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The Big Red One (1980)
Reconstruction Detracts from The Original Film
Let me start off by saying that this review is of the Reconstructed Version of the film released in 2004, not the original, 2-hour piece from 1980. Unlike most fans, I'm not a big advocate of this new version; I much prefer the original, and find many portions of the "new" version difficult to tolerate.
"The Big Red One" tells a simple story: in 1942, a grizzled Army Sergeant and his rifle squad land on the beaches of North Africa. The film will follow him and four infantrymen as they fight across North Africa, the Mediterranean and Western Europe, right up until the eventual German surrender in 1945.
I like Sam Fuller's war movies. Most of them are B-movies from the 50s and 60s, all of which pack a certain emotional punch and have a jagged edge and emotional realism that is largely absent from the slew of other war pictures produced at the time. All of Fuller's tales focus on small groups of infantrymen fighting on the front lines, and the various stresses they endure. "The Big Red One" is no different. There is no forced jingoism here; the movie is about five men who slog their way through battlefield after battlefield. Their only goal is survival. Nothing else matters.
The strong point of "The Big Red One" is that it always feels genuine. Fuller was a soldier this film is largely autobiographical and every little detail is right. We see things here that we don't see in other war movies. For example, soldiers put condoms over the barrels of the rifles to keep them from taking in water. This happened all of the time during the war; how often did we see it in WWII films before "Saving Private Ryan" rolled around 18 years later? Every bit of dialog between the soldiers sounds like it belongs there. People act and talk like soldiers do. The script feels genuine, authentic and fresh.
In the new cut, all of these strengths are unbalanced by the added material. Many of the scenes involving women (particularly in a castle, near the film's conclusion) come across as forced and distorted. The dialog never rings true and the cast sound as though they are reading from cue cards. In most cases, the reasons that many sequences never made into the final cut are clear; for example, an extended episode in which a band of French horsemen attack a fortified German position, contains no dialog, fails to develop the principle characters, and distracts from the story. In the original film, the pace was always fast and each sequence stood on its own. There were connecting themes and threads, yes, but nothing too bizarre took away from the realism. This new cut seems too surreal and loses a lot of the realism that was packed in the original version.
Favorably, the new cut is much more explicit. There is more visceral violence and profanity than in the original release. These elements had a touch of realism that was often absent from the original.
As it exists now, you will either love or hate "The Big Red One". I found the Reconstructed Version to be unbalanced and frustratingly slow-paced. I can't watch it over and over again like I could the original version. All of the sentiments and impact of the original cut are lost in a sea of aimless new footage which simply detracts from Fuller's message: The real glory of war is surviving. Nothing else matters. In the original film, you got this point in every scene. It could not be missed. Here, with so many in-jokes and meandering scenes going on, it's hard to tell what Fuller is trying to accomplish let alone take the film seriously. I even fell asleep during my second viewing. That's how bad of an experience it was.
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
Visually Stunning Epic with Clichéd Characterizations
*HERE THERE BE SPOILERS* Anthony Mann made the mistake of stating during an interview that he thought a film's visual makeup was much more important than dialog. He stated that what you could say with words in several minutes you could say in a single silent shot of film. "The Heroes of Telemark" is a visually stunning war epic, but the lack of strong characterizations really lessens the impact of an important story.
Based on real events, the film tells the story of Norwegian resistance efforts to blow up the German heavy water factory high in the Norwegian mountains. When the attempt fails to be completely effective, the resistance finds themselves debating whether or not to sink a ferry on which the precious heavy water is being transported to Germany on a ferry which also carries several dozen innocent civilians.
The film is about a very important incident that quite probably allowed the Allies to win World War II. Unfortunately, the story fails to draw in and engage the audience. The main characters are similar to those we've seen in many movies before and after this one was made. Kirk Douglas plays Dr. Rolf Pedersen, a Norwegian science professor who is drawn into the war for some rather ambiguous reasons. When we first meet him, he is opposed to fighting and elects to sit out the war; within minutes, not only has he helped seize a freighter in order to get vital information to London, he has also become the most vital member of a team sent to blow up a Nazi factory. Richard Harris appears as resistance leader Knut Straud, who is introduced as a tough and boisterous patriot, but fades to the background as quickly as Douglas takes center stage.
