There is no conflict as dirty, socially corrosive and tragic as a civil war. Friends and neighbours, those whose similarities are every bit as pronounced as their differences, suddenly find themselves sworn enemies at one another’s throats. Any story which uses such a conflict as its backdrop automatically has an enormous amount of built-in dramatic potential. Yet despite that, there’s a hazard too – commercial success is by no means guaranteed. Movies based around the American Civil War were traditionally regarded as box office poison, and I don’t think such an aversion is some affectation confined to the United States. There are few nations which haven’t fallen victim to internal bloodletting, and the scars of these events never fully heal in the public consciousness – it’s hard to get past the essential ugliness of a country tearing itself apart from within. However, a movie can still remain compelling, and indeed worthwhile, in the face of these obstacles. The trick is to sidestep the cloying piety that can sink a script and instead focus on the real human effects of a land and people divided. The Raid (1954) is such a film.
The story is based on a real event during the Civil War – one of those peripheral actions that occur in most conflicts. It opens with a small band of Confederate POWs staging a breakout from a Union prison close to the Canadian border. The aim of the fugitives, under the command of Major Benton (Van Heflin), is to cross into neutral territory and reorganise themselves there. Benton has in mind using the neighbouring country as a springboard to attack the North. His plan is to marshal his forces and unexpectedly raid the border towns, both as an act of revenge for Sherman’s pillage of the South and as a means of drawing vital troops away from the front line and thus relieving the pressure on Lee. The target for the first of these incursions is St Albans, Vermont. Benton arrives in town posing as a Canadian businessman looking to invest in local property, but really scouting the lay of the land and paving the way for his comrades to join him. The basic plan is to clean out the banks, providing much needed funds for buying munitions, and then to torch the town and cause as much havoc as possible before beating a hasty retreat back across the border. On paper, this sounds like a viable proposition but complications inevitably arise. There are three troublesome flies in Benton’s jar of ointment: Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft), the young widow running the boarding house where Benton’s lodging; Captain Foster (Richard Boone), the one-armed veteran in charge of St Albans’ small military force; and Lieutenant Keating (Lee Marvin), whose bitter hatred of the North means he’s something of a loose cannon among Benton’s otherwise highly disciplined force. These three people, and Benton, are a perfect illustration of the effects of civil warfare. All of them have been damaged, either physically or emotionally, by the war and all represent different aspects of the mindset it has created – Keating’s volatile sadism, Katy’s dignified struggle against loneliness, Foster’s self-loathing, and Benton’s juggling of professionalism and sentiment. One key scene highlights the moral dilemma faced by a man in Benton’s peculiar and precarious position. Having just saved the townsfolk from mortal danger (and himself too, as it happens), he returns to his lodgings only to be confronted with that which he least expected – the gratitude and acceptance of the local community. A combination of shock, humility, and horror at his own duplicity briefly flit across Benton’s features. In this moment, everything we need to know about how this kind of war divides loyalties, even internally, is deftly expressed. Still, Benton is a man of principle and, despite any moral qualms he may be experiencing, he forges ahead towards his objective. By the time the actual raid occurs the viewers have been granted a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those from both sides of the divide, making the climax all the more tense and charged.
Argentine director Hugo Fregonese came to Hollywood in 1949 and made a number of films that have largely been forgotten outside of film buff circles. There may not be any masterpieces among his credits but he displayed a very strong visual sense and his work remains interesting at the very least. Apache Drums, produced by Val Lewton, is a little neglected gem that’s ripe for rediscovery, while Saddle Tramp and Harry Black and the Tiger have points in their favour too. The Raid is one of his best efforts, looking handsome and maintaining suspense throughout. The reenactment of the titular raid (a bit of research indicates that the real event resulted in considerably less damage) makes for an exciting climax and it’s well staged by Fregonese and his cameraman, Lucien Ballard. Van Heflin does very well as Major Benton, looking tough and authoritative enough to be believable as the commander of the raiders, and also showing the right degree of sensitivity when necessary. He hadn’t the looks to make a career as a romantic lead but his understated performances generally had a very attractive human quality. Once again, Richard Boone seems to get right into the character he’s playing; the gruffness of Foster initially seems to stem from his bitterness over his war injury but, as the story progresses, it’s apparent that his reserved demeanour has a deeper psychological root. Both actors bring quite subtle nuances to their respective characterizations and there’s nothing one-dimensional about either of them. Personally, I found it refreshing that Anne Bancroft’s widow was used as a softening influence on both Boone and Heflin, and wasn’t there merely to provide an excuse for some superfluous romance. Her presence is integral to the development of the plot and the shifting emotions of the two men staying under her roof, but not as a stereotypical Hollywood siren. Heading up an especially strong supporting cast, Lee Marvin turns in another memorable performance as the vengeful and dangerous Keating. His “bull in a china shop” approach acts as a counterweight to Van Heflin’s measured caution and helps to up the tension.
To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD release of The Raid is the Spanish edition from Impulso/Fox. Generally, whilst apparently unrestored, the disc is one of their reasonable efforts. The film may have been 1.66:1 originally, but this transfer presents it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) – if it’s open-matte it may be slightly zoomed as the framing looks a little tight to my eyes on occasion. However, I wouldn’t say it was seriously compromised. The colour and detail levels are quite strong, and it’s pleasing to look at. The extras are the usual gallery and text items, and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. The film approaches its subject matter intelligently and avoids forcing judgements on the viewer. The combination of a strong, capable cast, a tight script and professional direction adds up to a pacy and entertaining look at an intriguing episode from the Civil War. Recommended.