20th Anniversary Edition
Directed by John Irvin
Starring Anthony Barrile, Michael Boatman, Don Cheadle, Kieu Chinh, Don James
Release Date: May 20, 2008
The final word of spoken dialogue in Hamburger Hill — other than the cold, mocking voice of the radioman constantly barking out the orders that send young men to their untimely ends in a tone most people use to order take-out food — sums up the mind-boggling horror and chaos of the Vietnam War in a way no other word can.
By the time the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975 with the final withdrawal of American personnel from the capital city of Saigon, the horrific nature of the events encountered on a daily basis by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who were mostly drafted when they were barely out of high school, had managed to penetrate the government’s usual media propaganda firewall and find their way onto cinema and television screens. No longer were the American people being exposed to the type of gung-ho patriotic entertainment that fueled support for World War II. The harsh reality of Vietnam was exposed for all to see, the pointless bloodshed and mass destruction committed in the name of the desire of a bunch of chicken hawk politicians to rid the world of Communism had been laid bare in the nation’s living rooms. The media exposure would prove to be useful in fueling the growing anti-war movement across the country.
With the exception of John Wayne’s politically suspect The Green Berets (1968), which attempted to present the war through the same rose-tinted “Let’s go to war” formula that worked so well in the 1940s and 1950s, Vietnam was mostly plot fodder for exploitation films like Deathdream (1972) and Rolling Thunder (1977 — a kickass movie by the way) and documentaries like Hearts and Minds (1974). Even when Hollywood finally decided to tackle the war head on the films that resulted primarily focused on the plights of returning soldiers (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter) or used the war as a metaphorical backdrop (Apocalypse Now). There were many television movies produced but the censorship standards of the major networks would not allow for those films to show the full horror of the war without incurring the wrath of parents’ groups and religious organizations.
Then in 1986, Oliver Stone, who had been itching to make a film based on his own combat experiences in Vietnam for years, brought the horrors and bloodshed of the war home in the classic Platoon. The movie was a blockbuster success and was deservedly showered with praise and awards, including the 1987 Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. The war was now in vogue in Hollywood. Enter writer and Stone’s fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Carabatsos. Carabatsos had served with the 1st Air Calvary Division from 1968-1969 and had some stories of his own to tell. They would form what would ultimately become his screenplay of Hamburger Hill, one of the more overlooked entries in the Vietnam War film stampede. The arrival of a new DVD to commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary (which was actually last year) makes John Irvin‘s brutal and uncompromising war melodrama ripe for reappraisal.
Hamburger Hill begins with a series of affecting shots taken at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Then like a shock to the system we’re immediately hurdled into the thick of battle. Welcome to the ‘Nam. Welcome to the shit. Set over the course of eleven days in May 1969, the movie opens with a group of FNG’s (Fuckin’ New Guys) fresh out of basic training being assigned to the B Company, 187th Infantry Regiment, of the Army’s 101st Airborne Divison led by Sergeants Worcester (Steven Weber) and Frantz (Dylan McDermott). The fresh meat for the grinder include “Alphabet” Languilli (Anthony Barrile), Beletsky (Tim Quill), Galvan (Michael Nickles), and Washburn (Don Cheadle). Within days the company, affectionately known as the “Screaming Eagles,” is airlifted to the Ashau Valley, sight of many bloody engagements, and ordered to assault a hill heavily fortified with NVA troops. The soldiers don’t know why this hill is so crucial but their job is not to question but to take orders and fight. Each day the 101st attempt to take the hill but the NVA are so well dug in that any man who goes up that hill is guaranteed to die horribly. The tension mounts and the stench of death is thick in the air. But all the men of B Company can do is fight and die until the job is done. That’s just what they do. By the end of the movie those who survive this devastating battle will come to know Hill 937 as “Hamburger Hill”, so named because the men who died on the hill, American and Vietnamese alike, did not die pretty.
Hamburger Hill is a taut and battle-hardened combat drama stripped of any artistic pretensions and pissed off as a motherfucker. There is real anger and bitterness in the blunt language and furious action of Jim Carabatsos’ screenplay, the voice of a true veteran. The movie is a grunt’s tale told not by politicos or peaceniks but by the men who were there, the men who lived every day knowing it could be there last and whose only friends were their fellow soldiers and their guns. There are no plot complications and clichÃ©d villains in war. Hamburger Hill‘s story is as clean and uncomplicated as the orders given to the men of B Company: take the hill, or die trying. The movie reminded me at times of the diamond-hard combat epics of Sam Fuller, movies like The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and the man’s unsung masterpiece The Big Red One. The soldiers know what their job is and they’re going to get it done regardless of the consequences. War is hell, that is perfectly clear. They do not have to like it but in the ‘Nam it’s all the Screaming Eagles have.
Although Carabatsos never takes an outright political position he does occasionally address the treatment the returning soldiers were receiving back in the States from the anti-war movement. As an anti-war man myself the dialogue struck me at times as being a little too anti-hippie. This is one of the main reasons why the movie is often seen as a right-wing response to noted liberal rabble rouser Oliver Stone’s Platoon. But it is true that the soldiers who fought in Vietnam and lived to tell the tale weren’t exactly given the warmest of greetings upon their return home. The majority of Vietnam veterans weren’t soulless murderers like the ones who committed the massacre at My Lai. Most of them did not even have a choice in the matter as the movie makes it clear that a lot of the men who died on Hamburger Hill were drafted right out of high school. They were kids who were about to start their lives and instead they found an ultimate end to everything in the treacherous jungles of Vietnam. The ones who did not die came home with mental and physical scars and were essentially abandoned by their country, the same country that made them believe once in the cause of freedom for all. The titular hill is symbolic of everything the Vietnam War was.