The host of supporting actors is totally wasted. Ulla Jacobsson ("Zulu") pops up as Pederson's ex-wife who cannot seem to make up her mind about getting back together with him; all she does is sleep with him, or yell at him because of his concern for nobody but himself. Seeing as Dr. Pedersen can't seem to make up his mind about being a loner or a patriotic idealist, I can understand why she left him. Michael Redgrave appears in a throwaway role as "Uncle", who has a few lines here and there and gets to die rather heroically.
The host of British and German co-stars including one of my favorite Nazi villains, Anton Diffring, unfortunately, have very little to do or say. What is also unfortunate is that every actor playing a Norwegian in this film is obviously English or America. None of them make any attempts to disguise their accents, which was incredibly distracting. I never believed I watching Norwegian resistance fighters; I could always painfully detect that they were British actors.
On the plus side, Mann does offer us some breathtaking outdoor sequences which would be imitated a few years later in the fabulous adventure yarn "Where Eagles Dare". There are quite a few tense scenes of the heroes scaling snow-covered peaks to attack the Nazi factory, which were shot entirely on location. Every ounce of this sequence looks incredibly authentic. There is a subsequent scene of the good guys escaping across the snow on skis from a large force of German alpenkorps troops, which again, must have been shot by a cameraman on skis. In fact, the only time I noticed any dated special effects techniques (notably rear projection) in the film was during a parachuting scene. And you simply cannot film a close-up of Kirk Douglas drifting across the sky, so this is very understandable and equally forgivable. Mann elects to use music very sparsely (sometimes not at all) during the action sequences and they are far the better for it. I loved hearing the blaring gunfire and whoosh of skis rather than a thundering piece of fanfare.
It's a pity that these adventure scenes were so well shot without engaging characters to really draw me into the action scenes. They were marvelously choreographed, but were not the least bit engaging because I could have cared less about the men and women who were in harm's way. It's a pity. Mann was dead wrong when he said that the visual makeup a movie was much more important than the character drama. He proves it with "The Heroes of Telemark". See the film and decide for yourself.
Merrill's Marauders (1962)
A Movie that Shows Us What Real Heroes are All About
The best way to understand a man's emotions are to look into his eyes. What does the look on his face tell you about his mood? Sam Fuller knows that. This is a movie about the faces of ordinary men in battle. What brings them joy, what makes them angry, what fatigues them. Fuller, a former soldier himself, knows how to convey these emotions in a way few filmmakers ever have been able to.
In 1944, "Merrill's Marauders", a group of American volunteers, trekked across Burma to destroy several key Japanese bases. There was a legitimate fear that the Japanese would trek through Burma to India and link up with Hitler's forces in Europe. The Marauders played an important part in stopping this link-up, at great cost to their own lives.
The movie makes us understand what it must have been like to be a soldier in World War II. It's important to realize that the Marauders were expecting a reprieve very early on the campaign, and were pushed far beyond normal physical and mental limitations to complete their mission. Merrill (brilliantly portrayed by Jeff Chandler) has a heart condition himself, but keeps it a secret from his men, who come to loathe him until he collapses from a stroke, and they realize he has been pushing himself just as hard, if not harder than, his own troops.
Just what causes the stress they endure? First, the death of their friends. Lt. Stockton (Ty Hardin, in one of his best performances) expresses frustration at having to write letters home to the families of the dead in his platoon. Gradually, the number of families he must write to increases. The men left under his command are trudging through several hundred miles of swamp, fearing detection by the enemy at any given moment. They are without sufficient food, infected with malaria and typhus, and lack enough medical supplies. Then have to fight off or meticulously avoid every enemy unit they encounter. By the end of the film, every man we saw at the start with a clean shirt and freshly shaven face is either dead, or wearing tattered clothes, unkempt hair and most likely wounded or exhausted from disease. These are normal men who miss their homes and families, and want to go home badly they don't let the audience forget that, because it's almost all they talk about and rightly so.
Although some of the battle scenes seem sanitized compared to post 1965-standards (the usual fake-looking "seizure" death scenes, bloodless hand-to-hand combat), the aftermath is shockingly realistic and haunting. There is one scene in which Lt. Stockton slowly walks across a maze of concrete tank-traps, where a pitched close-quarters battle has just been fought, and sees and endless tangled mass of bodies both American and Japanese.
