While the 1970s produced a number of classic Vietnam War films, such as Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and the Australian production The Odd Angry Shot (1979), it really wasn’t until the 1980’s that the subject became more acceptable as popular entertainment. In the seventies, it was no doubt still a bit too recent and painful for most Americans to confront, while by the early-eighties the country was beginning to accept its failure and started honouring their people who served in the conflict.
The Vietnam War genre of the eighties encompassed a lot of American 42nd Street grindhouse fare like The Exterminator (1980), and seedy Italian imports such as Antonio Margheriti’s 1980 double of The Last Hunter and Cannibal Apocalypse. Violent, pulpy actioners like Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) were popular at the multiplex and helped solidify Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone as mythic American supermen. It was the release of Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoon in 1986, however, that really seemed to crystalize and capture America at the height of their Vietnam War fascination. Suddenly, the subject became ripe for mass-consumption. Marvel Comics’ The ‘Nam proved to be one of the most popular and controversial new comic book titles of 1986, while Tour of Duty brought the war to prime time television for three years (1987-1990).
Directed by John Irvin (The Dogs of War, Ghost Story) and released in 1987, Hamburger Hill might lack the narrative intensity and character of Platoon, and doesn’t have the savagely dark humour of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), but it nonetheless balances the action and drama remarkably well, creating a solid and entertaining war film, with a grittiness to it which evokes at times the work of maverick director Samuel Fuller (The Steel Helmet, Merrill’s Marauders, The Big Red One). Based on a true event which took place over a ten day period in May of 1969, Jim Carabatsos’ screenplay for Hamburger Hill sticks to many of the familiar Vietnam War film tropes, as we follow a group of raw young recruits who join a battle-hardened division that are about to be sent into the notorious A Shau Valley, with orders to capture Hill 937 at any cost. As each attempt to take the hill from the North Vietnamese Army becomes more brutal, and the battle becomes a war of attrition, the men soon start to dub the nondescript mound of land they are fighting and dying for as ‘Hamburger Hill’, for obvious grisly reasons.
Addressing the usual issues of race, politics and class in Vietnam, and featuring some moments of pretty intense and graphic violence, one of the most impressive aspects of Hamburger Hill is its often stunning cinematography by Peter MacDonald, whose lens helps give the film a very evocative and at times eerie atmosphere. The further up the hill the men progress, the more alien, barren and bleak the landscape becomes. By the end of the film, the soldiers that are still standing look like gaunt ghosts moving across a surreal Dante’s Inferno. In fact, there’s one striking moment that could have almost been pulled from a classic Lucio Fulci zombie film, when a character, the top of his head virtually shot off, stumbles slowly and blindly through the battle smoke covering the hill.
While there are no real stand-out performances, the movie is solidly acted across the board by a roster of young actors, including future stars Dylan McDermott (The Practice, Wonderland, American Horror Story) and Don Cheadle (Boogie Nights and the recent Iron Man films). As was de rigor in Vietnam War cinema from this period, the soundtrack to Hamburger Hill is filled with classic pop and soul hits of the era, including Gimme Some Lovin’ by The Spencer Davis Group, Otis Redding’s Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by The Animals (which is put to particularly good use, played as a formation of Huey choppers transport their cargo of infantry deep into the A Shau Valley). The film also features a nice ambient main theme, composed by Philip Glass.
Hamburger Hill looks wonderful on the 16:9 disc release from Madman (available on blu-ray and DVD), probably the best the film has looked since its original theatrical release. Extras include an audio commentary with screenwriter Carabatsos and a few of the supporting cast, and a couple of short featurettes, the best of which is Medics in Vietnam, in which real-life medics who served during the Vietnam War talk about their oft-harrowing experiences.
- Audio Commentary with writer/co-producer Jim Carabatsos and actors Anthony Barille, Harry O’Reilly and Daniel O’Shea.
- Hamburger Hill: The Appearance of Reality featurette
- Medics in Vietnam featurette
- Interactive Vietnam War timeline