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Yesterday’s Enemy

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The popular perception of British war films of the 1950s is that they all feature stoic types keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying themselves with unimpeachable honour whatever the provocation. Hammer films seem to have an equally stereotypical image; they are all exploitative gothic horrors shot using a vibrant and vivid palette. Well, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) is a war movie produced by Hammer at its peak, and it stubbornly refuses to conform to any preconceived expectations. Instead, it casts a cold, bleak eye over a complex moral issue and asks questions for which there are no easy answers.

The story takes place in Burma in the early years of WWII when the outcome was still far from certain and everything hung in the balance. A small group of British soldiers, under the command of Captain Langford (Stanley Baker), are struggling through the steamy, oppressive jungle on the retreat and trying to get back to their own lines. Physically exhausted and burdened by the wounded men among their number, they stumble upon an isolated village where they hope to rest up before pressing on again. However, this village has been occupied by a detachment of Japanese and a firefight ensues before it is secured. In the aftermath of the fighting Langford makes a discovery that will have far reaching implications for both him and the men he leads. The small Japanese party had a full colonel with them, and he was carrying some clearly important documents. The only surviving member of the Japanese group is a Burmese informer and Langford is convinced he knows more than he’s saying. Feeling sure that the captured documents contain vital information about the enemy’s plans, Langford sets about breaking down the informer’s resistance. When all his threats prove unsuccessful Langford takes what will be a fateful decision. He orders the execution of two Burmese villagers in order to convince the informer that he means business. When his own people cry foul and protest that this is nothing short of a war crime, Langford makes the point that if one is to successfully fight a war then the gloves have to come off. Although the information is now in his possession, Langford finds his command menaced by Japanese reinforcements and unable to move out due to the mounting number of casualties. The situation is further complicated by the damage to the radio that means all communication with HQ is impossible. As if the apparent futility of Langford’s brutal action were not enough, the positions are swiftly reversed and he and his men find themselves facing an enemy who takes an equally pragmatic approach to fighting a war. Thus, two basic questions are raised. What exactly constitutes a war crime? And does the cause for which one fights justify the means employed? These are not simple issues, and the film offers no pat answers; in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions.

The burden of command - Stanley Baker in Yesterday's Enemy.

Yesterday’s Enemy was envisaged as a film that would damp down some of the furore that had arisen in the wake of Hammer’s previous look at the war against the Japanese, The Camp on Blood Island. That movie was accused of tasteless sensationalism, and the studio therefore tried for an entirely different approach to the subject. Val Guest’s direction is a nice mix of toughness and sensitivity, but it never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality. We’re allowed to see and learn enough about characters to empathize with them but they are still ruthlessly killed off with the minimum of fuss – Gordon Jackson’s Scots sergeant is a good example of this. The action scenes have a brutal urgency and intensity that feels authentic, with violence erupting unexpectedly and ending just as abruptly. If one wanted to be picky it would be possible to complain about the studio bound setting, but I thought it was well designed and only the slightly hollow sounds occasionally drew attention to the fact that it wasn’t a real jungle. Anyway, this is not a movie that depends on strong location work; the plot is driven by character and psychology for the most part. The role of Captain Langford was an ideal one for Stanley Baker and gave him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He is no petty martinet but a hard headed realist who’s been handed a set of circumstances that no one could envy. He has to consider the welfare of his men, weigh this against the bigger picture of the campaign in general, and then make ethical choices that are both painful and unavoidable. He is no fanatical barbarian but an ordinary man – he has a wife and children back home – to whom fate has dealt a lousy hand. His Japanese counterpart, Philip Ahn, is almost a mirror image. This is not a stereotypical sadist devoid of conscience and contemptuous of foreigners – he’s a cultured man of the world, a former diplomat and student of English literature. All of this heightens the moral dilemma at the heart of the picture since neither man is a villain in the true sense of the word. The support cast is filled with familiar faces from British cinema and Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern and Richard Pascoe in particular make a strong impression. It’s also notable, and highly effective, that there’s no music whatsoever from beginning to end, the noises of the jungle providing the only soundtrack accompaniment.

