In a much-referenced Greek myth, an unfortunate man named Sisyphus is damned for all eternity to endure a meaningless mental and physical challenge. Every single day (forever!) he must push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. His task – menial, monotonous, absurd – is, for many existentialists, a perfect metaphor for “being” in the modern world. Humans toil endlessly, striving towards ever receding goals, achieving ever-diminishing returns for our exhausting efforts. We are all, in our ways, battling up a series of hills, and watching as, all too frequently, it becomes clear that the fight is for nothing.
In John Irvin’s 1987 film Hamburger Hill, this allegory is taken to its most horrific extreme. Closely based on one of the fiercest battles of the American War in Vietnam, the film follows a squad of 14 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division during the brutal ten-day battle for Hill 937. Strategically useless, the Hill was little more than a steep, muddy death trap (hence its gruesome nickname). Every day the Americans would push their way up, throwing everything they had at the bunkers lining the ridges at the top of the Hill, and every night they’d retreat back down as the enemy reinforced and reloaded.
When the ten-day battle was over, the Hill had been reduced to a treeless, smoking wasteland, littered with limbs, guts, and broken bodies wearing the tattered remains of both uniforms. The insistent fighting left 70 dead and 372 wounded on the American side, and a staggering 630 dead for the People’s Army of Vietnam. It is unknown how many hundreds more Vietnamese were wounded. Less than three weeks later, the Hill was abandoned by Major General John Wright, the new commander of the 101st Airborne. Coming as it did in late spring, 1969, as public pressure to end the conflict was reaching a fever pitch in the States, the battle for, and abandonment of, Hill 937 sparked a firestorm of debate, and is often cited as a turning point in the war.
The ideal metaphor for a conflict that history has come to see as both pointless and hopelessly misguided, the battle for Hill 937 serves as the plot (such as it is) for this intensely realistic film. After the fascinating first act establishes a pseudo-documentary tone (during which we follow men to a brothel, observe as they fill sandbags, watch as they are trained in the need for discipline while brushing their teeth, witness a sudden deadly attack on their position, and hear faint stirrings of the political, racial, and social unrest that characterized the times), we are suddenly up in a chopper, and on our way to the war. It’s a brilliant bit of set-up, for we come to identify with, and care for, characters about whom we know next to nothing. All we know is that some of them are going to die.
The staging of the battle itself is relentless and bravura. Unlike many war pictures which seem to revel in the perverse magnificence of an exploding shell or a gush of blood, nothing about this film is beautiful. It is stark, tense, filthy, and deeply unsettling. Where another movie might have inserted a narrative structure, forcing a tidy resolution or some kind of catharsis upon the conclusion, Hamburger Hill just sort of ends. In realism, conclusions don’t make much sense; after all, the war would continue for another six years in varying forms, and tens of thousands more people were still to die on both sides.
It is often said that veterans have claimed this film as the one Vietnam War movie that spoke to their recollections of what it was like for them – this is no doubt partly because the film was so closely overseen by veterans and active servicemen alike. But certainly, unlike the heavy-handed and borderline surrealist approaches to the war in films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon, Hamburger Hill can claim a hyper-realism as its driving motif.
The “plot” couldn’t be more reductive: a meaningless battle for a meaningless hill, during which most of the characters are either killed or torn apart. Nothing else happens, and little subtext fills the empty space. Sure, there are a couple of evocative scenes where the young men sit around between battles talking about their girl back home, or what they’ll do when they get back to “the World”, or, especially, the condition of race relations. But, the meat of the film is the horrific, empty action on the greasy hill.
In the film’s most important scene, following the death of a soldier whose tour of duty was winding down, we watch a group of soldiers repeat a kind of mantra, dulling the pointed edges of their grief through reiteration. “It don’t mean nothing, man. Not a thing,” they say. Over and over again, they repeat these words, until slowly, astonishingly, tortured smiles begin to grow on their faces. Tomorrow morning, it’s back up the hill, and maybe kill, or maybe be killed. As another soldier reminds his buddies, by way of advice: “When your time’s up, your time is up.” So, best not to worry about it. You fight, and try not to get killed. Even though if you do, it won’t mean nothing. Not a thing.
With striking performances from a group of then-unknowns like Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, and a ferocious Courtney Vance, and boasting a circular, riveting score by Philip Glass, Hamburger Hill finds a way to remain engaging, even as it provides an unfettered account of horror, bravery, and devastation. For its unflinching approach to war, its eye for human strength and compassion amid the carnage, and above all for its clear message about the catastrophic stupidity of the enterprise itself, Hamburger Hill remains among the very best films about men at war ever made.
This 20th Anniversary edition includes documentaries, a commentary track, and a Vietnam War timeline, none of which should make you feel compelled to turn in your old copy.