Fuller lets his camera linger on these moments. There is one scene where Merrill gives an order to his subordinate and Fuller keeps the camera on the officer's shocked and disappointed face for just long enough to let us start thinking about what is going inside the nameless man's head. Likewise, he makes the Philippine locations come to vivid life, especially the dark, confined sequence in the swamp. Only a few scenes set in pine forests near the end of the film look jarringly out-of-place.
"Merrill's Marauders" only weakness is in its almost forced jingoistic patriotism. The opening scene, a montage of documentary footage narrated by Andrew Duggan, sets us up for a flag-waving movie about American heroes single-handedly wiping out the Japanese Empire without effort, as has been seen in countless other war films. Likewise, the film's conclusion speaks of the heroism and dedication of the Marauders as if they and the entire U.S. military were immortal saints. These segments seemed tacked on, and I would bet in a minute that the military, who aided in production of the film, required that these scenes be included. Oh, yeah, and the ridiculous music score does not help much, either.
Am I patriotic? Yes. Do I support the American military? Of course. Who makes a war movie web site in order to cut down war movies? I love 'em. The body of the film is about ordinary fighting men and their dedication to each other. Not to a cause. I'm sure that when men were in the trenches together during WWII (and any other war, for that matter) their primary dedication was to their buddy next to them, not for a glorious cause.
I have a soft spot in my heart because Frank Merrill was my grandmother's cousin. So I have a bit of a tie to him and the history he and his men made, I suppose. That bit of prejudice doesn't change the fact that this is a great movie, and deserves a DVD release A.S.A.P.
None But the Brave (1965)
Film is Wonderful; Only Minor Flaws Distract
When you get right down to it, war is a pointless human endeavor. All it causes is death and destruction. When we use war to achieve a right event (such as the defeat of Nazism in World War II), it was often avoidable had some other peaceful action been taken earlier. Proper, humane treatment of Germany after World War I may have prevented the outbreak of World War II. "None But the Brave" is an earnest attempt to show that the differences between men in war can often be settled peacefully, and working together for mutual survival often assures peace and serenity.
The plot of the movie is rather straightforward. A plane carrying about a dozen American soldiers crashes on a small Pacific atoll, where the remnants of a Japanese garrison have been all but forgotten by their superiors. About equal in numbers, the two opposing parties attempt to fight it out, but then realize the hopelessness of confrontation, and instead form a peace in order to share fresh water, food, and medical supplies.
The two leads, Clint Walker ("The Dirty Dozen") and Tatsuya Mihashi ("Tora! Tora! Tora!") both shine in their roles. The two men are parallels: both have a sense of patriotism and devotion to their nation and the men under their command, yet both are humanists who see no point in destruction. During the truce, the two form a true friendship, coming to understand their respective backgrounds and personal life stories with respect and admiration for each other.
The supporting cast is generally filled with clichéd, familiar characters (a tough sergeant, a grizzled corporal, some inexperienced grunts, etc.), but the story really isn't about them. Tommy Sands ("The Longest Day") plays a green lieutenant out for blood, and his acting is far over the top. There's a story behind this, and it's unfortunate that his delivery strongly distracts from the story. Frank Sinatra has little to do, as he was busy in the director's chair, but there is a great extended scene revolving around a leg amputation where his limited dialog and great facial expressions more than deliver the goods. When Sinatra had substantial screen time, he used it well, but unfortunately he didn't give himself enough to do and his character is basically a waste of energy.
Director of Photography Harold Lipstein ("Hell is for Heroes") does a fantastic job with the Pacific locations. The steamy tropical jungle truly comes alive, especially during a fabulous scene in which a monsoon sweeps over the island. Sinatra's direction lacks flair, and most of the action sequences are straightforward and bland. The firefight revolving around a Japanese boat is also grim and gritty; and the final confrontation between the Japanese and Americans really delivers, mostly because of the blatant anti-war message which comes about 30 seconds after the shooting stops.