Yesterday’s Enemy comes to DVD via Sony in the UK, and it’s been given a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. The image is clean and sharp with only very minor instances of damage. As for extras, the disc itself has a gallery and English HOH subs plus there’s an excellent 24 page booklet penned by Marcus Hearn that’s detailed and informative. The title was until recently exclusive to MovieMail in the UK, but it’s now gone on general release and this attractive disc can be picked up for a very reasonable price. I’d say this film should appeal to a broad range of viewers – those who like war movies, Hammer productions, and good intelligent drama alike. I was very favourably impressed and have no hesitation in recommending it wholeheartedly. If you think you’ve seen all that British war movies or Hammer have to offer then I suggest seeking this one out – you may be pleasantly surprised.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Stanley Baker, War

 

Hell is for Heroes

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Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes (1962) is one of those small scale, low budget war movies that bears comparison with some of the stuff Sam Fuller knocked out at the beginning of his career. It’s the kind of film that keeps the focus firmly on the guys at the bottom of the ladder, and thus manages to address the futility and brutality of war while still acknowledging the courage of the lowly, ordinary grunts who find themselves having to be extraordinary just to stay alive. War movies in the 1960s would increasingly move towards the big budget spectacular, but this one is almost a throwback to the previous decade due to the small cast and character driven plot.

The story here concerns a battle weary squad of US soldiers on the fringes of the Siegfried Line in 1944. Although their fighting strength has been severely weakened the troops aren’t overly anxious as they figure they’re on the point of being shipped out and finally heading back home. Their meagre ranks are added to with the arrival of a replacement, Reese (Steve McQueen). He’s a former master sergeant, busted back to private for flaking out and stealing a jeep. In fact, Reese is a man dangerously near the end of his tether; his distinguished service record has saved him from falling further but he keeps on chipping away at the corners of army discipline. An evening’s visit to the nearby town’s off limits bar would probably have done for him if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Sergeant Pike (Fess Parker), an old acquaintance. When news comes through that there will be no welcome departure, just a move back onto the line, the only man not to show dismay is Reese. For these men the news is about to get even worse, as they are to be left behind as a temporary rearguard while the bulk of the force move on. The challenge is for the isolated squad to fool the Germans into thinking that they’re a much bigger force. To this end the troops devise a number of ingenious ploys, from running a backfiring jeep in low gear to simulate the sound of a tank to stringing ammo boxes full of rocks through the bushes so the enemy might take their rattling for the movements of patrols. This is all well and good but a brutal assault by a German patrol (which sees Reese in his element, even savagely hacking one man to pieces with a butcher knife) renews the danger. With no guarantee when the main force will return to back them up, the squad need to decide between sitting it out in hope or taking the initiative and trying to knock out a pillbox. Reese urges action while the cautious Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) counsels patience. In the end, a stray shell makes their decision for them and Reese gets to lead a tense sortie through a minefield. There are no happy endings in this movie, just sudden and graphic deaths, hard decisions, and harder consequences. Even the final scene offers no real respite; the army surges on amid fallen bodies and there’s no end in sight – more positions will have to be taken and more men will have to give their lives.

Close to the edge - Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes.

The part of Reese was ideal for Steve McQueen who must have relished playing the moody loner unburdened by excess dialogue, and it had the added bonus of handing him the opportunity to show off all those twitchy mannerisms that audiences have come to associate with him. It’s really McQueen’s picture from beginning to end and it’s always a pleasure to watch him keep all that angst and bottled up machismo raging just below the surface. He gets some good support from Fess Parker and Harry Guardino, as the respectively sympathetic and exasperated sergeants, and from a bespectacled James Coburn – the squad’s technical jack-of-all-trades. The novelty casting of Bob Newhart and Bobby Darin is altogether less satisfying, but it’s not enough to do any serious damage to the film. Don Siegel’s direction is as tight and professional as could be, and he works wonders on what must have been a small budget. The stark monochrome photography adds just the right touch of bleakness and, while this is essentially a character study, Siegel’s handling of the action scenes is urgent, exciting and realistic. 

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hell is for Heroes offers an excellent transfer. The movie is presented 1.78:1 anamorphic and looks in very good shape all the way through. There’s not an extra to be found on the disc, which is the only black mark against it for me. This isn’t one of the best known war movies, nor is it likely to be one of the more familiar works of either McQueen or Siegel. However, for fans of the genre, star or director it does deserve to be seen. It’s a powerful little movie that doesn’t try to manipulate the viewer or preach – it simply presents a dispassionate view of war and the men involved.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Don Siegel, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, War

 

55 Days at Peking

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I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie – although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

Take my hand - Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking

One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness – a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.

