The popularity of Vietnam War movies exploded during the 1980s. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July are just a few of the Vietnam flicks that hit theaters in the decade following the end of the war. Each movie contributed its own aspect of the war to the Vietnam film canon, but one film that’s too often lost in the stack is Hamburger Hill. Looking back at the film through a post-Afghanistan War lens reveals how the underrated movie tragically doubles as an Afghanistan War film.
John Irvin directed the squad-based story that follows soldiers from the 101st Airborne’s 187th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Rakkasans, as they spend the movie’s entire hour and 50 minutes sacrificing everything to seize Hill 937 — nicknamed Hamburger Hill for its similarity to a meat grinder.
The Rakkasans ultimately take the hill at the cost of most of the characters. It would be a comically simple plot if it weren’t true.
In May of 1969, the Rakkasans were tasked with capturing a prominent ridge on Dong Ap Bia, a mountain near the Laotian border. The steep terrain required the Americans to attack uphill against a well-entrenched enemy. After one week of frontal assaults, the Rakkasans controlled the hill, but at the steep cost of 72 soldiers killed in action and 372 wounded.
Just like Hill 937, places in Afghanistan like Marjah, Korengal, and the Pech Valley were seized for loosely defined reasons and at a heavy cost. And like Hamburger Hill, which was abandoned less than one month after it was taken, each piece of hard-won terrain Americans had held in Afghanistan was recaptured by Taliban forces soon after the Americans left.
In Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, America injected battalion after battalion of Marines into the enemy-occupied district. And like the Rakkasans slogging their way up Hamburger Hill, the Marines seized Sangin only after 76 Americans were killed and countless more wounded. Sangin quickly fell back into the hands of the Taliban following the US’s withdrawal from the district.
Watching the film with Vietnam and Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, one can’t help but notice the glaring lack of clear objectives in both wars. Seemingly arbitrary pieces of terrain were deemed strategically vital objectives where inches of real estate were bought with the lives of American service members. But that’s the story of both Vietnam and Afghanistan: American forces steadily accruing tactical victories in a war with no definable strategic importance.
Hamburger Hill is far from a perfect war movie (if such a thing exists). There’s plenty of ’80s cheese, like the death of Pvt. Vincent Languilli, who utters a cliche “remember me” with an expression resembling that of someone suffering through all the pain of a tummy ache, and none of the panic or agony one might expect of a man fully aware he is about to die. But while you can knock it for its synth-heavy score and flat dialogue, Hamburger Hill is a rock-solid war movie that remains true to the sometimes absurd and often expendable institution of wartime infantry. If Apocalypse Now captures the insanity of war and Full Metal Jacket reveals the loss of innocence, then Hamburger Hill tackles the eerily timeless theme of the waste that comes with ever-shifting objectives.