“The Marines are looking for a few good men. Unfortunately…you ain’t it.”
Holy crap! Heartbreak Ridge, the 1986 film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, turns 35 today.
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 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. Indeed, this past year has seen a sharp increase in my desire to watch Western films and sample more Western fiction, and Eastwood’s contributions to that particular genre have been well-represented during my various revisitations.
Meanwhile, there’s this not at-all Western, Heartbreak Ridge.
It’s a familiar formula: A hard-assed, battle-tested veteran is put in charge of a group of malcontents or otherwise underperforming troops and has to whip them into shape before they head off to combat. Of course they hate him at first, doing their best to side-step or undermine the salty vet’s efforts until he finally earns their respect and they come together as a cohesive unit just in time for the bullets to start flying.
In this case it’s Eastwood as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, a grizzled Marine who’s this close to being sent out to pasture, having nearly reached mandatory retirement. Before he was a Marine, Highway served in the Army during the Korean War, and awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic action during the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.
As for the movie? The plot is pretty simple: In 1983, Highway is a decorated, battle-tested warrior without a war to fight. Rather than ride quietly off into the sunset and retirement, 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: make the young Marines combat ready, with their first test coming as President Reagan sends troops to Grenada.
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’s beginning 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.
In a later scene 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.
(Yes, I’m keenly aware that I am, of course, 35 years older than I was that night. I’m choosing not to dwell on that right now, thanks very much.)
This isn’t to say the film isn’t without its problems. There are several inaccuracies of varying degrees, most of which will not bother “regular” viewers one whit. The notion of a Force Recon platoon harboring 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. In the unlikely event a couple of shitheads infiltrated the ranks, you can be sure 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 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 also 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 Marine Corps, who were all about this thing…until seeing that aforementioned advance screening.
So, yeah. It plays fast and loose with historical fact and Marines in general. Eastwood is – to put it kindly – a “throwback” to what is largely (but not completely) an outdated old-school military stereotype, something far more obvious today than when during the film’s original release. On the other hand, I’d argue there are, among a certain generation of those who’ve served in uniform during the past two decades, individuals who’ve since come to know if not become themselves a more modern version of the uncouth, no-nonsense hard-charger whose methods don’t count for much with dinner parties and recruiting films but represent just the sort of warfighter you want by your side when shit gets real.
“With all due respect, sir, you’re beginning to bore the hell out of me.“
Happy anniversary, Gunny Highway!