One rifle squad's experiences in the thick of one of the more controversial battles of the war in Vietnam.
This movie is billed as the most realistic war movie to come out of our experience in Vietnam. From the ping of mortar rounds leaving their tubes to the crump of their impact, I agree. It is also a gritty anti-war movie. Its heroes are Vietnam grunts who only want to survive, but who give it their all because their sense of responsibility to each other and to themselves demands it. There are no masterful generals, no crusading journalists, no anti-hero politicians; no George Pattons, no John Waynes, no Davie Crocketts - just a group of young men caught up in events they didn't control, probably didn't understand, and certainly didn't want. There are no love interests in the movie or sub-plots - nothing to cloud its message.
Now, there are three things that make up a good war movie: lots of action, good acting, and attention to detail. Failure in any one of these can doom a movie. Hamburger Hill, unlike most of its genre coming out of the Vietnam War, has all three in spades.
There is no shortage of combat scenes. Hamburger Hill depicts in gory detail the action that spanned 11 days (May 10-21, 1969) during which the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Airborne (3/187th, the "Rakkasans" of Korean fame) tried and finally succeeded in taking what was labeled on their maps as Hill 937 (meaning it was 937 meters high). Hill 937 was actually one of several ridges that comprised Dong Ap Bia (or Ap Bia Mountain) on the Laotian border in the A Shau Valley.
The A Shau Valley was well-known to the American military. The far western valley of Thua Thien Province, surrounded by high, rugged mountains covered with dense double- and triple-canopy rain forest, it was like an exit ramp off the Ho Chi Minh trail network in southern Laos into the northern part of South Vietnam (or as grunts in the movie as well as in real life sometimes called it, "Vietnam, Republic of'"), providing an avenue of approach to Da Nang and Hue. The remaining Special Forces camp in the A Shau had been overrun in March 1966 and was not replaced. (Two other SF camps had been abandoned previously.) At least one NVA (North Vietnamese Army) division plus supporting units traversed it on their way to Hue for their part in the 1968 Tet offensive. The NVA would use it again in 1972.
In the meantime, General Creighton W. "Abe" Abrams had formally assumed command of all US forces in Vietnam on July 3, 1968. He believed the war needed to be fought on several levels, including an aggressive campaign to take the war to the enemy. When reconnaissaance (aerial and MACV SOG teams out of CCN at Da Nang) picked up increased activity in the A Shau Valley in the early months of 1969, he determined that it needed to be met head on. There had been sweeps through the valley in April 1968, known as Operation DELAWARE (1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile)), and again in January 1969 (3rd Marine Regiment, Operation DEWEY CANYON), but the NVA retained control. It had been a NVA preserve long enough.
A series of coordinated operations was planned with the intended purpose to clear the valley, deny its use, and disrupt the enemy's plans. These operations would comprise ten battalions: the 9th Marine Regiment, the 3rd ARVN Regiment, the 3/5th Cavalry from the 1st Air Cav, and three battalions from the 101st Airborne Division: 1/506th, 2/501st, and 3/187th. These units would move into various parts of the valley in a coordinated scheme of maneuver.
The Rakkasans of the 3/187th and an ARVN battalion drew the prize: Dong Ap Bia, occupied by the headquarters and two battalions (the 7th and 8th) of the NVA 29th Infantry Regiment - some 600 to 900 strong and probably reinforced during the battle. The Rakkasans' portion of the overall effort was known as operation APACHE SNOW. Their mission, in what is arguably the last major battle of the war, was to drive the enemy out of their area or destroy them by close combat if they chose to stay and fight. The Rakkasans probably didn't realize the size of the force opposing them.
The movie depicts the battle from the perspective of a single, fictitious infantry squad, along with the medic supporting that platoon, their platoon sergeant, and their platoon leader. It's small unit combat all the way, with action aplenty.
One of the realities the movie subtly points out by focusing on a single squad is how combat in dense terrain becomes very localized. In this case, while it's clear that the squad is part of a much larger operation, you also get a sense of their seeming isolation. There is little recognition of or contact with units to their right or left. In the opening rounds, there is little sight of the enemy either. Their link to their brethren and the outside world is through the platoon leader's AN/PRC-25 radio and the disembodied voice emanating from it that keeps urging them on and asking for SITREPs (situation reports).
Over the space of 11 days (May 10-21, 1969) the 3/187th, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Weldon "Tiger" Honeycutt, supported by artillery and close air support, and later by other elements of the 101st Airborne and the ARVN battalion, threw itself repeatedly at the NVA bunkers and trench network. It made several assaults up the hill, by itself until the final push on May 20. The movie captures each one of these assaults in numbing, horrific repetition. By the time the surviving NVA abandoned the last of their positions and the Rakkasans captured the top of the hill, they had lost 39 killed and 290 wounded. That would be anywhere from 40% to 60% casualties, depending upon the beginning strength of the battalion. The movie advertisement claims 70%. No matter what the actual percentage, the Rakkasans clearly took a beating. That they accomplished their mission in spite of such heavy casualties is a tribute to the them.
The acting in the movie is outstanding. While you may recognize several of the actors, only one (Dylan McDermitt, playing Staff Sergeant Frantz, the squad leader) went on to fame as an actor. Still, the acting is top notch, the characters believable. The actors worked quite well together in what would today be called an ensemble cast. You quickly understand that despite the frustrations of the war, the growing hostility at home, and the growing racism within the military, even among themselves, they understand that their individual and collective survival depends on each other. This binds them in a way that few other situations can.
