Heartbreak Ridge, the 13th film directed by Clint Eastwood, is a strange war movie that takes very familiar stock characters and situations and attempts to give them some contemporary (at least in 1980s terms) twists to a story about the training of a Marine platoon and its eventual baptism by fire in battle.
Eastwood, who also produced Heartbreak Ridge, plays Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt) Tom “Gunny” Highway, a 30-plus year veteran and holder of the Medal of Honor who is facing retirement after seeing combat in Korea, the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic and – of course – Vietnam. Because he has been in the Corps since he enlisted as a young adolescent, Highway is not too thrilled at the prospect of mustering out and feels he still has some role to play in the service.
Naturally, since the Marine Corps is one of the smallest branches of the military and “Gunny” is well-connected within the network of noncommissioned officers, he arranges to be transferred to the same unit in which he saw combat in Korea. En route to his new billet via a Greyhound bus, Highway meets a young, insouciant musician named “Stich” Jones (Mario Van Peebles). At a stop in a highway rest area, Stitch asks Highway if he can borrow some money to buy a meal, then steals the older man’s bus ticket and leaves the older man high and dry at the rest stop.
Highway eventually arrives at the Second Marine Division base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. To his dismay, his new commanding officer, Maj. Malcolm Powers (Everett McGill) is a former Supply officer who has recently transferred to command an infantry unit. A pompous Annapolis graduate, Powers does not like Highway because he is too old-school and doesn’t seem to fit within the more modern Reagan era Marine Corps.
Maj. Malcolm A. Powers: I don't know what strings you pulled to get back into this division but I can assure you that I don't like it. This is the new Marine Corps. The new breed. Characters like you are an anachronism. You should be sealed in a case that reads break glass only in the event of war. Got no tolerance for you old timers who think that you know it better and can have it all your own way. Understand?
Highway: I understand a lot of body bags get filled if I don't do my job, sir.
Choozoo: Major, Division has assigned Gunny Highway to our reconnaissance platoon.
Maj. Malcolm A. Powers: Yes, Recon. Their last sergeant was an old time combat vet, too. But he went road on me. Retired on active duty. Had a few months to retirement. Figured he'd coast. Allowed the men to lapse into mediocrity. You're close to mandatory retirement yourself, aren't you, Highway?
Highway: That's right, Major.
Maj. Malcolm A. Powers: Well, I ask for Marines, the division sends me relics. The men in Recon Platoon are less than highly motivated to say the least. I want those men in shape.
Eighway is flummoxed even more when he is assigned to take charge of the battalion’s Recon Platoon, a supposedly elite unit which has gone to seed because its previous platoon sergeant has allowed its members to go to seed. Sloppy, lazy and exhibiting un-Marine-like attitudes, the Recon unit includes an imposing giant of a man named Swede Johanson (Peter Koch), Profile, a nerdy-looking radio operator (Tom Villard), Lt. Ring, a wet-behind-the-ears officer (Boyd Gaynes) and Highway’s bus stop nemesis, Corporal Stich Jones.
Using non-politically correct motivational language and kick-butt training techniques (such as firing live rounds from a Soviet-made AK-47 over the platoon’s heads), Highway begins the process of re-making the young Marines into a fighting unit, fighting Major Powers' efforts to hinder the gruff old Gunny.
With no immediate enemy to fight other than a theoretical Soviet attack on NATO or perhaps some terrorists in the Middle East, Highway’s efforts seem at first to be academic. But Highway, who has been around long enough to know better, pushes his new charges to become battle ready warriors worthy of wearing the Marines’ globe and anchor insignia.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Highway embarks on a more personal campaign to reunite with his ex-wife Aggie (Marsha Mason), a sweet but tough woman who is now dating the Marine-bashing owner (Bo Svenson) of a bar near Camp Lejeune. Knowing that his devotion to the service and his failure to understand how it pushed Aggie away, Gunny is willing to try anything to woo her back.