The movie features a rather boring score by John Williams (who was just starting to break into writing film scores in 1965; most of his work had been in television prior to this film). Eiji Tsuburaya (of "Godzilla") fame supervised the special effects work, and unfortunately, I have always found his work below-par when compared to some of the innovations Hollywood could afford during this period. There's a scene in which two model planes on strings blast away at each other in the same manner toy airplanes fired rockets at monsters as they attacked Tokyo. I can understand the Japanese cast and crew, since this was a joint production, but someone else should have been running the special effects department.
These are just minor nitpicks. Sinatra does a very good job directing this film and he has taken far too much criticism from other reviewers. The statements made in this film are bold and honest, and there are many moving moments. The final act is a brilliant exercise depicting the waste and futility of war. If everyone could not only watch, but understand the philosophy portrayed in this movie, perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place.
Good, But Could Have Gone Deeper
Loosely based on fact, "Tobruk" tells the story of an Allied mission to destroy Rommel's fuel supply at the port city of Tobruk. The film is quite entertaining, and there are some good ideas in the script, and some nicely shot action scenes, but the film never really rises above average.
In 1942, the fate of the Mediterranean hangs in the balance. The Allies have devised a scheme to stop Rommel's advance to the Suez Canal. A group of German Jews led by Captain Bergman (George Peppard), now working with the British, will escort a company of English commandos led by the staunch Colonel Harker (Nigel Green) across 800 miles of harsh desert right into the port of Tobruk, where they will knock out the harbor guns which prevent British troops from landing in the harbor. Then the British will land a strike force to destroy Rommel's colossal underground fuel dump. The movie follows the trek across the desert, where the characters bicker over opposing ideals and motives, discover a traitor in their midst, get stuck in a minefield, etc. etc., and as expected, resolve their differences during a climactic encounter with the enemy.
"Tobruk" is ultimately a movie about conflicting ideals. There are plenty of noisy action sequences and suspenseful moments, but at the heart of the story is a weakly established conflict over different moral standards held by the main characters. Director Arthur Hiller had a significant background in directing TV shows, and it shows. "Tobruk" has a small-scale feel to it from start to finish. The sets even the vast outdoor desert plains are never filled with thousands of extras. This is a movie about what goes on between a few main characters. What's unfortunate is that in "Tobruk" they're never fully developed and, therefore, it's hard to care when they are settled. Major Craig is a selfish pacifist, but all he really does is bicker about how much he hates being on the mission. Nigel Green's Colonel Harker is a typical English officer, playing a part written as most Hollywood roles for the English characters were. He demands order, obedience and when men don't stand up to his authority he just shouts a lot and gets his way. Of the leads, George Peppard makes the most of his role as Captain Bergman. Bergman, a victim of Nazi terror, is out for revenge and out to help re-unite the Jewish people. What's hard to swallow is that Bergman already seems to know the Jews will re-unite in Israel, when it wasn't re-formed into a nation by the U.N. until sometime after the end of World War II. Despite this, Peppard is passionate but never overacts. This is the type of role he was perfectly suited for, and it was fun to watch his performance.
All that said, "Tobruk" is still a pretty good movie. The question of heroism and duty is answered quite well near the film's conclusion, as each of the leads is forced into a situation they would rather not be in, where they must put their lives at stake in order to accomplish something important bigger than they are. Harker states, "We have few saving graces perhaps our willingness to die for what believe is all that matters." Craig comes to respect Bergman's religious ideals and backs him up during the final battle sequence. And with that said the final battle sequence is, quite simply, incredibly well-filmed. The Allied assault on the harbor guns is fantastic. There are dozens of soldiers running about on the beach as a huge artillery installation is blown to bits, and not the least part of it looks staged or faked. Later, this scene is put to shame as some of the heroes take out the entire fuel supply for Rommel with a tank. The fuel dump explodes in grand fashion, with dozens of huge explosions and orange fireballs, some of which must have been real. The visual effects are state-of-the art, especially when one considers that this film was shot in 1966. (It was nominated for Best Special Effects at the 1968 Oscars, but lost to Doctor Dolittle).
"Tobruk" is entertaining and a sufficient afternoon adventure story. From start to finish, and it looks and sounds very authentic. Nothing about this movie seems staged, and despite an average-quality script, it's engaging and thought-provoking. I would suggest renting it at some point.
