Hamburger Hill (1987)
Director: John Irvin
Writer: James Carabatsos
Cinematographer: Peter MacDonald
by Jon Cvack
John Irvin needs to make a war film about Iraq. After watching his highly underrated When Trumpets Fade I was thrilled to check out Hamburger Hill. When you see Best of Vietnam War lists you often get the classics - Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen Hamburger Hill on a few lists, yet it never seemed nearly as revered. This isn’t to say that it’s equal to Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, though it’s vastly superior to Platoon.
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the story contains countless layers of military life, focusing primarily on the relationships between the soldiers, though extending to race relations and many of Vietnam’s futile missions. We follow three new recruits who are shipped to the front lines: Beletsky (Tim Quill), Langiulli (Anthony Barrile), and Washburn (Don Cheadle), Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow), and Galvan (Michael A. Nickles), each with their own personalities, all determined to stay alive. They’re led by Squad Leader Adam Frantz (Dylan McDermott), who while watching them messing around, admonishes that while his duty is to try and keep them alive, they’re equally responsible for his life. It’s a frightening moment of reality. Frantz doesn’t want them to die because it’d require him to have to train a whole new crop of soldiers, while their negligence will increase the chance of his own death. During a brief explanation on how to properly brush their teeth, medic Abraham ‘Doc’ Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) who on takes the prescient look of a New York hipster, scolds one of the FNGs (‘Fucking New Guys’) as they fail to brush for as long as ordered. Johnson uses the moment as an example of how to end up dead - orders are carried out to keep soldiers alive, plain and simple, no matter if it’s brushing your teeth to avoid decay or during battle.
The Platoon is led by Sergeant Dennis Worcester, played by the excellent and lately absent Steven Weber of Wings fame who, no matter the role, is able to convey hilarious sarcasm. Weber and Frantz are close, hitting up the local brothel, getting drunk and trying their best to stay alive no matter the overwhelming odds. They seem to serve as the remaining soldiers from their own class of fresh recruits, most who have been KIA. Amidst the strict discipline is the camaraderie between men, which counter to Platoon, isn’t riddled with grandiloquent, officious commanders and subservient men, but rather with realistic relationships (which isn’t to say Platoon doesn’t have its moments - such as the first time Taylor smokes weed - so much as that many of the character feel more like exaggerations than real people).
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the platoon is commanded to take Hill 937, which served little strategic significance and would later get abandoned once captured, much to great public and military criticism given the 72 killed and 372 wounded. John Irvin’s style was similar to what Spielberg would adopt with Saving Private Ryan, in having the men actually participate in boot camp in order to build authentic camaraderie, along with shooting in the Philippines which was undergoing its own war, causing some of the production to face sniper fire while en route to set. During the taking of the hill, Irvin set fire to countless tires in order to create a thick haze of black smoke, shooting in the rain and generating as much mud as possible to ensure the most authentic recreation possible, which was celebrated by many Hamburger Hill veterans
Once the Battle of Hill 937 began, the futility of war followed. We weren’t sure what the point of their mission was, other than to keep pushing up the hill, doing your best to keep yourself and the man next to you alive. Watching this film and knowing how the entire would eventually end makes you furious. To undergo such conditions, all for such little significance, costing as many lives as it did, seems to reflect the entire war. I don’t know much about military tactics, but I do know that having a high point advantage while an enemy approaches from below is one of the most favorable in battle. It makes sense - while you get fortify yourself, the enemy is forced to run up a hill, with no clue as to where the fire is exactly coming from.
While Platoon is very much an anti-war film, Hamburger Hills shows the hypocrisy of criticizing the soldiers who chose to honor their country’s demands. The men might not have wanted to go, or might have enlisted to at least ensure they had a choice over what they did, and yet the stateside criticism was horrendous. In one heart wrenching scene, Bienstock receives a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend who met a new guy that told her it’s immoral for her to support him. In another emotional scene Sergeant Worcester recalls his recent leave home where he faced severe criticism from the community, leading to the collapse of his marriage. Later he received calls from a good friend, who was driven to an emotional breakdown when college students harassed him about his son who was killed in Battle of la Drang. Irvin's horrific portrayal of the conditions these soldiers were forced to live in makes the scene all the more bitter. As his friends are dying all around him, as he’s fighting for his own life, with limited food and supplies, wet socks, and nowhere to sleep, he’s told that all he’s doing is immoral. I can’t imagine what effect that must have had.
At least in World War II the soldiers were told they were heroes. In Vietnam, there was a very uneasy and tragic sentiment that, beyond one’s family, no one really cared or supported them. Irvin demonstrates that regardless of the politics of war, the soldier is not the one responsible. There is no reason to pass judgment on their actions. They are heroes because they are willing to do what their country orders them to do, and because they’re most concerned with keeping the man next to them alive. To think that privileged college kids would pass judgment makes me furious. I don’t think anyone wanted to be there, but there was no other option. As other films such as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper would explore, for many of the soldiers, it wasn’t about the mission, so much as lending their expertise and experience to save lives.
This film opened to the #5 slot at the box office, only taking in about $13.5 million. Compare this to Platoon, which opened at #1 and $138.5 million dollars. Platoon premiered on December 19, 1986, going wide on February 7, 1987, placing it in perfect Oscar Position (of which it’d take Best Picture, amongst others). Hamburger Hill rolled out in that dead movie month of August 28, 1987, a bit too early for awards fair, and I assume, similar to The Thin Red Line, was drowned out by Platoon’s success. I think it’s a much better film and one of the greatest Vietnam movies of all time.
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