The series of assaults (which resulted in heavy casualties to both the American and North Vietnamese forces) commenced on 10 May 1969, with the hill finally being taken on 20 May.
The film portrays fighting, combat, courage, camaraderie and dedication to the mission among troops. It also brings up painful questions about the Vietnam War, such as the stigmatizing of replacement troops ("newbies" or, more crudely, "FNGs") and of the seeming caprice of high command in the conflict, specifically the lack of strategic value of the hill and subsequent unnecessary casualties. Other issues include the effect of anti-war sentiment on morale, and racial tensions among troops (especially the overcoming of racial tension by gradual friendship and earned respect).
One aspect of the war portrayed in the film is how soldiers in the field felt betrayed by people back in the United States, particularly college students. In one scene a soldier gets a letter from his girlfriend saying she will not keep writing because her college friends told her it was immoral to be involved with a serviceman whom they refer to as "killers". In another scene, Sgt. Worcester (Steven Weber) from the South tells his fellow soldiers that when he got home from his first tour of duty in 1968, he faced discrimination for being a veteran. When he got off the plane, hippies threw bags of dog feces at him and other returning soldiers. When he got home, his wife was with another man (a "hair-head"), and had nothing but contempt for him. "They love everybody but you," he said, recounting the sentiment of the day. Incredibly, none of this bothered Worcester until he discovered that his local bartender had lost his son in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. The young man's body was sent home in "a rubber bag with 'members missing' labeled on it." To make it worse, college students kept phoning the bartender at his house saying they were glad his son was killed "in Vietnam, Republic of," by "the heroic People's Army", causing the bartender to suffer a mental breakdown. This encounter caused the angry and alienated Worcester to sign up for another tour in Vietnam.
In 1969, a Platoon of soldiers fight in the War of Vietnam, ending with a soldier dying on a helicopter. As they prepare to be sent into action again, the platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, part of the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, receives five FNGs as replacements - Beletsky, who constantly complains that he won't be able to remember everything he has been taught; Languilli, who is obsessed with sex and annoyed when people mispronounce his name; Washburn, a quiet, conservative man and the only African-American in the batch of replacements; Bienstock, who is outgoing and has volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam; and finally Galvan, the quietest but most promising of the new soldiers.
Taken under the wing of their war-weary squad leader, Sgt. Adam Frantz, the recruits spend their early days filling sand bags and struggling to sleep before being placed in Frantz' squad. They are then given a crash-course in battlefield skills, including everything from oral hygiene to a demonstration by a Viet Cong deserter as to how skilfully enemy troops can penetrate perimeter U.S. defenses. Frantz does his best to prepare the new soldiers for combat, but expresses frustration before the VC deserter silently penetrates a barbed wire barrier and aims a rocket launcher at them.
Aside from the replacements, the platoon has a new commander, Lieutenant Eden, and Sergeant First Class Worcester. The platoon's machine gun team is composed of the burly Private Duffy and his mismatched, bespectacled companion, Private Gaigin. There are also three African-American veterans in the unit: Motown, "Doc" Johnson and Sgt. McDaniel (who has less than a month left on his tour), all of whom have first-hand knowledge of the racial discrimination still practiced in the army.
The new arrivals get their first, sudden taste of war when a quiet spell beside a river is interrupted by an enemy mortar barrage. Frantz calls for counter battery fire ending the attack. Several civilians are killed in the exchange and one of the replacements, Galvan, is decapitated by a shell fragment. The death of a soldier further riles up Sgt. Frantz.
Soon, the platoon takes part in a major operation and is air-lifted into the A Shau Valley. Shortly after disembarking at the landing zone, they come under automatic weapons fire and a firefight ensues. The North Vietnamese Army soldiers withdraw after suffering at least one apparent casualty. McDaniel is also killed. This loss provokes considerable bitterness and tension from "Doc" Johnson, as he blames Frantz for not getting the short-timer McDaniel a less dangerous assignment.
The battalion is initially ordered to reconnoiter a nearby mountain, but is unexpectedly diverted and commences an assault on the enemy-held Hill 937 which soon grows into a major battle as unexpectedly heavy resistance is encountered. The NVA, rather than using hit-and-run tactics, as they had in previous engagements, instead defend well-entrenched positions. The platoon is forced to attack the hill repeatedly against stubborn opposition. Between assaults US air-strikes steadily strip away all vegetation with napalm and white phosphorus, leaving the hill a barren, scorched wasteland.
