On May 10th, 1969, the U.S. military engaged in an all-out assault on the North Vietnamese army who were heavily fortified on Hill 937 located near the Laotian border. The attack was successful however, it took ten days and cost 72 American soldiers their lives. Another 372 were wounded in action. The hill which had no strategic value in the war was quickly abandoned after the victory. The number of dead and wounded as a result of the fierce firepower from the entrenched North Vietnam Army resulted in bodies seemingly chopped up in pieces; thus the battle would forever become better-known by the nickname of Hamburger Hill. Through news reports, word got back to Washington about the bloody battle, the loss of lives and the uselessness of the victory. Congress began an investigation into the military leadership and actions.
Director John Irvin’s film is a fictionalized recreation of the bloody battle. It’s a brutally honest film about the war. Irvin and his screenwriter, Jim Carabostsos, capture the realistic jargon of the young grunts in the field as well as the terror and bravery. Most grunts in Vietnam were 19 or 20 years old, and during breaks in fighting Irvin’s screenplay captures perfectly what young boys, forced to become men think and talk about, mainly girls and cars, both of which they hope to have plenty of when they are back in the world.
While the film depicts the insanity and futility of war, especially a war that never had a clear objective, it never preaches. Arguably it is one of the most realistic films about the Vietnam War. You won’t find any Rambo style one-man killing machines or false heroics here.
What helps is that there are no big name stars in the film, at least, they weren’t at the time. This keeps the film focused on the young kids, and how for many of them their lives will end horribly, and long before it should. They never question why they are there, they are, and all they want is to survive. They fight the fatigue, the elements, the anger, the death by pumping each other up. One of the phrases that was common, all soldiers used was “it don’t mean nothing.” It was a psychological response to the world around them. A way of distancing themselves from the horror. It all lends a feeling that these boys could be someone you know or love. Today, many of the actors names are familiar: Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, Courtney B. Vance and Steven Weber. This film was an early role for all of them. Vance is particularly effective.
Hamburger Hill was met with mixed reviews at the time of its release back in 1987. However, over the years it has gained a deserved reputation as one of the finest films about Vietnam.