1980s, 2.5/4, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review, War

Heartbreak Ridge

#28 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

Do you ever see a movie that feels small and effective in that small space, and then it expands ineffectively into a larger space and just kind of loses itself? That’s what I feel about Heartbreak Ridge. I wasn’t completely in love with the film for its first four-fifths or so, but I was increasingly enamored of the tale of a man outside of his time, trying to justify his own existence on two different fronts. And then it went into a combat situation that feels completely mishandled considering the film that came before it. I was disappointed by that final twenty minutes or so. Disappointed heavily.

Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood) is something of an insolent, long-traveled marine who manages to get his way back into working with an active service unit. He’s been in the Marines since Korea, having served through several tours of duty across several conflicts. He reports to Major Powers (Everett McGill), a recent transfer from logistics, who sees Highway as a dinosaur out of line with the times. Highway meets old friends at and around the base including Sergeant Major Choozhoo (Arlen Dean Snyder) and his ex-wife Aggie (Marsha Mason).

The main focus is the men of the reconnaissance platoon that Highway is assigned to beat into shape. The one member of the platoon that gets the most attention is Corporal Stitch Jones (Mario Van Peebles), a wannabe musician that Highway meets on the way to the base, making a terrible first impression in general, especially when he steals from him and gets the bus to leave Highway behind. If there’s one part of the first major section of the film that I have the most trouble with, it’s Jones. He’s just too flamboyant of a character, especially considering that these aren’t raw recruits. They are supposed to be full marines. The rest of the platoon falls into the background and doesn’t leave too much of an impression, leaving it all on Jones’ shoulders, and he’s such a character that he defies belief. I think he would have worked better as a raw recruit.

However, the point is the hammering of the loose platoon into a singular team under Gunny Sergeant Highway’s leadership, and it’s contrasted with Highway’s attempts to connect with Aggie. Aggie holds a lot of bad feelings towards Highway’s absence during her marriage. Essentially, Highway is in the present trying to navigate the refuse of his personal past with the unpromising future in the marines. And that’s a really interesting idea. Highway has to pick up the pieces from his past and try to forge his own future both professionally and personally. That happens through his incessant reading of women’s magazines to try and figure out how to connect with Aggie as well as his reintroduction of hard effort to the platoon to get them into fighting shape. Is all of this terribly realistic, especially on the military side? I don’t really think so, but it really does work thematically.

Highway, of course, proves his worth to his men, especially when he’s willing to talk straight with a general after a drill that he says goes all wrong. There’s a competition between platoons that leads to a general draw determined by a fistfight between Highway and Powers that Highway wins. It’s not great, but it’s a solid portrait of a man making a new path after a lifetime with some regrets.

And then Grenada happens.

It’s a perfectly standard warlike series of events as the platoon, now working well as a unit, storm the beaches, kill a few people on their way up, rescue some civilians, take out some enemy positions, and then defy Powers’ orders to go up and take an elevated dug in position, something in the spirit of the Marine Corps even if its in contradiction of Highway’s orders.

This film was on its way towards a smaller, less ambitious ending, and then it introduces the small conflict at Grenada that involved marines storming the small island to rescue American civilians. Compared to the storied past Highway has, Grenada seems small in comparison. I think there were two real ways to address this, and the script by James Carabatsos chooses neither of them. It goes very standard as Highway proving that he’s been right all along.

However, if Grenada has to be included, I think another tact needed to be taken. I think it should be a reflection of how Highway’s best days are behind him, how the Marine Corps has moved on. It should not be an emotionally victorious moment, but an empty victory. The Corps he knew and loved had been reduced from tearing across the world in large scale events like Korea through to more controversial moves like Vietnam to playing cleanup in events that are going to be quickly forgotten by the people. Yes, he knocked a platoon into shape, but he’ll only be handing it off to leaders like Powers. The other way to address this would be to have Highway die during the battle, giving his life to the Corps he spent his life for. Instead, the film goes for just about the most generic ending possible, leaving all of the better options on the table, dragging the whole film down with it.

It’s not Eastwood’s best effort at all, but it was largely pretty solid for most of its runtime. That ending just doesn’t work with what came before, though. It’s not bad, but it’s just not what the film needed at all.