 

Fixed Bayonets!

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As I (not so) patiently wait for the new Sam Fuller box to roll up to my door I thought I might as well have a look at one of his other films to pass the time. It turned out to be a toss up between Forty Guns and Fixed Bayonets! (1951). Since I’ve been watching a lot of westerns lately and haven’t posted anything about war movies for a while it was the latter that won out in the end. This was Fuller’s first film for Fox, and it makes a nice companion piece to his earlier study of men in war The Steel Helmet – they’re both lean, unglamorous portrayals of the trials of enlisted men in Korea.

The plot is a very simple one – to cover the retreat of the division, a small detachment is left behind in the frozen wastes of Korea to carry out a rearguard action. This luckless group find themselves holed up in a narrow mountain pass, hoping to trick the Chinese into believing that they’re actually an advance party for the division. The focus is on Denno (Richard Basehart), a reluctant corporal who dropped out of officer training school because he didn’t want the responsibility. Not only that but he also has to deal with the fact that he finds himself unable to pull the trigger whenever he gets an enemy target in his sights. None of this would necessarily present a huge problem if it weren’t for the fact that Denno now has only three men between him and his greatest horror, the burden of command. In contrast to the sensitive, introspective corporal is Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), the tough old pro who has stayed in the army but can’t quite put his finger on the reasons why. While the rest of the platoon have their doubts about Denno, Rock keeps faith with him as he feels he knows his man. As the Chinese press ever closer, and the casualties steadily mount, it’s obvious that sooner or later Denno will find himself the top man – the Ichiban Boy – and the only real question is how he’s going to handle it.

I just want you to kill one man - Gene Evans and Richard Basehart

Gene Evans basically reprises his role from The Steel Helmet, but it’s almost the kind of part he was born to play. He really brings the battle-hardened Rock to life, full of fatalistic humour as he bullies and cajoles the grunts into doing what has to be done. If Rock is the beating heart of the platoon then Denno is the conscience, and Richard Basehart was well cast in that part. His quiet, dignified tone stands out among the casual slang of the other dog-faces around him. He was capable of that intense, repressed look that is ideal for a man being eaten up by inner turmoil. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in the quiet moments in the cave when Rock and Denno chew the cud over the nature of soldiering and responsibility. Fuller directs these claustrophobic scenes with apparent ease, using a full 360 pan at one point to show the whole platoon (or what remains of it) looking on as the reluctant medic performs surgery on himself. He punctuates such scenes with bursts of jarring, unexpected violence and moments of incredible tension, such as Denno’s walk through a minefield at night to rescue a mortally wounded NCO. His sense of pacing and economy are spot on, with not a shot wasted as we rattle along to the climax.

The R1 DVD from Fox is a frugal affair with little in the way of extras but it does boast a generally strong transfer. Fixed Bayonets! is a fine early example of Fuller’s honest, no nonsense approach to film-making and has his unsentimental machismo stamped proudly all over it. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot – now if only that Sony boxset would turn up!

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Sam Fuller, War

 

The McKenzie Break

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Anyone who’s a fan of war movies will be familiar with the WWII POW/escape variety. One characteristic of such movies is that they rely (by necessity) far less on action than they do on character. The other aspect of note is that they are almost always told from the perspective of the American or British prisoners. I say almost because there are at least two exceptions that I can think of, The McKenzie Break (1970) being one of them. Having German POWs makes for an interesting approach to making a film since this premise automatically challenges the viewers sympathies. Normally, in any kind of prison movie, it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for those who are locked up – but this film turns everything on its head by portraying the leader of the inmates as an unrepentant, amoral and ruthless Nazi.

