AT LEAST SOME MARINES ARE GUNG-HO FOR ‘RIDGE’
“Dad blast it! You fellows better shape up or there is going to be heck to pay.”
Clint Eastwood, portraying crusty Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway, delivers that message to his squad of sloppy Marines in “Heartbreak Ridge,” but he doesn’t say it exactly that way. He chooses his words a little more . . . hmmm, colorfully.
Because he does, and because his character is considered a Marine stereotype by people in the Department of Defense, “Heartbreak Ridge” is being released Friday without the government’s or the Marine Corps’ stamp of approval.
The casualties of the Defense Department’s decision to withdraw support from “Heartbreak Ridge,” made following a screening that was unattended by any ranking Marine Corps official, had four apparent effects.
--A Marine-sponsored premiere to benefit the YMCA in Oceanside, near Camp Pendleton where much of the movie was shot, was canceled.
--Tributes to the Marine Corps, which cooperated with the filming, and to the Marines who actually performed as extras, were eliminated from the final credits.
--Publicity generated by the government’s decision was an unexpected boon for Warner Bros., which is distributing the movie.
--The Department of Defense has, in the eyes of some Marines, made a fool of itself and of the Marine Corps command in Washington, which has supported the decision.
It is hard to get any active Marines to comment publicly on the flap over “Heartbreak Ridge.” They are not called “jarheads” because they like to be quoted calling generals idiots.
But Monday night, a group of active Marines were invited to a cast and crew screening of the movie, and afterward, they voiced their opinions on whether Eastwood, who produced, directed and starred in “Heartbreak Ridge,” has done the Marine Corps image good or ill.
The vote was 11-0. Good.
They were asked if the language, which is unarguably strong, is realistic in a Marine camp setting, or excessively vulgar, as the Marine Corps command maintains.
The vote, taken amid some hilarity, was 11-0. Realistic.
Were they offended by the tough characterization Eastwood created for Sgt. Highway, or did they like the old-fashioned stereotype?
11-0. They liked it. Even the young woman sergeant.
“Heartbreak Ridge” is the story of a combat veteran on his final tour of duty, whipping a reconnaissance unit into shape for what turns out to be the invasion of Grenada. Eastwood’s Sgt. Highway is John Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker, from “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” fast-forwarded to a time when the Marines seem to be losing their distinction as combat-ready fighting men.
It is a character study and a war film, but it is mostly a military comedy with Eastwood playing the quintessential Eastwood character--an audience-pleasing brawler with simple principles and a keen sense for hostile put-downs.
The Marines at Monday night’s screening were asked if they would choose Eastwood to represent the Marine Corps image, or some other actor.
They all had reservations about specific elements of the film. They said no Recon unit--the elite of the corps--would be as loose, undisciplined and impertinent as the one depicted. Nor are the new Marine officers the wimps and self-important know-nothings portrayed in key roles.
One Marine, a sergeant-major who served in Grenada, said the film’s account of that invasion was totally inaccurate and he was offended by it. At the same time, he said he thought Eastwood’s handling of the personal problems that go with being a Marine lifer was “right on target.”
Eastwood, in a telephone interview from Carmel where as mayor he is chairing City Council meetings this week, called the Department of Defense decision unfortunate. He acknowledged that the publicity is probably good for the film, but it is at the expense of the Oceanside YMCA charity.
“It’s a shame that a charity has to lose money because of somebody who’s got a bee under his rear end somewhere,” Eastwood said. “With all these earth-shattering things going on back there (the Iran arms crisis), you wouldn’t think they would spend energy on something like this.
“It is not something of national security. In the words of Alfred Hitchcock, ‘It’s just a movie.’ ”
(Although the Marine-sponsored YMCA premiere in Oceanside was canceled, the YMCA will get a chance to recoup its $8,000 out-of-pocket expenses Thursday. Warner Bros., at Eastwood’s urging, is opening the film a day early in the Mann Oceanside theater, with all profits to go to the YMCA.)
Lt. Col. John Shotwell, who has been the Marine Corps spokesman on the “Heartbreak Ridge” controversy, said the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps objected to the whole tone of the film, and felt that if they supported it, they would be supporting a false impression of the corps.