The movie's real strength, though, is its realism and its attention to detail. Everything has the right look, the right sound, the right feel. From the crack of M-16 rifle rounds, the hollow resonance of the M-79 grenade launchers, and the crump of impacting mortar rounds, to the radio call-signs and radio traffic, the banter, jargon, slang, and swearing, the locales and locals, the sandbags on the floors of the "deuce-and-a-halfs", the mud, wooden ammo boxes and artillery shell containers littering the base areas, the calls for artillery and air support, the red filters on the flashlights, and on and on - it took me back to when I was 20 years old, in-country, and indestructible. This really is the most realistic Vietnam movie yet made. I was particularly thankful to be spared the hand grenades and HE mortar rounds that explode like 55-gallon drums of fugas, so typical of war movies.
The mistakes were few and minor - nothing to mar the quality of the movie or detract from its message. For example, their M-16's had the by-then obsolete open flash suppressor rather than the closed kind. This is a nit, far outweighed by the accurate depiction of the LBE (load bearing equipment) and other equipment they carried. The movie also didn't have much in the way of night engagements initiated by the NVA. There were actually several of them, although they had no substantive impact on the course of the battle.
The biggest error was that there were not 11 assaults up the hill as the movie leads you to believe. May 10 saw the first contact. On each of the next three days (May 11, 12, and 13) the 3/187th conducted a "reconnaissance in force" (RIF) to find and push the enemy, probing for weak points. If the enemy force held its ground, the RIF unit would back off and heavy supporting fires would be called in. Deliberate assaults didn't start until May 14 (although to the soldier in contact with the enemy, whether the mission is a RIF or a deliberate assault is an insignificant distinction). These assaults to secure the top of the mountain occurred on May 14, 15, 18, and 20. The days in between (May 16, 17, and 19) were either stand-downs for resupply or aborted assaults due to the inability of supporting ground units to get into position.
The movie depicted assaults on May 15, 16, 17, 18, and 20. This is trivial since it had no impact on what the movie was trying to do, but it is curious. The movie would show the beginning of each new day with a header that gave the date. I have no idea why they didn't get the dates correct.
Another inconsistency worth mentioning is that no single company (which is to say, no single squad) was committed to each RIF and deliberate assault. The squad in the movie is fictitious - a composite of all the squads engaged. The various incidents - the squad members' deaths, the NVA virtually rolling their grenades downhill on the attacking Rakkasans, the friendly fire, the torrential downpour on May 18 that stopped that day's assault, and so on - all happened. They just didn't all happen to the same squad. Seeing the battle through a single squad probably simplified things for the viewer, however, so I can chalk it up to poetic license.
It's interesting to note that the officer corps is portrayed as distant, out of touch, and seemingly uncaring. In fact, other than the platoon leader, the officer chain of command is never seen; rather, they are depicted only as disembodied voices over the radio and out of sight in the command Huey's flying overhead. This is not unrealistic as far as it goes, but is a bit misleading. The command structure at company and below was on the ground with the troops; battalion command would be either on the ground or in the air, depending on where the battalion commander thought he could best control the battle. At Hamburger Hill, LTC Honeycutt was on the ground some. He was even wounded by friendly fire in his command post on May 11, and at one point on May 18 he killed a NVA soldier during a brief firefight.
Finally, the naming of Hamburger Hill by some grunt who wrote it on the back of a C-ration box and nailed it to a tree probably happened after the 3/187th was moved off the hill (which was on May 21). Apparently this wasn't done, as one is led to believe in the movie, by one of the assaulting Rakkasans. Sometime later another GI wrote beneath it, "Was it worth it?"
The fact remains, Hamburger Hill is an exceptionally good war movie. That notwithstanding, its message is clearly anti-war. This is apparent right from the opening credits, which are interspersed with views of the U.S. Capitol and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The symbolism of our high seat of government juxtaposed with the memorial to the fallen is heightened by the wintry sunset reflecting off the Vietnam Memorial.
The movie, then, is not meant to be a history lesson of the battle. Too much is left out for that, including the operational and strategic significance of Dong Ap Bia and the A Shau Valley, and the role they played in the war. Rather, the movie is a metaphor for the battle: the relentless push to achieve a piece of ground of questionable importance despite the high cost in blood to both sides. The battle, in turn, is a metaphor for the futility of the war in Vietnam. Good men fought. Good men died.
Was it worth it? As the fatalistic mantra among the grunts in the movie said, "It don't mean nothin'." That's a sad and angering attitude, until you recall that shortly after the battle was over, we left the hill, as we did with so many other hills, and another NVA regiment moved in and retook possession. US forces continued to interdict the A Shau Valley, but by 1973 we had turned the ground war over to the ARVN and walked away from Vietnam. In 1975 "Vietnam, Republic of" fell to the NVA.
Hamburger Hill, the movie, doesn't glorify war, but it does show the best attributes of men caught up in war. In so doing it rightfully praises the American soldier. However, one has to conclude that the lives of the men who fought at Hamburger Hill - the deaths, the anguish, the exhaustion, the physical and emotional wounds - didn't matter if the capture of the hill didn't ultimately contribute somehow to victory. In the same way, the lives of the men and women who fought in Southeast Asia didn't matter since we didn't prevail in the war. Private Beletsky (played by Tim Quill) said it all with his silent tear as he surveyed the body-strewn, devastated slope from the summit of Hamburger Hill at the end of the movie.
So, that's the message of this movie to me. Fight to win or don't fight. Make it mean something. That's what some came away from Vietnam with, and that's what makes this a movie worth seeing. (Heavy sigh.)