Heartbreak Ridge: Clint Eastwood excels as the highly-decorated, hard-drinking, tough-talking Marine in the only ‘War film’ that he made as both actor & director

Heartbreak Ridge(1986), produced by, directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood, is a gritty military drama in which Eastwood plays a tough & cynical Gunnery Sergeant who’s close to retirement, and is given a final assignment to whip a rag-tag group of young Marines into shape.

We’re Marines, sir. We’re paid to adapt, to improvise.”

Though Clint Eastwood has been the ultimate American action-movie-star for the most part of his career, he hardly made many Military\war dramas. Unlike his much revered and much compared predecessor, John Wayne – who was the pre-eminent macho American star of his times, and has some great War films to his credit, especially “Sands of Iwo Jima(1949)” – Clint mostly concentrated on Westerns and urban action dramas. He starred in the evergreen WWII adventure “Where Eagles Dare” and the cult WWII comedy “Kelly’s Heroes” in the beginning of his career. Then much much later, in the 2000s, he made “Flags of our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “American Sniper”- all these films he directed, but did not act in. So, that makes “Heartbreak Ridge(1986)” the only film of Clint Eastwood’s that Clint both acted in and directed. The film also gives Clint his most ‘John Wayne’ role; though Clint has always been considered the true successor to Duke, there’s considerable differences in their screen-persona. Duke, for all his badassery and individualism, was a morally upright team player, even if he’s always the one heading that team. In his films, he always had a group of stock characters (played by his tock company actors) that revolved around him. Which is why he has been the mentor\patriarch\father figure more than any other top tier superstar in American movies. Clint, on the other hand, has always been the maverick and the one-man-army: whether it’s ‘Man with no Name’ or ‘Dirty Harry,’ he’s a lone warrior, and quite an amoral one at that who doesn’t depend on, or doesn’t like anyone depending on him. That’s the main reason why Clint has not been in Military dramas, where heroes have to be team players, or lead a team. “Heartbreak Ridge” is the one time where he really got into that ‘John Wayne’ mode; he becomes a gruff ‘father figure’ to a bunch of young malcontents, whip them into shape and lead them into battle. The film could be considered a small-scale, comedic and modern version of “Sands of Iwo Jima”, but in typical Clint fashion, this is a ‘R’ rated version of it; for one, the language is non-PC, vulgar and colorful that would make even Duke blush. Clint’s Marine Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway has lot of similarities with Duke’s Marine Sergeant John Stryker from “Iwo Jima.”:  Initially, both of them are greatly disliked by the men for the rigorous training they puts them through, but later, the men warm up to them, and follow them into battle; both Highway and Stryker has also a nasty habit of getting into violent brawls with their fellow marines. But “Iwo Jima” is a film of larger ambition and done on an epic scale, especially since the film features the soldiers’ involvement in WWII. “Ridge” is more of a comedy-Actioner set in the backdrop of the Marine Corps, with the main battle featured in the film being the ‘invasion of Granada,’ which was hardly a footnote in history. It’s also interesting to note that USS Iwo Jima LPH-2 was the ship that transports Clint and his Marines to Granada in the film.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas ‘Gunny’ Highway (Clint Eastwood) is a hard-nosed war veteran, who has won helluva lot of medals for his participation in wars across Korea, Vietnam and Dominican republic. He’s just a year away from retirement, but his incorrigible boozing and brawling is a threat to a honorable exit from the Corps. After his latest drunken rampage that lands him in prison, Gunny is granted his last wish: to rejoin his old unit, the Second Recon Battalion, Second Marine Division. Unfortunately for him, his new CO is the strict, arrogant Major Powers (Everett McGill) who has never seen conflict, and, worse, holds a grudge against Gunny for socking his best pal. Gunny’s given a Recon platoon consisting of a bunch of malcontents to train, one of whom, Corporal ‘Stitch’ Jones (Mario Van Peebles)- a wannabe rockstar, he had the misfortune of meeting on the way- Jones stole Gunny’s bus ticket leaving him stranded on the way to taking charge. Also, Gunny’s platoon leader is the nerdy bookish Lt. Ring (Boyd Gaines). But despite all this, Gunny jumps full throttle into kicking, cursing and growling his squad into shape, even as he, in true ‘Dirty Harry’ style, battles the ineptitude and stupidity of his superiors. After Gunny’s men learn that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor in the Korean War- for his heroic turn in the ‘Battle of Heartbreak Ridge’, they gain respect for him and close ranks against their perceived common enemy- which would be Major Powers, who goes so far as to arrange things so that the Recon Marines lose in every field exercise to his 1st Platoon. The film’s final act finds Gunny and his men send to (of all places) Grenada to rescue American university students. A major subplot of the film involves delicate matters relating to Gunny’s heart (giving a literal twist to the ‘Heartbreak’ in the title): his attempts to win back his feisty ex-wife Aggie (Marsha Mason), who’s now working as a barmaid and keeping company with a redneck bar owner, Roy Jennings (Bo Svenson). Aggie had left Gunny as she couldn’t take his Marine’s life, as well as his boozing and womanizing. But now nearing retirement, Gunny has an overwhelming desire to reconnect with her, and even takes to reading Women’s magazines to get a better understanding of the female sex. Initially, Aggie is bitter over their failed marriage, but slowly reconciles with Gunny; and at the end, she joins the wives of other Marines in welcoming back Gunny & his men on their return from the successful Granada expedition.

