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Film / Heartbreak Ridge

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Judge Zane: Sergeant Highway, drunk and disorderly. Fighting in a public establishment. Urinating on a police vehicle?
"Gunny" Highway: Well, it seemed like the thing to do, sir.

A 1986 American war film directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars as Gunnery Sergeant ("Gunny") Tom Highway, a highly decorated but trouble-prone Korea/Vietnam veteran who is getting close to military retirement, and seen by the younger Marines as an anachronism. He is sent to train an unruly Recon platoon, who think they run things because their former sergeant was soft on them. His methods rub his CO the wrong way, but he gets great results and a handful of laughs as well.

The film was apparently endorsed by the military... until they saw the first cut. There was too much graphic/sexual-overtone-laden language and negative portrayal of military personnel, so they pulled their support. Many military members vouched for the authenticity of the character types shown, though.


  • The Alcoholic: Gunny Highway.
  • Armchair Military: Major Powers, who has spent most of his military career in an office. Not played completely straight, as Powers is portrayed as eager to experience combat and makes comments like "I, as of yet, have not the privilege of combat" or when he tells his CO, "My men and I are ready to fight to the death to protect our country", but his inexperience leads to him being a poor leader when he's in combat in Grenada.
  • Armed Farces: Recon Platoon before Highway takes command.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • The Recon platoon has pretty much abandoned all semblance of military discipline when Highway is assigned to lead them. They do not salute and openly disrespect a Gunnery Sergeant. In Real Life, there is no way a Marine platoon would be allowed to operate like that no matter how lax their previous sergeant was. The sergeant and the officers up to Major Powers would be court-martialed for dereliction of duty for allowing for things to get that bad.
      • The Corps did however suffer from decreased morale and a drop in combat effectiveness after the debacle in Vietnam, culminating in the Clayton Lonetree espionage scandal in ‘86. Former Vietnam era Marine captain, Navy Cross winner, Secretary of the Navy and later Senator Jim Webb had to step in and make multiple leadership changes to restore the Marine Corps back to the effectiveness it once boasted of.
    • Recon platoon is about half the size of a real rifle platoon. In addition, recon platoons aren't permanently attached to rifle companies, but instead form their own companies and battalions.
    • Powers and Webster obviously value their rifle company much more than Recon. However, a good Recon platoon is highly necessary in any combat operation, as they can tell the rifle unit commanders the enemy position, strength, armaments, etc, as well as soften the enemy up a bit. Without a good Recon unit, the main rifle company has to do all of this work (which they aren't trained for) themselves. In other words, neglecting the Recon platoon is a good way to get your rifle company members unnecessarily killed.
    • Major Powers is mentioned to be an "operations officer," i.e., part of the battalion staff and responsible for training. However, in the film he acts more like a company commander (who would normally be a junior Captain). In addition, there seem to be no other company or battalion NCO's besides the battalion sergeant major. There's also no space between him, Ring, and the Regimental Commander. Whether he's supposed to be the Company Commander, Ops Officer, or Battalion Commander, there are some leaders missing from the story.
  • Badass Boast:
    • Highway informing a confrontational cellmate that he is Bullying a Dragon.
      Be advised that I'm mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm, and I can put a round through a flea's ass at two hundred meters.
    • Highway citing his credentials to the platoon:
      My name is Gunnery Sergeant Highway and I've drunk more beer and pissed more blood, banged more quiff and busted more ass than all you numbnuts put together.
  • Badass Bookworm: Lt. Ring, book-smart and a student of military history right out of the academy but inexperienced in actual combat, becomes one in the end.
  • Bawdy Song: The platoon sings one of these in cadence form, right as they pass Major Powers and a female Marine. She's more amused than he is because they had their shirts off.
  • Benevolent Boss: Recon Platoon's previous Sergeant, who turned out to be too lenient and allowed the barracks to fall into an undisciplined mess. It's implied Powers set it up that way in order to make his own command look better.
  • The Big Guy: Swede.
  • Camp Follower: Highway mentions this when he talks about his experiences in Vietnam.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Lieutenant Ring and Gunnery Sergeant Highway. Ring is polite and academically inclined while also early enough in his career that he hasn't picked up any bad habits. Highway, on the other hand, is a grizzled combat veteran who's made a point of not mellowing with age and speaks almost exclusively in expletives.
