History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

I named both these infantry combat movies among my Top 10 favourite war movies (of course, since this list ist out there for everybody to see I doubt its content. Typical.). Apart from thinking that these are great representatives of the genre I think they illustrate wonderfully the topic “history versus story” and why critics often rate the second as the better movie, whereas the general public will be more likely to prefer the first one.

Hamburger Hill is foremost based on a historical event, namely one squad´s  battle for Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam from May 11- 20, 1969. The squad consisted of 14  U.S. Army soldiers of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The battle was later called Hamburger Hill since the losses were so high and the American soldiers literally shredded to minced meat.

You can not be more precise than this when chosing to tell a story in a movie. That is the theme, and that is what is shown. No niceties, no made up story, no sugar coating to make the bitter pill go down any better. War movies don´t get any more visceral than that.

And then there is Platoon. We know the year and that some events resemble other events that happened but apart from that this is purely fictional. Especially the whole good and bad officers theme and a young soldier´s loss of innocence. All these roles are played by famous actors which is not the case for Hamburger Hill.

As I said before many critics rate Hamburger Hill higher than Platoon and from an intellectual point of view I can´t blame them. But I don´t agree. They think it is more realistic. Somehow morally superior. There is not a tiny spark of beauty in that movie. OK, I agree. But… If we really wanted pure unadulated realism, authenticity, moral education, unambiguity, shouldn´t we stick to documentaries? (And even those can show us whatever  they want to make us believe has happened. But this is not the subject here).

I´m afraid but I like a  bit of symbolism and an interesting story. And I also judge movies by the criterion whether their pictures stay in my memory or not.

For many of these reasons  if been considering lately to kick out Hamburger Hill of my Top 10 list and integrate one of the most artistic Vietnam war movies ever: Full Metal Jacket.

Yes, right, why wouldn´t I?

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7 thoughts on “History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

  1. TPC says:

    “Yes, right, why wouldn´t I?”

    In effect, I could never knock Hamburger Hill down because it was one of those movies I had to watch a whole bunch of times, I might even be embarassed to say how many times, at least a half dozen, the movie struck me so much. Also, per someone’s remarks about Platoon and the extra features and the talk about “fragging” some officers, well, obviously, that term came into being somehow but a Vietnam vet told me the movie was pretty good except for the infighting that was portrayed. He said he didn’t really see that.

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    I disagree with one of your basic premises. It is my impression that “Platoon” is much higher regarded than HH. Platoon was a smash hit and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy awards. It is considered by most to be the “Saving Private Ryan” of the Vietnam War. Almost every critic I am aware of and most of my friends consider it to be easily a better movie than HH.

    • I am sure that most consider it to be better but I did read quite a few reviews, probably Gary Freitas amongst others, who stated it was better because it was unambiguous. Hamburger Hill is more easily seen as an anti-war movie than Platoon. In Europe especilly people who hate war movies will name Platoon as one of the worst, because it -according to them – is glorifying violence. When it comes to lists of best movies ever there is one certainty: Platoon will be on it. Always. Hamburger Hill won’t. I very often disagree with Academy awards anyway. What I tried to emphasize is really the “made-up” fictitious part versus sticking more to the historical fact.

  3. D Storms says:

    I agree with many of your lists, but for different reasons. As a former Recon Marine with extensive combat experience I know what’s real and what’s not in a combat situation–and I know when a critic understands the essence of war. I enjoy movies like “Saving Private Ryan;” however, it takes more than special effects and a study of history to make a great war film. It takes an understanding of the mindset of warriors.

    In my opinion, “When Trumpets Fade” is the most accurate war movie ever created, and also the best war movie ever made. Instead of trying to glorify combat, it accurately demonstrates the mind set and character of soldiers, both enlisted and officers, in a way I have not seen any other war movie come close to doing. It accuratley portrays enlisted men’s contempt for their situation, their disdain for incompetent officers, and the sense of hopelessness that comes from a lack of control.

    It exceptionally demonstrates the insignificant training new recruits receive, and portrays how they must teach themselves and have a lot of luck in order to survive. It demonstrates how soldiers become immune to the death of ordinary comrads, while at the same time how quickly they can develop a bond and cherish a competent and just leader. Most of all it demonstrates how rare a great leader is and that the majority of troops’ fate are in the hands of incompetent, stupid, and spineless officers who have no business leading men. In the end, what makes a great leader is not merely his battle field ability, but to a larger extent his character–the film portrayed this flawlessly.

    I haven’t seen the WW2 film “The Big Red One” on your list. I think you will enjoy it–Speilberg certaintly did when he used it as his blue print for making “Saving Private Ryan.”

    I have enjoyed reading your blog.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, it’s very valuable to me.
      When Trumpets Fade is on my Top 10 and is firmly rooted there, while Saving Private Ryan isn’t. It’s OK but I thought it was too glorifying. The main charcater in When Trumpets Fade is one of the best I’ve seen in any war movie ever.
      I have no combat experience but my father is a veteran of the war in Algeria where he was enlisted for 2 1/2 years. He told me a lot, while that doesn’t equal having been there it has certainly raised my awareness.
      Many movies don’t get it right.
      I’m glad you like my blog. Thanks for visiting.

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