You listen to me. We're gonna take this f**king hill, Newsman. And if I catch you
on top taking pictures of any of my people, I will blow your f**king head off.
You haven't earned a right to be here. *You got that?*
The film begins with footage of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It then shifts to a platoon of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, 1969 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 frets that he won't be able to remember everything he is taught, Languilli, who gets annoyed when people mis-pronounce his name, Washburn, a quiet and the only African-American member of the squad, Bienstock, who is out-going and has volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, and finally Galvan, the quietest, soft-spoken soldier but the most promising of the new intake.
Taken under the wing of their war-weary squad leader, Sgt. Adam Frantz, the recruits are taken through a crash-course in battlefield skills, everything from oral hygiene to a demonstration from a Viet Cong deserter as to how skilfully enemy troops can penetrate perimeter U.S. defences. The platoon has a new commander, Lieutenant Eden, who is going to need the skills and experience of both Frantz and Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Worchester. The platoon's specialist MG-team is composed of the burly Private Duffy and his mis-matched, spectacled buddy Private Gaigin. The three African-American veterans of the unit- Motown, 'Doc' Johnson and Sgt McDaniel- all have first-hand knowledge of the racial discrimination still practiced in the army.
The FNGs get their first sudden taste of war when a quiet spell beside a river is interrupted by an enemy artillery barrage and Galvan is killed. The platoon enters the A Shau Valley and gets contact, sparking a firefight in which Sgt McDaniel is killed. This loss provokes considerable bitterness and tension as McDaniel was near the end of his tour and, being black, was denied any chance to score rear-line duties at headquarters. The battalion commences an assault on the enemy-held Hill 937 which soon grows into a major battle as unexpectedly heavy resistance is encountered and the NVA, rather than using hit-and-run tactics, are instead defending well-entrenched positions. The platoon is forced to attack the hill repeatedly against stubborn opposition and US napalm air-strikes steadily strip away all vegetation, leaving the hill a barren, scorched wasteland.
In one assault, a battle-crazed Duffy, wielding an M-60, seems on the verge of carrying the day as the enemy begins to crumble. But a mis-directed fire support by helicopter gunships causes many friendly-fire casualties, to the horror of Lt Eden and his radio-man Murphy who called in the strike. The assault fails and Duffy is amongst the fatalities.
In between attacks, the shrinking platoon tries to rest, talking about the social upheavals back home. Bienstock is devastated by a Dear-John 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. Staff Sergeant Worchester confides to his comrades about the alienation and hostility he encountered on his last trip home, along with the collapse of his marriage and how a good friend back home, whose son had been killed in Vietnam back in 1965 during the Battle of the Drang, had been driven to breaking point by the cruel phone-calls from anti-war college students gloating over his son's death.
Frantz makes it clear that he has no time for draft-dodgers back home and says that they should at least show up, even if they don't use their weapons. He also has an angry confrontation with a TV reporter, telling him that he has more respect for the NVA on the hill because 'at least they take a side'.
The increasingly exhausted platoon keeps trying to capture the hill. The tenth assault takes place in torrential rains, turning the hillside into a river of mud. Gaigin is killed, Beletsky wounded and Doc Johnson is shot by a hidden NVA in a hole. Before he is evacuated, Doc tells Frantz and Motown take the hill so that they at least have something to be proud of but dies in the arms of the two men moments later. Beletsky, despite having received a "million dollar wound," decides to return to his unit. The 11th and final assault is mounted by the survivors whose bitterness and exhaustion is overcome by anger and unit pride. The final enemy positions are overrun but the cost is heavy. Lieutenant Eden is wounded, losing his arm. Murphy, Worcester, Motown, Bienstock and finally Languilli are killed before the few survivors make it to the summit. Frantz, wounded by an enemy bayonet, rests on the hill-top alongside Beletsky and Washburn as the battlefield finally goes silent. The final image is the aged, haunted face of Beletsky as he gazes at the carnage below, eyes glistening with tears and constant radio chatter over-heard but to no reply.
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