This movie had a painful gestation. Grenada was the war where the Army’s post-Vietnam fugue began to clear, but it was also the war where the Army’s post-Vietnam political correctness got started. As the war blazed, a trooper in the 82nd sent back stories to the unit’s hometown paper, the Fayetteville, NC, Observer. The Observer ran these frontline dispatches warts and all, including such things as 82nd guys commandeering a car that turned out to belong not to a Cuban general but a nominal “diplomat.” This caused military lawyers, who were beginning their long ascendancy to their current dominance of mission planning and execution, to have entire litters of kittens. Some unsanitized stories of infantry combat also hit ink, causing a flap. Infantry combat, of course, is an enterprise in which, despite the current senior staff thinking that it exists for the enhancement of officer careers, either your enemies die unpleasant deaths, or you do. Or both.
The institutional Army — the part that worries about career advancement, tidy uniforms, and white-glove inspections — had a case of the vapours worthy of the most delicate Victorian spinster to begin with, when came some Hollywood characters with the idea — and the script — for a movie about the Rangers. The Ranger battalions had been training mercilessly since the 1970s for this moment, and the Grenada operation utterly validated their mission concept even as it sent some other units back to the doctrine huddle. They adapted with American flexibility and conquered with American grit. And some producers wanted to put this on the screen, with Clint Eastwood who was currently box-office gold, and all they needed was a little support from the Army.
The Rangers loved the idea, but it wasn’t their decision — it was the Army’s PR weenies, who like PR weenies everywhere illustrate the maxim, “Those who can’t do, promote.” The weenies flaked and went to the lawyers, who got so agitated that the Pentagon shopette ran out of Vagisil. No way was the Army going to be portrayed as having an indisciplined element in the Rangers, even if the point was for tough Sergeant Highway (Eastwood) to whip them into fighting shape and lead them in battle. No way does the Army have sergeants who drink and swear. No way would the Army ever have an incompetent officer (and by this point every Army vet who’s seen the film knows the character we’re talking about, and ran into his doppelgänger more than once). And a scene in which Sergeant Highway dispatched hors d’combat Cuban troops sent the lawyers into sheer HP (old pre-PC SF term: Homosexual Panic). So the Army said no, no, no. Eastwood himself appealed up the Chain of Command, as it were, but the Army’s no was final.
The last thing the Army wanted was to be depicted as defeating the enemy through improvisation and courage. Couldn’t Eastwood make a movie about highly diverse public affairs officers* cooperating to edit a Hometown News press release or something?
Everett McGill and Clint Eastwood in a staring contest
Eastwood took the script to the Marines, who had one basic question: would the Marines be the good guys? Why, yes, they would be. This led to some weirdness in the script, because one of the key details in the script is how Gunny (his Marine title) Highway, Command Sergeant Major Choozhoo, and the late “Stoney” Stone MOH served together at Heartbreak Ridge — a bloody Army battle in the Korean War. The solution to the problem is that Choozhoo and Highway later left the Army and joined the Marines. (As strange as it may sound to the civilian ear, people do do this all the time. Many SF soldiers started off in the Marines, Air Force or even Navy, and we know one retired Air Force general who was enlisted in SF before going to college, but we think he keeps it on the down low with his Air Force pals).
So that’s 580 words of set up: what about the movie? Alright. First, it’s not a chick flick but it does have a romantic subplot, so you can make your LYB sit through it, but she’s going to make you watch something dreadful as a reprisal, so you probably shouldn’t. It’s a Clint Eastwood vehicle, with a fine Eastwood performance as the cranky old man we’ve seen in everything from High Plains Drifter to Gran Torino and back again, and it was directed by Eastwood also.
In this case, the kids he’s trying to get off his lawn are an undisciplined recon platoon — the usual mix of Hollywood ethnic diversity, with relatively limited characterization each to each. Highway quickly establishes himself as the alpha wolf in the pack, and the troops don’t want to admit that his unconventional methods are making them do what he wants. The oldest trick in the training book: if they hate you, it will bring them together as a team. The troops try every method of resistance imaginable, but it’s not Highway’s first rodeo, and he makes them a fighting force despite themselves. He also uses the second oldest trick in the training book: intramural competition, in this case with “Firs’ Platoon” of which a rival sergeant announces, “Me an’ the Major is buildin’ a eee-light fightin’ force.”
The Major (Everett McGill) is a perfectly drawn and played character, and a type that veterans in particular will recognize: the insecure, careerist, ring-knocking, cheating, lying self-promoter. You will spend the whole movie anticipating his comeuppance.
Sergeants may run the armed forces, but they work for officers, and Highway’s platoon leader is another well scripted, cast, and played character, Lieutenant M.R. Ring (Boyd Gaines). At first, he’s as inept as any novice lieutenant of fact or fiction, but as the film plays on, his character develops. This is another thing that will ring true for the military veteran, officer or enlisted.
Mario van Peebles plays a key supporting role as the kid with an attitude who steps up to accept Highway’s mentorship and develop, against all odds, into a Marine worthy of respect.
When the movie was done, the Marines weren’t sure they liked it, and backed away from any co-promotion, but over the years it has become a well-regarded part of the Marine film canon — even as real Marines laugh at some of the Hollywood overreach.
Several of the movie’s combat vignettes were accurate, although, given the movie’s weird genesis, most of the true stories that these celluloid Marines reenact really happened to soldiers, from the bulldozer-supported attack to the credit-card call for air support, to the liberation of the Medical School. One thing often taken as Hollywood but absolutely correct was units trying to operate with no maps or tourist maps. The poor map support plagued all services, and led to a reorganization of the agencies responsible (without, of course, any sacking of the people responsible. But map support was a little better in Panama (1989) and a lot better, if not good enough, in Somalia (1993) and Afghanistan (2001).
The weapons in Heartbreak Ridge are generally correct, thanks perhaps to Marine support. The MILES system is shown more or less realistically. True, the tactics and particularly the training are not what real Marines do, and the indiscipline at the beginning, and Highway’s throwback motivational techniques, are 99% Hollywood.
But one thing they absolutely nailed: the AK-47 is the preferred weapon of our enemies. And it does make a distinctive sound when fired at you!
*”Highly diverse public affairs officers” is a joke. They’re disproportionately blonde babes, for the same reason your TV newsreaders are.