Shotwell said the scene that rankled them most was one where Sgt. Highway fires an extra round into the back of a Cuban soldier that he had already shot. Eastwood defended the scene on the grounds that in combat, Marines occasionally do make sure the enemy is dead.
The Marines at Monday’s screening were asked if they thought the scene was believable. Another 11-0. They did.
Eastwood acknowledged that James Carabatsos’ script took some liberties in heightening the conflict between Eastwood, representing the old corps, and his sloppy troops, representing the new. He said he was interested in showing the changes that occur in both his character and in the young Marines, which could only be done through contrast.
He also acknowledged intentionally ignoring the role the other services played in the invasion of Grenada.
“There were a lot of people there,” Eastwood said. “We’re showing 12 guys, a small reconnaissance platoon. What am I supposed to do, spend another $5 million showing the Army’s invasion? That’s insane.”
The officials in Washington weren’t overly concerned with historical accuracy themselves. In the original script, Eastwood’s squad is re-routed to Grenada while on their way to Beirut to replace Marines killed during the terrorist bombing of 1983.
That is, in fact, how some of the Marines got to Grenada. But the Department of Defense wanted no mention made of Beirut, Eastwood said, and eventually, he agreed to take it out.
“They didn’t want to acknowledge that incident,” he said. “That’s sort of altering history. I’m sure relatives of people killed in Beirut wouldn’t like having that history denied.”
The relationship between film makers and the government has always been conducted on a balance beam. The lure of Washington for film makers is the cost savings in being given access to military bases, equipment and personnel. For the government, the lure is the potential harvest in recruitment after the film’s release.
The Navy enjoyed bumper crops after both “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which was made without its cooperation, and “Top Gun,” which was made with it. Even old military movies, such as Allan Dwan’s 1949 “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” reportedly perk up business at Marine recruitment offices whenever they’re shown on TV.
“The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “The Halls of Montezuma,” both made in the late ‘40s, were shot with the cooperation of the government. The Marine liaison officers who were assigned to those films say there were few confrontations with either one.
Ironically, there is a scene in “Iwo” which seems more harmful to the Marine image than anything in “Heartbreak Ridge.” John Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker, frustrated with a recruit who falls all over himself during bayonet training, intentionally slams him in the jaw with a rifle butt. That’s a court martial offense, then and now, but the Marine command in Washington approved it.
“It was the only scene I objected to,” said retired Brig. Gen. Leonard Freibourg, who was a major representing the Marines on the filming of “Iwo.” “I went to D.C. with it and the answer came back the next day. D.C. said, ‘Tone down the severity of the blow, but let it go. It’s a good story point.’ ”
Looking at it now, the butting incident seems to be there merely to set up a comic relief scene a few minutes later, where Sgt. Stryker shows the clumsy recruit how to get into the bayonet rhythm by doing the Mexican hat dance with him.
The closest that “Heartbreak Ridge” comes to that brutality occurs when Eastwood rips an earring off one of his troops, and it, too, is played for laughs.
Retired Col. George Gilliland, who talked Darryl F. Zanuck into making “The Halls of Montezuma” at 20th Century Fox, then served as the Marine liaison officer during filming, said that the entire Marine Corps command wanted to help write the script. Gilliland himself objected to the casting of Richard Widmark in the starring role, because he had pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs in “Kiss of Death.”
Widmark got the part anyway, and Gilliland said once the film was under way, there were no conflicts between the government and director Lewis Milestone. But occasionally, he had to fight for moments of authenticity.
“They had one scene where a grenade goes off and 10 guys jump into the hole it left,” Gilliland said. “I said, ‘Grenades don’t leave holes.’ They said, ‘Well, they did it in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” ’ I said, ‘Well, now there are 10 million men who know better.’ ”
Gilliland hasn’t seen “Heartbreak Ridge,” but he agrees with Eastwood and the 11 Marines polled after the Monday screening that there is nothing wrong with the stereotype of Marines.
“People always came to the corps because they thought it was the best,” Gilliland said, “and when they got there, they expected to be the best.”
As the Marines filed out of the theater Monday night, one of them was asked if he chose the Marines because he thought it was the toughest outfit. He smiled and said, “Dadgum A.”
Except he didn’t say “Dadgum.”