A Movie A Day #203: Heartbreak Ridge (1986, directed by Clint Eastwood)


The year is 1983 and things are looking bad for the Second Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps.  The officers are almost all college graduates like Major Powers (Everett McGill) and Lt. Ring (Boyd Gaines), men who have never served in combat but who are convinced that they know what it means to be a Marine in the 80s.  Convinced that they will never have to actually fight in a war, the latest batch of recruits is growing soft and weak.  All of the slackers have been put in the Recon Platoon, where they are so undisciplined that they think that wannabe rock star Cpl. Jones (Mario Van Peebles) is a good Marine.  MARIO VAN PEEBLES!

They haven’t met Sgt. Highway yet.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway (Clint Eastwood) has seen combat, in both Korea and Vietnam.  He drinks too much.  He fights too much.  He has chased away his wife (Marsha Mason), despite his attempts to understand her by reading Cosmo and Ladies Home Journal.  Major Powers may think that Highway is a relic but Highway knows better than to worry about what a college boy thinks.  The Recon Platoon may think that they can defy him but that haven’t seen Highway throw a punch yet.  Everyone may think it’s a waste of time to learn how to fight but little do they know that America is about to invade Grenada.

Heartbreak Ridge is all about Clint Eastwood.  Without Clint Eastwood, it would just be another basic training film.  With Clint Eastwood, it is a minor masterpiece and a tribute to America’s fighting spirit.  In 1986, no one was better at glaring at a young punk or glowering at a clueless superior officer than Clint Eastwood.  Even the running joke of Highway reading women’s magazines works because it is impossible not to laugh at Clint Eastwood intently studying an issue of Cosmo.   Clint may have been 56 when he directed and starred in Heartbreak Ridge but he was still believable beating up men who were less than half his age.  (Mario Van Peebles thinks he’s going to be able to stand up to Clint Eastwood?  Get outta here!)  There is never any question that Highway is going to able to whip everyone into shape.  The only question is how many terse one-liners are going to be delivered in the process.   By the time Highway and his platoon reach Grenada, everyone is ready to watch Clint put the communists in their place and Clint does not disappoint.

Reportedly, the U.S. Marine Corps. initially supported Heartbreak Ridge but, in case of life imitating art, disowned the finished picture, feeling that the film’s portrayal of The Corps was inaccurate and the sergeant’s “training” methods were too old-fashioned to actually be effective.

Thomas Highway would disagree.

One final note: Bo Svenson has a small role as the man trying to steal Marsha Mason away from Clint.  If you have ever wanted to see Dirty Harry and Buford Pusser fight over the Goodbye Girl, here’s your chance.

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