Hamburger Hill (1987)





Director:  John Irvin.

Cast:  Anthony Barrile (Langulli), Michael Boatman (Motown), Don Cheadle (Washburn), Michael Dolan (Murphy), Don James (McDaniel), Dylan McDermott (Sgt. Frantz), M.A. Nickles (Galvin), Harry O'Reilly (Duffy), Daniel O'Shea (Gaigin), Tim Quill (Beletsky), Tommy Swerdlow (Bienstock), Courtney Vance (Doc Johnson), Steven Weber (Sgt. Worcester), Tegan West (Lt. Eden), Lieu Chinh (Mama San), Doug Goodman (Lagunas), J.C. Palmore (Healy), J.D. Van Sickle (Newsman).

The futility of the war in Vietnam is told through the battle for Hamburger Hill in 1969.  The movie follows the grueling efforts of 14 very weary soldiers of the 1st Platoon,Bravo Company of the 101st Airborne.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.  Curse words included. 

On May 10, 1969 Troops of the 101st Airborne Division engaged the enemy at the base of Hill 937 in the Ashau Valley.  Ten days and eleven bloody assaults later, the troops who fought there called it Hamburger Hill. 

Soldiers load the wounded onto a helicopter and then return to the fight.  Sgt. Worcester tells Duffy and Gaigin to come with him.  An American soldier gets hit by a mortar shell and his body fllys through the air landing near another American soldier. The man standing immediately calls out:  "Medic!"  A call is made to get the men out of the worsening situation.  A helicopter arrives and lifts the men out of there.  Then airplanes come in and bomb the area where the troops used to be. 

A truck takes the members of the 1st Platoon back to the firebase.  Along the way Sgt. Frantz joins his old unit.  Frantz will get the new guys, which Frantz is not pleased with at all.  Soldiers Beletsky and Languilli get into a fight over a misunderstanding about a remark concerning Beletsky's girl back home.  The other guys have to break it up.  Back at base the two sergeants go to a whorehouse.  They must be regulars as the madam already knows them.  They take a bath with two of the prostitutes. 

The old medic, "Doc" Johnson, a black man, comes back from his rest and recreation trip.  Sgt. Worcester tells Frantz that there is a rumor that they are going back into the Ashau Valley.  A black fellow named Mac tells "Doc" and "Motown" that he he has so very few days left on his term of duty in Vietnam, that he wants to get an easy, safe job back at headquarters.  Doc tells him that they don't take "niggers" at headquarters.  They're all white at headquarters. 

Looking at the FNGs (fucking new guys), Sgt. Frantz comments that he's tired of filling body bags.  All of a sudden mortar rounds start landing all around the encampment.  It is a short bombardment.  A pretty Vietnamese mother has been killed.  One of the FNGs has had his head blown off.  Frantz asks Doc who is it and Doc goes ballistic saying how the hell can he tell who it is.  The guy's got no head.  Frantz gets him to calm down. 

The guys visit the whore house.  Bienstock is already being serviced and Doc makes a big deal of being next even though he isn't next in line.  Maybe he sees this as deserved, because he says that the only reason the blacks are here is because they are black and uneducated.  Langulli tells him that's bull shit!  Doc approaches Langulli slowly and then socks him in the face.  Down goes Langulli.  The other guys make sure the fight goes no further. 

Sgt. Worcester tells Frantz that they are going back into Ashau Valley.  The helicopters transport the platoon to their destination.  When they are on the ground they call headquarters to say that the landing zone (LZ) is secure and there is negative contact. 

10 May 1969.  The guys move through the rain forest.  Mac is wounded by a bullet and then is hit with a grenade.  Doc runs to bandage him up, but Mac is gone already.  Now Doc turns his anger on Frantz basically accusing him of deliberately putting Mac, who had such little time left in Vietnam, out front so he would get killed.  Frantz doesn't answer the charge.  He puts the new black guy, Washburn, out on point to follow the blood trail of the enemy who killed Mac.  The trail dead ends at a certain point. 

The order comes down to take Hill 937.  At 0800 hours the men will be going back in at their point of last contact with the enemy. 

