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Classic Movie Review: Hamburger Hill

Examining Hamburger Hill 30 years later, the wounded pride of a lost generation.

By Sean PatrickPublished 7 years ago 5 min read

There are those who claim that Hamburger Hill is the least remembered of 80s Vietnam movies, a niche genre all its own in that decade, because it was a right wing, reactionary movie intended to defend soldiers. Time has a way of changing perceptions and now that Hamburger Hill is turning 30 years old, it’s interesting to look back on the film and talk about the perceptions of the film and how they’ve evolved over the years and the ways in which guilt, shame and history have altered the way many view Vietnam.

Hamburger Hill tells the story of one company in the midst of a battalion ordered to take a single hill from the North Vietnamese. The hill would come to be called Hamburger Hill because meat may be all that’s left of a soldier after he gets blown away while climbing this ungodly, muddy, and eventually blood-soaked hill. It’s grisly and part of the film’s reputation comes from what the title implies, a gruesomeness that put audiences off just from the title.

The film is gruesome as director John Irvin doesn’t hold back on the blood and guts but where the film’s reputation is somewhat misguided is the notion that that is all Hamburger Hill was, just blood and guts. The film actually takes time to build toward the blood guts. Hamburger Hill has a slow build where you take the time to get used to the young faces and personalities preparing to die on the hill. It’s not until the film’s remarkable third act that the gruesomeness moves to the foreground.

Until the third act the film is relatively tame in terms of violence. Instead we get a warts and all look at these soldiers whom we watch become more and more detached from life back at home and unmoored from the reality around them because death seems so close. The film shines a harsh light on the reality of Vietnam, the way the soldiers were mistreated to the point where us against the world was the only mentality that made any sense.

While people back home accused these soldiers of being bloodthirsty killers, the reality was so much more complicated than that. These were men who were abandoned in Vietnam. Whereas people like Patton, McArthur, and Eisenhower had the weight and experience to give soldiers courage and purpose, the soldiers of Vietnam are rudderless, tools of the government abandoned by a society crumbling from the optimism of the 50s into the greed infested era to come where the divide between rich and poor was often defined by those who went to Vietnam and those rich enough not to have to.

Yes, the film demonstrates the bitterness many soldiers felt about how they were being perceived back home and it does have anger aimed at the long hairs back home bad mouthing them and stealing away their wives and girlfriends while doing it, but who wouldn’t be bitter about being called "baby killer?" There were terrible, horrible things that happened in Vietnam, a stain on the souls of every living being undoubtedly, but we can’t paint all soldiers with the same horrible brush just as we can’t paint all people with any one brush.

More to the point though, Hamburger Hill isn’t about right or left politique, or rather, not directly about a specific ideology. Instead Hamburger Hill is more of a slice of life in Vietnam and the lives of these characters and why this hill became so important to them. In a way, fighting for this hill was a form of Stockholm Syndrome, the idea where captives come to identify with their captors. In this case, the captor is this damned hill which they cannot leave until they make it their own.

The captor is also the U.S Army which shanghaied many of these men into being in Vietnam and fighting for this hill in the first place. The army abandons these men, gives them minimal support or leadership and leaves them with only one thing to live for, taking this ridiculous hill from the enemy. Hamburger Hill is about what it’s like for a man to have everything taken from him except his pride and while such pride can prove toxic it can also prove cathartic.

The wounds of these men are so deep, the hurt and loss of both their friends in war and what’s left of their lives at home have left them with just one thing to live for, taking this stupid hill. It is an undoubtedly pyrrhic victory but taking it is all these men have left in the end and that is poignant, sad and horrible all at once and John Irvin captures that in his final scenes where the bloodied combatants dig and claw and crawl their way up to the highest point of that hill only to be reminded of how empty their victory truly was.

Our view of Vietnam was shaped by the hippies and has evolved because people in my generation instead of rejecting the soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, rejected the hippies whose empty values of peace and love paved the way for the soullessness of the 80s. While hippies grew up to be yuppies, the soldiers they called baby killers became a struggling and dying lower middle-class society embittered by war and lack of opportunity.

If you want to know where the seeds of today’s anger lie, they lie in the way that the self-righteous hippies instead of standing up for their ideals bought suits and became bankers and left the angry, broken men of Vietnam to raise another generation of poor, bitter young men angry about their perceived slights and lack of opportunity and the next generation that that group brings into the world with even less opportunity and even more economic disparity.

I’ve gone off the rails a bit here, rambling on about hippies and I am sorry. Not all hippies were bad people who mistreated soldiers just as not all soldiers in Vietnam were baby killers. Vietnam is so much more complicated than a simple divide among ideologies. It was a heartless and cruel war driven by ugly capitalism and worldwide gamesmanship between warring powers with soldiers trapped in the middle, forced to fight by the whim of tyrants or because economic despair left them no choice.

No one side is to blame for Vietnam and its unintended consequences and yet those who attempt to write our history still try to force narratives upon us of the good-hearted hippy and the baby killing warrior when neither one is completely true or false. The same could be said of the movie Hamburger Hill which has had a narrative of being pro-war or anti-hippie or right-wing forced upon it by history and yet it is so much more than that. Hamburger Hill is a portrait of a broken generation fighting for the only thing that they had left, a wounded, desperate pride.


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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