Hamburger Hill (1987) is an intensely, well acted Vietnam War movie which shows seasoned combat troops at their very best. The film follows a group of men of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division as they are ordered to assault a hill fortification of Vietnamese trenches and bunkers from May 10,-20, 1969.
The troops of the 3rd Battalion nicknamed Hill 937 “Hamburger Hill” because it chewed men up like a meat grinder. In fact, according to military historians, the battle for “Hamburger Hill” was one of the last major ground battles fought in Vietnam before American personnel became downsized due to the unable to be won nature of the war, and against America’s enemies.
The film stars a group of up and coming actors, many who went on to becoming huge stars including Dylan McDermott (SSgt. James Frantz), Steven Weber (Sfc. Dennis Worcester), Courtney B. Vance (Spc. Abraham “Doc” Johnson), Michael Boatman (Pvt. Ray Motown), and a young Don Cheadle as (Pvt. Johnny Washburn).
One of the main reasons I have always enjoyed this film is because it shows the hardships, camaraderie, and the dedication that each of these men had for each other while facing some of the most brutal combat in the war. The main characters open up to one another and begin to learn about each others lives as well as what their plans are when they get out of the war.
The film also does an absolutely amazing job at showing the viewer the complex nature of the war and how it not only effected the grunts in the field, but how negative feelings at home, among Americans in general, hated the war and hated our troops more than they did the enemy. Pvt. Martin Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow) receives a letter from his sweetheart telling him that she will no longer write to him, because her college friends believe it to be wrong and immoral to date a “killer.”
My favorite scene in the film is after one of the several attempted assaults, the men are situated in a muddy portion of the lower hill, awaiting orders for yet again another assault. They begin to question the relevance of why the hill is so important and how this assault is suppose to win a victory over the Vietcong? Sfc. Worcester (Weber) who steals virtually every scene he’s in, begins to reflect on what it was like for him after his first rotation back to the states in 1968.
The scene is a very subtle, well executed pull-in shot on Weber’s face as he begins to tell the story. When he arrived at an airport, a group of hippies begin to hurl bags of dog feces at him and other veterans calling them “baby killers”, he returns home to his wife who was having sex with another man, and she was filled with hatred towards him and what he had allegedly done over in Vietnam.
Even as he walked down the street of his own hometown, he was treated with hostility and contempt. What really got to Worcester though was that his local bartender (whose son was killed during the 1965 battle in the Ia Drang Valley) became hooked on heroin and suffered from a mental breakdown due to college students phoning his home and saying they were glad that his son was killed by the “heroic People’s Army of Vietnam.”
The bartender was the only person who treated Worcester with dignity and respect while he was home. This event forced Worcester to sign up for another tour of duty in Vietnam. At the end of the story, he then says “And that’s why I’m here.” A brilliant scene which really sums up the frustration and isolation troops felt that how could they win a war in which their own countrymen didn’t support?
Director John Irvin directs with style and shows just how intense this one battle truly was. The hill that was used on location while in the Philippines, closely resembled the actual Hill 937. A behind the scenes feature on the 20th anniversary DVD talks with the actors and their recollections on making the film. All of them remember just how difficult it was to hump up the hill in the scenes where there was torrential rain due to a monsoon which hit the Philippines during principle photography of the film.
The scenes in which the actors are falling many feet down the side of the hill, getting their equipment and fatigues all muddy, actually happened. Tim Quill (Pvt. Joe Beletsky), also talks about how scary it was to return to the hotel after a day’s shooting wrap. The windows of the bus which carried the actors from the hotel and back had blacked out windows due to the fear of communist guerrillas attempting to shoot at the bus, and kill American actors, which they believed to be brought in to pacify that region which was politically unstable in the late 1980’s.
Hamburger Hill is a superior Vietnam War film which doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The performances are great, the action is realistic, and Philip Glass’ soundtrack is amazing. It is a war film that I can always put on and enjoy time and time again. It is a film that has garnered a place in cinema history which shows the viewer how difficult and painful it was to be a combat infantry man in Vietnam.
Hamburger Hill is available to own on DVD through Lions Gate Home Video, and can be rented through Netflix.