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Hamburger HillAustralia 1987
Directed by John Irvin
Running time 110 minutes
Although one can appreciate the motivation behind this film which tries to depict the unsung heroism of the ordinary grunt in Vietnam, this late entry to the catalogue of Vietnam films is a heavy-handed affair, directorially derivative and dependent on a script by Vietnam vet Jim Carabatsos (who also co-produced) that simply alternates between scenes of G.Is jive-talkin’ and bickering and bouts of combat.
Based on a true incident, the film tells the story of the 101st Airborne Division’s attempt to take Hill 937 (aka "Hamburger Hill") in the A Shau Valley over a ten day period only to abandon it shortly thereafter. The main problem with the film is the lack of any dramatic focus within these broad strokes. Unlike the central struggle between Sgts Barnes and Elias in Oliver Stone’s grunt’s eye view film which came out the previous year, Platoon, there is no focusing structure to the narrative and too many of the characters remain dramatically indistinguishable as if minor moments from previous and better films had been extended but not in any way developed. That the cast are unknowns (the film as the first significant feature appearance for Don Cheadle), sometimes too obviously chosen for their looks rather than their acting skills (only Cheadle went on to bigger and better things) doesn’t make it any easier to tell who is who.
Despite the considerable effort that has been gone to achieve war zone authenticity (the film like so many of the genre was shot in The Philippines) John Irvin’s direction is telemovie-ish in dealing with the characters, with lots of zoom-ins to pained expressions or sentimental tableaux of grunts mixing it up between battle. One scene in which one of the men listens to a gushing tape sent from his girl Stateside is almost wince-inducing whilst from the get-go the production never escapes a too obviously staged quality that undermines any aspiration to realism.