Movie Review: Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

“You been freeze-dried or doin’ hard time?” (7.5/10)

HeartbreakThe poignant credit frames, accompanied by a drum roll, which show black and white footage of soldiers from the forgotten meatgrinder that preceded Vietnam—the Korean War—fade into a scene in a big city jail, where Marine Gunnery Sgt. Tom ‘Gunny’ Highway (Clint Eastwood) is holding court… profanely. No kidding, the expletive-laden, obscenity-charged language in this movie from start to finish is not only fresh and funny—I never knew there were so many words for sex organs and sex acts—it would leave half an hour of dead silence in any showing of the film on commercial television.

As I was saying in my review of Charlie Wilson’s War, like Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood almost always makes a movie that’s entertaining. Heartbreak Ridge is no exception. Further, if you can put aside your expectations and stereotypes of a 1980s Clint Eastwood film, you may discover some fairly deep character work in this homage to the American soldier-warrior. For one thing, two world-class actresses bolster the give and take: multiple Academy-award nominee Marsha Mason plays Gunny’s volatile, long-suffering ex-wife and Academy-award winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies are Free, 1972) plays the widow of Stony Jackson, the leader of Highway’s battalion who was killed in action at “Heartbreak Ridge.”

Major G.F. Devin: You know, some men in your position might look forward to retirement. Maybe think about taking the wife on an around the world cruise. But that’s not your way, is it? No. Instead you choose to harangue my staff with a request for transfer to a fleet marine force unit. In fact the very unit you got busted out of some time ago for insubordination.
Highway: [woman marine enters office] That’s true, major, I have had my differences with some limp dicks.

So there’s more to the movie than meets the eye or tickles the funny bone. It’s classified as a comedy, which is fair enough—the dialog between Highway and Stitch Jones (Mario van Peebles) on the bus is worth the price of admission—, but the dedicated old soldier Highway (and the young recruit Jones) has some significant psychological issues that have to be resolved. We get a view of the politics and organizational problems of the modern military. And then there’s a “real-war” deal that ends up being serious business, too.

Gunny Highway is an anachronism. He’s a war hero, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor from his exploits in Korea, and he has served, seeing action, in almost every major US military conflict since then. But it’s 1986, he’s close to the mandatory retirement age, and there aren’t so many battles left for him to fight any more; he routinely gets drunk and disorderly, defies authority, and wants desperately to transfer from his warehouse job to a unit that might conceivably see combat. He gets his wish. They give him a reconnaissance platoon to train… which Stitch Jones coincidentally has also joined. So will the platoon be successfully trained? Will it see action? Basic war movie plot.

The complement to the war story is whether Gunny will be able to patch things up with Aggie, will she ever let him back into her life. He’s finally beginning to realize that there’s more to life than all the time signing up to fight for what’s right, he sees that his martial spirit and all the bad habits he’s acquired have cost him more than he wants to admit… and caused those he loves a lot of anguish. He wonders, in particular, if he can make amends with the only woman he’s ever loved, maybe ride off into the sunset to that Avocado ranch she always talked about. Aggie lives close to the base where he’s been assigned. She’s toughing it out as a cocktail waitress, nursing sore feet, and doing the best she can. It’s fairly obvious, despite her resentment about Gunny’s conscientiousness and hard-living ways, she loves him profoundly, too.

In this combination war movie/love story/comedy, Gunny is shown trying to become more sensitive to women in general: on the bus trip to his new assignment, then later in his truck as he waits for Aggie in the parking lot, are magazines like Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and a handful of others. Aggie discovers he’s been reading this material, then later when she finally lets him into her apartment, he starts out like Dr. Phil or Oprah:

Gunny: Tell me something, did we mutually nurture each other?
Aggie: I beg your pardon.
Gunny: I mean did we communicate in a meaningful way in our relationship?

Then we can see how the screenwriter transitions to the dialog that conveys what the relationship was like and what the two of them are like as individuals:

Gunny: You know I’ve been thinking about the past lately. I was just wondering what went wrong.
Aggie: With what?
Gunny: With me, the Corps, with us?
Aggie: That is so damned much like you. You never could see that everything doesn’t fit so neatly into right and wrong.
Gunny: What else is there?
Aggie: [sighs] It isn’t that simple.

It’s a great scene, made doubly so by extraordinary acting… by Mason and Eastwood. He really lays to rest the “bad actor movie star” rap he’s been getting since the Spaghetti Westerns 20 years previously. Another reason I like the scene is it’s rife with self-discovery, taking a page out of many relationships we’re personally acquainted with.

Peebles is good in his role, as are the other principal actors. A lot of the minor characters are fashioned out of standard action-flick cardboard, and don’t pass Believability 101. But the movie is a fine, humorous, sensitive treatment of love, marriage, and commitment. It doesn’t disappoint in the war movie department either.

Check it out; highly underappreciated.

PS: It seems odd to me to praise a movie about blue collar military virtue and war heroes, considering how Leviathan state military has usurped the more natural American self-defense based militia—and in fact now is anathema to true libertarian cooperative self-defense. But it’s about context. The US military CAN BE about defending the Republic rather than spreading the empire, Eastwood’s film captures that ideal, which I’m sure most servicemen and women hold even today.

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1 thought on “Movie Review: Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

  1. I don’t have anything to say about the believability or accuracy of the Marine characterizations in the movie. I saw it when it first came out. I’ll have to see it again to refresh my memory.

    Regarding “holding the ideal” that Eastwood’s film captures I quote this from Mother Jones.

    “There are scores of patriot groups, but what makes Oath Keepers unique is that its core membership consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution—but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey ‘unconstitutional’ orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.”

    Of course the liberals at Mother Jones wouldn’t understand that the oath is superior to unlawful orders and that no one in the military may legally be held to obey unlawful orders. Oath Keepers are refusing to obey unconstitutional orders that are on their face illegal.

    Quoted from the UCMJ, the Universal Code of Military Justice:
    Any person subject to this chapter who–
    (1) violates or fails to obey “any lawful” general order or regulation;…
    …shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
    Quotation marks for emphasis.

    In 1962 our Senior Drill Instructor told us that, as Marines, we were not obligated to obey an unlawful order, but, that if we refused to do so we had better be “Philadelphia lawyers” because the system would come down on us like a train load of ____.

    The Marine aCorps motto is “semper fidelis,” always faithful, or from one Marine to another — Semper Fi!

    I am an Oath Keeper. The oath I took was to the Constitution and as such to the Republic. Oath Keepers regard the oath as having no expiration date — EVER!

    The oath of enlistment — “I, ______, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me.”

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