11 May 1969.  The platoon is back in the field.  The platoon's orders are to mop up any stragglers in the area.  Suddenly mortar shells start falling around them.  They lose a few of their men.  An officer named Blackjack wants the airborne soldiers to take the hill, so the guys are certainly going to try. 

15 May 1969.  The fight for Hill 937 begins in earnest.  The guys have a hard time of it, but they take the bunker line and secure it.  Duffy is wounded.  Aircraft bomb the top and upper sides of the hill.  The enemy hides in tunnels in the side of the hill as the planes do their bombing.  Once the planes are gone, the enemy immediately rushes back to its trenches and starts fighting.  First Platoon gets ready to move farther up the hill.  Duffy fights wounded.  But just as the guys are making some progress, an American helicopter flies overhead killing American soldiers with a heavy machine gun.  The guys try to yell that they are killing their own men, but it's useless.  Quite a few soldiers are wounded or dead because of the incident.  One of the dead is the previously wounded Duffy.  His buddy Gaigan cries at seeing the dead Duffy. 

One of the white soldiers uses the term "nigger" and this starts a fight with a black soldier.  Again the others have to break up the fight. 

16 May 1969.   One of the fellows gets a letter from his girlfriend.  She says she cannot write him any more letters because her friends at college say the war is immoral.  The soldier is bumped out to say the least.

17 May 1969.  Up the hill they try to go.  One of the soldiers asks how many times have they been up the hill and Doc says nine fucking times.  A newsman is on the hill talking to some of the soldiers.  He wants a response from the men to the scuttlebutt that the guys can't take Hill 937.  He asks Sgt. Frantz to say something but Frantz refuses.  He is mad at the journalist and calls him a vulture.  He says if he sees him at the top of the hill, he will kill him. 

The guys take a break and talk.  Sgt. Frantz says that he did not volunteer for the army.  He was drafted. 

18 May 1969.  It is raining hard.  The men try to get up the hill, but many of them just come sliding down again.  Doc gets hit while trying to fix Gaigan up.  Gaigan dies.  Doc slips down the hill in the mud, but he survives his wound.  With the other guys after the battle is over, Doc says that Blackjack won't be happy until he gets all his people killed.  Now the guys have been up that hill ten times.  Doc  experiences sudden pains and rather quickly dies.  The platoon's officer Lt. Eden tells Sgt. Worcester that Blackjack wants them to maneuver aggressively on the hill.  And yes, he told Blackjack that most of 1st Platoon is still on the hill. 

20 May 1969.  More bombs are dropped on top of Hill 937.  Then the battle begins again.  Lt. Eden loses his right arm in the fight.  The men see an American completely blackened by something or somethings walking very slowly back to the American front line.  He reaches Sgt. Frantz and then collapses on him.  Frantz realizes that it is Sgt. Worcester.  The blackened sergeant dies. 

Sgt. Frantz and Beletsky start moving up the hill.  They find Motown dead.  He fell into a hole filled with very sharp sticks.  Bienstock gets hit.  Washburn gets to him, only to find him dead.  Langulli gets bayoneted in the back and dies. 

Sgt. Frantz, Beletsky and Washburn make it to the top.  All three just sit down.  There is not even a hint of a victory celebration.  The men just sit without saying anything.  A few other soldiers reach the top of the hill.  On a solitary tree on the hill the fellows put up a sign:  "Welcome of Hamburger Hill." 

Hamburger Hill was secured on 20 May 1969.  The war for hills and trails continued, the places and names forgotten except by those who were there.


Good movie.  It's a little like the myth of Sisyphus who rolls the huge boulder up the mountain and reaches the mountain top, only to have the boulder roll back down the mountain.  He proceeds to roll the boulder back up the mountain and the process goes on and on forever.  The soldiers kept going up the hill and coming back with wounded and dead, just to have to go back up and suffer more casualties.  But at least on the eleventh try, Hill 937 (Hamburger Hill) was taken by the American troops.  Then the real kicker is that the hill was just abandoned.  The American soldiers paid a heavy price to take that hill for no apparent reason other than to kill every enemy on the hill.  The white-black division was very apparent among the men, but they at least did pull together when it came to trying to take the hill.  It was also interesting that there were many references to the peace demonstrations back in the USA and the negative attitude of many young people to the returning soldiers. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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