#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.