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Hamburger Hill, 1987

Hamburger Hill is the 1987 movie directed by John Irvin and written by James Carabatsos about the famous and brutal 10-day battle during the Vietnam War for a hill between the 101st Airborne Company of the US Army and the army of North Vietnam in which hundreds were killed and wounded on both sides in what came to resemble trench warfare and spat out injured and dead American soldiers in such a way as to suggest they had been shredded like hamburger meat. The real battle garnered major attention in Washington, especially among Congress, and was the last major battle of the Vietnam War with Richard Nixon soon after beginning to return US troops to the United States.

It is a remarkable movie in its realistic portrayal of the battle, the wounds, the camaraderie among the troops, the effects on morale by a seemingly uncaring American public and a battle in which the objective seems like an impossible thing to win. One character, Webster, signed-on for another tour of duty after seeing his bartender turn to heroin to deal with the death of his son in the war and the subsequent calls from anti-war activists to his home taunting him and telling him how glad his son was dead. He had arrived at the airport where hippies gave him bags of dog feces, and returned to his home to find his wife sleeping with another man. He signs on for another tour of duty because he feels it is right and because he wants revenge against those who he perceives as fighting against the men fighting for them.

Another soldier has his long-time girlfriend send him a letter telling him that she will no longer write to him because her college friends have told her it is immoral.

The story telling is realistic and the special effects are graphic, but basic and very effectively capture the very harsh and dim realities of such a war, its casualties and the loss of humanity suffered as a result.

In between air bombings with napalm on the enemy soldiers, this squad keeps trying to get up this hill of less than 1,000 meters height, but its steepness and the determination and skill of its defenders finds them receiving massive casualties.

Through all of this realism, in terms of combat, how troops were being treated, the tactics employed, and how the was fought, the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that develops between the soldiers is both touching and gut-wrenching because most of those bonds end up broken by one of the two in the relationship holding the shredded remains of his comrade in his arms as he is urged to continue fighting up the hill.

Hamburger Hill features a number of famous American actors in their very first feature-length films including Don Cheadle as Private Washburn, Dylan McDermott as Sergeant Frantz, Courtney B. Vance as Doc Johnson, and Steven Weber as Worcester. All the performances mentioned were fantastic, but the performance by Courtney B. Vance is especially compelling because, acting as the squad’s medic and as the informal spokesman for the black soldiers, he is forced to deal with issues of race, class, wealth, education, opportunities, and through it all, the leveling of the field when everyone around you is in the same danger of death or injury as any other.

Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket get a lot of well-deserved attention both for being fantastic films, but also for telling the story of the way, but it is ultimately Hamburger Hill, which tells the story of the men and their treatment in one subset of the war that is perhaps the most personal, most complete, and most realistic overall.