  • Catchphrase: "You improvise. You adapt. You overcome." (and variations thereof)
  • Chest of Medals: Gunny Highway is highly decorated, even if you don’t count his Medal of Honor. Upon meeting Highway for the first time, Ring is awestruck by his ribbon rack.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: They certainly got this right about Marine Gunnys. Also applies to Lance Corporal Fragetti when Gunny Highway criticizes his marksmanship at the range.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Meyers. Never shown but implied with his contrasting attitudes towards Highway and Powers and when he mentions having a rifle company in the same unit as Highway in Vietnam.
  • Combat by Champion: An inconclusive wargame is decided by Highway and Powers duking it out.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Gunny Highway has a lot of these, almost as if he's channeling Dirty Harry.
  • Dare to Be Badass: How Gunny tries to drill his Recon platoon, as well as the raw rookie Lieutenant Ring. When Ring begins to fall apart during the final battle, Highway reinforces his mantra to "Improvise, adapt, overcome" in order to get Ring to focus on saving the rest of the platoon, which the lieutenant does.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Highway.
    • As the film progresses, more and more of Recon platoon follow his example.
    Jones: Gunny, I think Powers has the hots for you. Better watch out.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Swede, a marine who is built like a wall, ends his career of going in and out of the brig after being beaten by Highway, who Recon had initially picked to knock Highway down a few notches.
    Swede: I'll wait outside for the MPs to come.
    Highway: Negative, Johansen. You're gonna become a marine right now. Fall out.
  • Designated Victim: Recon Platoon begins as this. Highway is the only person who disagrees.
  • Desk Jockey: Major Powers.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Early in the movie, Stitch cons Highway into paying for his meal and strands him at a rest stop, forcing Highway to hitch a ride to the base. Highway is wearing his uniform so Stitch knows he is dealing with a Gunnery Sergeant and there is a good chance that they are going to the same Marine base. The base is fairly big but there is still a decent chance that they will meet again and a pissed off Gunnery Sergeant can make life hell for a private like Stitch. Stitch stealing from a senior Marine NCO is already a very poor life choice but he does so without first verifying where Highway is stationed and what unit he is serving in.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Gunny Highway uses this approach with the enlisted men of Recon Platoon. He simultaneously takes a much more subtle approach to mentor LT Ring.
  • Ear Ache: Gunny Highway's torment of Stitch begins with him grabbing Stitch's earring and ripping his earlobe with it.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: It was actually Army Rangers and Navy SEALs who performed the military actions seen in the movie.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: One of Highway’s first orders of business is to apply some very derisive variations to the last names of the platoon’s cockier members. Fragetti, Quiñones, and Profile become Fagetti, Cojones, and Prophylactic.
  • Fear Is Normal: When one of his marines illustrates a fear of parachuting, Gunny Highway confides in him he has a similar fear. "Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is not a natural act."
  • For Inconvenience, Press "1": The telephone call where they try to get close air support... and have to supply a credit card for the call.
  • Frying Pan of Doom: Highway's ex-wife threatens to hit him with a frying pan. He comments that it wouldn't be the first time; she replies, quite pleased with herself, that he's exactly right.
  • Good Feels Good: A variant, after Recon win the platoon contest, they realise that acting like marines and training like marines lets them feel like badasses.
  • Gunship Rescue: Recon Platoon gets one in Grenada after a struggle to call one in due to a busted radio.
  • Groin Attack: Actually a major plot device when the last recon marine still in a contest takes down the last two of his team's opponents with one in each hand. He is then accused of cheating and the resolution of this argument is badass.
  • Gung Holier Than Thou: Sgt. Webster to Recon.
  • Guttural Growler: Gunny Highway. The scar on his throat may have something to do with it.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: On the rifle range, Profile tells Highway, "Gunny, my weapon's jammed," turns around, sweeping Highway and the entire firing line with his muzzle without even taking his finger off the trigger. Highway reflexively reacts to the gross safety violation, grabs Profile’s rifle and yanks it upwards. Profile, whose booger hook is still on the bang switch, sprays the line with bullets, narrowly missing Major Powers. For once, Powers is absolutely right to punish Profile.
  • I Lied: Highway gives this as one of his several reasons when Recon Platoon is annoyed at being woken up at 5 in the morning, despite him telling them yesterday that wake up was at 6.
    Highway: So I lied. So I can't tell time. So maybe some communist bastard's going to make an appointment pop you a new asshole in your forehead.
  • Jerkass: Powers, Webster and Jennings:
    • Powers spends the film denigrating Highway and Recon every chance he gets, wanting to bust Highway out of the Corps because he (Powers) considers himself more forward-thinking.
