Heartbreak Ridge

Perhaps Clint Eastwood has cut short his flirtation with the limp-wristed culturati who flock to Cannes in the Springtime. Gone is the nascent nihilism that haunted, e.g., and especially, Tightrope. In Heartbreak Ridge he is Tom Highway, a Marine who responds, when accused of understanding the phenomena in terms of right and wrong, “What else is there?” Praise the gods of le cinema! We welcome Mr. Eastwood back into the folds of the CRB mentality!

This is a good movie. The contrast it depicts between the new, bureaucratic soldier and the older type couldn’t have been more timely. In the film, the latter (Highway) is unable to comprehend it when, needing night-vision devices for his men who have been placed on alert, the former asks him whether the proper paperwork has been completed; meanwhile, even as Heartbreak Ridge opened in American theaters, Oliver North was drummed off the N.S.C. staff and representatives of the Government Accounting Office, rather than weapons, were being shipped South to the Nicaraguan freedom fighters.

Upstart ways of thinking about love coincide with those about war. So Highway is driven to read pseudo-psychological drivel in cheap romance magazines while attempting to negotiate a reconciliation with his ex-wife. But in the end, it is his acting in accordance with a decent and manly American character that accomplishes this, just as it works to mold the young men who win the “war” that forms the backdrop for Highway’s vindication as an American hero.

That “war,” of course, is America’s liberating invasion of Grenada. The fact that it represents a small-scale American victory is neither ignored nor overplayed. Highway, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, is greeted by cheering and grateful fellow citizens for the first time in his career at movie’s end. It is insignificant neither for him nor for us that he is able to retire with a record of “1-1-1.”

Rightly, the film leaves us wishing that in the weeks following Grenada our nation had done what the Sandinistas expected of us, and what public opinion at the time would almost surely have supported: a like liberation of Nicaragua. It is only in part an accident of the timing of its release that the film, in paying homage to manly courage and noble sacrifice, encourages us to reevaluate the weak sisters who have held the reins of power in our recent governments.

Finally—and this is not meant to qualify the praise expressed above for the inspiration or the general action of the movie—one wonders at the script’s relentless reliance upon thoroughly vulgar witticisms to keep the audience attentive.

Here we do not side with the Marine Corps bureaucracy, which cancelled its planned official relationship with Heartbreak Ridge for reasons that included its claim that U.S.M.C. drill instructors are not allowed to cuss at recruits. (God save us if the new-age puritanism, which has jobs in law enforcement being touted as “careers in caring” and has induced the N.F.L. to outlaw champagne in the locker room after championship games, has thus imposed itself on Chesty Puller’s old outfit!)

But, on the one hand, we yearn for a picture depicting manly courage that we need not attend sans dames; i.e., only with those of us who have undergone, and thus who understand, the rites of passage involved in forming a brotherhood of warriors.

And on the other hand, we simply wonder if the screenwriter’s art of developing character through dialogue has become a dying one—so as to force an ad nauseam reliance on what are, after all, easily contrived and stock obscenities—since the not-so-distant days of They Were Expendable and The Sands of Iwo Jima.

Is dedication to realism really an excuse for artistic laziness? Plato revealed Socrates’ true character, after all, by cleaning him up somewhat. Mightn’t the same still be done, with a bit of hard work, for the Tom Highways of the Western World?



Film-makers are American poets, and poetry has consequences. Homer was the schoolteacher of the Greeks. Lincoln learned much about tyranny from Macbeth, to which he is said to have recurred often during the Civil War, and his own anti-tyrannical prose then became part and parcel of the American soul.

But for poets and statesmen, who cast right arguments about what is noble and what is base into songs, stories, and rhetorical speech, where would we be?

Probably in a world resembling that of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

In a sense, this is but another entry in the pop genre of “anti-war movies.” The key ingredient of these is an abstraction of their plots from the moral and political world in which all of us actually live.

Consider the Vietnam of Platoon: is it the nation that, after 1975, established a gulag of concentration camps into which hundreds of thousands disappeared, that dispossessed and deported 1.5 million Chinese inhabitants, that sent untold numbers to repay Hanoi’s war debt by working in Soviet labor camps, or that unleashed starvation on millions by enforcing a famine on Cambodia?

Au contraire. It’s just a nation wherein Oliver Stone a.k.a. Chris Taylor lost his “innocence.” Poor fellow.

