Heartbreak Ridge is a 1986 American war film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in the film.
The film also co-stars Marsha Mason, Everett McGill and Mario Van Peebles.
The story centres on a US Marine nearing retirement who gets a platoon of undisciplined Marines into shape and leads them during the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.
The title comes from the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in the Korean War where Eastwood’s character earned the Medal of Honour.
Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway is nearing mandatory retirement from the Marine Corps. He finagles a transfer back to his old unit, the Second Marine Division. On the bus trip to his new assignment, he meets fellow passenger “Stitch” Jones, a wannabe rock musician who borrows money from Highway for a meal at a rest stop and then steals his bus ticket, leaving him stranded.
When Highway finally arrives at the base, more bad news awaits. His new commander, Major Malcolm Powers, sees Highway as an anachronism, and assigns him to shape up the Reconnaissance Platoon. “Recon” is made up of Marines who had been allowed to slack off by their previous platoon sergeant, who was just marking time until his retirement. Among his new charges, Highway finds Corporal Jones. Highway quickly takes charge and starts the men on a rigorous training program. They make a last-ditch attempt to intimidate him with “Swede” Johanson, a heavily muscled Marine just released from the brig, but their plan fails after Highway easily defeats Swede. They begin to shape up and develop esprit de corps.
Highway repeatedly clashes with Powers and Staff Sergeant Webster over his unorthodox training methods (such as firing an AK-47 over his men’s heads to familiarise them with the weapon’s distinctive sound). Powers makes it clear that he views Highway’s platoon as only a training tool for his own elite outfit. Major Powers goes so far as to arrange things so that the Recon platoon loses in every field exercise. However, Highway is supported by his old comrade-in-arms, Sergeant Major Choozhoo, and his nominal superior officer, the college-educated but inexperienced Lieutenant Ring. After Highway’s men learn that he had been awarded the Medal of Honour in the Korean War, they gain respect for him and close ranks against their perceived common enemy.
Highway’s ex-wife, Aggie, is working as a waitress in a local bar and dating the owner, Roy. Highway attempts to adapt his way of thinking to win Aggie back, even resorting to reading women’s magazines to try to gain insights into the female mind. Initially, Aggie is bitter over their failed marriage, but tentatively reconciles with Highway. Then the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit is deployed for the invasion of Grenada.
After a last-minute briefing on the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), Highway’s platoon mounts their UH-1 Huey, and are dropped by helocast into the water in advance of the rest of the Battalion Landing Team. While advancing inland, they come under heavy fire. Highway improvises, ordering Jones to use a bulldozer to provide cover so they can advance and destroy an enemy machine gun nest. They subsequently rescue American students from a medical school. Later, when they are trapped in a building, Profile is killed and his radio destroyed, cutting them off from direct communication. Lieutenant Ring comes up with the idea of using a telephone to make a long-distance call to Camp Lejeune to call in air support.
After driving off the enemy, despite Powers’ explicit orders to the contrary, Ring, Highway, and the Recon Platoon take out a key enemy position and capture the Cuban soldiers manning it. When Major Powers learns this, he bawls Ring and Highway out and threatens Highway with a court-martial, but their commanding officer, Colonel Meyers (a combat veteran who had served in the same battalion as Highway in the Vietnam War), arrives and reprimands Powers for discouraging the men’s fighting spirit.
When Highway and his men return to the US, they receive a warm reception. To Highway’s mock dismay, Stitch Jones informs him that he is going to re-enlist and make a career in the Marine Corps, while Highway confides to Jones he is taking mandatory retirement. Aggie is there to welcome him back.
- Clint Eastwood as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway.
- Marsha Mason as Aggie.
- Everett McGill as Major Malcolm A. Powers.
- Moses Gunn as Staff Sergeant Luke Webster.
- Eileen Heckart as Mary Jackson.
- Mark Mattingly as Franco “One Ball” Peterson.
- Bo Svenson as Roy Jennings.
- Boyd Gaines as Lieutenant M.R. Ring.
- Mario Van Peebles as Corporal “Stitch” Jones.
- Arlen Dean Snyder as Sergeant Major J. Choozhoo.
- Vincent Irizarry as Lance Corporal Fragetti.
