The story of the ten day assault on Hill 937, dubbed Hamburger Hill because of the bloody cost in life, in Vietnam as seen through the eyes of one company of American soldiers.
Out of the three Vietnam movies that arrived in quick succession in the late eighties, (after Platoon and Full Metal Jacket) John Irvin’s is the most American. It is determined its men are heroes, and their endeavour honourable. The theme is the call of duty, against horrifying odds, not the rage of politics and the destruction of the human psyche that typically defines the Vietnam movie. The film champions the succour of brotherhood and dismays at the slaughter of so many men, so has far more in common with WWI sensibilities than Apocalypse Now.
The acerbic title refers to the GI’s gallows nickname for their objective Hill 937, referencing the notorious Pork Chop Hill from the Korean War it rather graphically identifies what became of most American bodies in the hailstorm of enemy gunfire — chopped meat. The story structure itself isn’t very original: a study of one company’s comradeship under fire, but applying that framework to the surrealistic horrors of Vietnam is an interesting tack. With its cast of unknowns (Dylan McDermott is only one who subsequently made something of a name for himself) these soldiers are certainly tossed and turned by doubts and fears, but they are hardly the fragmenting dropouts and psychos that seem to populate the genre.
Irvin is asking a straightforward but profound question — how do ordinary men deal with the alien necessities of what they are required to do? There is an aching ridiculousness to the gruelling, costly task of taking this hill. And the film is at its most powerful, when simply evaluating individual motivation. Asked why he has volunteered for another tour of duty, Steven Weber’s Sergeant Worcester gives a telling account of how America’s anti-war movement has cut them adrift with the beautiful college girls meeting him at the airport with, “bags of shit” and how his wife has moved in with her hippy lover.
Irvin’s action, however, lacks the shocking immediacy of Oliver Stone, and the sheer hellish grind of gaining the slopes of this damn hill in the Shau Valley never feels quite the Sisyphean nightmare it should. But as a direct tribute to the dignity of the solider facing attacks on both their bodies and their souls it puts things in a salutary context.
Raw and gory action sequence and an unbelievably depressing location which attempts realism rather than polemics.