That’s right, Heartbreak Ridge, the 1986 film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, turns 25 this year; yesterday, as a matter of fact (which also was my father’s 69th birthday, so there’s an interesting bit of symmetry right there.).
After all of these years, this film remains one of my guilty pleasure flicks, possessing two things I can never have enough of: movies about Marines, and movies featuring Clint Eastwood. As much a fan as I am of Eastwood the actor, it’s Clint the director who’s also given me a healthy number of films I enjoy revisiting. I started to really take notice of his directorial talents with 1985’s Pale Rider, which for me signaled a shift in my appreciation of the man as a filmmaker. At some point several years ago, I realized that the older Clint was getting, the more inclined I was to like a movie he was in. That went double if he was directing. Of course, he’s directed a few in which he did not appear, and those usually have been worth checking out, too.
So, Heartbreak Ridge.
I have a few fond memories of this movie. When it was filmed in the spring and summer of 1986, several scenes were shot at Camp Pendleton, California (which stood in for Camp Lejeune, North Carolina), and at the time I was a lowly private first class stationed there. I got to see some of these scenes being filmed, though unlike other Marines I didn’t get to serve as an extra in the background or anything like that. One scene in particular near the movie shows Eastwood as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway walking across a collection of amphibious landing vehicles, which are/were a sort of outdoor museum showing the evolution of such craft. That area was just a couple of hundred yards from the barracks building where I was living at that time. When Highway steps outside and salutes the flag as it’s lowered for evening colors? That was the headquarters for the 1st Marine Division (standing in for the 2nd Marine Division, in this case). Several of the training areas shown in different scenes where Highway is getting his men into shape? Been there, done those.
One of the other memories which sticks out about the film is how roundly disavowed it was by pretty much anyone high up in the Marine Corps chain of command. Upon seeing an advance screening of the film, Marine officials denounced it, even going so far as to issue directives prohibiting Marines from going to the theater in uniform to see it. According to them, Eastwood’s portrayal of Highway–a rude, crude, throwback “salty vet,” forged in the fires of combat from Korea to Vietnam–was not in keeping with the image the Corps wished to convey as being commonplace among its ranks. I’m pretty sure none of the folks raising objections ever met my drill instructors, or any seasoned senior enlisted Marine. At that point in my young career, the upper enlisted ranks still teemed with Vietnam vets, and most of them were like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” upon hearing about the condemnation of Eastwood’s Gunny Highway. I distinctly remember an editorial cartoon from the local newspaper showing a Marine general covering the eyes of a young private, to prevent him from seeing Eastwood’s grizzled image.
None of this stopped me and my friends from hauling ass to town from the base on a Friday night to check out the flick for ourselves, of course.
As for the movie? The plot is pretty simple: In 1983, career Marine Tom Highway, a decorated, battle-tested warrior (including being a Medal of Honor winner) without a war to fight, is approaching mandatory retirement. Rather than sail quietly off into the sunset, he opts for a transfer back to a combat unit; in this case, a Force Recon battalion attached to the 2nd Marine Division. It’s the unit in which Highway served many years earlier, so it’s a bit of a homecoming. The battalion sergeant major is a familiar face, a buddy with whom Highway served going back to Korea. The recon platoon Highway is tasked with leading is another matter, filled as it is with a bunch of slacking loafers who’ve been allowed to lapse into a state of utter shambles thanks to Highway’s inept and ambivalent predecessor. Highway’s task: whip the young Marines into combat ready shape, with their first test coming as President Reagan sends troops to Grenada.
The notion that a Force Recon platoon could harbor so many completely useless losers for longer than one day is something that’s hard to swallow, of course. As arrogant and super-confident as Marines can be so far as their being the “best of the best of the best” and all that jazz (It’s true, you know.), Force Recon Marines occupy their own level of badassery with even fewer peers. Even if a couple of shitheads infiltrated the ranks, you can rest assured that the rest of the platoon would see to such “deficiencies” in short order. That Highway could unleash live ammo over the heads of his Marines during a training exercise isn’t out of the question, but just doing it without clearance from four or five different links in the chain of command is a tad unrealistic. Also, there’s very little chance that anyone would talk to a Medal of Honor winner the way Highway’s commanding officer treats him during the course of the film. Okay, it could happen, but my money’s on the MoH winner stomping a new mudhole in the other guy’s ass and then walking it dry. Come to think of it, how does a supply weenie get put in charge of a combat battalion in the first place?
Despite these and a few other flaws, Heartbreak Ridge has its share of good moments, most of them involving Eastwood. As is the case with almost all of his films, Eastwood himself is always great to watch. His gruff, war-weary Tom Highway is pretty convincing, at least to me. Several of the other characters tread a bit too close to the line of caricature, but even then the performances by actors such as Mario Van Peebles, Boyd Gaines, Everett McGill, Marsha Mason, and so on are pretty solid. The story suffers from a couple of logistical hurdles, in that the “Heartbreak Ridge” battle that gives the film its title (and where Highway earns the Medal of Honor for his actions) was actually an engagement involving the Army rather than the Marines. The script solves this problem by having Highway in the Army during the Korean War, then changing to the Marines at some point after that conflict. The Army also handled most of the heavy lifting in Grenada, though Marine elements also were involved.
Why the weirdness? Well, the script as originally written featured Highway as a soldier, with the action taking place at an Army base and leading up to Grenada. When the Army expressed reservations and declined to offer their support–technical or otherwise–for the film’s production, Eastwood and his people took the screenplay to the Marines, who were all about it until seeing that advance screening.
Happy anniversary, Gunny Highway!