I’m almost certain I watched Hamburger Hill sometime around the time it came out (1987). I vaguely recall not liking it, although I can’t say I remember anything else about it. Within the last six months or so, happened across some video clips from it (I was perusing a best movies of the Vietnam War list) and wondered if I shouldn’t watch it again. Or for the first time if, perhaps, I hadn’t watched it already. It then took a slot on my “to watch” list.
When I found out it, this past weekend, that was set to be removed from Netflix in the middle of May, I decided that the time had come to give it a watch. This despite the fact that I’ve not been watching much TV recently and despite the fact that the film, although gone from Netflix, remains on Amazon’s included-with-Prime streaming.
It seems that, at the time it came out, the film was overshadowed by several of “the big” Vietnam War films that released just before or at the same time. Hamburger Hill debuted some 8-9 months after Platoon‘s release. It then shared the summer audience with Full Metal Jacket. A few months after that, Good Morning Vietnam was added to the competition. To lend support to the idea that this was a genuinely good film that was overshadowed by its bigger-budget brethren is a (presently) 100% tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes.
But as I watch the film (or watch it again – I still can’t be sure), a number of things bother me. Part of the problem is that the likes of We Were Soldiers has raised the bar for what I expect from a war movie. Yet even evaluated from the perspective of the late 1980s, I don’t think this is in the same ballpark as Full Metal Jacket or Platoon.
My very first impression how much the actors reflect the look and mannerisms 80s, not the 60s. It has always been a problem and probably always will be, but failing to get the period right in your period piece tends to foreshadow other quality issues. It also mean that, throughout the remainder of the film, I have a hard time telling the supporting actors one from the other.
The focus of a film is on a single squad which, as the events of the film begin, is a mix of veterans and replacements. To start, the squad is being extracted from a firefight, perhaps a patrol gone wrong. We later find out that this nasty fight takes place in the region to which they are to ultimately return for the titular battle. The squad leader is played by Dylan McDermott* in what I would call the “lead role.” It is also his first credited film appearance. Strangely, Netflix doesn’t credit him as one of the “top” credits, despite his obviously key part. Amazon does, as does the “Blue Ray” disc version of the film. Odd.
While we, the audience, tries to figure out who these guys are and what they are up to, the movie seems want to run us through all the war-movie tropes. The Lieutenant / Platoon Leader is incompetent and the platoon is run by the Platoon Sergeant. There’s the draftees versus volunteers conflict (with a little anti-war and anti-anti-war politics thrown in for good measure). A nasty, friendly fire incident produces a gut-wrenching scene. It’s as if the writers wanted to take all the “issues” of the time and make sure each got their place within the film. One significant must-include for a 1969 period piece is the civil rights conflict. We are treated to repeated eruptions of racial tension in the mixed-race platoon. In this, that 80s look really confuses the story. There is an odd scene where the (black) medic teaches the new (white) recruits how to brush their teeth. The implication is that the whites are unsophisticated “rednecks,” perhaps in contrast to the urban (and urbane?) blacks. Yet, all the white boys looks suspiciously like 80s yuppies**.
The portrayal of battle itself also come off pretty flat. This may be par for the course for 1987. We’re still in the middle of that transition from the likes of Force 10 From Navarone to Saving Private Ryan in terms of combat realism. Gun handling is a mixed bag and nearly everyone fires incessantly on full-automatic from a single, 10-round magazine. The squad prefers to move around in a densely-packed group, and although here and there a thought is given to enemy location and flanks, it’s mostly a very simple and simplistic representation of the battlefield.
We rarely see the whole platoon together in a scene and rarer still the shots bring in the rest of the company. With that, there seems to be little consideration as to the greater tactical plan. One might argue this is intentional. Like the individual infantryman, the viewers are not privy to any overarching plan and we may even suspect that there isn’t one. Thus having combat scenes be confusing and disconnected is a feature, not a bug. Still, it seems like the scenes were put together, not with a temporal and geographic narrative in mind, but to serve the visual story. “Let’s have two intense combat scenes with an intervening pause for quiet reflection.” I, for one, think the movie could have held together much better if the directory tried to keep the battle itself coherent.
My perceived deficit in authenticity is not for lack of trying. Director John Irvin, himself, had made a documentary in Vietnam during the war (about war photographers) and strove for accuracy. Writer James Carabatsos served in combat in the Vietnam war and he specifically wanted to counter the non-realism found in films like Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. I’ve read that the film was extensively researched and praise from the Veteran community often focuses on its realism. I guess it is all relative.
One final benefit to Netflix pulling this film just when they did is that I watched it over the same days as the actual battle, 51 years after the fact. It’s a coincidence attributable to dumb luck, but one that I appreciate nonetheless.
*Looking over McDermott’s acting credits, I feel like I’ve seen him in a lot more films and/or television than he has actually been in. I don’t know why that would be.
**The one actor who has a grip on his poor, southern white-boy role is Steven Weber (Wings, The Shining), as the Platoon Sergeant. Later, some exposition reveals to us that Weber’s Worcester is a California, city boy. Oh well.