McKenzie is a POW camp situated in a desolate, sparsely populated area of Scotland. Its purpose is to hold captured German officers, principally submariners and flyers. However, right from the opening moments, it’s clear that all is not well. There is a war of wills going on between the camp commander, Major Perry (Ian Hendry), and the prisoners’ leader Schleutter (Helmut Griem). It’s suspected that there’s a reason for the organised disobedience, which goes beyond plain contrariness. In an effort to get to the bottom of it all,  Intelligence dispatches one Captain Connor (Brian Keith) with a brief to establish the cause of the ongoing trouble. Connor is a soft spoken maverick with a penchant for taking risks, and it’s no surprise  that the film soon develops into a duel between him and the charismatic Schleutter. Connor knows full well that Schleutter is planning an escape, he even has a fair idea how it’ll be done, but he hopes to bag bigger game and gambles on giving him enough rope to hang himself. Bar a few action scenes, the film plays out mostly as an espionage/detective story, with Connor doing the hunting and tracking and Schleutter, for the most part, managing to stay one step ahead. It’s  also worth pointing out the tension and rivalry within the camp, both on the German and British sides. Generally, POW flicks tend to portray the inmates as a united group of disparate characters banding together for the common good. Obviously there are  movies, such as Stalag 17, that feature a rotten apple, but off the top of my head I can’t think of another that presents a house so clearly divided. While there’s a mild abrasiveness and a degree of mistrust between Perry and Connor, it’s nothing compared to the sadistic hatred Schleutter displays towards his fellow prisoners from the Luftwaffe.

Brian Keith

Brian Keith was one of those amiable actors who always seemed to make things look very easy. Although he’s getting on a bit, and lays the Oirish accent on a bit thick at times, he still manages to put in a good and believable performance. The best parts of the movie for me were those where Connor and Schleutter faced off and traded blows verbally. There’s an especially good scene that takes place in the hospital in the aftermath of the murder of one of the German prisoners. In a grotesque parody of a wake, the two leads share a whiskey over the body of the dead man while each probes for weak spots in the armour of the other. Helmut Griem had the difficult task of playing a morally repugnant character while at the same time trying to imbue him with enough humanity and charisma to make him believable as someone capable of commanding the respect of all those under him. That he manages to do this and pull off the even neater trick of doing reprehensible things but still retaining a modicum of sympathy from the viewer is a credit to him. The McKenzie Break was directed by Lamont Johnson and it’s his one of his few forays outside of TV work. He handles the material competently but with no great style – the Irish locations, standing in for Scotland, are nicely used in the latter half of the film but the acting and storyline are what carry the film more than visuals.

MGM’s R2 DVD offers a pleasing enough image. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer has no damage to speak of and good detail. The colours are on the subdued side but that’s how they’re supposed to look as far as I can tell. The only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, but that’s par for the course for MGM catalogue titles. Overall, The McKenzie Break is a well-made suspenseful war movie that offers a different spin on the traditional POW tale.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1970s, War

 

The Wild Geese

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As a boy I used to positively devour westerns and war movies. My friends were pretty much the same, and I can still see us, in the schoolyard or on the way home, re-enacting the action scenes from whatever movie we had seen on the telly the night before; this was back when there were only three channels (actually four in Northern Ireland) so what one had seen, all had seen. Every once in a while you got lucky and you had the chance to go to the cinema and see a big new movie. That afforded you a certain kudos as you were then in the enviable position of being able to relate all the gory details to your mates. What we all yearned for were movies with plenty of guns, explosions, daring escapes and as little mushy romantic nonsense as possible. Such was the case with The Wild Geese (1978), a film that seemed just perfect when I first saw it on release. Looking back on it now, I no longer think it’s perfect but it still retains the power to charm me, and the passing of time hasn’t made it any less fun to watch.

The story has Colonel Faulkner (Richard Burton), an ageing mercenary soldier, arriving in London for a clandestine meeting with millionaire businessman Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger). The purpose of the meeting is to arrange a raid into a fictitious African nation to free from prison a deposed leader who is facing imminent death. This will require the recruitment of the necessary personnel and the formulation of a viable plan for a rapid extraction. Too much focus on the behind-the-scenes stuff can easily scupper this kind of movie, but the finding and hiring of the officers (Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger) and men is carried off in an entertaining way and never slows down the pace. Soon the action has moved to the training camp in Africa, where the RSM (Jack Watson) gets to deliver some marvellously insulting language to the biggest names in 1970s cinema as he kicks, bullies and cajoles his out-of-condition squad into shape. The mission itself starts off well and everything looks like it may run according to schedule, but some devious machinations back in London ensures that the mercenaries will be abandoned to the tender mercies of a ruthless dictator and his Simba battalion. With their rescue flight aborted, and facing certain death, they have no choice but to trek across hostile country with the vague idea of maybe stirring up civil unrest on the way. Under constant attack, Faulkner leads his ever diminishing force south to an abandoned airfield where their last chance for salvation appears in the form of an old, beat-up, twin-engine Dakota. The climax is pure blood and thunder stuff, with Faulkner’s men making their desperate dash for freedom as the air is filled with lead and the ancient plane chugs and sputters in the background.

