Hamburger Hill: John Irving’s Gritty Vietnam Combat Film

In John Irvin’s “Hamburger Hill,” based on Jim Carabatsos’ script, the battle is a microcosm for the Vietnam War, but the film doesn’t try to enlarge on the details, or view them metaphorically as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” did, positing forces of good versus evil.

Though it’s basically a combat film, “Hamburger Hill” doesn’t offer the jingo heroism of Sylvetser Stallone’s “Rambo, instead the movie records in graphic details one crucial and bloody fight. Based on an actual battle, this relentlessly grim film recreates the repeated attacks on Hill 937, which serves as a symbol of the futility and senselessness of the war.

The hill, located in the Ashau Valley in Vietnam, became the target of the 101st Airborne Division in May 1969, when troops continually stormed it and suffered heavy losses after each assault. The drama focuses on one of these squads of 14 young grunts, who seem more at home behind the wheel of their cars, or on a beach with their dates than attacking an obscure hill thousands of miles from home.

Plagued by racial discord, individual clashes, an indifferent home front and a belligerent media as well as a stubborn enemy, they fortify themselves against the almost suicidal task by recalling their pride in being members of the 101ST, the “Screaming Eagles.”

Going for sheer realism, “Hamburger Hill” depicts the battle sequences with dismemberment and mutilation. The men are picked off one at a time as they struggle up the hill. Only four members of the squad survive the battle.

Early one, a tough, compassionate sergeant senses the reality of the war. “We did good today, didn’t we” one of his squad asks proudly after his first battle. “One of my people got killed,” the sergeant replies quietly, “that’s all that happened.” Significantly, a bitter black medic sees only black soldiers being killed in a “white man’s” war. “Take the hill,” he pleads before he dies in the embrace of two white soldiers.

Irony plays a role in the film. After ten days of fierce assaults upon the hill and heavy casualties (as high as 70 percent), the American troops finally dislodged the North Vietnamese regulars, but under orders, the position was abandoned one month later.

The film doesn’t steer clear completely of didactic references to the anti-war movement back in home, which accounts for some of its weaker scenes. However, impressively stripped of any metaphorical meaning, “Hamburger Hill,” a tough movie to watch, records a harrowing chapter in the Vietnam experience that should always be remembered.