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Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill
Directed by John Irvin
Produced by Marcia Nasatir
James Carabatsos
Written by James Carabatsos
Screenplay by
Music by Philip Glass
Cinematography Peter MacDonald
Edited by Peter Tanner
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
August 28, 1987
Running time
112 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $13,839,404[1]

Hamburger Hill is a 1987 American war film about the actual assault of the U.S. Army's 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division 'Screaming Eagles', on a well-fortified position, including trenchworks and bunkers, of the North Vietnamese Army on Ap Bia Mountain near the Laotian border. American military records of the battle refer to the mountain as 'Hill 937', its map designation having been derived from its being 937 meters high.

Written by James Carabatsos and directed by John Irvin, the film starred Dylan McDermott, Steven Weber, Courtney B. Vance, Don Cheadle and Michael Boatman. The novelization was written by William Pelfrey. Set in May 1969 during the Vietnam War, the movie was produced by RKO Pictures and distributed by Paramount Pictures.


  • Outline 1
  • Plot 2
  • Novelization 3
  • Cast 4
  • Production 5
  • Reception 6
    • Box office 6.1
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The series of assaults (which resulted in heavy casualties to both the American and North Vietnamese forces) commenced on 10 May, 1969, with the hill finally being taken on 20 May.

The film portrays fighting, combat, courage, camaraderie and dedication to the mission among troops. It also brings up painful questions about the Vietnam War, such as the stigmatizing of replacement troops ("newbies" or, more crudely, "FNGs", for "Fuckin' New Guys") and of the seeming caprice of high command in the conflict, specifically the lack of strategic value of the hill and subsequent unnecessary casualties. Other issues include the effect of anti-war sentiment on morale, and racial tensions among troops (especially the overcoming of racial tension by gradual friendship and earned respect).

One aspect of the war portrayed in the film is how the soldiers in the field were betrayed by people back in the United States, particularly college students. In one scene a soldier gets a letter from his girlfriend saying she will not keep writing because her college friends told her it was immoral to be involved with a serviceman whom they refer to as "killers". In another scene, Sgt. Worcester (Steven Weber) from the South tells his fellow soldiers that when he got home from his first tour of duty in 1968, he faced discrimination for being a veteran. When he got off the plane, hippies threw bags of dog feces at him and other returning soldiers. When he got to his house, his wife was with another man (a "hair-head"), and had nothing but contempt for him. Everywhere he went, people treated him with hostility and scorn. Incredibly, none of this bothered Worcester until he discovered that his local bartender had lost his son in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. The young man's body was sent home in "a rubber bag with 'members missing' labeled on it." To make it worse, college students kept phoning the bartender at his house saying they were glad his son was killed "in Vietnam, Republic of," by "the heroic People's Army", causing the bartender to suffer a mental breakdown. This encounter caused the angry and alienated Worcester to sign up for another tour in Vietnam.


The film begins with footage of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

It then shifts to a platoon of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, 1969 ending with a soldier dying on a helicopter. As they prepare to be sent into action again, the platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, part of the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, receives five FNGs as replacements - Beletsky, who constantly frets that he won't be able to remember everything he has been taught; Languilli, who gets annoyed when people mispronounce his name; Washburn, a quiet man and the only African-American member of the squad; Bienstock, who is outgoing and has volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam; and finally Galvan, the quietest new soldier but the most promising of the new intake.

Taken under the wing of their war-weary squad leader, Sgt. Adam Frantz, the recruits are taken through a crash-course in battlefield skills, including everything from oral hygiene to a demonstration by a Viet Cong deserter as to how skilfully enemy troops can penetrate perimeter U.S. defenses.

The platoon has a new commander, Lieutenant Eden, who is going to need the skills and experience of both Frantz and the Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Worcester. The platoon's machine gun team is composed of the burly Private Duffy and his mismatched, bespectacled companion, Private Gaigin. There are also three African-American veterans in the unit: Motown, "Doc" Johnson and Sgt. McDaniel, all of whom have first-hand knowledge of the racial discrimination still practiced in the army.

The new arrivals get their first sudden taste of war when a quiet spell beside a river is interrupted by an enemy artillery barrage and Galvan is killed. The platoon enters the A Shau Valley and makes contact, sparking a firefight in which Sgt McDaniel is killed. This loss provokes considerable bitterness and tension as McDaniel was near the end of his tour and, being black, was denied any chance at rear-area duty at headquarters.

The battalion is initially ordered to reconnoiter a nearby mountain but is unexpectedly diverted and commences an assault on the enemy-held Hill 937 which soon grows into a major battle as unexpectedly heavy resistance is encountered and the NVA, rather than using hit-and-run tactics, are instead defending well-entrenched positions. The platoon is forced to attack the hill repeatedly against stubborn opposition and US napalm air-strikes steadily strip away all vegetation, leaving the hill a barren, scorched wasteland. In one assault, a battle-crazed Duffy, wielding an M60, seems on the verge of carrying the day as the enemy begins to crumble. But misdirected fire support by helicopter gunships causes many friendly-fire casualties, to the horror of Lt. Eden and his radio telephone operator, Murphy, who called in the airstrike. The assault fails and Duffy is among the fatalities.