Roger Moore on a busman's holiday from  the Bond franchise

Andrew McLaglen was arguably at his best when directing this kind of Boy’s Own adventure, and he managed some quite effective scenes here. The action set pieces are all well handled, the stand outs being the scene where a jet strafes and bombs the mercenary column while it’s stalled on an exposed bridge, the parachute jump sequence, and the bloody but exciting climax. The movie runs well over two hours but McLaglen controlled the pace so well that it seems a lot less. The stars of The Wild Geese were all getting a bit long in the tooth for this kind of exertion but the four leads give amiable enough performances and seem very comfortable around each other. While Burton definitely looks the worse for wear, that weary quality kind of fits the role he’s playing. The old-time soldier of fortune looking for a last big score in a world that’s changing around him plays like an amalgam of Burton’s own character and that of Mike Hoare, who served as technical adviser on the film. Neither Harris nor Moore really have to stretch themselves in the acting department but both at least give the impression they were having a hell of a lot of fun. Hardy Kruger gets a bit more to do as the crossbow wielding Afrikaaner who has his preconceptions challenged and finds himself rethinking his position and prejudices. Stewart Granger has only a small part yet he brings an oily condescension to the part of the duplicitous Matherson that makes for a great screen villain.

The Wild Geese has been out on DVD for a while now, and the R2 disc from Mosaic presents the film pretty well. The transfer is anamorphic and quite clean. There’s an entertaining commentary track featuring Roger Moore and producer Euan Lloyd, and a documentary on Lloyd’s career. All told, it’s not a bad package and provides good value. There is a new edition slated for release in March but I doubt if it will add anything new, we’ll see. This isn’t a very deep or serious movie, but it is entertaining, and if you want something that will recall memories of far-off schooldays and more innocent times The Wild Geese is just the ticket.

 

Five Graves to Cairo

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I suppose it goes without saying that war movies made while WWII was still in progress are inevitably going to be propaganda pieces. The more routine ones can lay the flag waving and speech making on so thick as to appear more than a little stodgy when viewed from a distance of over sixty years. The more memorable examples, at least from a present day perspective, are those that manage to tell a story that goes beyond merely depicting heroic resistance, a story that remains absorbing and exciting in its own right. Such is the case with Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Naturally, the film was conceived and produced with the aim of assisting the war effort, but it avoids beating the viewer over the head with its message – at least until the final minutes. What we get instead is a tight, suspenseful yarn where the propaganda is served up sparingly and, for the most part, with subtlety.

Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone), the sole survivor of a tank crew after the fall of Tobruk, stumbles out of the desert and into a battered, run down hotel. With the British in full retreat the only occupants are the owner (Akim Tamiroff) and a French maid by the name of Mouche (Anne Baxter). While the owner panics, Mouche is openly hostile to the new guest due to her bitterness over what she regards as Britain’s desertion of France at Dunkirk. However, the arrival of the Afrika Korps, and their illustrious chief Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), signals a softening of her attitude; not by much mind, but she can’t bring herself to betray Bramble. Therefore, Bramble assumes the identity of the recently deceased waiter Davos who, it turns out, was actually a Nazi agent sent on in advance. As such, Bramble finds himself in the dangerous yet privileged position of having Rommel’s confidence as the Field Marshal prepares for his assault on Cairo. That task would seem an impossible one given the demands made on his lines of supply. Yet Rommel’s ebullient self-assurance suggests he holds a trump card, which is hinted at via references to five graves and a mysterious professor. Bramble/Davos now faces the challenge of discovering the identity of the professor and the significance of the five graves before his cover is blown. None of this is made any easier by the continued ambivalence of Mouche, who is determined to “do business” with either Rommel or his aide (Peter van Eyck) in order to secure the release of her brother from a Nazi concentration camp.

