A group of soldiers set off on a 10-day battle as they attempt to take Hamburger Hill during the Vietnam War.
Hamburger Hill was written by John Carabatsos, who served in the 1st Air Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War. He spent years interviewing soldiers involved there and studied the battle at Hamburger Hill in detail. When he pitched the movie, he demanded it be as realistic as possible and withstood studio resistance to make sure his story was told.
He was extremely lucky to land John Irvin as the director. Irvin, who shot a documentary in Vietnam in 1969, makes sure to keep the film as grounded in reality as possible. Much of the fighting action is shot in an almost documentary style. The battle scenes are as depressing as you would expect from a movie based around a battle as grim as this.
The first quarter of the movie focuses on the arrival of new recruits and we watch as they are taught the necessary survival techniques from the veterans there. These veterans are grounded by three men, portrayed by Dylan McDermott (Sgt. Frantz), Steven Webber (Worchester) and Courtney B. Vance (Doc Johnson).
Vance is a standout as Doc Johnson. Early in the movie during one of the first attacks, he breaks down because he knows they are ill equipped to help protect these new young soldiers. He knows what the men are fighting for, but is out of touch with the realities of the resistance back home. When a young recruit tells a soldier not to wear his uniform back home, Doc tells him that they are fighting for America and should be proud to wear it back home.
The resistance back home is another important part of the film. We see through most of the film these young men we have gotten to know fight and die, following their orders. Most have loved ones back home, but realize slowly they are being shunned and blackballed by those loved ones. While these soldiers were sent to Vietnam to fight and die for their country, they return to find no one cares.
Steven Webber is the actor we learn about the actual return from the war. He tells the story how he returned to a world that no longer wanted him. Protestors throw shit at him and when he finds someone who lost a son in the war, he learns how horribly the people back home treated him, saying his son deserved to die. After hearing this story he reenlisted and returned to the hell hole that he had escaped from. It is through this dialogue and the observations of the men that helps paint a stark picture of the war in Vietnam and its aftermath here in the states.
The actual battles are quite brilliantly shot and, while they don’t match up to the battle scenes in war movies such as Paths of Glory, there are moments in this movie that hits just as hard. When a soldier is blown to dust and another asks where the body is, the look McDermott gives is more shocking than seeing a body ripped open, guts hanging out. That is what more movies like this need to understand. It is the reactions to a death by other soldiers and the emotions that rise from the tragedy that makes the deaths really mean something.
It is this area that helps Hamburger Hill rise above other war movies of the time. There is a great deal of blood and guts, and more than enough gore for the gore hounds, but we spend a lot of time getting to know the soldiers and we see the inexperience and hopelessness in their eyes. When they die, whether it is a slow, painful death or a quick shot that kills a man off-screen, these deaths actually mean something.
Knowing how the soldiers were treated when they returned home, it makes the entire movie hit hard. This movie is as pro war as you will find. The men we grow to care about are killed, lose limbs, lose friends and are pulverized in one of the bloodiest battles you will ever see. Yet it all seems to be for nothing when they return to the land they believed they were fighting for. I don’t care if you believe in war or not, this movie is not about governments fighting for land or power, it is about young men fighting a battle as friends and companions. When they finally achieve their goal you wonder if it was all worth it. When you realize what they returned to when they were finished, you know it wasn’t.
There is a commentary track with Writer James Carabatsos and actors Anthony Barrile, Harry O’Reilly and Danny O’Shea. The stuff with Carabatsos was great, as he had lots of anecdotes about both the real battle and the making of the movie. The actors added some nice tidbits as well, but Carabatsos was the highlight.
Hamburger Hill: The Appearance of Reality (16:51) is a feature looking back on the making of the movie. It talks to John Irvin, producer Marcia Nasatir, and actors Dylan McDermott, Courtney Vance, Steven Webber, Tim Quill, Tommy Swerdlow, Michael Nickles and Daniel O’Shea. It is a talking head feature talking to everyone about the dangerous shoot and watching people actually dying around them. Vance called it the craziest and most dangerous environment he has ever worked in.
Medics in Vietnam (06:39) is a short feature talking about the medics working with the troops in war. This feature talks to a historian and veterans as well as Courtney Vance, who played the Doc in the movie. Vietnam War Timeline is a text based feature that walks you through the Vietnam War from the French Colonization in 1887 through the U.S. Withdrawal in 1975. It is just a short timeline giving events that happened with no real explanation. The commentary is nice and the documentary is short but interesting. The rest is just added fluff.