Heartbreak Ridge, one of the classic motivational movies of the reborn Reagan-era military, was released thirty years ago last week, on 5 December 1986. The Navy's Top Gun, released in May of 1986, is, of course, the other biggie from that time.
I was a Fort Sill as a brandy-new 2nd Lieutenant when the film was released, and went with a bunch of the Marines in my class to see it immediately. Of course, the Army Lieutenants were kinda pissed because it was such a motivating flick and the Army had nothing comparable to it or to Top Gun. Clint Eastwood played the lead as the Medal of Honor awardee and Korean War Veteran Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, Marsha Mason the ex-wife he still loves.
Heartbreak Ridge is no masterpiece, to be sure. The movie of course has goofy Officers, including the commander of the division's Reconnaissance Company who supposedly "transferred over from supply", not something the Corps would ever countenance. The Recon Lieutenant is also portrayed as a broke-dick, which I have never seen or even heard of. They tend to be more than a little motivated and physically tough as nails, leading from the front. Camp Talega, a WWII-era set of Quonset Huts, and the arid terrain of Pendleton, pass for Camp Lejeune, which is marshy, humid, and pool-table flat. The battle scenes are a fanciful portrayal of Grenada, which had occurred three years previous (1983), and were filmed in Vieques. Like most cult favorites, Heartbreak Ridge has a ton of favorite scenes and quotes to unwrap when the beer flows, and once upon a time you were persona non grata if you had not seen the film at least once.
For all its flaws, the movie does get some things right. The special comraderie of young Marines is well-depicted, as is the widely varied racial and ethnic composition of the Marine Corps, then and now. And Gunny Highway's instilling in a platoon of undisciplined and beaten down Marines a sense of unit and individual pride is not far from the mark. Inspired leadership does work wonders. Highway himself is not as implausible as he might seem. Then, there were still a handful of Korean War Veterans still on active duty, and most of the Combat Arms Field Grade Officers and SNCOs were Vietnam Veterans and many were walking legends in a Corps which had few who had seen combat on any scale whatever. A good many of those Vietnam Veterans shaped the 1980s Marine Corps into something far better than they had endured in the 1970s post-Vietnam Carter years. The movie is also a not so subtle tribute to the honorable service of those men who came home from Southeast Asia to a nation that was at best indifferent and at worst, ungrateful.
The best part of Heartbreak Ridge from a cinematic standpoint was the opening credits. Brilliant and moving, the film opens to authentic B&W footage showing the horrors of war in Korea, set to the guitar and voice of the late Don Gibson's 1961 "Sea of Heartbreak". (Finding the opening in its original form is nearly impossible due to copyright issues, but here is the opening credits with a different arrangement of Gibson's hit.)
Oh, and h/t to DB for the inspiration. Funny how the mind works. URR here, by the way, as if you didn't know...