From Hell to Victory (1979)
Gritty Drama Mixes with Stock Footage and Clichés
Infamous hack Umberto Lenzi returns to the war genre, this time to remake his own 1977 epic "The Greatest Battle". Both films are rather uneven, muddled attempts to capitalize on the success of Hollywood's huge 1976 money-maker, "Midway".
Although "From Hell to Victory" is definitely the stronger of Lenzi's two back-to-back epics, the storyline is completely convoluted and a complete rip-off of the previous film. In August, 1939, six friends meet in Paris and vow to reunite every year at a café no matter what the circumstances. Needless to say, WWII changes that plan. Brett (George Peppard) returns to the United States and becomes an OSS officer; Maurice (George Hamilton) finds himself on the beach at Dunkirk; Jurgen (Horst Buchholz) joins the German army and becomes disillusioned by Nazism; Fabienne (Anne Duperey) joins the French resistance. Rick (Jean-Pierre Cassel) joins the RAF, and Ray (Sam Wanamaker) becomes a war correspondent. Their paths will cross throughout the film, concluding with a bittersweet reunion in France during the summer of 1944.
Okay, that said, let's analyze this "story" a little bit. Lenzi presents us with thumbnail sketches of his characters, and then jumps right into the action. Throughout, there is little to no character development; we simply follow several people through the war. This mess should not be as entertaining as it is. And, at first glance this looks like a very original piece of work, but fans of the director will realize that it's just a complete hack job: for one thing, Lenzi's characters are straight out of "The Greatest Battle": Peppard mirrors Henry Fonda, in fact, even Ray Lovelock shows up here to play his pretty-boy son who turns into a hero (again); Hamilton is a takeoff of Giuliano Gemma, and even accompanies Lovelock on a mission to France (as Gemma did to North Africa in the previous film). Buchholz and Duperey fall in love, despite the fact that they are on opposite sides, a la Stacy Keach and Samantha Eggar the list simply goes on. A series of climaxes are taken straight out of "The Greatest Battle" as well: main characters kill one another from a distance without realizing they're killed a friend; the attack on a German bunker looks awfully familiar this is the third time Lenzi has shot the same type of shoot-'em-up sequence! Secondly, Lenzi also stages much of the action around stock footage from other, better films. A good deal of the expensive-looking tank battles is lifted from the 1967 epic "The Dirty Heroes", and almost all of the aerial battle photography is taken right out Enzo Castellari's "Eagles over London". The Dunkirk evacuation, in particular, is a total sham. What's amazing is how well this stock footage is edited with the original sequences I first saw "From Hell to Victory" a few years before "The Dirty Heroes" and "Eagles over London" and was awed by the scope; it wasn't until I saw these films that I realized how much of Lenzi's "work" was just cut from other movies. The only strong action sequence that stands out is a shootout atop the Eiffel Tower, which has got to be one of the most suspenseful, best-edited scenes ever shot. It compares to the most memorable moments in "The Last Hunter" and "The Dirty Dozen" it's just that good.
For all of the lack of originality, this piece still manages to be fairly entertaining. The cast are all confident and able; it's finally nice to see Peppard in a role where he doesn't have to constantly chew the scenery (he's only a decent actor, not a dramatic genius); he simply is laid back and completely at ease with his surroundings. The ensemble cast does a pretty fair job as well: Ray Lovelock seems a lot more serious about his role than he did in "The Greatest Battle" and George Hamilton seems to be having plenty of fun as a French commando. Buchholz's performance is a little hard to swallow at times, and his character transition from pacifist to die-hard Nazi is not very rational because it is barely developed. Even so, he tries hard and makes his material fairly believable, even if he is still just delivering dialogue rather than really acting.
Despite its many flaws, "From Hell to Victory" has become a widely circulated World War II film through the blessings of rental stores, flea markets and eBay. There's nothing to indicate to American audiences that it is a spaghetti war flick: the principles are familiar American and European actors, and the film plays a lot like a Hollywood drama. Lenzi's direction is somewhat restrained in comparison to his earlier efforts, almost as if he is trying to disguise his work. The credits list the crew and director under pseudonyms, rounding out its "Americanism". It's not a great film in any way, but it's packed with action and engaging situations. Don't go digging for this one, but if you see a dusty video copy, it's worth checking out.