Rating: 2.5/4

7 thoughts on “Heartbreak Ridge”

  1. Part of the problem of Heartbreak Ridge is the usual problem of revision and rewrites by other screenwriters. You end up with legacy scenes that don’t resonate with new stuff. So you have stuff that’s ‘too Hollywood’ and you have stuff that’s introspective. I will say that there’s enough truth and reality in this story for it to work for me.

    The Marine Corps of the late 70’s was not the Marine Corps of Korea. There were indeed platoons that were led by weak men, even in the Marines, where the enlisted men ran riot. Drug use was a huge problem so was indiscipline and unreadiness, weapons and equipment were routinely sold on the black market, not just by the grunts but by the Quartermaster. All that shit happened for really real. Still does, to an extent. (though now we have bigger problems but I’ll leave politics and social politics out of this)

    Another thing that feels/is real is that the warriors, like Gunny Highway, are irritants to command during peace time. Highway has seen the elephant, his experience is extremely valuable. But he’s been there and done that isn’t impressed by brass or rules for rules sake.

    Anyway, I like this one quite a bit. You have the inner struggle of a man who has been a professional warrior his whole life, which does not leave time for wife and family (and damn few women can make that adjustment and stick with a man like that). He is aging, he’ll be gone soon and what will be left? Just the Corps. Then you have the outer struggle, dealing with the Marines in his charge, trying to break them, then train them so they will live and conquer in combat. And having to deal with superior officers who are his physical and moral inferior. Old story, told many times, but I find it pleasing.

    The movie is quite quotable and it has a lot of great scenes that I enjoy on re-watch. The Swede is an intimidating force who is rather effectively tamed and becomes a good asset.

    But…we do have old Sonny Spoons to deal with. You’re right, he’s a little too much for this movie. Now I actually am a big fan of Mario Van Peeples. I really, really wish he’d had a bigger career. The man had charm, charisma, he pops on screen. I want 100 movies with that guy. But…that’s not what happened for this reason or that. Dunno. The movie needs antagonists and Jones is Highway’s. The character isn’t so much a problem as his performance. Some guys can’t dial it back, maybe that’s Mario.

    Grenada was indeed small ball. That’s how it goes. But it absolutely the kind of job the USMC has been doing since it was created. The Marines were the master of the ‘small war’, of the interventions to seize airports, secure citizens, occasionally killing the local government and then leaving. They are an arm of the Navy after all and killing foreigners is what they are there for. And we do need, narratively, a way to demonstrate that Highway was in fact correct in his training techniques (because, Highway is way more right than he’s wrong). And with the year this was made…not a lot of options. The big wars are coming in later decades. And they really needed more Highways. The Country always will.

    As for the ending, well, old soldiers never die, they just fade away. And that’s the fate of Highway.


    1. I think that if this movie were just everything up until Grenada, I’d like it a lot more. Van Peebles would still stand out uncomfortably, but it would be a very small military movie with modest ambitions that it would reasonably achieve.

      It’s just that the appearance of Grenada, especially in contrast to the stories that get referenced about Highway’s past (including the eponymous Korean battle that’s so important that it’s the title of the movie), implies to me a completely different story than just Highway winning by being proven right about the need for discipline among his troops and hard training with his superiors. Maybe the actual intended point of Highway simply being right would have been better applied in a story about the Marines taking part in Desert Storm (though the quick nature of that conflict reminds me of Jarhead where the whole point was that Swoford didn’t get to fight at all). And, considering the ROEs forced on American soldiers through the War on Terror, we now have the benefit of history to know that Highway might have been right, but no one was listening who mattered. The institutional rot didn’t slow down, it festered.

      It really makes me feel like this is a tragedy that no one wanted to admit was a tragedy.


  2. I’m not going to sign off on your script changes. Clearly your vision is not what Eastwood was going for. He wanted a more affirmative ending, not a downer. He used Grenada to top off the lesson (improvise) he was trying to hammer into his platoon.


    1. Obviously, you’re right. It’s not what Clint was going for.

      I just think it would have made for a more compelling story with that kind of mentality rather than the more generic one we got.


      1. Your comment about a version with Clint being killed for some reason reminded me of that movie within the movie in Sullivan’s Travels where the two guys are fighting and plunge off the train – The End (Oh Brother Where Art Thou). Can’t find that clip online. Preston Sturges, there’s an idea. You’d at least have The Lady Eve to watch.


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