My Take: War movies, especially war movies about the U.S. Marine Corps, tend to follow the same narrative arc as 1949’s The Sands of Iwo Jima. Many stories abound of tough sergeants that must turn young Marine recruits into hardened fighting men, though in this case Highway is actually retraining Marines who have devolved into uniformed slackers.
There are also quite a few movies about NCOs who have dramatic conflict with commanding officers who are ill-trained or unsuited for combat commands. The mutual dislike between Powers and Highway isn’t just a personality clash; it’s also a generational one, with Powers showing no patience for Gunny’s decidedly post-World War II philosophies about training Marines and how to fight wars. Add to this Powell’s recent career move from a support branch of the Corps to the combat arm and his arrogant pride at being an Annapolis grad, and the conflict between the major and the NCO is bound to heat up when – inevitably – the Second Marine Division is sent into combat.
Interestingly, screenwriter James Carabatsos, an Army veteran who would later write and produce Hamburger Hill, chooses not to create a fictitious conflict and sets Heartbreak Ridge’s combat sequence during the 1983 invasion of Grenada.
Code-named Urgent Fury, this somewhat modest – in comparison to Korea, Vietnam, and the later Gulf War of 1991 – military operation was the Reagan Administration’s response to a bloody coup in the former British colony of Grenada, a small Caribbean nation located 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Internal strife within the ranks of the leftist-leaning New Jewel Movement had resulted in the murders of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and several of his loyalists, and the resulting chaos gave Washington an excuse to launch the first major combat operation by American forces since the end of the Vietnam War.
(Two of the reasons given by the Reagan White House to justify Urgent Fury were that the Soviet Union and Cuba were building an airport with a 9,000-ft. runway capable of handling large Soviet transport planes and MiG fighters, and that American medical students at the True Blue Medical Facility were in danger of being held hostage by either the Cubans or the Grenadian Marxists.)
Carabatsos’ screenplay doesn’t delve much into the background of the invasion, and it keeps the story focused on the small Marine unit’s contribution to the short and unequal struggle between the Americans and the Cubans. Indeed, to match Heartbreak Ridge’s Marine-centric story to the palatable justification for the still-controversial invasion, Carabatsos changes history by having the Second Marine Division “liberate” the medical students from their threatened captivity. (The actual operation at True Blue was carried out by Army Rangers.)
Heartbreak Ridge works well if audiences are not familiar with the workings of the U.S. military in general and the U.S. Marine Corps specifically. The one Marine officer I know personally – who was a forward air controller during Operation Desert Storm – told me that Maj. Powers’ disrespectful attitude toward Gunny Highway might make for good drama but is totally unrealistic. No Marine officer worth his salt would be so demeaning to a senior NCO the way Powers is portrayed in Heartbreak Ridge, much less show contempt to a Medal of Homor winner. (There are, sadly, more goofs regarding the Medal of Honor and how other characters react – or don’t – to a Marine who earned it, but I won’t delve into them here.)
Another goof – among many, I’m sorry to say – is evident when the young lieutenant in command of Highway’s platoon is sent to Grenada wearing full camouflage gear and silver lieutenant’s bars on his collar tabs. A tiny mistake, you might say, but those blackened rank insignia on combat uniforms are there for a reason. Shiny metal insignia reflect ambient light (especially the sun), so an officer who wears silver bars (or oak leaves, or eagles, or stars for that matter) is essentially sniper bait.
Eastwood tries to make Heartbreak Ridge as appealing as possible to a wide variety of viewers. For war movie buffs, of course, he takes a stock plot from the 1940s and 1950s and almost succeeds in updating it to 1986-era standards. For the general public, including the female demographic, his character tries hard to balance his tough-as-nails Marine personality with a more mellow side that he’ll need if he is to woo Aggie and win her heart in time for his appointment with retirement.
In the film’s B story, Highway is so determined to make amends with his ex-wife that he turns to such women’s magazines as Cosmopolitan in order to say “the right things” so he can compete with her current boyfriend Roy, a bar owner who dislikes anyone in a Marine Corps uniform. This is, perhaps, a bit corny, but Eastwood (as both actor and director) makes it work.