Un esercito di 5 uomini (1969)
Purely Satisfactory Spaghetti Western
American actor Don Taylor tries his hand at directing a truly international "spaghetti western". A fast pace, fine musical score and satisfactory performances hold this rip-off of "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Wild Bunch" together over the course of nearly two hours.
"The Dutchman" (Peter Graves) recruits for of his old friends to go on a suicide mission. This involves infiltrating, capturing and then making off with a train filled with Mexican Gold. Each will get a small share; the rest will go to aid the Mexican revolutionary forces that the Dutchman has fallen in with.
Young writer Dario Argento's script doesn't hold up to his later flair, but keeps the familiar characters and plot line interesting enough to hold dedicated attention. The Dutchman is the typical hero of the piece, and Graves comes to life despite the fact that we know nothing about his background. He seems a little uncomfortable somewhat uneasy although his dedication to the robbery is very convincing. He does introduce the 4 members of the "Army" in an obligatory speech, and the rest of the cast stick their characterizations with little or no added ingenuity.
First, there's Augustus (James Daly), a grizzled demolition expert who's been in hiding since Spanish-American War. Augustus and Dutchman are two tired, old men and they have a great dramatic discussion reflecting the changing of the times and how they no longer fit into society. Bud Spencer is a lot of fun as the dimwitted Mesito, a giant whose sole redeeming quality seems to be his brute strength. Interestingly enough, Spencer recorded his own dialog in English, and his real voice simply adds to the humor his character he's got a thick accent, but good command of English, which balances out perfectly. Then there's Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba) a silent warrior who was rescued from a circus sideshow to help carry out the mission. Rounding out the band is Luis, a former acrobat-turned-outlaw who found a home in the Revolution while on the run from the Mexican Army. Throughout the piece, the heroes are out to satisfy their own greed, but a surprise ending ties together all of the loose ends.
The musical score of this piece is above-average work from the always-excellent Ennio Morricone, who contributed scores for some of the best spaghetti westerns, including "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". It's appropriately rousing and adds flair to the exciting moments, and occasional mournful and evocative in the slower, sad sequences notably, Dutchman's moving speech near the end which explains just why he's in league with the Revolution. He also contributes a fine extended, ultra-weird piece when one main character falls from the train and has to run for several minutes to catch up with his comrades.
The film never has a boring moment. Taylor keeps his camera moving in every scene, always showing off sagebrush, pueblos and military garrisons which always look and feel real. The movie is about men on the go it never stays in one location very long, and while there, something exciting is always happening. Every piece of dialog helps to flesh out the characters or explain the mission further. When people aren't talking, they're in an intense situation whether it be the ambush of a Mexican truck, escape from a military prison, or the lengthy takeover of the train (which, perhaps, is one of the best extended action sequences ever caught on film) there is never a dull moment.
Taylor manages to keep the action interesting enough and different enough in each scene, too there's not just lots of fast gun-play going on. There is one notable capture-and-escape sequence involving a heavily fortified Mexican garrison, and the 20+ minute sequence depicting the infiltration and capture of the armored train is nail-biting. The stunts look to be performed by the real actors on a moving train there is no rear-projection here.
The production values are higher than usual for this genre. The crowd scenes are truly massive, and Taylor is able to take time establishing his locations using cranes and long pans before jumping right into the action. Although the first half of the film has a dry, depressing look to it (the exteriors are barren and desolate) the second half features several large, open grassy plains something not often seen in a film of this kind. The territory surrounding the train, especially, looks vast and open only once do we notice the painfully obvious presence of a sound-stage, as the characters observe the train from a distance.
There are a lot of little things that go wrong with the production or some small parts of the film which lack badly needed care, however, which hamper the effectiveness of the proceedings. The second unit direction seems a bit half-hearted. When extras are shot and die, they slump over with considerable effort and never really look to have been shot. There are also noticeable gaps in logic the heroes board the train in full view of some very unobservant Mexican guards; the main characters seem afraid of a giant cannon on the train, but it's not as though it can fire at them at such a close range. Also, the engineer (Jose Torres) is taken prisoner because he's allied with the military government, but near the climax, his character disappears. One moment he is standing on the train; in the next shot he is simply gone. What happened to him? In the end, "The Five Man Army" is no more than merely a hash of clichés, but manages to be engaging and entertaining throughout without offering anything new and notable.
