In 1986, Clint Eastwood directed, produced, and acted in a war film that cost $15 million USD to make. Although it looked like a TV movie, had the lamest possible war as its central action piece (the 1983 Invasion of Grenada), and was one of Eastwood’s least distinctive projects as a director, it managed to net over a $100 million USD beyond its budget. There are no painterly compositions in the film, no great acting performances, no explosive action sequences, and no intrigue except for the least common denominator consumer of kitsch with a long attention span (surely an imaginary figure, no?), and yet it made a ridiculous amount of money based on the strength of Eastwood’s name alone.
In this Technicolor war film, Eastwood plays an aging Marine named Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway who seems to be in the force for good. He was once a great soldier who fought nobly and won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Korean War for acts of valor during a skirmish known as Heartbreak Ridge. Later, he apparently went on four different tours of duty in wartime, three of which were in Vietnam alone. but his constant gungho mentality and will to kill and to fight in a combat zone led him to neglect his wife back home, to never raise a family, to never sit back and come to terms with who he really was at core, and as such, his wife eventually left him. Highway becomes a drunk and ends up constantly finding ways to start fights with other soldiers and with civilians as a way to get out his frustrations.
So when he lands a last chance to train a young group of recruits for the front lines, he takes it in earnest and tries his best to turn a new leaf. He spends much of the film attempting to shape up his green recruits into a fighting force worth their salt, whilst butting heads with his commanding officer Major Malcolm A. Powers (played to little effect by Everett McGill: Twin Peaks’ Big Ed) who is himself a young man with no current fighting experience. This desk chair general thinks himself a knowledgeable commander because of all he has learned at the academy before ascending to a respectable position as a leader at a small training camp and Highway does his best to prove the kid doesn’t know the first damn thing about military tactics, which are, he believes, first and foremost, about surprise, good timing, taking initiative, and having the guts to attack even if the odds are against you.
Meanwhile, Highway tries his best to stop drinking heavily and begins to treat his body better in his old age. He gets into a few fights, but mostly against his own platoon soldiers or against his superiors during sanctioned training exercises, which obviates the need to reprimand him for his actions. He begins reading women’s magazines in an effort to better understand the psyche of women and in particular, the needs and thoughts of his ex-wife with whom he wishes to reunite. The whole exercise is relatively campy without being shot in a manner that reflects this zaniness or acted in a manner that makes it apparent. It’s sappy without having a real emotional core as none of the cast of characters are particularly easy to identify with, partially because of the relative drowsiness of their acting, and therefore, I found it pretty difficult to care about any of the struggles of the film’s characters.
As an epic war film, one might imagine that much of the picture would revolve around a war setting. However, much of Heartbreak Ridge is purely human melodrama on the way toward the battle. And when the battle comes, it is pretty lackluster. There is gunfire, and explosions abound, but the numbers of the characters is very restrained, the scenes carry no kinetic weight as they are shot head-on with little concern with crafting epic, sweeping scenes or painterly compositions and it becomes painfully obvious in these scenes that either Eastwood let an unskilled workman-like second unit director shoot much of this material, or worse, that he was uninterested in making the scenes interesting visually (we know he was able to do so as he had done so on previous films and would do so later in his career as well).
The pre-production period of the film was slowed substantially by the Army first endorsing the film, then reading the script, and finally taking back their endorsement as they thought that the character of Highway was too old-fashioned and did not reflect the modern teachings and instruction of the Army. It seems they had not enough intelligence to realize this was the intention of Eastwood: to produce a film in which the modern, weak-willed approach of the military, which often kowtows to progressive morality instead of taking on a total warfare/ war is hell approach, butts heads against a real old school hard ass of the latter mentality. Later, the Marines endorsed the film, but after receiving a screening of the picture, they too retracted their endorsement citing similar concerns to those of the Army. If fatigue at consistently being misunderstood by those institutions he meant to lionize wasn’t enough to weaken his resolve and thereby affect the film negatively, then I don’t know what did, but as established above, there must have been some lack of trying on someone’s part.
Some of Clint Eastwood’s films are amongst my favorite American films of the post-New Hollywood period and include classics like the Hitchcockian thriller Play Misty For Me (his directorial debut); the Westerns High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven; the music films Honkytonk Man and Bird; the dramas Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Mystic River; and the War films Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. Many other Eastwood films are ones I enjoy on occasion, and consider good films, but would not place amongst the ranks of these former pictures. As for Heartbreak Ridge, I cannot in good conscience place it even amongst the ranks of his decent pictures and found it overwrought, a little lifeless, dated, and worse yet, boring.