Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood’s twelfth film as director, saw him take on the war film: a genre he had previously dabbled in with starring roles in Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes. Covering the 1983 U.S. military invasion of Grenada, the film looks at the conflict of differing generations in the armed forces.
Transferred back to his former unit— having previously been kicked out following a civilian arrest for disorderly conduct— Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway is put in control of the ill-disciplined recon platoon. Applying his tough military upbringing as a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, Highway introduces the young recruits to the real world of warfare.
Given the manner in which Eastwood took to the western with High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Pale Rider, one could not be blamed for expecting the best from the director’s tackling of the war genre, another great mainstay of American cinema. With his westerns, Eastwood repeatedly revitalized the genre, bringing innovation and change to demolish the boundaries of cliché which had walled off the once great frontier stories from popular taste.
The war film in the late 80s was similarly affected by such repeatedly stereotypical takes, the all too familiar figure of the hard military Sergeant brutally shaping an unruly platoon, along the way reaching a mutual respect—if a particularly gruffly-oriented one—threatening to overshadow the seriousness of the majority of the genre. While certainly the kind of hyper-masculine character whom Eastwood had portrayed in the past, this is precisely the kind of model one might expect the director to toy with and subvert.
Such subversion is nowhere to be found in Heartbreak Ridge, the aforesaid Sergeant stereotype perfectly describing Eastwood’s character, and alas in no ironic manner. Stone-facedly staring down his superiors with a disdainful disregard for the established order, Highway could be called in equal measure Sergeant Harry Callaghan, little more than a transposition of the famous Eastwood character to a military setting. Much like Dirty Harry, Highway is dangerously close to self-parody, an undeveloped archetype of old-guard masculinity so hopelessly overwrought that he seems almost laughable. And not, it should be noted, in a good sense, for Heartbreak Ridge attempts regularly to be humourous with its narrative, the culture shock undergone by Highway’s platoon intended primarily to amuse. There is a degree— slight though it is— of depth to Highway’s character, his shady lurking in the parking lot of his ex-wife’s diner coupled with his hapless reading of women’s magazines conveying the folly of cutting off one’s more feminine side. Textbook caricature though he may essentially be, this sense of deprived isolation brought about by his military career flirts briefly with meaningful characterization, though amidst the ploddingly clichéd narrative it just gets lost. The recruits attempt to outwit their Sergeant; he displays his unflinching superiority; there is a touch of camaraderie to the mind games amidst the constant drills; a sudden call to action abandons the boyish fun; the seriousness of war is revealed. This is a well-worn narrative path, and Heartbreak Ridge never dares to stray from it.
Eastwood’s Sergeant Highway may seem for a fleeting moment a more layered take on the stereotypical army man, but he rapidly falls in line with the rest of the clichéd characters and turns Heartbreak Ridge into a disappointingly straightforward and boring war film. Simply lacking in any form of innovation to make it interesting whatsoever, the only potential explanation for Eastwood’s taking this job is to let loose and have some fun after the seriousness of Pale Rider.
[notification type=”star”]45/100 – Eastwood’s Sergeant Highway may seem for a fleeting moment a more layered take on the stereotypical army man, but he rapidly falls in line with the rest of the clichéd characters and turns Heartbreak Ridge into a disappointingly straightforward and boring war film.[/notification]