctive as this one.

  2. Adrian

    Love the clothing details, Valaquen. On topic, I hope, a little article about the Giugiaro-designed Seiko Speedmaster wristwatch Ripley wears-

    http://watchismo.blogspot.co.uk/2008/02/1986-seiko-speedmaster-from-aliens-by.html

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