One of a myriad of late-80's Vietnam War films, Hamburger Hill showed Vietnam for the hell that it was. Lions Gate released a 20th Anniversary Edition DVD of this RKO classic on May 20, 2008, (a little late, since the film was originally released in August of 1987) and they've done a great job with the film. This DVD is a worthwhile, easily recommendable version of one of the most famous war films of all time, and it has much better features than the 2001 DVD version.
Hamburger Hill follows the members of the 101st Airborne, 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon in their 1969 campaign in the Ashau Valley. There, they spent ten bloody days trying to take Hill 937, the place that would come to be known as Hamburger Hill because of the amount of carnage there. This is the same 101st Airborne seen in features like Band of Brothers and We Were Soldiers, and in Vietnam they were flying on helicopters into the middle of enemy territory, surrounded on all sides. This is a recipe for high casualties, and the back of the DVD cover gives this away, mentioning the 70% casualties at Hill 937. When you watch this film, you just know that most of the characters are going to die.
For this reason, and because Hamburger Hill pulls no punches about the other details of the war, it is not fun viewing. It is intense and gripping, but not fun. This is much more violent than the classic war films of the 40's and 50's, as American cinema had very much grown up by the late 80's. Limbs are severed and guts hang out. Men die in the mud, gasping out their last breath after being stabbed in the back. Hamburger Hill was made as a tribute to these men, and the most upsetting part about their deaths is the indifference of their countrymen that the film represents. The soldiers mention over and over again that their girlfriends leave them over the moral issue of the Vietnam War, that the longhairs (what we know as hippies) back home derided them, that many Americans openly wanted the United States to lose to the North Vietnamese. I am too young to have lived through this cataclysmic time in American history, but the conundrum is impossible to ignore: was it justified to treat the soldiers of Vietnam like criminals, even if you totally disagreed with the politics behind the war they were fighting?
In the time of an unpopular war in Iraq, what question could be more relevant?
1st Platoon is led by Frantz (Dylan McDermott), a hardened veteran sick of seeing the young, new recruits he is sent die quickly. He and his buddy Worcester (Steven Weber) are both jaded sergeants, but they know how to survive, and they are forced to take their men into Ashau on a mission they don't see as necessary: take Hill 937 at all costs. Arguably, this pointless loss of life and uphill struggle could be seen as a microcosm for the Vietnam War. We follow the men as they struggle to survive, learn a lot about each other, (racial tension occurs between the whites and blacks in the platoon) and deal with the reality of being forgotten soldiers.
The word "intense" could be used to describe virtually every performance in the film. Weber is exceptional as the Southern sergeant who feels so betrayed by his country that he's practically looking to die. McDermott is very good in one of his most famous film roles, and the film also features a young, not-yet-a-superstar Don Cheadle as one of the new guys. His performance is short, but he is billed right next to McDermott on the front of this DVD, post Ocean films as it is. His space should go to Weber or, even better, to Courtney B. Vance as Doc, the company medic. Vance gives absolutely the most riveting performance of the film as the man who has to tag all of the bodies, the man who's convinced that he and all the other black soldiers are only in Vietnam because they can't afford to go to college.
John Irvin (The Dogs of War) does a great job directing, getting great performances out of everyone. He paces the film well, devoting a lot of time to the personal dilemmas of the soldiers. He also throws in a few of the token "this is what war does to children" shots. The cinematography by Peter MacDonald is wonderful, with a lot of low, down-in-the-mud-with-the-soldiers shots that predate Saving Private Ryan's. Hamburger Hill holds up very well visually 21 years after its release.
Hamburger Hill looks great on this DVD. Like so many other reissues of older films onto high quality home video, this is a case where you can't tell you're watching a twenty-year-old film because the DVD looks so good. I watched Hamburger Hill upconverted onto a hi-def TV, and I had no complaints about artefacts or bland colors (the jungle always looks great in HD). There are just a few points where the image shows some flicker, but it appears to result from the film itself, not the DVD. The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and it is enhanced to fit widescreen TV's perfectly.
This edition of Hamburger Hill has two audio tracks: the 5.1-surround sound in English, and a commentary. The surround track is impressive as far as intensity, as any well done war movie should be. There is some house-shaking base on this disc, especially when helicopters are flying around. The explosions during the most intense firefights will engulf your living room in a wall of sound.
Unfortunately, the mix itself isn't very well done. The dialogue simply is not loud enough on this disc, and with all of the fast-talking, sarcastic soldiers throwing out lines you'll want to hear, that's a real problem. Often, I found myself rewinding the movie and turning on the subtitles to figure out what was said. Luckily, the DVD contains subtitles in both English and Spanish.
The Special Features
The most notable special feature is a feature commentary with writer/producer Jim Carabatsos, Anthony Barrile (Languilli), Harry O'Reilly (Duffy), and Danny O'Shea (Gaigin). These actors are not the most notable in the film, so I imagine that people like Weber, McDermott, and Cheadle were unavailable. They mostly relate their experiences making the film in the Phillipines; they don't analyze the content at all. The real substance of the commentary is Carabatsos, who explains the process of getting Hamburger Hill made right from the beginning. He also gives insight into his intentions for a lot of scenes.
There are also two documentaries on the disc. Hamburger Hill: The Appearance of Reality is a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the movie, shot in 16x9 and enhanced for widescreen TV's. This is an excellent, 17-minute-long feature with on-screen interviews with all of the major cast and crew. Medics in Vietnam concentrates on real-life medics from the war, and contains interviews with historians and some veteran medics from the war. It is also enhanced to fit 16x9 TV's. It also contains real footage from the Vietnam War, and it's six minutes long.
The final special feature on Hamburger Hill is a text timeline of Vietnam's 20th Century history, which you have to be really interested in to get through.
It Don't Mean Nothing
You probably already know how you feel about Hamburger Hill. Supposing you've never seen it, I would recommend checking out this DVD, which is probably the best treatment the film will ever get on home video. Spend your money on this instead of the latest Hollywood blockbuster on DVD. It gets a "Highly Recommended."