HAMBURGER HILL was one of a quintet of Vietnam War pictures that battled for audiences in 1987. Robin Williams amusing but overrated comedy-drama Good Morning Vietnam was the biggest hit, #4 for the year. The most buzz went to Stanley Kubrick’s stylized Full Metal Jacket. Gardens Of Stone, Francis Ford Coppola’s somber home-front story, failed to draw or hold much attention and bringing up the rear—or bottom—was the pitiful right wing wool-pull The Hanoi Hilton (the P.O.W.s deserved a movie but not that one). Passed over in the middle of the squad was this vivid true story about the grueling 1969 capture of a 3,074 foot massif by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. Eleven days and 11 frontal assaults later, the hill was taken. Then it was abandoned, a bloody microcosm example of the Vietnam War’s futility.
Written by James Carabatsos, a Nam vet, directed by John Irvin, who’d done well by The Dogs Of War, Ghost Story and Turtle Diary (let’s pretend Raw Deal didn’t happen). Filmed in rugged conditions in The Philippines, it’s notable for early work from a number of talented actors—Dylan McDermott (debut), Courtney B. Vance (debut), Steven Weber and Don Cheadle.
The script is a mixed bag, part naturalistic and effective, part obvious and overwrought. To its credit, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon,which came out late in the previous year, this focuses on the grunt’s-eye-view of conditions and carnage. On the debit end, it promulgates the specious “spit on the vets” myth. The production design is excellent, as is the camerawork from Peter MacDonald. Otherwise unobtrusive, in the concluding scenes the music score from Philip Glass sees fit to horn in to no good effect. The actors are all fine, even if their characters are thinly written. *
When it sticks to the copious battle action, it’s fierce as hell, and pretty convincing, second only to Platoon and the later We Were Soldiers in making it look like something you would not want to be part of. With the mud, blood and casualty count HH isn’t first pick for a date flick, as reflected in the grosses, which only came to $13,839,000. Up against the Self-Important Competition that year from Commander Kubrick, it certainly doesn’t have the galvanizing personality power of R.Lee Ermey, but as far as brutal combat depiction goes, we’ll take this over ‘Full Pretense Jacket’.
With Michael Quill, Kieu Chinh, Daniel O’Shea, Michael Boatman. 110 minutes.
* Carabatsos’ script undercuts itself with the bogus jive about hippies trashing returning soldiers. He later wrote Clint Eastwood’s jingoistic horse manure Heartbreak Ridge, trying to attach something like valor to Reagan’s embarrassing 1983 “Invasion” of Grenada Take a gander at the 1998 book “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam”, by Jerry Lembcke, a sociology professor who was also a Vietnam veteran.