In one assault, a battle-crazed and wounded Duffy, wielding an M60, seems on the verge of carrying the day as enemy resistance begins to crumble. However, botched air support by helicopter gunships causes several friendly casualties, and to the horror of Lt. Eden and his radio telephone operator, Murphy. The assault fails and Duffy is among the fatalities.
In between attacks, the shrinking platoon tries to rest, chattering about social upheaval and unrest back home. Bienstock is devastated by a letter from his girlfriend, whose college friends have told her that it is immoral to remain partnered with a soldier. Beletsky gets a letter on tape from his girl back home and Frantz is surprised (and moved) that she mentions his name. Sergeant Worcester describes to his comrades the alienation and hostility he encountered on his return home from his previous tour of duty, along with the collapse of his marriage and how a good friend, whose son had been killed in Vietnam during the Battle of la Drang in 1965, had been driven to an emotional breakdown by cruel phone calls from anti-war college students gloating over his son's death. Frantz relates a story on how he volunteered for the airborne. "The only reason I went airborne was Collins," he said. However, when orders came down for a dangerous operation, "Collins" refused to participate. Later, Frantz also has a confrontation with a TV reporter, telling him that he has more respect for the NVA on the hill than for the reporter.
The increasingly exhausted platoon continues their attempt to capture Hill 937, but to no avail. The tenth assault takes place in torrential rains. Gaigin is killed, Beletsky and "Doc" Johnson are both wounded. Before he is evacuated, Doc tells Frantz and Motown to capture the hill so that they will at least have something to be proud of, but appears to succumb to his wounds moments later as a medevac helicopter lands. Beletsky, despite having received a "million dollar wound," decides to return to his unit.
The eleventh and final assault is mounted by the remaining troops whose bitterness and exhaustion is overcome by desperation and unit pride. The final enemy positions are overrun but the cost is heavy. Lieutenant Eden is seriously wounded, losing his arm. Murphy, Worcester, Motown, Bienstock and Languilli are all killed before the few remaining troops make it to the summit. Frantz, stunned by the loss of so many friends, is dazed and wounded by an enemy bayonet. Beletsky, also wounded, but enraged, leads the final push to the summit. A bleeding and weak Frantz also makes it to the top and rests by a stump alongside Beletsky and Washburn as the battlefield finally goes silent.
The final image is the now battle-aged, tear-streaked and haunted face of Beletsky as he gazes at the carnage below. Constant radio chatter is overheard, but there is no reply.
The novelized version of the film, written by William Pelfrey, based on the screenplay by James Carabatsos, featured several additional scenes not featured in the final cut of the film. These included prologue and epilogue scenes set years after the war where Frantz, now a civilian and happily married with children, visits the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. and asks his young son to plant a small flag below Languilli's name. Another additional scene occurs one night between the assaults on Hill 937, where the NVA launch a surprise counterattack.
NOTE: Listed in order of authority and rank. The green color coded boxes in the rows indicate that character survived the battle. The pink colored boxes indicate the character either died or was wounded.
Producer Marcia Nasatir has a son who fought as a soldier in Vietnam, hence one of the reasons why she came up with the idea for the film. Writer and co-producer James Carabatsos had served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1968-69 and spent five years interviewing soldiers involved in the combat there and researching the Battle of Hamburger Hill. Irvin, an English-born filmmaker, worked on several documentaries in Vietnam in 1969.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Hamburger Hill a "well-made Vietnam War film that narrows its attention to the men of a single platoon in a specific operation." In differentiating the film from Platoon, he noted the film "refuses to put its characters and events into any larger frame. It could have been made a week after the conclusion of the operation it recalls, which is both its strength and weakness, depending on how you look at it." Hal Hinson of the Washington Post credited the filmmakers for creating a "deeply affecting, highly accomplished film", but felt that "[Carabatsos] and his collaborators seem to feel compelled not only to show us their war, but tell us what we're to think about it", weakening the film's effect and keeping it from being a "great war movie". The film currently has the score of 100% from Rotten Tomatoes.
The film debuted at No.5 at the box office bringing in a total of $3.3 million.