Looking back, the 80s didn’t give us the best of Clint Eastwood. Nor did they show a side to him that each of his other decades on screen did. In the 60s he emerged from the shadow of a TV show to light up Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. The 70s marked him out as an icon (Dirty Harry), gifted débutante director (1971’s Play Misty For Me, the same year as Dirty Harry) and savvy enough to recognise a wider audience was out there if he just partnered up with an orangutan (Every Which Way But Loose).
By the 90s, he added Oscar-winning director to his bow (Unforgiven), while still holding his own as an action hero at the age of 63 (In The Line of Fire). In the last decade, he’s barely paused for breath. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino and Invictus were all released within an incredible six year stretch from 2003 to 2009. Hereafter, a supposed supernatural thriller, will usher in Eastwood’s sixth decade of cinema later this year.
But the 80s? What began with Bronco Billy and ended with Pink Cadillac also gave us plenty in between the two that was far from vintage Eastwood: Firefox, Honkytonk Man, Sudden Impact, City Heat, The Dead Pool. Hardly a golden age. Rather, it was a decade of transition for Eastwood – on one hand clinging to what he knew (Pale Rider, one of his strongest films of the decade, is in large parts a re-run of his earlier High Plains Drifter), on the other taking a tentative first step to the director he is now (1988’s Bird).
Nestled in this period is 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge. Unlike its hero, Eastwood’s decorated Marine Tom Highway, it won’t win any medals. This isn’t brave film-making, refusing to stray far from the young recruits versus drill instructor template laid by An Officer and a Gentleman five years earlier. Screenwriter James Carabatsos simply shifts the balance to focus not on the rebellious young recruit (here, Mario Van Peebles’s cocksure Stitch Jones) but on the hard-as-nails instructor.
In so doing, it achieved what few other films of that decade failed to: it gave Eastwood not just ample space to be Eastwood the movie star, but, and here’s the important bit, free reign to have fun playing Eastwood the movie star. Where 1984’s Tightrope added a grim layer to his Dirty Harry persona (interesting, but far from a fun night in), Ridge goes the other way, holding on to that violent exterior but upping the warmth and humour beneath it.
It means we get the best of both worlds, Clint’s coruscating gruffness and his lightness of touch. An opening scene where Clint flexes his considerable muscle in prison gives us the first straight away, with added rasping voice. “Be advised,” he warns, “I’m mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and I piss napalm.”
And while his Tom Highway decrees that his men ‘improvise, overcome, adapt’, the beauty of Heartbreak Ridge is that it doesn’t really do any of those things. It simply basks in the glow of Eastwood’s effortless charisma, feeding him so many good lines and opportunities to crack heads that the film’s refusal to tread new ground barely registers.
Yet, it still allows for a little deconstructing of that hard-man image, his Highway reading issues of Vogue and Cosmo to better understand why his marriage to Marsha Mason’s Aggie hit the buffers. It allows for a delicious balance, Eastwood unleashing volleys of verbal abuse to his Marines so inspired it’s only away from the censored TV version that you really get to appreciate them, then asking her whether they had a meaningful, healthy relationship.
Of course, the appeal isn’t in watching military man Tom Highway open up about his relationship. Any other actor in the role, and Ridge becomes just another generic exercise with little to distinguish it from the pack. With Eastwood in there, we’re laughing at his stoic hero from countless Westerns suddenly revealing a feminine side.
There’s a big tonal shift come the last act, a sudden call to arms that sees Eastwood and his crew of once no-hoper Marines head off to battle. Eastwood coolly shoots dead a few combatants, unloads another round of bullets into their bodies before pulling out a cigar from a dead man’s pocket. Van Pebbles looks on, mouth ajar, not quite comprehending what he’s seeing.
And Clint’s message, the one he’s put in there behind the fun and casual violence, hits home: what’s jovial one minute is life-and-death the next. Then it goes a bit cheesy when they rescue a room full of surfer students and Lennie Neuhaus’s music, normally so good (is there a more beautiful piano track than Unforgiven‘s closing number?), sounds like it’s been lifted from an episode of The A-Team.
It’s soon back to business though. By the end, the bad guys are dead, Clint emerges victorious, and he throws a wink to Mario Van Peebles that’s just as much for the audience as it is for the young Marine.
Heartbreak Ridge may not be one of Eastwood’s most polished films (it’s about 20 minutes too long for starters), but it is one of his most purely enjoyable. And in a decade where he didn’t give us much to smile about, we should be even more thankful for it.
A case of quite good and really bad. Extras-wise, it’s the bad. All we get is a trailer for the film, which is absolutely terrible. My old VHS copy has got more on it than this (a nice run through of the Warner Classic collection available to own on video. In 1987.).
The good is how the picture looks. While the bar scenes show a fair amount of background grain (not that surprising for a sensibly budgeted 80s film), it’s crystal clear for the most part, and we do get to see Eastwood’s rough-hewn face in HD. And that’s always worth a look.
Heartbreak Ridge is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.