Heartbreak Ridge is a 1986 film, starring Clint Eastwood (who also produced and directed) and Mario Van Peebles, about the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, West Indies. A portion of the movie was filmed on the island itself. Because of the speed at which the invasion was completed, as well as complaints about the pacing of the film, Heartbreak Ridge is sometimes sarcastically referred to as "The only war movie that was longer than the war it depicted."
The title comes from the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, fought during the Korean War in 1951 by soldiers of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division, along with those of the French Battalion, against the North Korean Army. The character played by Eastwood was awarded the Medal of Honor as a result of his heroic actions there. In the film, he is a tough, grizzled Marine Gunnery Sergeant, with several wars and many battles under his belt.
Gunnery Sergeant Thomas "Gunny" Highway (Eastwood) is nearing mandatory retirement from the Marines. He finagles a transfer back to his old unit. On the bus trip to his new assignment, he meets fellow passenger 'Stitch' Jones (Mario Van Peebles), a flashy wannabe rock musician who stiffs him for a meal at a stop and steals his bus ticket, leaving him stranded.
When Highway finally arrives at the base, more bad news awaits. His new commanding officer, Major Malcolm Powers (Everett McGill), is an Annapolis graduate who transferred over from Supply and has not had "the privilege" of combat. He sees Highway as an anachronism in the "new" Marine Corps, and assigns him the reconnaissance platoon. "Recon" is made up of undisciplined, undertrained Marines whose previous platoon sergeant had allowed them to slack off. Among his new charges, Highway finds none other than a dismayed Corporal Stitch Jones.
Highway quickly takes charge and begins forcing the men to shape up. They make a last-ditch attempt to intimidate Highway with the gigantic, heavily-muscled Swede Johanson (Peter Koch), but their plan fails miserably and they eventually begin to shape up and develop esprit de corps.
Highway repeatedly clashes with Powers and Staff Sergeant Webster (Moses Gunn) over his unorthodox training methods (even firing off an AK-47 at his men to familiarize them with the weapon's distinctive sound); however, he is supported by his old comrade-in-arms, Sergeant Major Choozoo (Arlen Dean Snyder), and his nominal superior officer, the awkward and inexperienced Lieutenant Ring (Boyd Gaines). Powers makes it clear that he views Highway's platoon as only a training tool for his own elite outfit. After Highway's men learn that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor in the Korean War, they gain new respect for him and close ranks against their perceived common enemy.
Highway also has more personal problems. Aggie (Marsha Mason), his ex-wife, is working as a waitress in a local bar and dating the owner, Marine-hating Roy Jennings (Bo Svenson). Highway attempts to adapt his way of thinking enough to win Aggie back, even resorting to reading Cosmopolitan magazine to gain insights into the female mind. Initially, Aggie is still bitter over their failed marriage, but tentatively reconciles with Highway. Then Highway's unit is activated for the invasion of Grenada.
Highway's platoon is dropped by helocast in advance of the main force. Highway improvises, ordering "Stitch" Jones to use a bulldozer to provide cover for his men so they can advance on and destroy an enemy machine gun nest. Next, they rescue American students from a medical school. When they are trapped in a building by an armored car and infantry, with their radio out of commission, they use a telephone to call in air support. In combat, Lieutenant Ring shows previously unsuspected leadership qualities and gains the confidence of the men. Later, despite Powers' explicit orders to the contrary, they take a key position - a historical fort. When Powers finds out, he bawls them out and threatens Highway with a court-martial, but his commanding officer (Colonel Meyers) arrives and reprimands Powers for discouraging initiative and fighting spirit. Colonel Meyers also commends Lt. Ring for a job well done.
When Highway and his men return to the U.S., they are met by a warm reception. Aggie is there to welcome him back. To Highway's mock dismay, Stitch informs him that he is going to make a career for himself in the Marines.
In the original script, Highway was a career Army officer. The U.S. Army read the script and refused to participate. The character was then changed to a Marine. (This raised some conceptual difficulties, given that the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge primarily involved the U.S. Army. This is explained very briefly in the film when Sergeant Major Choozoo tells some of the younger troops that he and Highway were in the 2nd Infantry Division at the time and "joined the Corps later.") The Marine Corps first cooperated with the film project, planning to use it to promote its "Toys for Tots" campaign, but upon viewing a first cut, quickly disowned the film because of the language. Marines who viewed the film cited numerous issues with the way they were portrayed. Much of the "training" done before the Grenada invasion was highly inaccurate. Even on a relatively small budget, the technical advice was poor. The US Defense Department originally supported the film, but withdrew its backing after seeing a preview in November 1986. A 2004 survey showed that since then many people have joined the military because of the attitudes and ideals this film encompasses.
It is highly questionable whether medical students had to be "rescued" during the invasion. However, the sequence involving the bulldozer is based on a real event involving General John Abizaid, former commander of US Central Command (July 2003 - March 2007). "In the U.S. Invasion of Grenada in 1983, Abizaid improvised an attack on a Cuban bunker by having his unit take cover behind a charging bulldozer".
The American attack on Grenada is in some respects accurate, although U.S. Army Rangers, not Marines, secured the University medical school. The scene in which Lieutenant Ring must resort to using a credit card in order to communicate with his commanders was also based on real-life events.