The tough and grizzled character that Eastwood systematically went on to play in more recent roles such as those in Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Gran Torino (2008) makes his first real gruff appearance here in Heartbreak Ridge. In this film Eastwood plays a tough as leather Gunnery Sergeant, Thomas Highway, a former Korean War veteran who clashes with his superiors and has continuing issues with his ex-wife. The year is 1983 and Highway is close to retirement when he is transferred and put in charge of a platoon of sloppy, spoilt and brattish raw recruits who have a bad attitude, are hell bent on making their drill sergeant’s life as miserable as possible in his new posting at his old stomping ground of Cherry Hill, North Carolina. They soon learn that the boot is on the other foot and Gunnery Highway soon has their number and pretty much eats them for breakfast; he applies various tricks such as arriving for drill and exercise with a different T-shirt which he forces them to change into accordingly. Despite his age, the recruits find that they are no match in fitness to Highway and inevitably he bends them to his will. However, Gunnery Sergeant Highway is not just a career solider with a past, but he is also known to burst into violent rages when provoked which often lands him in trouble with his superiors and (like his better known characters such as ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan) he is also defiant and rebellious with his superiors. In his much younger superior, Lieutenant Ring (Boyd Gaines) Highway meets his new school nemesis. Before long his team of recruits discovers that they’ve learnt survival from this old war horse when they face their first test of real courage in the short lived conflict and coup in Granada.
This film runs like the earlier An Officer and a Gentleman, but from the other perspective, not that of the grunts but rather the officers in charge of them; in this film they all seem to blend into one mass led by the cheeky Mario Van Peebles as Jones as the joker in the pack and seems a rather shallow character there for the laughs as though this were a tough guy’s Police Academy. (In the film there is an in-joke in which Van Peebles wears a T-shirt featuring a picture of the character Sweetback from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in which Mario had played Young Sweetback in the cult movie, which was made by Melvin Van Peebles, Mario’s father.) In spite of Eastwood’s character, however, there is little in the way of character study in any of his men, not just Jones. The film also falls rather flat in the damp squib that is the action scenes in Granada and has more spirit in the rather clichéd bar room brawls; the sequence in Granada involving the bulldozer is based on a real event, however. The officer who actually did what Eastwood portrays was John Abizaid, at the time a Captain and a Ranger Company Commander. Since then, Abizaid recently retired as the Commander In Chief of Central Command, in charge of all U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East.
On its release the film did receive positive reviews and it is only relatively recently that the film has begun to look dated; largely thanks to the characters Highway has to drill despite Eastwood’s best efforts as a performer. The title of the film comes from an actual battle of Heartbreak Ridge during the Korean War. The battle became infamous, after the Division Commander ordered the 23rd Infantry Regiment and an attached French infantry battalion, to stage a disastrous frontal assault straight up Heartbreak Ridge. Sergeant Major Choozoo mentions that he and Gunny Highway later joined the Marines after leaving the Army’s 23rd Infantry Regiment. The films screenwriter was one James Carabatsos, himself a Vietnam War veteran and was inspired to write his story from soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division who he had met. He approached Eastwood with the script and Clint was suitably impressed and inspired and envisioned the film to be filmed and made at Fort Bragg. However the US Army, despite initial interest in the film did not like the way that members of the forces were delineated, with particular mention to the flawed personality of Eastwood’s career soldier which the star defended for his old fashioned soldier facing up to a new generation and reaffirming of the old values. However, the US Army refused to budge on its position. The film was eventually shot in California with Puerto Rico doubling as Granada. Despite Eastwood’s direction (see Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, both films 2006) much of the action is flawed and lacks energy and also for the most part the Granada scene is inaccurate. The film was met with critical warm praise on its release and played to modest returns but, as previously mentioned it is really recently that the film has started to look dated. Clint’s grizzled old soldier has started to become stock-in-trade for the actor and this was one of the first of these films and, as ever it is an engaging performance in which the steady Eastwood always can carry a picture with dignity, even an average one.