When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 June (9.00 pm)
I’m mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea’s ass at 200 meters. So why don’t you go hump somebody else’s leg, mutt face, before I push yours in.
In December 1986, an American film was released that completely rewrote the book on movie-making with a war theme. Humanistic and unsparing, it called an end to the blindly triumphal, chest-beating tone of war-related films that dominated the first half of the decade. That film was, of course, Platoon.
Released in the same month, Heartbreak Ridge was like a last throw of the old method, more channelling Top Gun (the year’s biggest success) than Oliver Stone’s opus and looking now like a bit of a relic. Even more strangely, it was directed by Clint Eastwood, an auteur clearly capable of better than this. And yet, at some point in the process Eastwood appears to have carefully detached certain nodes of his brain in order to revert to type, once again playing a character inspired by Harry Callaghan and making a film that’s been seen millions of times before.
James Carabotsis’s script was based on a real-life incident from the USA’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. At one point during the attack, a paratrooper used a pay-phone to call for extra support and was forced to use his credit card as the command unit wouldn’t accept the charges. This and a scene where the soldiers commandeer a bulldozer to charge an enemy position are the only two moments from the actual invasion to make the final cut. Eastwood wanted the Army’s support to make his film, but this was turned down as the hardline, hard-drinking hard as nails character he was playing didn’t chime with the image it wanted to promote. Instead, he turned to the US Marines, which duly backed Heartbreak Ridge and in turn swapped an army invasion of the Caribbean island into one undertaken by the Marines. Incidentally, the Marines also withdrew their support once the film was viewed.
What they objected to was one of the film’s more interesting themes. There are a couple of elements to Heartbreak Ridge that, had they been given more emphasis, could have led to a much more absorbing picture. The training camp to which Eastwood is assigned is portrayed as divisive and self-serving. His character, veteran soldier Tom ‘Gunny’ Highway, uses brute force and an iron will to get the best from his corps. They’re a dissolute bunch, completely resentful of his hardcore efforts to turn them into soldiers, but over the course of the film they come to respect his approach and his service record. The camp’s commanding officer, played by Everett McGill, is disdainful of Gunny and views his ‘recon’ corps as little more than cannon fodder. This turns into active dislike as the unlikely Marines start getting the better of his own, supposedly elite men. Whilst this picture of a Marine corps riven by jealousy and distrust was a big factor in the pulling of the forces’ backing, it’s no doubt actually happened before and makes for a fascinating image of soldiers trained to work as a single machine yet undermined by human nature. Also good are Gunny’s ham-fisted attempts to reconciliate with his ex-wife (Martha Mason), which he does by reading women’s magazines to get a better understanding of what makes her tick.
Unfortunately, these aspects are sunk in a by-the-numbers tale of the unlikeliest group of squaddies imaginable being bullied into a fighting force by Gunny, who the DVD box describes brilliantly as ‘dog-faced’. Of the trainees, endless focus is placed on Mario Van Peebles’s part-time rap star and his weak tunes (more a poor man’s Prince than Public Enemy). Sure enough, Mario’s feelings for his Sergeant change when he learns the meaning of ‘Heartbreak Bridge’, a position Gunny won great honour at during the Korean War. The moment’s telegraphed, like much of the rest of the picture as its cliches fall neatly in line. Gunny has to impose himself on his men by beating up the massive Swede? Check. Gunny’s fractured relationship with his commanding officer will manifest itself in a fist fight? You got it. His troop will become the pivotal fighting force in Grenada? Why sure.
Heartbreak Ridge has its admirers because it delivers on the things that fans of the likes of Top Gun crave after – where there are obvious gaps, the script throws in bad language on an industrial scale and some incredible dialogue (see the above quote). But it’s an empty, lunk-headed experience, when other people were busy doing Eastwood’s job for him by reinventing the war genre.
Heartbreak Ridge: **