RogerBW's Blog

Hamburger Hill (1987) 22 January 2022

1987 war, dir. John Irvin, Dylan McDermott, Courtney B. Vance: IMDb / allmovie. Even the breaks between war are fairly hellish.

Of all the Vietnam films I've seen in this batch made in the late 1980s as the influence of Apocalypse Now gradually faded, this is the one that's most about the fighting; the introductory scenes, while they give us some idea of what's going on, are mostly there to point out that, yeah, these are people as well as soldiers. And it's not much of a spoiler to say that most of them will be dead by the end.

I think this film finally hits the right compromise between confusion and representation in the battle scenes: it zooms in close on this guy so that you get the correct impression that he's focussed in on himself, the noise, the foliage he's hiding behind, and really not looking out there where the enemy might be, and thereby also points out just how confusing and scary the situation is. This and Platoon are the films that had screenwriters who had personally been there, rather than Full Metal Jacket which adapted a novel by someone who'd been there and has that extra layer of removal from reality. Cinematically there is never any sense of progress: sometimes the advance up the hill is right to left, sometimes left to right, but it all looks basically the same, just as it should. You go up, you shoot, some of them die, some of you die, you fall back again. And again. And again.

One doesn't get a sense of the size of the historical battle, but while it's clearly inspired by reality this isn't trying to be a history: it's much more a personal story of how these guys fought and died and ultimately won a worthless prize. (The film doesn't even mention that the titular hill was abandoned two weeks later. It doesn't have to.)

The soundtrack is noticeable, but in a good way – rather than just plaster the film with Hits Of 1969, there's been some effort put into making the song fit the mood.

The other point being made very effectively here is one that I've cared about for a while: the difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war. What's the point of spitting on the soldiers, when most of them didn't have a choice about being soldiers in the first place?

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes, though we only mentioned this film relatively briefly in the episode.


  1. Posted by John P at 06:37pm on 22 January 2022

    When are you going to get to "We Were Soldiers"?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 06:50pm on 22 January 2022

    This batch was enough, really – well, there's one more, but it's from the late 1960s. I'll be taking a bit of a break from Vietnam after that, and Mel Gibson isn't a plus point for me. "Eventually."

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:51am on 23 January 2022

    Hamburger Hill whilst offering the authentic feel of war didn't do it for me.

    Yes, the hill was abandoned two weeks later, but the hill was never really the objective. The aim of war is wear the oppositions will to continue.

    Of course, in this case the Vietnamese lost the battle, but won the war. What would have made the story interesting to me was some way of framing that idea within the narrative.

    As far as Hollywood goes, I might as well ask for rainbows and kittens.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 06:08pm on 23 January 2022

    Well, Major-Generals Zais and Wright seemed to think that it was not so much breaking their will as selectively killing off the few relatively capable PAVN/VC units which would be able to move quickly to support a breakthrough by the more numerous and expendable forces. But in practice it seems that they fought there because the enemy was there, i.e. committing the classical error of letting the enemy choose the ground while getting nothing in return for it.

    I think the closest the film gets to what you're looking for is the idea among the troops that nobody among the Americans we meet knows why they're there, the locals certainly aren't happy to see them except insofar as they bring money, so while clearly somebody somewhere wants this situation they have never articulated it in a way that convinces the people on the sharp end.

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