review for Hamburger Hill on AllMovie

Hamburger Hill (1987)
by Michael Costello review

John Irvin's visceral, grunt's-eye view of one of the most notoriously savage battles of the Vietnam War is a solid, beautifully directed film somewhat undercut by a perfunctory script. The film focuses on a dozen or so members of a rifle platoon assigned to take Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley in May of 1969. In Oliver Stone's Vietnam War film Platoon (1986), the unit's dissension reflected the reality of a divided nation. Hamburger Hill, however, raises an equally painful issue from this unique conflict: most U.S. front-line troops were simple, uneducated, and often apolitical kids, trying to come to grips with fighting a war on which public opinion was split. This is most poignantly illustrated by a scene in which one of the grunts (Tommy Swerdlow) is deeply hurt by a letter from his girlfriend telling him she can no longer write to him because she has been told that the war is immoral. While the film doesn't hide its hawkish sympathies, it's essentially about the muddy, bloody horror of this gruesome action, in which 70 percent of the platoon was either killed or wounded. Irvin emphasizes the grunt sense of Sisyphean futility, as they battle their way up and down the side of the hill over the course of 11 brutal days, and his stunning combat photography can stand comparison with any on film. It is less successful in its non-combat sequences, which feature too-familiar scenes reflecting the tensions and friendships among the soldiers. Their mantra, "Don't mean nothin'," also suggests what's missing from the film in terms of an ordering pattern of metaphor. But at its best, in the thick of combat, this is a stirring tribute to the men who fought and died on Hill 937.