For a while, it seemed like Mario Van Peebles was on every silver screen. Then it seemed like he just disappeared and/or started making junk movies that probably went right to DVD. Putting that to one side, we do know that in 1986 he co-starred in Heartbreak Ridge, a film produced by, directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood.
Heartbreak Ridge is Dirty Harry in the military—specifically the U.S. Marines. Eastwood’s attitude is, I am good enough at what I do allowing me to flout the establishment and do my job on my own terms. We’ve seen this before in Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character–this time he is wearing a U.S. Marine uniform.
Eastwood plays the role of an aging but highly decorated Marine sergeant who has a penchant for boozing it up and urinating on police cars. Tom Highway (Eastwood) has been in the Marine Corps since he was 16, fought in the bloody battle of Heartbreak Ridge during the Korean war, where he was awarded his medal of honor, and did three tours in “Nam.” Despite his almost three decades in the military, he still has a problem with authority, hitting officers who he considers “limp dicks,” and disobeying orders that he doesn’t think are appropriate.
In the last days before he reaches mandatory retirement, at his request, Highway is transferred back to a combat ready unit. While he is in transit to his new post, enter Mario Van Peebles (“Stitch Jones”), a Marine who is trying to become the next Elvis. While at a rest stop Stitch steals Highway’s money and bus ticket. But Stitch is in for a real problem when Highway turns out to be his platoon leader. Highway gets paid back and rips an earring out of Stitch’s ear presumably as interest.
Naturally Highway repeatedly clashes with his commander, Major Powers, and his flunky, Staff Sergeant Webster (Moses Gunn), over unorthodox training techniques (like firing an AK-47 at his men so they get used to the noise); Powers makes it clear that he views Highway’s platoon as only a training tool for his own elite outfit. Major Powers goes so far as to script “ambushes” by making Highway’s Recon platoon nothing more than targets. However, Highway is supported by an old comrade-in-arms, Sergeant Major Choozoo (Arlen Dean Snyder), and a college educated but inexperienced Lieutenant Ring (Boyd Gaines). Once Highway’s disciplinary methods set in and the men learn that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor they gain respect for him and close ranks against Major Powers, their perceived enemy.
Then the unit gets the call to participate in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Though in reality a giant screw up by the Unites States, Highway et al are competent and even creative soldiers who achieve their mission objectives quite well. Two scenes are lifted from the real invasion of Grenada; they are the scenes where Highway orders Stitch Jones to use a bulldozer to provide cover so they can advance on and destroy an enemy machine gun nest. When Highway and his men are trapped in a building by enemy forces without any means of communication, they use a telephone to make a long distance call to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in order to call in air support using a credit card supplied by Stitch Jones. No joke, the invasion was so screwed up that trapped units had to use a credit card to place a long distance call.
Needless to say when the troops come back home, they are met with cheering crowds—a first for Highway.
What is really interesting about this movie is not the movie, but the events that surrounded and inspired the film. There was a battle for Heartbreak Ridge fought between September 13 and October 15, 1951. The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge was one of several major engagements in an area known as “The Punchbowl.” The battle took place in the hills of North Korea and both sides suffered high casualties: over 3,700 American and French soldiers and an estimated 25,000 North Korean and Chinese.
Originally Eastwood pitched the movie to the U.S. Army, which refused to participate, due to Highway being portrayed as a hard drinker, divorced from his wife, and using unapproved motivational methods to his troops, and obscene dialogue. However, Eastwood went to the Marine Corps, which allowed much of the filming to be done at Camp Pendleton. There are some differences though; the Recon Marines highway commands are on a par with Army Rangers or Special Forces. The military also stated it would be entirely implausible for an elite Marine Recon unit to be populated with slackers and misfits as portrayed in the film.
Like I said in the beginning, this film is Dirty Harry enlists in the Marines. But hey if you are a Dirty Harry fan you’ll be a fan of Heartbreak Ridge.