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JACK MATHEWS

At Least Some Marines Are Gung-ho For 'Ridge'

December 03, 1986|JACK MATHEWS

"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.

Eleven-zip. Eastwood.

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.

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