Hamburger Hill

(USA - 1987)

by Mike McGowan

Cast: Dylan McDermott, Steven Weber, Courtney B. Vance, Don Cheadle, Michael Boatman, Anthony Barrile, Michael A. Nickles
Genre: War/Drama
Director: John Irvin
Screenplay: James Carabatsos
Cinematography: Peter MacDonald
Composer: Phillip Glass
Runtime: 112 minutes

Hamburger Hill is a Viet Nam film that followed on the heels of two timeless classics, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Because of the greatness of both of these movies, recognized by many as two of the best war films ever made, Hamburger Hill largely fell through the cracks. Hollywood tends to churn out genres in cycles…war movies especially come out in spurts. It is unfortunate, because Hamburger Hill, in my opinion, is actually better than one of the aforementioned films (sorry Mr. Stone, but your flick just got edged.)

Hamburger Hill is the name the men who fought there attached to Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley during 10 brutal days in May of 1969. I'll cut to the chase early in this review. This movie succeeds where Platoon fails. Platoon (while definitely a great movie) tries to play out too many grand philosophies, embodying grand notions in simple men. This film is more accurate, because it captures the essence of the actual soldiers who fight in wars. The soldiers themselves aren't trying to change the world or advance agendas. They are fighting to survive, fighting to win. Fighting to achieve the objective laid out before them, because they are there, and that is what must be done.

No, the airborne troops of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infanty Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the "Screamin' Eagles", aren't machines. They are human, and have human thoughts, emotions and opinions. But here, in this movie, they are much less grand than the characters in Stone's Platoon. It makes them more honest and more believable. Everything about Platoon was grand, played out on a grand stage. Hamburger Hill is simple, played out on this one little hill. To me, it captures honesty better, and it makes for a better film.

I think this, and other Viet Nam movies suffer too often from comparisons to Platoon. So I'll stop comparing them now. From here on out, I'll treat Hamburger Hill as it's own entity, as it really deserves to be treated as such. It's that good.

This movie employs an all-star, no-star cast. By that I mean that there isn't an A-list actor in the bunch, but each man gives a great acting performance. It's a shame more of them didn't have more illustrious careers, because each shows a spark of something very good in this film. The biggest name of the bunch would be Dylan McDermott, and he turns in a fantastic performance as Sgt. Frantz. If there is a main character here, it would be him. But there really isn't a main character…that's one of the nice things about this film. The main character is the platoon. The entire platoon, functioning as a whole. It adds to the realism. It welcomes you in as a member while you watch. That's good filmmaking.

Also prominent is Steven Weber as Worcester. As the Platoon Sergeant, he is the old salt. He's breaking in a new Lieutenant, while trying to keep his new troop arrivals and himself alive.

What makes this movie great is the interactions between characters. Make no mistake about it, the characters here do tackle many of the serious issues of the time. But they discuss them like common men do, like enlisted men do. Not like politicians or heroes. Like men. They relate to the issues from personal experiences. The ideas shared aren't overreaching umbrellas. The thoughts conveyed are personal, how each issue effects them.

One great exchange occurs between Doc Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) and one of the new (white) troops while they are resting in the bush. The topic of race comes up, as it often does when Doc starts talking about the war. Doc's opinion is that the black man is fighting the white man's war. As he and the new troop disagree about how blacks and whites are being used in the war, the dialogue comes to a head. Paraphrased:

Doc: You see, the war for you started when you farted, and said 'good morning Viet Nam.' You see, I was born into this shit.
Private: Oh, and they pried the golden spoon out of my mouth so I could come here and see how you low class eleven boos live, is that it?

Both men stand up and slowly walk toward each other, like they are going to fight. The platoon is tense, when Doc puts his hand out for a 'gimme five' and says "brother man…" Everyone laughs, and they move on. But it shows how both sides come to understand each other better. Because they talk to each other as men. And because they have to, in order to survive. It's the kind of realism, honesty, and interaction that you see in small units like these. In spite of, or perhaps even because of, the small bigotries and stereotypes that exits, these men of different races and backgrounds get along better than the folks back in the world who only pretend to get along.

One of the things I love most about this movie is that while it does tackle many issues, it doesn't draw conclusions or promote agendas. It presents all sides of the philosophy, embodied in the characters. In this way it is a smarter movie than the so-called smart films about Viet Nam. Because it makes you think and draw your own opinion, instead of presenting you with the director's thought as if it were gospel.

In addition to this, it is in some ways even more ambitious than Platoon or FMJ (couldn't resist more comparisons, sorry director Irving,) because it tackles more issues of the times. One that struck home for me, was how the movie dealt with the shameful way that the citizens of this country turned their backs on the fighting man. Whether the war was just or not, whether you wanted our involvement to continue or end, the way some people treated the men and women in Viet Nam was despicable. It is in my opinion, one of the darkest moments in our nation's history. The way the movie dealt with it was plain, yet subtle.

In one scene, one of the men gets a Dear John letter from home. While often a staple of the modern war movie, this one is strikingly different. He reads to the other men that his girl is going to stop writing him, because her friends at college say that writing him is immoral. He's heartbroken. Here he is, by no choice of his own, in this horrible place with men dying around him, and he is abandoned in his time of greatest need. Because the society back home has deemed him amoral.

