Hamburger Hill

June 14, 2011
Courtney B. Vance, Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill is the third Vietnam battle movie to be released in 1987, and in many ways it may be the most authentic. Not that Platoon and Full Metal Jacket were anything but scrupulous in their re-creations of the Vietnam scene; indeed veterans were centrally involved in the making of all three films to ensure veracity, at least in terms of atmosphere and language.

But Platoon and Full Metal Jacket brought the war to vivid life by imposing ambitious narrative structure and theme to their stories. Hamburger Hill, which is based on a real battle, takes the opposite approach. Here is the war experience rendered in a no-frills style.

In fact, the first 40 or so minutes of the film are almost entirely formless. We see a series of scenes, practically unrelated except that a few characters recur (most of the unknown actors are indistinguishable, with the notable exception of Courtney B. Vance as Doc). These give spiky glimpses of wartime language and behavior.

Finally the movie settles into the doomed attack on a worthless hill. The American forces fight up the hill, are repulsed, and fight back up again. Occasionally they are strafed by their own helicopters. Their bodies are torn apart in gruesome detail, without rhyme or reason.

I suspect writer-producer Jim Carabatsos and director John Irvin made Hamburger Hill into a deliberately formless film because they wish to approximate the actual war. In other words, if the war had no design, why should the film? No shape, no big moments, no cathartic ending; just a series of brutal incidents and sudden death, without a supporting meaning or purpose.

This makes sense in trying to render the war accurately, I suppose, but it does keep Hamburger Hill from being as emotionally engaging as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. There’s simply nothing to hold on to here, no sense of structure or even forward motion—which, the filmmakers may argue, is precisely the point, just as their impossible-to-keep-straight characters may be true to the heartbreaking blur of bodies passing by in Vietnam.

If this is their intention, it still doesn’t make the film wholly successful. The simplistic nature of so much of the movie, such as the obvious use of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” finally drags it down, however exact the observations. But the overwhelming claustrophobia of the gray-green cinematography (and Philip Glass’s music) does become relentlessly persuasive after a while.

Carabatsos, who served in Vietnam, has a tendency to slide into movie-cliché situations, though this screenplay is far superior to the pair of turkeys he wrote last year, Heartbreak Ridge and No Mercy. Carabatsos’s dialogue is profane and well-observed, such as the cassette from a girlfriend back home that urges a solder to “smile more in his pictures.” And Carabatsos finds perhaps the ultimate summation of the war experience: A faraway scream puts a shiver into the Asian night and, miles away, a soldier pauses to drawl, “Baaaaad dream….”

First published in the Herald, August 27, 1987

You read this and you think, who is this pipsqueak laying down the law about what’s accurate about war? I think I might have phrased some of this stuff better. The movie had Dylan McDermott, Don Cheadle, and Steven Weber, but I was convinced the guy who would come out of it a star was Courtney Vance. Heckuva performance, but he didn’t really capitalize in the movies much in the years immediately following, did a lot of stage and TV work, and married Angela Bassett. I don’t know where James Carabatsos went.