War films are rarely as harrowing or as gritty as Hamburger Hill, which is easily one of the more underrated entries in this most venerable of genres. Released in 1987 to strong reviews but small box office returns, this is a movie that has gained a considerable reputation throughout the years, and is ripe for rediscovery after films such as Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Lone Survivor, We Were Soldiers and 13 Hours have all subscribed to the same sort of cinematic aesthetic of absolute bombardment by way of on-screen combat. Directed with solemn integrity by macho director John Irvin (The Dogs of War, Next of Kin, Raw Deal, City of Industry, Shiner) and written with a strict sense of discipline by Vietnam veteran James Carabatsos, the film details the bloody and exhausting battle for the Ap Bia Mountain in 1969 between the U.S. Army and the Vietcong, near the border of North Vietnam and Laos.
Starring a roll-call of then-fresh-faced acting talent including Dylan McDermott, Steven Weber, Courtney B. Vance, Don Cheadle, and many others, Hamburger Hill stays focused on the horrific event while also providing a strong sense of political and social context, given that strategic military incompetence, racism within the ranks of soldiers, the treatment of Veterans at home after serving tours of duty, and the cavalier attitude of superiors who weren’t in harm’s way are explored and dealt with in a blunt and forceful manner. Peter Macdonald’s intense and documentary style cinematography never shied away from any of the battlefield brutality, while Philip Glass supplied the mournful musical score. Peter Tanner’s editing did a tremendous job of keeping all of the action coherent, while giving the film a fast and purposeful pace. This is a heavy duty piece of filmmaking that spares no emotional or visceral expense in terms of highlighting a hugely sad and ferocious conflict.