Since the late 1970s, Clint has been alternating between three kinds of films: First, his bread & butter brand of straightforward action dramas, like “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Sudden Impact,” “Firefox” etc.; second, films in which he sends up his macho action-hero image, like “The Gauntlet,” “Bronco Billy,” “Every Which way but we loose” etc.’ and finally, his more ambitious artistic films, like “Honky-tonk Man,” “Bird,” “White Hunter, Black Heart” etc.; all of which culminated in the great ‘Unforgiven,’ which is a mixture of all three- a Clint Eastwood Western, though majorly deconstructed, but serious in tone and artistically ambitious. “Heartbreak Ridge” is quite unique because it’s an attempt to mix the first two types of Clint films from this era. That also makes the film problematic; because it makes his character rather uneven and the narration quite disorganized. And to be honest, taken purely from a filmmaking point of view, “Heartbreak Ridge” is one of Clint’s worst films: the cinematography is terrible- some scenes are so underlit that we cant see much of what’s happening on screen; the editing is raggedy and uneven- the film does not flow smoothly at all and it goes on far too long; and production design is the worst- it looks cheap, far too cheap even by Clint’s economical standards. Audiences of today, who are mesmerized by the effortless, classical grace of Clint’s filmmaking post ‘Unforgiven’ will be shocked by how much of a ragtag filmmaker he’s here.

But what’s most unforgivable is the low quality of action scenes on display here. Whatever one thinks of Clint as a director during those times, even his worst reviewed films like “The Eiger Sanction” and “The Gauntlet” has terrific action sequences, but the action in this film is very tame and unimaginably staged, and is not a patch on the action in his other films; this being the first ‘War film’ he ever directed, one expected something better from Clint. This is not discounting the fact that the whole ‘invasion of Granada’ looks silly and incredulous.. With a population of about ninety one thousand at the time, it felt like there was no one else on the island except the Marines and a minor opposing force of revolutionary soldiers- referred to as Cubans by the Americans. The only accurate thing about this whole operation is the presence of American medical students. I guess, Clint just wanted to close the film with a big battle to show the capability of his platoon, and he chose the latest one he could get his hands on without going deeply into its details or politics. I have admired Clint’s filmmaking right from his first film, “Play Misty for Me; it was not perfect, but he definitely had an effective technique for telling stories smoothly. “Pale Rider,” which he directed & starred in just before “Heartbreak Ridge” is an extremely well made film. So what happened here is hard to fathom; the film was made during Clint’s ‘Mayor of Carmel’ phase, so that could be one of the reasons for him not putting that much care into making this film; and i guess he considered this to be nothing more than a pure commercial venture, This was not made to win big awards or add prestige to his film cannon, so he just knocked it out in minimal amount of time, cost and effort. The 80s phase was not a very fruitful period for Clint; his films made from the mid 80s onwards till ‘Unforgiven’ were some of his most disappointing ones. He was struggling to break out of being just a popular action star and become a popular artist who does serious work- which he would manage by the 90s. Maybe a purely commercial project like this didn’t hold his interest that much anymore; and he was just doing it to keep the bean counters happy, so that he could get to finance personal projects like “Bird,” which he made immediately after this.