- Ramón Franco as Lance Corporal Aponte (as Ramon Franco).
- Tom Villard as “Profile”.
- Mike Gomez as Corporal Quinones.
- Rodney Hill as Corporal Collins.
- Peter Koch as Private “Swede” Johanson.
- Richard Venture as Colonel Meyers.
- Peter Jason as Major Devin.
- John Hostetter as Officer Reese.
Screenwriter James Carabatsos, a Vietnam veteran of the 1st Cavalry Division, was inspired by an account of American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division using a pay telephone and a credit card to call in fire support during the invasion of Grenada, and fashioned a script of a Korean War veteran career Army non-commissioned officer passing on his values to a new generation of soldiers. Eastwood was interested in the script and asked his producer, Fritz Manes, to contact the US Army with a view of filming the movie at Fort Bragg.
However, the Army read the script and refused to participate, due to Highway being portrayed as a hard drinker, divorced from his wife, and using unapproved motivational methods to his troops, an image the Army did not want. The Army called the character a “stereotype” of World War II and Korean War attitudes that did not exist in the modern army and also did not like the obscene dialogue and lack of reference to women in the army. Eastwood pleaded his case to an Army general, contending that while the point of the film was that Highway was a throwback to a previous generation, there were values in the World War II- and Korean War-era army that were worth emulating.
Eastwood approached the United States Marine Corps, which expressed some reservations about some parts of the film, but provided support. The character was then changed to a Marine. (This raised some conceptual difficulties, given that the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge primarily involved the Army. This is explained very briefly in the film when Sergeant Major Choozoo tells Stitch Jones that he and Highway were in the 23rd Infantry Regiment at the time and “joined the Corps later.”) The Marine Corps first cooperated with the film project by allowing much of the filming to be done at Camp Pendleton. The Marines planned to use it to promote its “Toys for Tots” campaign, but upon viewing a first cut, quickly disowned the film because of the language.
Marines who viewed the film cited numerous issues with the way they were portrayed. Major Powers, the battalion’s S-3 Operations Officer, is repeatedly shown disparaging and insulting Gunny Highway, as well as showing blatant favouritism regarding “his” Marines of the First Platoon. In reality, this would have been extremely unlikely, given Highway’s Medal of Honour. Much of the “training” done before the Grenada invasion was highly inaccurate, including the fact that Highway’s Marine Recon unit did not have a Navy corpsman to deal with his men if injured. Even on a relatively small budget, the technical advice was poor. The Defence Department originally supported the film, but withdrew its backing after seeing a preview in November 1986. Eastwood was paid $6 million for directing and starring in the film.
Beginning in summer 1986, Heartbreak Ridge was filmed at Camp Talega (the location of the barracks), Chappo Flats (the location of the parachute rigging scene) and Mainside (the 1st Marine Division headquarters) on California’s Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the former campus of the San Diego Military Academy, SDMA Solana Beach and Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island.
The sequence involving the bulldozer is based on a real event during the invasion of Grenada involving Army General John Abizaid, former commander of US Central Command. The American attack on Grenada is in some respects accurate, although it was really US Army Rangers that secured the University Medical School. The scene in which Lieutenant Ring must resort to using a credit card in order to communicate with his commanders was also based on real-life events involving Army paratroopers.
- The film score was composed and conducted by American saxophonist Lennie Niehaus, who worked on over a dozen films for Eastwood.
- Actor Mario Van Peebles wrote the songs “Bionic Marine” and “Recon Rap”, and co-wrote “I Love You (But I Ain’t Stupid)” with Desmond Nakano.
- The film was the 1000th to be released in Dolby Stereo.
- The film won the BMI Film Music Award for Lennie Niehaus and the Image Award in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for Mario Van Peebles.
- The film also received a nomination, from the Academy Awards for Best Sound for Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander, Vern Poore and Bill Nelson.
- The film made $121.7 million against a budget of $15 million.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Clint Eastwood.
- Producer(s): Clint Eastwood.
- Writer(s): James Carabatsos.
- Music: Lennie Niehaus.
- Cinematography: Jack N. Green.
- Editor(s): Joel Cox.
- Production: Malpaso Productions.
- Distributor(s): Warner Bros.
- Release Date: 05 December 1985.
- Running time: 130 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.