In another scene, the troops ask Worcester why he'd volunteered for another tour in Nam. He tells them about when he went home on leave. How he was greeted at the airport by beautiful college girls (the kind of homecoming every soldier dreams of)…carrying bags of dog shit. How he went home to find that his wife had turned into a hippy…and was living with a hippy boyfriend. How he went to the bar, to find an old family friend who's son had died in the war. And how that man had received dozens of letters from college student activists telling him how glad they were that his son was dead, killed at the hands of the valiant NVA freedom fighters. Though he didn't come out and say it, this land of death and destruction, war and fighting was much more honest and honorable than the changed home he had left behind. He didn't belong there anymore, never would. But unlike most war movies, it wasn't he who had changed. It was America. For the worse.

Hamburger Hill also tackled the media involvement in the war. In one extremely powerful scene, the men of the Screamin' Eagles are returning from another failed attempt at securing the hill. An army news crew awaits them at the bottom. The newsman, in clean cammies, questions each man as he walks by about their failure and inability to win this battle. Each man, exhausted, angrily walks by without commenting. Vexed and trying to get his soundbyte, the newsman (J.D. Van Sickle) provokes Frantz most bluntly.

Newsman: Hey, word down at Division is you guys can't take this hill. What do you have to say about that? In fact, Senator Kennedy says you guys don't have a chance at all.
Frantz: You really like this shit, don't you? It's your job. A story. You're waiting here like a fucking vulture. Watching for somebody to die, so you can take a picture.
Newsman: It's my job.
Frantz: I've got more respect for those little bastards up there. At least they take a side. You just take pictures. You probably don't even do your own fucking. No one ask my AO.
Newsman: What?
Frantz: You listen to me. We're gonna take this fucking hill, Newsman. I see you on the top taking pictures of any of my people...I will blow your fucking head off. Now you haven't earned the right to be here. Do you understand that?

Finally. In yet another scene, Frantz deals with the conscientious objector issue. When talking about how he was drafted, and how one friend of his who had volunteered for Airborne with him had dodged the draft at the last minute, one of the troops said, "You gotta respect that."

Frantz replies, "No way. If you don't want to pull on the little people, no sweat. Don't use your weapon. All I want from anybody get their ass in the grass with the rest of us. You don't have to like it. But you have to show up."

Again, all these interactions aren't big speeches, or complex treatises. They are plain, honest thoughts, conveyed via personal experiences. It helps present an air of truth and honesty that the characters in other movies lack. The writing really was brilliant in this film, and for that I tip my hat to James Carabatsos who penned the script.

The movie isn't all dialogue though. Make no bones about it, this is a very brutal war movie. There are several very long scenes where the men are assaulting the hill. It is in these scenes that the movie both succeeds beautifully as war film, and fails miserably in overreaching. The battle scenes by and large are astounding. Note: I didn't like the beginning of Private Ryan (or the middle or end for that matter. Subject for another day.) That movie revolved around the gimmicky (and now tired and exhausted) camera trick Spielberg used to make the action jumpy and frenetic. I think it was an adjustment in the shutter speed. I'm not a cameraman. But it's now mandatory in all modern war flicks, much to my chagrin, because it looks stupid.

Director John Irvin uses no such tricks. He simply films the action straight up. Hell, a man fighting against gravity and a mudslide while friendly and enemy bullets whiz by is distressing enough. Just film it, and let the action and acting speak for themselves. John Irving does, and it works wonders. Spielberg doesn't, and that's why a lot of his films are tripe. This movie features some of the best war scenes I've ever seen. It is a great achievement. And if I could just sit behind an editing machine for about 10 minutes, I'd consider them perfect, because there's a few things that need to be snipped. Things that flat out ruin the moment.

John Irving, you did such a great job, why oh why did you give the green light the use of Friday the 13th Part Too Many caliber splatter effects? There are a few scenes, just a few, that are ruined because the effects go way over the top for gore and blood. And the effect is cheesy to boot. One scene is right at the beginning, where a man is blown through the air by a grenade, and when he lands his guts are piled on top of him. It looks bad; bad as in fake. But the worst case occurs when a VC gets his head blown apart in a foxhole by M-60 fire, close range. We get a full frame close-up of the head exploding. The whole head. Unfortunately, the head explosion in "Scanners" was a lot cooler looking (actually a great effect…watch it frame by frame in slow mo sometime. Quite cool.) The point is, it was over the top, campy, and it just didn't belong. I'm no opponent of gore. I listen to Cannibal Corpse on Sunday mornings, and ate an Outback Special while watching "Dead Alive" (another great classic.) But gore has its place, and this is campy, cheesy gore. Snip about 30 seconds worth of such footage and this movie goes up a notch. Here, it costs the film a half star in my review. Not really because the gore negatively impacted the film for a half point's worth, but because it was a really bad directorial decision not to leave it on the cutting room floor. Call it style points lost. It's an inclusion in an otherwise flawless diamond.

Aside form this, and the sometimes not so convincing southern accent of the otherwise highly competent Weber, this movie accomplishes so much with so little. It is at once subtle and in your face. The balance between the two extremes is perfectly struck. It's a good movie, and in the pantheon of Viet Nam films, I'd say it's only second to Full Metal Jacket. FMJ is just a little deeper, and just has a better overall 'feel' to the film. But that movie is a great film among great films. Aside from it, Hamburger Hill stands atop the hill when it comes to films of this genre.



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