Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heartbreak Ridge

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 33 of 100

In the first scene of 'Heartbreak Ridge', Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway (Eastwood) is languishing in a holding cell prior to being had up before the judge on a drunk and disorderly charge. Well, not so much languishing as holding court, regaling a young detainee with a story of overseas service, oriental brothels and exotic whores. Up comes some wannabe hard guy, built like a brick shithouse, and the following exchange takes place:

Wannabe Hard Guy: I don't like soldier boys.
Highway: Say what?
Wannabe Hard Guy: If you wanna pop that puppy's can, you don't have to grease him so hard, jarhead.
Highway: Sounds like you're a man of experience.
Wannabe Hard Guy: What the hell's that supposed to mean, grunge shit?
Highway: It means be advised: I'm mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea's ass at 200 meters. So why don't you go hump somebody else's leg, mutt face, before I push yours in.
Wannabe Hard Guy: Ain't gonna be so smart with your balls stuffed in your mouth, jarhead.

A fight ensues. Highway wins. In the next scene, the judge fines him $100, citing Highway's excellent military record as the reason for his leniency. Highway accepts the fine with a growl. Outside, the sheriff who arrested him in the first place moseys over and harangues him. The following exchange takes place:

Sheriff: You know one of these days you'll be puking blood in some alley and you're going to look up and see me standing there.
Highway: Keep dreaming, shitball.
Sheriff: You're going to pay full price, Rummy. I don't give no serviceman's discount.
Highway: That's too bad, I heard your old lady does.

Returning to active duty, Highway finds himself on a shit detail assisting a quartermaster who's running a fiddle. The quartermaster offers him a cigar and tries to grease the wheels. The following exchange ensues:

Quartermaster: Looks like you could use a little lift, Highway. Why don't you suck on one of these. Smooth as a prom queen's thigh only not quite as risky. Havana cured. Got a pal over in Guantanamo in supply. We do each other favors. I've got lots of friends. Of course, I could always use another friend.
Highway: So that we can do each other favors?
Quartermaster: Sure. See, if your pencil wasn't quite so sharp and your eyesight not quite so clear around here I could make your lot in the military life a lot more comfy. Not to mention down right rewarding.
Highway: Sergeant, you get that contraband stogie out of my face before I shove it so far up your ass you'll have to set fire to your nose to light it.

The shit detail doesn't last long and Highway finds himself transferred back to his old unit, which is now under the command of Major Powers (Everett McGill), a prissy bureaucrat who's previous experience was in supplies and has never seen a war zone. Given command of an undisciplined and attitudinous recon platoon, he introduces himself thusly: "My name's Gunnery Sergeant Highway and I've drunk more beer and banged more quiff and pissed more blood and stomped more ass that all of you numbnuts put together." Having berated his men in imaginative fashion for a while, he heads for a local bar where his ex-wife Aggie (Marsha Mason) is working and promptly gets into an altercation with the owner (who is also Aggie's new boyfriend). When the publican offers to wrap a baseball bat around Highway's head, the gunnery sergeant makes the following counter-offer: "Why don't I bend you over the table there and nail you in the keester... send you home with a just-pumped-the-neighbour's-cat" look on your face?"

As you've probably guessed from the amount I've quoted, the dialogue is singularly the best thing about 'Heartbreak Ridge': earthy, coarse and politically incorrect to the nines, James Carabatsos's screenplay makes poetry of profanity. In most other respects, though, it's an unremarkable script translated into an unremarkable film. Structurally, it's a mess: subplots regarding Highway's platoon drift in and out of focus, while the ongoing rivalry between Highway and Powers being foregrounded despite becoming repetitive very quickly. The splendid Marsha Mason ignites the screen as Highway's feisty ex, but the script gifts her with little material beyond a few contrived arguments. The dialogue is often funny as fuck, the mirth factor multiplied thanks to Eastwood's po-faced delivery, but Carabatsos writes just about every character in the same "voice".

The major flaw of 'Heartbreak Ridge' is its eleventh hour abandonment of barrack-based tomfoolery in favour of sending the recon platoon into action. This is where time has not been kind to the film. Beyond the obvious verbal pyrotechnics of the dialogue, it has two things to offer: (a) the satisfaction of watching a smartmouthed protagonist repeatedly piss off a prissy and ineffectual superior and (b) the juxtaposition of training camp with the reality of armed conflict. 'Heartbreak Ridge' was released in 1986. Within a year it had been bested in these categories by, respectivey, 'Good Morning Vietnam' and 'Full Metal Jacket'. These films - albeit deploying drastically different aesthetic approaches - highlighted the pointlessness of the Vietnam war. 'Heartbreak Ridge' feels like an anachronism: as an exercise in pro-military right-wing soldier porn, 'An Officer and a Gentleman' got there first (four years earlier). As a war movie, it eschews the still fertile subject matter of the Great War, the Second World War or Vietnam. 'Heartbreak Ridge' sends its hard-bitten hero and his team of greenhorns in country to ... Grenada.

Go here for a quickie Wikipedia history lesson. Check out the bit about President Reagen's concern over the safety of 800 American medical students at St George's School of Medicine as the motivating factor for the American invasion. The St George's rescue is depicted in the film. 800 American med students, right? In the liberation of Grenada according to Carabatsos, the Marines rescue two dozen blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader types in tight tee-shirts and hot pants, not one of whom is wearing a nurse's uniform or clutching a copy of Gray's anatomical textbook, and a couple of nerdy looking guys who were probably put there to make the Marines look cooler. This done, Highway and co. storm up a hill, enter into a firefight, get pinned down, call in an air strike to save their sorry asses, then fly back home to a hero's welcome, much flag-waving, a military band pumping out 'The Liberty Bell' as if their salaries depended on it, and Aggie in a summer dress ready to get back together with her man. The end.


Keith said...

Hey there. Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog. I really appreciate it. I'm very excited to be back blogging. Great post. I always loved this movie. Take care. I hope the rest of your week is wonderful.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for dropping by, Keith. Good to have you back in the blogosphere.