There’s also a strong undercurrent of racial tension in the company personified in the squad’s haunted medic “Doc” Johnson (Courtney B. Vance). Doc has seen more than his fair share of fellow black soldiers bloodily cut down in their prime and is understandably angry when the white soldiers, particularly the new ones, attempt to relate to him because they wouldn’t even bother talking to him back in the U.S. He manages to maintain his sanity by forging bonds with soldiers Motown (Michael Boatman), McDaniel (Don James), and Washburn. At the end of the day when they have returned from charging into the fires of Hell and seeing their friends torn to pieces by enemy gunfire, they prepare for the next day with the chant “It don’t mean nothing. Not a thing.” Because that’s what it all comes down to. They are there and every day brings the same shit.
Fight, die, or live to fight and die another day. That’s war. That’s Hamburger Hill.
The direction by John Irvin, who had once went to the ‘Nam to film a documentary for the BBC, lends a gritty and straightforward quality to the graphic ground-level action ably filmed by cinematographer Peter MacDonald (who would make his directorial debut the following year with Rambo III). You really feel like you’re in the action. There’s rarely a slow moment in this film. Carabatsos crafts intriguing and fully-realized characters through his tight, slang-loaded dialogue that adds to the overall “You are there” experience of the film. Best of all is the cast assembled to give life to the soldiers of B Company who fought with their lives to take Hill 937. Dylan McDermott and Steven Weber are exceptionally good as the tough but sympathetic platoon leaders charged with leading these mostly inexperienced kids into enemy territory. As the company medic Doc Courtney B. Vance makes you feel the pain and anger in his character’s soul. Tim Quill, Michael Boatman, Don Cheadle, and Anthony Barrile are the standouts among the naÃ¯ve and cocksure raw recruits in the division. As the battle rages on their transformation into true soldiers turns into an unholy rite of manhood that the actors convincingly play. The only obtrusive element of the film is the musical score by famed minimalist composer Philip Glass. His film work is usually superb but for Hamburger Hill the music is too broad and distracting even if it’s rarely used in the film until the finale. It’s like Glass is composing his version of the patriotic music that underscored the war films of the 1940s and 1950s. The music score sticks out like a sore thumb and the movie would have been all the better without it. Much better are the vintage songs by groups like the Animals and the Spencer David Group. Music like that provided the real soundtrack of the Vietnam War.
Hamburger Hill has been recently reissued in a new “20th Anniversary Special Edition” by Lions Gate Home Entertainment. The film has been given a brand new anamorphic transfer enhanced for widescreen televisions and is presented in it’s original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Home theater buffs will enjoy the robust Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, a good solid track that plays up the dialogue and action scenes with equal clarity. There are also a small selection of bonus features that were created especially for this DVD.
The first is an audio commentary track with writer/co-producer Jim Carabatsos and actors Anthony Barille (Languilli), Harry O’Reilly (Duffy), and Daniel O’Shea (Gaigin). It’s a good track with Carabatsos dominating the proceeds as he relates stories of his real-life experiences as a ‘Nam grunt and his struggles to get the movie off the ground. The actors share their reminisces about making the movie. All in all the commentary’s worth a listen even though Barille mistakenly refers to the movie as his debut in the first few seconds of the track. When I first saw him in the movie I said to myself, “Hey there’s the guy who got a road flare shoved into his mouth in Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning”.
Some input from director John Irvin or any of the principal cast members would have been welcome but their input is saved for the retrospective documentary Hamburger Hill: The Appearance of Reality. The documentary runs a scant seventeen minutes so there isn’t much time for anything other than basic facts about the making of Hamburger Hill. Still it is nice to hear from Irvin, who directed two of my favorite overlooked war films The Dogs of War and When Trumpets Fade. We even get snippets of remembrances from Dylan McDermott, Steven Weber, Courtney B. Vance, and Tim Quill to name but a few of the few who participated. There are some interesting tidbits of information here and there such as the story of how this was a first film for most of the young cast and the story of how the movie was made in the Philippines during a politically unstable time after the fall of President Marcos. This is a fine featurette that could have used a bit more meat on the bones.
Even shorter than the main documentary is Medics in Vietnam, a roughly seven minute piece that weaves together interviews with Vietnam veterans, military historians, and real-life combat medics to explore the important role of medics during the war. Actor Vance, who played a medic in the film, is also interviewed for this brief featurette that compliments the other extra features adequately.
Next up is an interactive Vietnam War timeline that gives a quick and informative overview of the events leading up to the war from the French colonization of the country in 1867 to the evacuation of the American Embassy in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in April 1975. It is a nice, useful feature for those who do not know squat about the war but political and history buffs such as myself will feel slighted. At least it inspired me to break out my copy of American Power and the New Mandarins by Noam Chomsky. Love that book.
Closing out this bountiful (sarcasm) array of features are trailers for other somewhat related movies also available from Lions Gate: Reservoir Dogs: 15th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, American Psycho: Killer Collector’s Edition, 3:10 to Yuma, Rambo, and The Rambo Trilogy: Ultimate Edition.
Having never seen Hamburger Hill before I found this movie to be a fine yet flawed Vietnam War film: vicious, poetic, and obdurate to the end. The extras on this DVD are slight but they enhance the overall experience of viewing the film. I highly recommend this overlooked gem to all who enjoy a ripping good war melodrama.
Have fun. Until next time I remain”¦.BAADASSSSS! And remember, “It don’t mean nothing. Not a thing.”