But despite the filmmaking being poor, it’s still a very enjoyable Clint Eastwood star-vehicle due to two reasons: one, writer Jim Carabatsos’ endlessly quotable script, with its flair for marine jargon so baroque that it becomes almost symphonic after a point, despite the crudeness of the language, with its abundance of (homo)sexual innuendos; and second, Clint is in terrific form as star-actor, and gives one of the best acting performances as the cranky, aging Marine. Clint is playing the definitive ‘Clint Eastwood’ tough guy role that looks tailored for his talents as an actor and an icon; a sort of ‘Dirty Harry’ of the Marine Corps, he’s the man’s man in every situation, and like a true Marine he adapts, improvises and overcomes anything that’s thrown at him, whether it’s the undisciplined marines he’s forced to train and lead, or the inept, arrogant superiors he’s forced to tangle with time and again. Right from his introduction scene in the prison cell he has us hooked – where first we only hear his voice, and this time he has a particularly harsh voice, like George C. Scott’s from “Patton,” because of an injury to his vocal chords, the scar is prominently displayed on his neck. Gunny is recounting one of his daring military exploits to prisoners gathered around him; and then he gets into a fistfight with a hulky prisoner who challenges his bravery; a fistfight which he naturally wins. That the hardened veteran earned the respect of tattooed bikers during his little prison jaunt speaks volumes about his masculine charisma. This introduction scene maybe no way original- it’s very similar to his introduction in “Joe Kidd (1972),” right down to the meeting with the judge in the courthouse, where he’s booked for urinating on a police car; but it’s still a striking introduction for the macho star and the tough-guy character he’s playing. And the script gives him plenty of one-liners which he delivers in a more intimidating and forceful style than what we have come to expect from his ‘Dirty Harry’ films. Come to think of it, Clint’s ‘Gunny’ in the film lies somewhere between his ‘Dirty Harry‘ and his Korean war-veteran ‘Walt Kowalski’ from “Gran Torino(2008).”

The only issue with the character is the attempts to soften him (or send him up) with those portion dealing with his wife, and his attempts at reigniting their affair- that has him reading ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ and other magazines. Marsha Mason is a very good, and very good looking actress, and she spars with Clint with passion and vigor; and I feel that Clint was once again going for that ‘John Wayne’ thing with this plot point- an attempt to replicate the fiery chemistry between Duke and Maureen O’Hara in countless films, especially the Cavalry Western, “Rio Grande.” But once again, Clint’s screen persona in a tough-guy action picture does not give in naturally to romance, even of the feisty kind, as John Wayne’s does. The result is that, though done with good intentions, the whole romantic subplot feels very forced and gimmicky. Macho Clint reading Women’s magazines, then almost seducing his ex-wife, only for her to realize his ‘game’ and kick him out of the house makes for chuckle worthy scenes, but it kicks the character and the film out of shape. This ‘sending up’ aspect can also be noticed in the depiction of the ragtag nature of the platoon, the scenes of conflict between Gunny and his trainees, and the portrayal of the arrogant senior Marine officials- all of which are exaggerated to unrealistic and cartoonish levels. This stands in complete contrast to the final act detailing the invasion, and much of Gunny’s characterization- which is straight and well developed. The star, character and film would have been better served if they had kept it very straight, and made it a very straightforward masculine military drama from beginning to end.

At least Clint Eastwood, the director, selected a really good supporting cast; though the screenwriter has filled the film with ‘War movie’ stereotypes, they are pretty entertaining and colorful. Really good in their roles are Arlen Dean Snyder as Gunny’s best friend, Sergeant Major J. Choozhoo, and Eileen Heckart as a Marine Corps widow who’s also Gunny’s friend who feeds him information on his ex-wife. Mario Van Peebles as the wannabe rockstar among the Marines is the most colorful of them all, and whose cocky, irritating character seems to be modelled after the ones played by reigning African-American superstar, Eddie Murphy. The film was made with the support of the Marine Corps, (that’s after the Army had refused to support the film, and hence the lead character was changed to a Marine to secure the help of the Corps) but after watching the finished film, the Corps disavowed it; they were shocked by the crude language, and several inconsistencies in the training and behavior of the Marines depicted in the film. But the audiences didn’t mind, they made it a reasonably big hit for Clint- to the tune of $120 million worldwide. Commercially, the film seems to have benefitted from arriving in the middle of a series of successful military-training themed movies in the 80s, like “Stripes,” “Officer and a Gentleman,” “Full Metal Jacket” etc. Finally, for me, a die-hard Clint Eastwood fan, “Heartbreak Ridge,” though very far from being a top-tier Clint film, is still an enjoyable film, thanks to the punchlines and the presence and the performance of its iconic star, who gives one of his richest performances- I rank it as his best performance (or at least my favorite performance) from the 80s alongside “Bronco Billy” and “Tightrope.”

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