17 January 2011

Hamburger Hill

While archiving my old video tapes, I sometimes come across a film which while not exactly "lost" to the post-DVD age (this one in particular can be watched in its entirety online), still elicits some visceral reaction for me when I re-watch it. I'll justify this post by saying the film may not be lost, but its contextual message has been.
United States – 1987
Director – John Irvin
Artisan Home Entertainment, 1999, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 34 minutes

Hamburger Hill was released hot on the heels of Platoon, and together I would say they are the core of one particular tributary of the United States’ post-Vietnam catharsis. While Platoon was written and directed by a Vietnam veteran, Hamburger Hill was written and produced by one, James Carabatsos, so both films carry the tangible weight of authenticity. Hamburger Hill has an advantage when it comes to history because it is based on an actual battle that took place in 1969, but as we should know, a basis in history doesn’t necessarily equate to “truth” because historical memory is individual.

Both films are the cornerstones of a cynical individualist reappraisal of the war. Their primary concern is with the lives of a small unit of men, a platoon, a company, or in this case a squad whom they take great pains to humanize and package as a representative cross-section of U.S. society. In Platoon, director/writer Oliver Stone shows that war amplifies human emotion and can lead to discoveries about what it means to be human. Without analyzing Platoon too much I will say that Hamburger Hill diverges in a very important way in its treatment of the affects of war on its protagonists. Both films point out the tremendous waste of life and ability, the “human capital” that comprises the protagonist group, but Hamburger Hill makes an entirely different claim about how it affects them.

In Hamburger Hill, the characters are subject to assault from several directions. First the internal differences of their group results in frequent hostility and tension when they are out of combat. Second, the pointlessness and futility of the war they are compelled to fight by The State leaves them powerless over their own lives. Finally, they are subject to very real physical violence from an enemy they don’t really know and rarely see. Importantly it is their common identity as victims of the second two that enables the group to pull together and overcome their internal conflicts when in combat. Unlike Platoon which still maintains a diversity of sympathies among the main characters, some of them empathetic and others not, Hamburger Hill’s characters are universally “good guys.”

It should not be forgotten that people who are otherwise dissimilar or disassociated can in fact pull together when faced with a crisis or threat to a broader shared identity. This is the type of group identity used to fuel nationalistic and imperialistic endeavors like the Vietnam War. But Hamburger Hill’s demographic is too carefully constructed and when threatened, too cohesive to be taken merely at face value. In that case, the emphasis on unity in the teeth of threat suggests something more. It asserts that violence enables camaraderie and group harmony for the men of the film, our representative sample of society. It is only through the experience and expression of violence that they come together. Because we typically see cooperation as a natural social good, the message implicit in Hamburger Hill’s narrative is that violence in the name of nationalism is beneficial for the cohesion and unity of the group. Thus by bringing men together, violence performs a “good” for society and is a natural expression of identity rather than the creation of political ambition.

This isn’t terribly out of the ordinary, such messages are an often used, and frequently successful political tool as evidenced by the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (The latter of which now holds the distinction of having lasted longer than Vietnam). What is out of the ordinary about Hamburger Hill’s assertion of it is that it comes over ten years after the Vietnam War caused a tremendous rift rather than a fuzzy national unity in U.S. culture and society.

While Hamburger Hill remains one of the better films about the war largely due to its carefully constructed “authenticity”, it is an even better example of how bias and subjective experience inform historical memory.

 Poster or VHS box from Movie Poster Database which does not offer high resolution images for free.

  Poster from MovieGoods which does.

Japanese and Thai posters from IMPAwards and MovieGoods respectively.

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