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Hamburger Hill (1987)

On 10 May 1969, men of the 101st Airborne Division are ordered to take Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley, Vietnam, despite it being heavily defended by North Vietnamese army regulars.

The squad contains five “FNG”s (“F***ing New Guys”): Joseph Beletsky (Tim Quill) – who worries that he won’t remember everything he has been taught; Vincent “Alphabet” Languilli (Anthony Barrile), a sex-obsessed recruit annoyed when people mispronounce his last name; David Washburn (Don Cheadle), an unassuming African American soldier; Martin Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow), an outgoing volunteer; and Paul Galvan (Michael A. Nickles), the quietest but most capable of the new soldiers.

Sgt. Adam Frantz (Dylan McDermott) is a seasoned combat veteran, while new commander, Lt. TerryEden (Tegan West), is sarcastically described by Platoon Sergeant Dennis Worcester (Steven Weber) as “Palmolive f***ing soap”.

The platoon’s machine-gun team consists of the brawny Pvt. Michael Duffy (Harry O’Reilly) and his small, bespectacled companion, Pvt. Frank “Gaigs” Gaigin (Daniel O’Shea). There are also three African American veterans in the unit: Ray Motown (Michael Boatman), Abraham “Doc” Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) and Sgt. Elliott McDaniel (Don James), a “short-timer” with less than a month left on his tour of duty.

After ten days and eleven assaults, when everyone has been put through the meat grinder, the hill is renamed after America’s favourite fast food.

Between infantry assaults, American warplanes drop bombs, napalm and white phosphorus, cratering the mountain and denuding it of all its foliage. In one assault, Duffy – leading the charge – comes close to breaking the enemy lines but he is killed by misdirected  “friendly fire” from Huey gunships. During lulls in the fighting, members of the platoon discuss opposition to the war back home.

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Day after day, the shrinking platoon continues its assault on Hill 937 but cannot take the hill. The tenth assault happens during heavy rains, turning the hillside into a slippery sea of mud.

Gaigin and Doc are shot dead, and Beletsky is injured but returns to his unit anyway.

An eleventh and final assault is mounted and the remaining enemy positions near the summit are overrun but casualties soar. Murphy, Worcester, Motown, Bienstock, and Languilli are all killed and Lt. Eden is seriously wounded.

Stunned by the deaths of most of his friends and comrades, a dazed Frantz is wounded during the battle. Beletsky pushes through his injuries towards the summit. Frantz also makes it to the summit and rests alongside Beletskyand Washburn as the battle draws to a close.

The final image is of Beletsky’s haunted face as he gazes at the utter devastation below.

It’s a straightforward documentary-style account of bloody real-life Vietnam action. There is a distinct sense of ho-hum though, compared to the heightened realism or the overt surrealism that lifted such potentially ordinary ‘Nam epics as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon  (1986) or Full Metal Jacket (1987).

That said, it is astonishingly well-made with a cast of unknowns and a British director bearing a residue of guilt from the times when he was filming war footage but could easily retreat to a comfortable hotel away from the guns.

Before securing a production deal with RKO Pictures in 1986, the filmmakers hired retired Colonel Joseph B. Covey Jr, the actual commander of the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne at Hamburger Hill, as the film’s technical advisor. They also submitted the script to the Pentagon for vetting. Army officials suggested a series of changes for the sake of historical accuracy (and to paint the US military in a better light): less emphasis on soldiers patronising prostitutes and a more upbeat ending.

The filmmakers agreed and won the full support of the Department of Defense: a three-week training camp at Subic Bay Naval Base for the actors; the use of Chinook C-47 helicopters for six days; simulated airstrikes by F-4 Phantom jets; and 30 days’ use of a UH-1 Huey helicopter.

The 11-week shoot took place on the island of Luzon in the Philippines where a 1,800-foot hill had to be dressed with 1,000 planted trees, five off-camera stairways installed for access, and a large pool holding sanitised mud constructed to ensure the actors’ health.

Vincent “Alphabet” Languilli
Anthony Barrile
Motown
Michael Boatman
David Washburn
Don Cheadle
Murphy
Michael Dolan
McDaniel
Don James
Sergeant Frantz
Dylan McDermott
Galvan
M A Nickles
Duffy
Harry O’Reilly
Gaigin
Daniel O’Shea
Joseph Beletsky
Tim Quill
Martin Bienstock
Tommy Swerdlow
Abraham “Doc” Johnson
Courtney B. Vance

Director
John Irvin