Heartbreak Ridge

June 21, 2011

The U.S. Marine Corps has withdrawn its official approval of Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge, even though the Corps participated in the actual filming of the movie. The Marines evidently feel that the cussing, brawling soldiers portrayed in the film are not in keeping with the image of the Corps.

Yeaaaahhh, right. Marines have never been known for spilling salty language.

Actually, even real Marines might have trouble keeping up with the film’s blue streak, which is incessant (and occasionally shamelessly amusing). James Carabatsos’s screenplay doesn’t miss many profane possibilities.

The Marines’ withdrawal of approval is quite silly. Surely they realize that Heartbreak Ridge, for all its swearing and punching, portrays the service in an utterly attractive light.

Eastwood, on holiday from mayoral duties in Carmel, Calif., is in familiar territory. He plays a hard-nosed Marine, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, who returns to the reconnaissance platoon where he got his start. He intends to kill the time before his retirement by passing along the fundamentals (and his collection of suggestive one-liners) to a predictably rag-tag collection of soldiers.

Equally predictably, Eastwood knocks heads with his immediate commander (Everett McGill), a creep who’s never known combat and who refers to Eastwood as an anachronism and a relic. It follows that Clint will have to teach this upstart a thing or two about combat (preferably hand-to-hand).

He’s also saddled with an ex-wife (Marsha Mason) whose proximity—surprise—rekindles an old flame. That’s expected, but the few scenes they share are the film’s only interesting moments, as he startles her by asking, “Did we mutually nurture each other?” and other other touchy-feely sentiments he has absorbed from women’s magazines—a curious and poignant attempt by this leathery old boot to enter a newer world (and a tweak of Eastwood’s macho public image, which he sometimes satirizes within his own films).

But most of the film has Eastwood riding herd over his platoon, and what a thoroughly uncompelling bunch they are. The film needs an ending that will allow the men to prove themselves, so it’s conveniently set in 1983 before the invasion of Grenada. You know how that one came out.

Heartbreak Ridge represents a back-stepping for Eastwood (he produced and directed), as his films of the last decade have gotten progressively more interesting. This movie is so conventional, so eager to press the right crowd-pleasing audience buttons, that you wonder whether Eastwood was scared off by the darker territory he experimented with in recent movies such as Tightrope and Pale Rider.

It should do well enough at the box office. And the Marine Corps can rest easy. Not since Top Gun has there been such an effective recruitment poster for the armed services.

First published in the Herald, December 6, 1986

It may have been a step back, but Eastwood went charging right ahead again, diving into a couple of unusual directing projects (Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart) while playing it safe with a Dirty Harry sequel (albeit a very peculiar Dirty Harry sequel). I had the experience of watching the film at a press screening while sitting next to David Thomson, who was in Seattle to speak at an Orson Welles series that Tom Keogh and I had organized for a new non-profit organization. (I remember looking through the next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film to see how Heartbreak Ridge had fared.) This was at the Northwest Preview Room, a tiny screening theater that weirdly occupied a section of a building perched on the side of an urban cliff. The theater had a separate entrance from the rest of the building, although every once in a while we’d have to go in through the main entrance (which was really a roof—the whole thing was odd) and the occupants of the building—at the end it was Seattle Opera—were always mighty puzzled about what we were doing in that little room. Lousy place to see movies. I must’ve seen at least a thousand films there, sitting in the second row because the sightlines were bad.