More than any of the films to come out about Vietnam, "Hamburger Hill" wants to be a memorial to our experience there -- a cinematic headstone. In the opening shots, under Philip Glass' swirling, hypnotic music, the camera speeds rapidly over scenes of the Vietnamese bush, intercut with shots of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And as the camera moves over the names chiseled into the stone, it seems to be committing them to memory, and at the same time adding them up, measuring the magnitude, and the gravity, of what occurred.
Written by John Carabatsos, who served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1968-69 and spent five years interviewing soldiers involved in the combat there and researching the battle, it focuses on 14 members of the 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, D Company, of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, who on May 10, 1969, began what has been characterized as one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The movie isn't just about the fight at Hill 937, which came to be known as Hamburger Hill. About a third of it takes place in the camp before the soldiers are coptered into the Ashau Valley, where the battle takes place. These early scenes, in which you get to know the characters and the basic relationships are established, don't have much life, though. They're routine Vietnam war movie scenes -- standard issue. The movie doesn't really get started until the fighting begins.
The sequence leading into the actual fighting, with the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" playing on the sound track as the troops are dropped off at the edge of the jungle below the hill, is an exhilarating one. And it's one of the few in which director John Irvin allows himself to poeticize the action.
When the actual fighting starts, the action is divided into days, with the date given at the start of each day and each fresh attempt to capture the hill. The battle, as it was fought for those 10 grueling days, is for Carabatsos and Irvin a microcosm for the war -- and for war itself. But the filmmakers don't try to enlarge on the details, or view them metaphorically, as "Platoon" did. Their film sticks to the specifics -- with the soldiers clawing their way up that hill. And to the extent that it restricts its vision to that of the soldier, and gives us the experience of that battle from his point of view, it presents (at least to someone who wasn't there) a powerful representation of the fighting.
Because the film is grounded so deeply in the soldier's war, one can forgive some of the filmmakers' more blatant attempts to make political hay. From the infantryman's point of view, how should the dissension back home be viewed? When a young private named Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow) gets word from his girl that she won't be writing him anymore because her "friends at college think it's immoral," how should he feel about left-wing activism against the war? (His reaction -- three tiny sobs: "Oh." Pause. "Oh." Longer pause. "Oh" -- is the most eloquent moment in the film.)
But Carabatsos and Irvin can't leave it at that. When on the seventh day of the battle the squad encounters a film crew at the foot of the hill, the squad leader, Sgt. Frantz (Dylan McDermott), calls them scavengers and tells them, "You haven't earned the right to be on this hill."
This is an example of the movie's hawkish, macho posturing at its most undiluted. But a similar attitude runs less obviously throughout the film. Carabatsos wrote the screenplay for "Heartbreak Ridge" (as well as the scripts to "Heroes" and "No Mercy"), and he and his collaborators seem to feel compelled not only to show us their war, but tell us what we're to think about it. Carabatsos may have felt he was simply trying to be faithful to his own memory of the war, and to, in his words, "serve the men I was with in Vietnam." And if he had done so, the movie might have been a fitting memorial.
The issues raised in the film, most often by the men as they rest between battles, are by now familiar, but that they continue to come up, onscreen and off, expresses once again how deeply divisive the war was. The movie opens the next chapter in the public debate on the war. And if "Platoon" nudged public sentiment to the left, then "Hamburger Hill" is an attempt to reclaim it for the right.
"Hamburger Hill" tries to purify the war, to view it not as it was seen in "Platoon" or "Apocalypse Now," but as a noble struggle fought by men of honor. Though the soldiers here dance, booze it up and treat themselves to an occasional massage at the local Vietnamese brothel, they aren't toked-up heads. The divisions within the squad itself is different here, too. It's not a conflict born out of differing opinions about the war and their role in it; the squabbles here are more personal, resulting from insults to girlfriends or, more significantly, racial sensitivities.
"Hamburger Hill" gets this part of the story down particularly well. There's black-white antipathy, but there are black and white bonds as well. And when racial feelings explode, there's usually something more than racial pressure behind the explosion.
Had the filmmakers resisted the temptation to politicize their material they might have made a great war movie. They might also have thought to give us some indication of the strategic significance of the hill. As it is, they've managed to create a deeply affecting, highly accomplished film.
No matter what you think of the script, it's impossible to dismiss what's up on the screen. Irvin, an English-born filmmaker who worked on several documentaries in Vietnam in 1969, has a magnificent technique, and the scenes he shoots in the grass and on the side of the hill rival the battle sequences that Kubrick shot for "Paths of Glory" and Peckinpah's work in "Cross of Iron."
The sequence in which the men try to get their footing and fight their way up a hill that has turned entirely to mud after a torrential rainfall is like a Kafkaesque nightmare of futility. And it seems an exquisite metaphor, too, for the whole Vietnam experience, a summation -- fighting uphill in mud.
Unfortunately, when the fighting stops, the movie loses a lot of its percussive energy. There are, however, some wonderful performances by a cast of previously unknown actors. For most of the movie, Courtney Vance's Doc is the squad's emotional center. (He's the unofficial spiritual leader of the blacks in the squad, too.) He and the other black members of the cast -- Don James, Michael Patrick Boatman and Don Cheadle -- create a real solidarity between them, and one of the highlights of the movie is the scene in which they huddle together, patty-cakin' and chanting, "It don't mean nothin'. Not a thing," over and over.
"Don't mean nothin' " is the soldiers' all-purpose catch phrase, but it's more than that; there's a world view in it. It won't fit as a pronouncement on the movie, though. The scene at the end of the film in which Beletsky (Tim Quill) looks over the battlefield has a primal intensity. "Hamburger Hill" is a punishing work; I can't say I was sorry it was over. It's a violent movie, but it doesn't have the self-satisfied, estheticized brutality of "Full Metal Jacket." There's a purpose to it -- a sense of values. The problem is that it's tough but not tough-minded. If it had been it might have been great. Still, there's a kind of greatness in it. It takes a piece out of you.
Hamburger Hill , at area theaters, is rated R and contains violent scenes of a deeply disturbing nature.