In between attacks, the shrinking platoon tries to rest, chattering about social upheaval and unrest back home. Bienstock is devastated by a Dear John letter from his girlfriend, whose college friends have told her that it is immoral to remain partnered with a soldier. Beletsky gets a letter on tape from his girl back home and Frantz is surprised (and moved) that she mentions his name. Sergeant Worcester describes to his comrades the alienation and hostility he encountered on his return home from his previous tour of duty, along with the collapse of his marriage and how a good friend, whose son had been killed in Vietnam during the Battle of la Drang in 1965, had been driven to an emotional breakdown by cruel phone calls from anti-war college students gloating over his son's death. Frantz makes clear his lack of patience for draft-dodgers, and states that they should at least appear in the war effort, regardless of having no will to fight. He also has an angry confrontation with a TV reporter, telling him that he has more respect for the NVA on the hill than for the reporter because "at least they take a side".

The increasingly exhausted platoon continues attempting to capture Hill 937, but to no avail. The tenth assault takes place in torrential rains, turning the hillside into a river of mud. Gaigin is killed, Beletsky is wounded, and Doc Johnson is shot by an NVA soldier hidden in a hole. Before he is evacuated, Doc tells Frantz and Motown to capture the hill so that they will at least have something to be proud of, but succumbs to his wounds moments later. Beletsky, despite having received a "million dollar wound," decides to return to his unit.

The 11th and final assault is mounted by the remaining troops whose bitterness and exhaustion is overcome by anger and unit pride. The final enemy positions are overrun but the cost is heavy. Lieutenant Eden is seriously wounded, losing his arm. Murphy, Worcester, Motown, Bienstock and Languilli are all killed before the few remaining troops make it to the summit. Frantz, wounded by an enemy bayonet, rests on the hilltop alongside Beletsky and Washburn as the battlefield finally goes silent. The final image is the now battle-aged, haunted face of Beletsky as he gazes at the carnage below, eyes glistening with tears. Constant radio chatter is overheard, but there is no reply.


The novelized version of the film, written by William Pelfrey, based on the screenplay by James Carabatsos, featured several additional scenes not featured in the final cut of the film. These included prologue and epilogue scenes set years after the war where Frantz, now a civilian and happily married with children, visits the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. and asks his young son to plant a small flag below Languilli's name. Another additional scene occurs one night between the assaults on Hill 937, where the NVA launch a surprise counterattack.


NOTE: Listed in order of authority and rank. The green color coded boxes in the rows indicate that character survived the battle. The pink colored boxes indicate the character either died or was wounded.
Actor Character Classification Weapon Rank
Tegan West Terry Eden Platoon Leader M16A1 Second Lieutenant
Steven Weber Dennis Worcester Platoon Sergeant M16A1 Sergeant First Class
Dylan McDermott Adam Frantz 3rd Squad Leader M16A1 Staff Sergeant
Don James Elliott McDaniel Third Squad XO and Grenade Launcher M79 Grenade Launcher Sergeant
Courtney B. Vance Abraham 'Doc' Johnson Medic M16A1 Specialist Four
Michael Boatman Ray Motown Rifleman M16A1 Specialist Four
Harry O'Reilly Michael Duffy Machine Gunner M60 Machine Gun Specialist Four
Daniel O'Shea Frank 'Gaigs' Gaigin Assistant Gunner/ Machine Gunner M16A1/ M60 Machine Gun Specialist Four
Michael Dolan Harry Murphy Radioman M16A1 Specialist Four
Michael A. Nickles Paul Galvan Rifleman M16A1 Private First Class
Don Cheadle David Washburn Rifleman/ Machine Gunner M16A1/ M60 Machine Gun Private First Class
Tim Quill Joseph Beletsky Rifleman/ Grenade Launcher M16A1/ M79 Grenade Launcher/ AK47 Private First Class
Tommy Swerdlow Martin Bienstock Rifleman/ Machine Gunner M16A1/ M60 Machine Gun Private First Class
Anthony Barrile Vincent 'Alphabet' Languilli Rifleman M16A1 Private First Class


Producer Marcia Nasatir has a son who fought as a soldier in Vietnam, hence one of the reasons why she came up with the idea for the film. Writer and co-producer James Carabatsos had served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1968-69 and spent five years interviewing soldiers involved in the combat there and researching the Battle of Hamburger Hill. Irvin, an English-born filmmaker, worked on several documentaries in Vietnam in 1969.[2]


Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Hamburger Hill a "well-made Vietnam War film that narrows its attention to the men of a single platoon in a specific operation." In differentiating the film from Platoon, he noted the film "refuses to put its characters and events into any larger frame. It could have been made a week after the conclusion of the operation it recalls, which is both its strength and weakness, depending on how you look at it."[3] Hal Hinson of the Washington Post credited the filmmakers for creating a "deeply affecting, highly accomplished film", but felt that "[Carabatsos] and his collaborators seem to feel compelled not only to show us their war, but tell us what we're to think about it", weakening the film's effect and keeping it from being a "great war movie".[2] The film currently has the score of 100% from Rotten Tomatoes.[4]

Box office

The film debuted at No.5 at the box office bringing in a total of $3.3 million.[5]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Hal Hinson, 'Hamburger Hill', Washington Post, August 28, 1987, Accessed January 5, 2011.
  3. ^ Vincent Canby, 'HAMBURGER HILL,' ON A PLATOON IN VIETNAM, The New York Times, August 28, 1987, Accessed January 5, 2011.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Stakeout' Ranks No. 1 In Box-Office Sales".  

External links

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