Right under their noses - Erich von Stroheim & Franchot Tone

Directing only his second feature in Hollywood, Billy Wilder was already showing signs of his trademark style. Bleak is a word that has been used to characterize Wilder’s world view, and that’s certainly in evidence in the opening shots which show a tank trundling remorselessly across the vast desert, manned by its crew of dead men. There are lots of inventive little touches throughout the movie, such as the point of view shot seen through the intricate lattice work of the hotel desk, or the zoom cut to the transom as it snaps shut and knocks a concealed weapon into plain view. Alongside this is the sharp dialogue and strong characterization one typically associates with a Wilder picture. There’s a nice contrast of acting styles on show from both von Stroheim and Tone; von Stroheim is all swaggering Germanic confidence while Tone underplays his role as the ingratiating and obsequious waiter/spy. Anne Baxter does well enough as the conflicted maid, but it’s a tough slog with all the showmanship going on around her, not to mention the scene stealing comedic turn of Akim Tamiroff. The other supporting roles are well filled out by a young Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova, and Miles Mander’s British colonel, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery.

Five Graves to Cairo was a Paramount picture so the rights now reside with Universal who, in association with Madman, have released this on DVD in R4, at least both of their logos appear on the cover and on the disc itself. The transfer is a particularly fine one and is crisp and sharp throughout. There are some occasional damage marks but I can’t say I found them to be very distracting. The disc also has a 25 minute documentary on Anne Baxter, and there’s a nice 15 page booklet on the movie by Adrian Danks inside the case. This was one of the few Billy Wilder films I hadn’t seen before and I enjoyed it immensely. There’s so much going on that the 90 minutes seemed to fly by yet the pace never feels forced, save the ending which is a bit rushed. If you count yourself a fan of Wilder, or you just like war/spy movies, then Five Graves to Cairo is well worth seeking out. 

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2009 in 1940s, Billy Wilder, War

 

Ice Cold in Alex

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What makes a good war film? At its best, the war movie goes beyond mere action, heroism and patriotism. It provides the opportunity to show real human drama and real human frailty under the most extreme circumstances. The small, everyday, mundane struggles between individuals, and within individuals, play against the backdrop of the larger conflict. There is also the matter of character and how its strength or weakness can shape the course of events and the direction of men’s lives. The British film industry has succeeded in producing some fine war movies, and Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is no exception. This is no epic production; it really only deals with the experiences of four people yet it touches on some very big themes, not the least of which are honour and decency.

It’s 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps are racing across North Africa, and Tobruk is about to be besieged. Captain Anson (John Mills) is a man nearing the end of his tether, both physically and mentally. The unrelenting hardship of the desert war has driven him to drink, and his dependency on the bottle, while superficially steadying his nerves, threatens to undermine his judgment. Having been ordered to take his ambulance out of Tobruk before the siege begins, he finds himself faced with an overland trek to Alexandria accompanied by the phlegmatic Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two nurses (Sylvia Sims & Diane Clare). Along the way they pick up an Afrikaaner, Van Der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who proves to be an asset in a number of situations. It’s Van Der Poel’s ability to speak German which gets them out of a tricky spot when Anson panics and tries to outrun an enemy patrol. However, the incident leads to the death of one of the nurses and Anson’s subsequent pledge to lay off the liquor until they reach Alex, where he’ll buy them all an ice cold beer. 

Reaching their destination will be no easy task though. Rommel’s troops are advancing faster than expected and, as town after town falls, they must race to keep one step ahead. From this point on Anson’s war is no longer against an army; he must instead battle the hostile environment, suspicion and his own weakness. With the ambulance damaged, the water supply diminishing and the temperatures rising, he is forced into taking a route across The Depression, a vast desert quagmire, where one false step would spell disaster. Even as the little group pulls together to overcome each challenge nature throws at them, the seeds of suspicion are growing. Is Van Der Poel all that he claims to be?