    • Webster sucks up to Powers nonstop.
    • Jennings, Aggie's boyfriend, insults Highway the first time they meet, throws his sexual relationship with Aggie in Highway's face, and is anti-military (a strange attitude for a bar owner in a town with a Marine base).
  • Kinda Busy Here: In the scene where Highway and his men are holed up in a church, they try to make a call while being fired on.
  • Kiss of Life: When Highway is wounded in Grenada, Stich gives him CPR. Results in a Funny Moment:
    Highway: "Just because we're holding hands doesn't mean we'll be taking warm showers together until the wee hours of the morning."
  • Married to the Job: Highway.
  • Meaningful Echo: During a training exercise, Highway fires an AK-47 at his Marines.
    Highway: "This is the AK-47 assault rifle, the preferred weapon of your enemy. It makes a very distinct sound when fired."
    • Later, during another training exercise, this time with their Platoon Leader, Lieutenant Ring, with them, they get fired on by Highway with AK-47 again. As they hit the dirt, Ring yells, "What the hell was that?!" to which the members of the platoon respond in succession;
      Fraghetti: "That's the AK-47 assault rifle, sir."
      Profile: "The preferred weapon of our enemy."
      Aponte: "It makes a very distinct sound when fired, sir."
      Lt. Ring: (clearly needing a new pair of skivvies) "Yes, it certainly does!!"
  • Meaningful Name: Gunnery Sergeant Highway. Major Powers.
  • Military Maverick: Gunny Highway tells off his superior officers, shoots live rounds at the dirt near his men, gets in brawls, and generally does whatever he wants. Good thing he knows a colonel who sees things his way...
    • Early on it is said that he was booted out of his unit years before for insubordination and conduct unbecoming and has been sending numerous requests to get transfered back in. His behaviour is the reason he starts the movie in a rather unglamorous position. He doesn't completely flout authority, as he is well behaved with his CO Lt. Ring. Most likely his record (and his Medal of Honor) keep him from being discharged so they just kick him under the rug instead and he (mostly) stays out of trouble on the job.
    • It could explain why, despite his Medal of Honor, and his excellence as a combat leader, he's still -after more than thirty years of service- just a Gunnery Sergeant, while his friend Choozoo is a Sergeant-Major. It's obvious that his attitude has held him back in getting promotions. Choozoo has a lot of the same opinions as Highway, but has played the bureaucracy game far better.
  • Modern Major General: The young Lieutenant Ring, straight from academy, in charge of recon platoon. (At one point, he brags to a spectactularly unimpressed Highway about being a ROTC commander in college). He gets a little better by the end.
  • Mood Whiplash: When Highway visits his ex-wife, Aggie, they have a heated conversation about them and their marriage but nothing too bad. He starts to give her a neck massage, which she seems to be enjoying at first, but then suddenly gets extremely angry and accuses him "giving up on the old frontal assault and deciding to try outflanking her."
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Jones's credit cards when they need to make an emergency landline call in a warzone.
  • The Neidermeyer: Major Powers and Staff Sergeant Webster.
  • New Era Speech: Highway gives Recon Platoon one when he first meets them.
    I'm here to tell you that life as you knew it has ended.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Major Powers. Sergeant Major Choozoo comments that before Powers mounts his old lady he consults his Marine Corps manual just to make sure he performs in an orderly, proficient, military manner.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Stitch Jones when he realizes Highway is his new commander.
    • The look on Webster's face during and after Meyers gives "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Powers.
  • Old Marine: Highway and his buddy Sgt. Major Choozoo, as well as Colonel Meyers, to name a few.
  • Opposing Combat Philosophies: Highway and Powers. The latter prefers a slower and much more cautious approach, the former not so much.
  • Overranked Soldier: Highway is a Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) in the US Marine Corps, which is more than plausible given his age and how long he's been in. However, given his conduct, it's hard to believe that was allowed to stay in to close to mandatory retirement and not forced into retirement, if not court martialed and discharged from the Corps. In addition to showing little respect for the rank and authority of his superiors, he's shown being arrested twice for drunk and disorderly conduct, and both the judge and his CO in the beginning of the film mention that it's happened multiple times before.
    • As noted above, Highway's Medal of Honor probably helps.
  • Passing the Torch: At the end, unlikely but credible. Stitch, after making grandiose plans to pursue a music career, decides to re-up with the Marines. With likely commendations due to his acts of bravery during the final battle in Grenada, he could see a promotion up to Gunnery Sergeant himself.
