Hamburger Hill

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Hamburger Hill Movie Poster Image
Unsparing, graphically violent depiction of Vietnam War.
  • R
  • 1987
  • 110 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie highlights the courage and sacrifices made by the U.S. Army's 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division without romanticizing or glorifying war and war violence. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The soldiers aren't sugarcoated manifestations of idealized American heroism. While certainly brave and duty-bound, soldiers also cavort with prostitutes in brothels, drink to excess, smoke marijuana, get into fights, and throw out racial slurs.

Violence

The movie doesn't shy away from graphic war violence. In one scene, an enemy soldier's head has his head shot off. Another scene shows a dead Vietnamese woman with a crying child nearby. Images of dead, dying, headless, limbless soldiers in the heat of battle. Soldier shot and dying, with exposed chest and organs trailing out. 

Sex

Soldiers shown in a brothel consorting with prostitutes. Brief female nudity: breasts. Soldier shows other soldiers a Playboy centerfold. Talk of masturbation. Talk of venereal disease. 

Language

Frequent profanity. "F--k" constantly used. "Motherf---er" used.  "Bulls--t," "s--t," "p---y," "t-tties," "d--k," "ass," "goddamn," "bitches." Middle finger gesture. Assorted racist terms for the Vietnamese. "N" word used by white soldiers to provoke black soldiers. Homophobic slur. 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Soldiers get drunk in a brothel. Beer drinking, marijuana smoking, cigarette smoking. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hamburger Hill is a 1987 movie based on the true story of an American infantry squad's efforts at taking a hill from the enemy during the Vietnam War amid heavy casualties. Unlike many war movies, this movie doesn't shy away from graphic war violence. Soldiers are shown dead or dying with chests ripped open, limbs lost, heads blown off. While the soldiers display tremendous courage and valor throughout these battles, the movie also doesn't romanticize or overly glorify who they were as individuals -- soldiers cavort with prostitutes in brothels, drink to excess, smoke marijuana, get into fights, and throw out racial slurs. Profanity is constant, including "f--k" used several times. Brief female nudity (breasts) during the brothel scenes. Characters frequently use different slurs to describe the Vietnamese. A white soldier uses the "N" word. This movie should open up discussion about the realities of war, and what so many other war movies (and military recruiting advertisements) tend to gloss over, as well as the deep divide between those who fought in the Vietnam War and those who deferred, and those who supported the war and those who protested it. 

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What's the story?

HAMBURGER HILL takes place in May of 1969 in South Vietnam as a platoon receives five new recruits. Sgt. Adam Frantz (Dylan McDermott) gives the men a crash course in surviving the battlefield -- everything from the proper way to brush one's teeth to how stealthily the Viet Cong can sneak past barbed wire fortifications. Among the new recruits are the quietly intense Washburn (Don Cheadle), and the cars-and-girls obsessed Languillli, who is nicknamed "Alphabet," much to his chagrin, because no one in the platoon can pronounce his name. The men immediately face skirmishes with the enemy, resulting in casualties, and a tragic loss of life due to friendly fire from a helicopter. When not fighting, the men patronize a local brothel, drink heavily, get into fights, and reflect on how the burden of the war is disproportionately placed on the shoulders of African Americans and the working class, while college students defer and jeer at their service. Soon, the platoon is sent to Hill 937 to take the hill and remove the North Vietnamese Army. They encounter heavy resistance, and against what seems to be increasingly insurmountable odds, the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne display incredible courage and self sacrifice in fighting for their platoon and their country. 

Is it any good?

What makes this an unforgettable Vietnam War movie is its unsparing depiction of the horrors of battle. There's plenty of heroism, valor, and sacrifice in these soldiers as they fight what is quite literally an uphill battle, and the filmmakers know this. Therefore, they don't rely on the usual Hollywood cliches of bombastic orchestral background music, very buff action movie heroes wielding a machine gun in both hands while bellowing, "Nooooo!," and nice clean happy endings. The story and the characters develop organically, and it's refreshing to see a war movie develop in this way. By presenting these soldiers in all their imperfections, the movie highlights what they did when it counted. 

While better than most Vietnam War movies, Hamburger Hill is by no means perfect. The tirades and anecdotes about anti-war protestors and "Senator Kennedy" are heavy-handed, to put it mildly. The trope of the soldier/cop/fireman who is merely days away from shipping back home or retiring who then gets killed has become one of the most predictable tropes in cinema and television. Nonetheless, the ability to truly create depth to these characters rather than relying on the usual archetypes/stereotypes is almost as remarkable as the battle scenes themselves. The takeaway is a moving tribute to those who fought in the war, a tribute that doesn't require the Sousa fanfare and the obnoxious jingoistic spectacle of other war movies. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about war movies. How does Hamburger Hill compare to other war movies and movies about the Vietnam War? 

  • In most action and war movies, filmmakers rely heavily on intense background music to heighten the violent scenes. This movie doesn't do this. How does the lack of background music heighten the life-or-death seriousness of what's at stake for these soldiers?

  • Do war movies tend to romanticize the realities of warfare? How does this movie show the heroism and valor of the soldiers without resorting to the overblown and outsized heroism of the lead characters in other war and action movies? 

Movie details

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