Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway is an ancient Devil Dog, tough as an old tree root and twice as unyielding. Although he was kicked out of a combat unit for disciplinary reasons some time ago, he's managed to pull enough strings to get back in again. Gunny Highway finds himself leading a platoon of Recon marines, with an LT who is "pure theory and no application", to put it nicely, and a Major who runs his battalion like his old supply outfit. Highway has to turn his "ragtag band of misfits" into an actual combat unit before they are sent off to invade the island of Grenada.
After just having finished SOG, watching Heartbreak Ridge is even more of a bittersweet experience. Eastwood does an excellent job of portraying one of the few remaining old-timers, not only a veteran of Vietnam but also Korea, closing in rapidly on mandatory retirement age. Highway keeps being told he has no place in "The New Marine Corps", that he is an anachronism, a relic, as it is put by his CO at one moment "...you should be kept under glass with a sign that says 'Break Open Only in Times of War'...".
But as time goes on, his men begin to see that Highway's tough methods and no-BS attitude are just what they need to succeed, and when the platoon finds itself at the tip of the spear when the Marines land in Grenada, his training and leadership get the unit through in good order, despite the Major's incompetence and their Lieutenant's inexperience. Oh, and do you think by the end of the film, he might have won back his long-lost sweetheart? Take a wild guess, pencil-neck.
It's sad to say that not all of the "left-over" Marines and other veterans who stuck it out and stayed career post-Vietnam had such happy endings. I'm sure many in fact languished in the units they were assigned to, the subject of whispered rumors mixed with admiration, pity, and scorn in equal measure. A reminder of our failure in Vietnam, they lived through a period of time when the morale of our armed forces was at it's lowest, through the mid 70's and early 80's, where the main reason many joined up was because of the G.I. bill and a steady job, and the recruiter's promise that the armed forces were essentially a "Real World MBA" for free; that you'd leave the Army and instantly be hired as middle management because of your leadership capabilities and can-do attitude.
But it wasn't all roses. Grenada and Panama came along, followed by the first Desert Storm. This was the generation of kids who grew up on G.I. Joe and Nintendo, who joined the armed forces never thinking they'd pop their combat cherries. Most of them were right, but some were very, very wrong. In a way, Heartbreak Ridge reminds me of the movie Jarhead, although looked at from a very different perspective.
Either way, this is definitely an "80's war movie" in that most of the actors (save Eastwood, who actually kept his finger largely off the trigger until he was ready to engage a target) don't know how to carry a gun to save their lives, and the enemy armor appears to be something cobbled together by a movie studio's design department. But of course, this is the pre-internet 80's, where no one could jump online and tell the world "how it's really done", so we can forgive the film for its minor inaccuracies, and applaud it for showing that the Old Guard still had something to give.
And is it just me, or does Eastwood essentially look no different in 1986 as he did in 2008? His character in Gran Turino might as well have been named Gunny Highway...