  • Perilous Old Fool: Despite being close to his retirement and being clearly affected by his age, Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway is still eager for combat duty and even gets his wish fulfilled in the final act of the movie. He absolutely refuses to accept his age throughout the film and does his very best to pretend it doesn't have any impact on him or his combat performance. Unlike a typical example of the trope, characters in-universe either go along with his claims or at least buy into his extensive macho posturing.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Staff Sergeant Webster towards Major Powers. Lampshaded by Gunny Highway:
    "Webster, if Powers ever comes to a sudden stop your face is gonna go half way up his ass."
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: During the final battle in Grenada where Recon is ambushed in a building, the platoon is forced to call in an air strike using a direct phone line to the United States. This is based on Real Life when a Navy SEAL unit had to call in an air strike during their rescue of Grenada's Governor General.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: A Running Gag throughout the film is Highway reading women's magazines in a clumsy attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Meyers.
    • Lieutenant Ring also qualifies as one. He recognizes Highway has far more experience than he does and backs him up -taking the heat for Highway- when they are dressed by Major Powers.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Highway gets one from Powers when they first meet, Powers gets one from Colonel Meyers at the end of the movie, and Highway gives them to Recon Platoon continuously.
  • Took a Level in Badass: All of Recon platoon, including Lieutenant Ring who goes from a by the book strategist to leading a charge on an enemy stronghold in violation of a direct order and taking it.
  • Semper Fi: The whole point of the movie.
  • Sergeant Rock: Highway, once Recon gets to Grenada.
  • Smoking Is Cool: As Highway portrays, though he isn't willing to break regs by smoking a contraband one.
    • Until he gets one off a dead Cuban soldier as a "war prize."
  • Sound Off: During their first physical training with Highway in charge, he orders them to chant a cadence. They sing a rather suggestive one right as they pass by a female Marine and a not too pleased Major Powers.
  • That's an Order!: Repeated line from Major Powers.
  • These Hands Have Killed: One of the Spanish-speaking marines is pretty visibly shaken after killing a Cuban soldier in battle.
  • Things Get Real: At the end of the movie, the platoon gets to show how far it has come because of this.
  • This Is Not a Drill: Both subverted and played straight. There's two times in the movie where the Marines are put on alert. The first one turns out to just be an exercise, but the second time is the real thing.
  • Title Drop: The film itself never takes place at Heartbreak Ridge, but the location is mentioned when Choozoo discusses with Stitch how Gunny earned his Medal of Honor the hard way...
  • Training from Hell: Really, not that bad. The training that Highway puts his Marines through, at least what's shown, is probably pretty standard, or even less than standard, for most infantry Marines, but they view it as so after being allowed to slack off for so long.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Recon Platoon considers Highway being put in charge of them to be this.
  • Underestimating Badassery:
    • One of Highway's cellmates openly antagonizes him, expresses contempt for marines and calls him a homosexual. Highway violently shows him the wrongness of this stance.
    • The Recon Platoon know that Highway is tough but figure that he is not tough enough to handle the Swede. They are extremely wrong.
  • Veteran Instructor: Highway, again.
  • War Hero: The film has Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway approaching retirement, and stationed at Cherry Point to whip some punk-ass privates into fighting shape. His charges think the sergeant is just a relic marking time, but he's no slouch at combat, being a decorated veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Among a great many other awards for valor, he also has the Medal of Honor. His men soon learn that the sergeant is a Jerkass with a Heart of Gold, giving them some Training from Hell, but also playing fair and honest in his comportment.
  • War Is Hell / War Is Glorious: Highway believes the latter but is training his Marines for the former.
    • Played with during the Invasion of Grenada to rescue Americans trapped at the college. Recon is happily received by the hostages... but the Marines are unsettled by the dead soldiers they come across and the nicest of them, Profile, is brutally killed during the final battle.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Both Highway and Swede are afraid of heights. Highway points out that this is entirely rational as long as you don't let it get in your way.
    Highway: Jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft is not a natural act.
  • With Due Respect: Highway does this to Major Powers, when he's getting yelled at for taking a hill after being ordered not to.
    Major Powers: "Well, you disobeyed an order. I told you to stay in contact and not take this hill without me. Damn it! Get on your feet, Highway!"
    Gunnery Sergeant Highway: "With all due respect, sir, you're beginning to bore the hell out of me."