Release Date: May 20, 2008
Starring: Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, Steven Weber and Courtney B. Vance
Written by: Jim Carabatsos
Directed by: John Irvin
Hamburger Hill is a Vietnam combat drama covering the US military assault up Hill 937 in the A Sha valley in 1969. As the film depicts, the battles over that hill were so vicious and bloody that the soldiers nicknamed it Hamburger Hill. And the film is pretty bloody in its depiction of the carnage. When the film was originally released in 1987, reaction was mixed and the film simply didn’t strike much of a chord with the audience. Much of this was due to the fact that the film was made in the shadow of earlier, more powerful Vietnam films – particularly Platoon. The success of the earlier movies made it easier to mount Vietnam films and television series, thus paving the way for Tour of Duty, China Beach, and of course, Hamburger Hill. The film itself is uneven, with the first 40 minutes or so just showing the characters on duty and dealing with the daily problems and dangers of the Vietnam War. At that point, the film shifts into a graphic depiction of the 10 day assault on the hill and the resulting mass casualties. The acting is appropriately earnest, particularly Courtney B. Vance as the unit’s medic. And the movie certainly puts the viewer right in the middle of some horrific combat sequences. The problem is that the film simply lacks a narrative spine; there doesn’t seem to be a concrete story to follow, and the characters mostly blend together as an indistinguishable mass. (Vance is a notable exception to this) And, unfortunately, the comparisons that were apt in 1987 remain so today: there really isn’t anything here that we haven’t already seen in other combat films, and there isn’t any personal perspective or style to elevate the film to the height of Apocalypse Now or even Full Metal Jacket.
Hamburger Hill has previously been available in an anamorphic DVD release with 5.1 sound in 2001. For the 20th Anniversary of the film’s release (almost the 21st at this point), Lionsgate has released this special edition DVD, containing a commentary with writer/producer Jim Carabatsos, a pair of featurettes and an interactive timeline, along with the anamorphically encoded picture and 5.1 sound. (I have not been able to compare the two releases, but this one certainly looked and sounded great.) Fans of the film will surely appreciate the new attention, but casual viewers will want to rent it first. (And anyone renting this for the first time should be cautioned that this is a REALLY gory film.)
VIDEO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
Hamburger Hill is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that provides solid black levels and deep colors. In many sequences in the jungle, the green of the soldiers’ utilities is strikingly rich, particularly when compared with the red blood that copiously flows in this film. As the combat sequences become more intense, the color is deliberately leached out of the picture and the image becomes much greyer. (This is a specific effect John Irvin was using, and it comes across well in the transfer.) In general terms, this is a fine new transfer that looks great for a 20 year old film.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
Hamburger Hill is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English. No other languages are present on the DVD. The mix is solid and immersive. Music and effects are generously distributed throughout the home theatre. The surround channels and subwoofer are kept busy with the repeated combat sequences, and the cumulative effect is the right one for this film – the mix places the viewer right in the middle of the combat zone.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3 ½/5 ½
Hamburger Hill celebrates its 20th Anniversary with a brace of extras. There’s a commentary track, two featurettes and an interactive timeline, along with some trailers for other Lionsgate DVDs. The featurettes are brief but fairly informative. It’s a nice package overall, and fans of the film and the genre will appreciate the materials.
Feature Commentary with Writer/Producer Jim Carabatsos and Actors Anthony Barrile, Harry O’Reilly and Daniel O’Shea - This is a brand new scene-specific group commentary, although for the most part it consists of one person speaking at a time. The comments don’t often directly relate to what’s on the screen, but they do refer to specific film events from time to time. Carabatsos describes the origins of the script and its initial development, followed by his insistence that the film not get too in depth with each character. (Carabatsos was following the logic that troops in Vietnam often didn’t know each other that well, as people would either be shipped out or be killed before they got too familiar.) Of course, Carabatsos misses the fact that this approach tends to make all the characters blur together and thus makes the story a lot murkier, but at least this clarifies why and how that happened. The actors talk about their auditions and their boot camp training at Subic Bay, as well as their experiences making the film, and they’re clearly enjoying the 20 year reunion. Each of the men brings a different perspective and a lot of information to the commentary, so it’s easy to get caught up in the comments and lose track of what is actually happening in the film.
Hamburger Hill: The Appearance of Reality - (16:50, Anamorphic) – This is actually a bit more informative than you might expect, given the limited length. Almost everyone connected with the film other than writer/producer Jim Carabatsos is interviewed on camera, including most of the cast and director John Irvin. Some fairly chilling stories of the shoot in the post-Marcos Philippines are related here, including the revelation that an electrician was electrocuted on the set in the middle of filming, and that the actors’ bus was the target of sniper fire. As there was no on-set video, this featurette intercuts the standard film clips and interviews with photographs of the crew at work.
Medics in Vietnam - (6:38, Anamorphic) – This is a very brief discussion of the work of the real medics on duty in Vietnam, with input by Army medics and by Courtney B. Vance. For this featurette, the clips and interviews are intercut with photographs of the real medics at work in the field.
Vietnam War Timeline - (Anamorphic) – A map and chronological timeline of Vietnamese history is included – specific to French colonial activities, and then to American involvement.
Trailers – (Non-anamorphic) – A series of non-anamorphic trailers for other Lionsgate DVDs is accessible through the Special Features menu. (They are also played when the DVD is first activated) The trailers are a redstripe (meaning “R” rated) trailer for Reservoir Dogs 15th Anniversary DVD and video game, and regular trailers for American Psycho: The Uncut Killer Collector’s Edition, 3:10 to Yuma, the new 2008 Rambo and the Rambo Ultimate Edition collection.
Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference. When the first disc is initially started, the viewer is presented with an optional series of the non-anamorphic previews also available in the special features menu.
IN THE END...
Hamburger Hill is a nicely packaged special edition DVD for the film’s 20th Anniversary. The film itself is uneven and problematic, but Lionsgate has certainly put some time and effort into this edition. Fans of the film will surely snap this up right away. Casual viewers, as well as those looking to see the early work of Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott and Steven Weber, will want to rent this first. But again, watch out for the blood and guts, as there’s plenty of both on display here.
May 19, 2007.