John Mills - a man on the edge

Although the fate of the group ultimately depends on the calm resourcefulness of Pugh and the brute strength of Van Der Poel, it is Anson that you find yourself rooting for. It is a tribute to the skill of John Mills that the viewer feels such sympathy for what should be an unsympathetic character. After all, the man’s a drunk and his early recklessness causes the death of one of his charges. Yet, for all that, Mills manages to bring out the finer points of the man. There is a sense of real pain when he sees how his actions have led to tragedy for the unfortunate nurse. Throughout the film he’s all twitches and nerves and doubts and regrets and hopes – in short, a human being. Harry Andrews is all square-jawed grit and resolve; if you found yourself in a tight spot you’d love to have this guy by your side. Anthony Quayle also fits his role perfectly as the ebullient Afrikaaner who relishes every opportunity to show off his physical powers. Yet, all the while, those piggy little eyes dart around and you wonder what’s going on behind them. Sylvia Sims is the epitome of sweetness and practicality as she falls for Mills and, more importantly, believes in him and encourages him to believe in himself. J. Lee Thompson does his usual professional job in the director’s chair and makes good use of the North African locations. He manages to generate real suspense in some set piece scenes such as the navigation of the minefield and the nightmarish struggle in the quicksand. He also gets across the sense of dry, dusty heat and you feel the same relief as the characters do when John Mills sits on the bar stool in Alexandria and eyes that famous glass of Carlsberg.

Ice Cold in Alex is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum as part of their War Collection line. It’s a very nice anamorphic transfer in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. It’s a barebones affair as usual from Optimum but the quality of the film itself is enough to sell it, and it can normally be picked up cheaply. This is no action packed affair, it’s more of a character study and an excellent example of the British war film at its best. It succeeds in delivering a deeply satisfying ending and one that serves to reinforce the basic decency of man. And who better to portray that decency than John Mills.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2008 in 1950s, J Lee Thompson, John Mills, War

 

Dark of the Sun

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There haven’t been too many movies based around the modern mercenary trade – The Wild Geese, The Dogs of War, The Last Grenade and, if you stretch the point, the recent Blood Diamond are the ones that spring to mind. There are, of course, lots of examples of mercenary characters in westerns but that’s not really the same thing. Of those mentioned, The Wild Geese isn’t much more than a Boy’s Own adventure, albeit a fairly enjoyable one. The Dogs of War spends way too much time on behind the scenes machinations and The Last Grenade is just not a very good film. Jack Cardiff’s 1968 production Dark of the Sun is a cut above all these and is arguably the best movie in this small sub-genre.

The story is set during the Simba revolt in the Congo in the mid 60s, when that vast, former Belgian colony was on the point of implosion. A mercenary group, under the command of Curry (Rod Taylor), are engaged to drive a train into the interior and evacuate the European inhabitants of an isolated mining town which is threatened by the advance of the Simba rebels. The reason this particular town is on the fast track for relief is because there happens to be a fortune in uncut diamonds waiting around for whoever arrives first. Curry, and comrade in arms Ruffo (Jim Brown), sets out with his hastily assembled group in the hope of beating the Simbas to the chase. Everything zips along at a good pace, packing in a chainsaw fight, a confrontation with the U.N. forces, and the rescue of a massacre survivor (Yvette Mimieux) before the train arrives at its destination. At this point the tension rises, as the diamonds are in a vault whose time lock won’t open for another three hours, and the rebels are inching ever closer.

The waiting game commences for Curry (Rod Taylor)

Rod Taylor gives one of his best performances as the hard as nails soldier of fortune and there’s none of the phony posing so prevalent in more modern action heroes. Taylor seems genuinely tough and the climax, where he gives full rein to his outraged fury at the fate of his best friend, is powerful stuff indeed. Jim Brown was no great shakes as an actor but his calm, reasonable Ruffo provides an acceptable counterweight to the simmering Curry. Peter Carsten makes for a great villain as an unapologetic ex-Nazi, and there’s good support from the seasoned Kenneth More and Andre Morell. This is pretty much a man’s movie so there’s not a lot for Yvette Mimieux to do, but she does look sexy and appealing and that’s good enough for me.

