Hamburger Hill

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When I first began to read film reviews regularly, back in the eighties (gasp), a puzzlement was the high regard that (male) British critics had for figures like Clint Eastwood, John Milius and Walter Hill. A puzzlement because (a) the films didn’t seem to me to be that good and (b) the macho, what we would now call libertarian ethos (Hill & Milius I think called themselves right-wing anarchists) seemed like it would probably contrast fairly strongly with the politics and personalities of newsprint critics writing for The Guardian or The Independent or even The Sunday Times.

Allowing for simple variations in taste and that maybe I was just missing something, there could wel be a sort of nostalgia for the man’s-man drectors of the forties and fifties, who made some really excellent films, on which those critics were weaned. So maybe, if you’re starved on Ford and Hawks in the current releases, you would be more inclined to embrace Milius and Hill as the best available substitutes. But if the films are RED DAWN and EXTREME PREJUDICE, isn’t it a rather unsatisfying feast?

But having recently been blown away by DILLINGER, I get a better sense of the redeeming qualities of these gruff, cigar-chomping sociopath types. And Hill’s HARD TIMES, though not in the same league, is not bad. Handsome damn film, in fact.

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Maybe there’s a weakness in the ending – basically bare-knuckle fighter Charles Bronson never loses a fight in the whole movie, which does eat away at the sense of jeopardy. Still, I felt undeniable tension at times. Maybe it’s not a question of jeopardy, so much as a feeling that if the good guys win, it neutralizes the title and robs the film of a sense of purpose. The all-round happy ending says “Everything’s fine!” in a way that bothers me. It ain’t CHINATOWN.

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Still, the Coburn/Bronson voluble/taciturn double act is fine, and Strother Martin as “Poe” — supposedly a relative and certainly a fellow spirit of the famed writer — is a joy. Maybe Coburn is too cool to convince as, basically, a loser, with great dreams but a weakness for cards. Coburn is always effective on screen but not always complex — Peckinpah could muster some confusion and inner conflict, but I didn’t buy him as self-destructive here, except for plot reasons.

But I was impressed by how Melvillian it all was – Bronson in his hideous apartment with his stray cat – it’s clear that Melville was inspired heavily by THIS GUN FOR HIRE in which Alan Ladd gives milk to a cat, leading to Alain Delon’s canary in LE SAMOURAI. I wondered if Hill & co were also thinking of the milk & kitten motif in Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD, and given that James Coburn’s character here is called Weed, I think they probably were. What a complex interlacing of influences is at work!

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LOVE Bronson’s apartment.

8 Responses to “Hamburger Hill”

  1. Hill’s an interesting figure. I recommend Southern Comfort. His screenplay credit for the first (and still the best) Alien should also be noted.

  2. I remember liking Southern Comfort. Alien was an original by Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star) and Ronald Shussett (Total Recall), though essays have been written about it’s debt to various pulp sci-fi novels and movies. Hill rewrote and made Ripley and Lambert female, but his contribution otherwise is hotly debated.

  3. Well making Ripley and Lambert female was a huge deal.

  4. Yes — without that, you get The Thing, and also a strong sense of the alien as the dangerous, predatory female (O’Bannon also co-wrote Lifeforce!) With female crew and Giger’s designs the monster’s polymorphous sexuality becomes more interesting.

  5. If it’s true that Hill was riffing off Sternberg, that’s quite a non-macho influence. It was interesting to see a black cat pop up in THUNDERBOLT as well (thankewverymuch), but purely as a sign of bad luck. Instead we get a dog as the sign of the brute’s human feeling.

  6. Well, Sternberg had some kind of friendly relationship with Hawks, which led to the recycling of Underworld’s spitoon business in Rio Bravo. And half of Underworld is seriously macho, with some pretty explosive action. It matters that the other half is there, though.

  7. Good point. Hawks supposedly worked on the scenario for Underworld, and he claimed that Rio Bravo was a reworking of some aspects of Underworld — thus the character named Feathers and the drunk redeemed.

  8. Yes, he felt happy to borrow from himself, and others, When Leigh Brackett complained that he was recycling stuff from Rio Bravo in El Dorado, he bought the rights so he could pilfer more freely.

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