Or consider this statement of Stone-Taylor’s hero, Ellas, the “good” sergeant who smokes dope and (therefore?) deplores the murder and rape of women and children: “I guess we’ve been kicking ass so long it’s time we got our ass kicked.” This line would be debatable even if spoken by a member of the high school basketball team in Hoosiers. What does that make it in Platoon, which is about a war between American and Soviet-proxy communist forces in Vietnam, upon whose outcome hinge such things as freedom and slavery, life and death, for whole peoples?

This is the sort of embarrassing problem that confronts all “anti-war” films. But perhaps Stone confronts it and embraces the unembraceable. That is to say, Platoon seems to break the traditional confines of its genre; it at least inhabits what might be called the artistic D.M.Z. between amoral ambiguity and immoral proselytism.

Platoon’s protagonist loses his “innocence” in Vietnam. Witnessing this is to strip us of ours. Of what does this “innocence” consist?

For one, a regard for the virtue of courage. One reason Stone-Taylor left college to join the Army was that he thought it right to share the danger of war with his drafted fellow citizens. These fellows mock him for so thinking. Within days he regrets his choice. Finally, the parting advice from a “good” soldier who has undergone the moral reorientation we are to partake of is that Stone-Taylor should stay alive at all costs: “There’s no such thing as cowardice out here.”

You see, courage got Oliver-Chris into Vietnam. Seeing it for a sham equips him to save his life. The result is movies that, revealing his revolutionary ethical discovery to others—the younger the better—will keep them from repeating his mistake, i.e., going to war.

Another aspect of innocence is a devotion to America: Stone-Taylor went to war also because his father and grandfather did the same in the Second and First World Wars, respectively. He went to war because they didn’t teach him what he teaches us; they didn’t strip him of his innocence. They remained innocents themselves.

Stone doesn’t avoid raising the question which most anti-war propagandists ignore: gee, what if our forefathers had gone belly-up? And the logic of his confrontation with it leads us to understand that it would have been better—we would have avoided Vietnam, for instance—if America had gotten its “ass kicked,” and thus lost its innocent belief in itself, earlier—to the Kaiser, say, or to the Fuehrer. (Defeat in Vietnam wasn’t big enough to ensure permanent national emasculation; thus this film, and others like it. Preventive medicine. Conscious seeds of destruction for the fledgling confidence which could rekindle the American civilization’s ability to act.)

One must finally ask why it is that American critics, almost to a one, have gone ga-ga over such trash. Platoon, after all, is not subtle in its treachery. Its characters are crude caricatures. Depicting the day-to-day life of one platoon over a period of a few months, it throws everything at us but Agent Orange. (Does this fact represent an oversight, or portend a sequel?) The voice-over commentary—in the form of Oliver-Chris’s letters home to Grandma—is tendentious.

So either the critics, like Stone, are hell-bent on twisting the Vietnam story for purposes of de- and re-forming the American soul, or else they have not the ability for proper criticism—i.e., their passions are so susceptible to movement by realistic depictions of how battle has always appeared, or by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (which dominates the score), that their reason has been effectively enthralled.

Either way, the critical acclaim—to be crowned, no doubt, by an Oscar—which has greeted Platoon, and the attendant popularity it has enjoyed at the box office, bodes ill for America.

We have at once forgotten the vital importance of good poetry, and the evil capacities of bad poetry, for decent regimes and healthy souls. We are sending our children in droves to have their minds pilloried and their souls deadened with images aimed at obliterating the distinction between the noble and the base. Concurrently, we are allowing history to be distorted by those who do not hold a moral preference for freedom over tyranny—moral preferences being what human beings kill and die for.

The enemy is within us, all right, but not in the sense that the final voice-over in Platoon would suggest. The enemy is whoever among us promotes suicidal self-contempt and egocentric complacency in the face of evil and injustice. The mythology that has been created around the Vietnam War is at present the enemy’s favorite vehicle. (Hanoi Jane Fonda has described Platoon as the second in a definitive trilogy on Vietnam, of which her own Coming Home, with its new-age stereotype of the Vietnam Veteran, would be the third.) This mythology has had no serious opposition on the American silver screen. (Even Eastwood has avoided Vietnam as a setting for a moral-political tale.)

Time is growing short for this battle to be joined.