If you’ve ever seen a movie photographed by Jack Cardiff you will know how effortlessly good everything looks. Although he is the director here, the movie remains visually pleasing and is only occasionally spoiled by some poor rear projection. The score by Jacques Loussier (I don’t believe I’ve heard anything else by him) is another major plus; it’s a jazzy, downbeat effort that enhances the mood of the picture perfectly. The source material was a novel of the same name by Wilbur Smith. Smith knocked out some good, tight action thrillers early in his career before sliding into the (probably more lucrative) field of the bloated, historical soap opera. I don’t know who provided the inspiration for Smith’s characters but I suspect he may have been thinking of Mike Hoare. Either way, I believe the film’s makers had one of Dublin’s less celebrated figures in mind – if you can get your hands on a copy of ‘Mad’ Mike’s own memoirs, Congo Mercenary, you ought to notice some parallels.

As far as I know, Dark of the Sun remains unavailable on DVD anywhere but there was some talk of Warner giving it a release in R1. It has turned up on TCM in the past but I would love to see it get a proper release – it’s a very good movie whose stock should rise if only it were more readily available.

EDIT January 2012 – The movie has now been given two official releases. The first is the Warner Archive MOD from the USA which I haven’t seen. It’s also been issued in Spain by Suevia, a company whose output is variable in quality. However, I’m pleased to say the Spanish disc is more than acceptable. It’s been transferred progressively in anamorphic scope and looks generally sharp. The colours are rich and there’s no problem with subs – the disc offers the option of French, Spanish or no subtitles on the English track. Extras are limited to the trailer. All in all, it’s a very satisfactory release.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2008 in 1960s, Jack Cardiff, Rod Taylor, War

 

Where Eagles Dare

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There are some films that seem to have the ability to transport us back in time, and Where Eagles Dare is one of those; I only have to watch the first few minutes for it to work its magic. The alpine landscape appears, the blood red credits roll, Ron Goodwin’s pounding score swells up, and I’m once again that wide-eyed little boy sitting on my parents’ rug – spellbound. Back then, I felt sure that this was the greatest war film ever made – and I was becoming something of a connoisseur of the genre at the time. Now, as the years wear on, I know that Where Eagles Dare is not the greatest war film ever, but its ability to carry me back thirty years or more is a priceless quality that no amount of critical snobbery can ever diminish. 

Following on the success of The Guns of Navarone, the books of Alistair MacLean were seen as a source of cinematic gold just waiting to be mined. There wasn’t a lot of character development in these stories, but the twisty plots and non-stop action made up for that. Where Eagles Dare is about an Allied mission (headed up by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood) behind enemy lines to rescue a captured American general from the Nazis before they can force him to reveal the details of the D-Day invasion. The difficulty for our heroes lies in the fact that the general is being held in the Schloss Adler, an almost impenetrable castle perched on a mountain top, and accessible only by cable car. As if this were not enough, it looks as though there is a traitor lurking among our intrepid group. To go deeper into the plot would require some massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that here. Suffice to say that the film treats us to double cross piled onto double cross, lots of big spectacular explosions, huge numbers of Nazis mowed down by Burton and Eastwood, and a fantastic fight with an ice pick atop a moving cable car. By the end everything has been resolved satisfactorily and two and a half hours of escapist bliss have whizzed by.  

Clint Eastwood asking the whole German army if they feel lucky. 

There’s a great cast for this movie, even if they’re all playing roles which are basically caricatures. Richard Burton’s Major Smith seems capable of planning and talking his way out of even the most hopeless situations. Clint’s Lieutenant Schaffer is cool, ruthless and laconic; a WWII version of The Man With No Name. Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt look good while helping out the heroes and, crucially, they do not indulge in any girly histrionics – something which should never happen in a proper Boy’s Own adventure anyway. The support cast is also well stocked with Ferdy Mayne and Anton Diffring playing German officers (what else?). Derren Nesbitt is ideal as the suspicious Gestapo major, although his German accent wouldn’t stand up to too much analysis.

Where Eagles Dare has been out on DVD from Warner for ages. The anamorphic scope transfer is good enough and there’s a ‘Making of’ featurette on the disc. I don’t see this getting an upgrade any time soon since it’s probably seen as too lowbrow for the SE treatment. For me, it will always remain one of those links to an increasingly distant past – an innocent and adventurous world where Richard Burton will forever intone “Broadsword calling Danny Boy…..Broadsword calling Danny Boy” 

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2008 in 1960s, Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, War

 
 
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