Beach Red (1967)
A Beautiful, Tragically Honest Look at Warfare
REVIEW OF THE REGION 1 MGM DVD
Rarely does a low-budget film make a major impact on one's life. If one watched "Beach Red" and walks away unaffected, then I must say the fault lies with the viewer not the film. With haunting images and unflinchingly honest dialog, director Cornel Wilde drops a great big bomb on the audience.
"Beach Red" tells a straightforward story of an American Marine company which assaults a Pacific island, held by fanatical Japanese troops. The main characters include Captain MacDonald (Cornel Wilde), a former lawyer who hates the war he's forced to fight, and loves his wife and simply wants to return home. He struggles with holding the lives of men in his hands and being responsible for their deaths. Sgt. Honeywell (Rip Torn) is a career soldier, whose only goal is to kill Japanese and get his platoon through the war alive. Pvt. Cliff (Patrick Wolfe) is a minister's son who is not prepared for the horrors of war; and his only friend, Pvt. Egan (Burr de Benning), is an uneducated southerner who spends his free time flashing back to sexscapades. Rounding out the group is Colombo (Jaime Sanchez in a non-stereotypical performance), an insecure, somewhat cowardly veteran who chooses to conceal his fear with excuses to avoid criticism.
Wilde fleshes out these character using two rare techniques: the first involves brief flashbacks, often told with still frames shot in surreal colors, set to soft, soothing music while the character in question narrates the action. Characters may be conversing, but they're really talking to the audience. Each of the leads also has a number of voice-overs, which put the viewer inside their head. These voice-overs are simple and match the way a character would talk out loud; unlike the 1998 version of "The Thin Red Line", in which voice-overs were deeply philosophical, these thoughts are haunting and simple. Wilde uses the same techniques in scenes involving the Japanese, which breaks down the barrier between the "good guys" and "bad guys". These are just ordinary men on both sides of the battle line, involved in a war they don't want to be fighting. Yes, there is definitely an enemy, but they are not demonized and stereotyped as in other war films of the period. The Japanese are a formidable, foe, yes but ordinary men with lives and families just like the main American characters.
Wilde uses color cinematography ceaselessly and perfectly. The opening beach assault takes place on a sunny day, and characters bleed and die on a beautiful tropical beach and, later, in the middle of a lush jungle. The atmosphere doesn't appear deadly at first, and it's quite sad to see war ravaging and destroying such a stunning landscape. The combat sequences are superbly staged. The first half of the film focuses on an inch-by-inch assault on the beach, encounters with snipers and machine-gun nests. Wilde fills the screen with action at all times. Even though the focus is on one or two main characters, we can always see dozens often hundreds of extras in the background. As they crawl through tall grasses, we can hear rustling and heavy breathing. Men scream in pain when they get shot and the dialog is often lost amidst the deafening roar of explosions. All of the actors look like soldiers in the middle of a pitched battle: they wade through chest-deep water with forty-pound rucksacks and don't wear any makeup. They're genuine soldiers in the middle of a genuine battle. The on-location shooting in the Philippines really gives the battle scenes a look of authenticity not often found in similarly-themed films of the same time period.
Wilde doesn't sanitize the graphic nature of war, either. Unlike many films of the 1960s, he uses graphic violence quickly and shockingly to help illustrate his themes. Quick, graphic moments are used only to shock and are not dwelt on or eulogized. One character has his arm blown off on the beach and we see a close-up of him staggering about in a delirious stupor, bloody stump gushing and severed limb lying on the ground. Close-ups of bayonet and knife stabbings are also pretty gruesome. There's another, tense scene in which the American infantrymen must storm a bunker complex and use flamethrowers to drive out the Japanese within; the aftermath is more-than-effective. These shots of death and destruction are shocking and rapid; then the focus moves on. Wilde makes his point with one or two frames, a line or two of dialog, or just a facial expression. He doesn't need to dwell on it. We get the message.
Wilde's film is a moving statement about the futility of warfare. The final foxhole scene, in which two enemies sit wounded facing each other and share cigarettes and water as they lay dying, is poignant without being an overstatement. The pain and sadness on each character's face is real as they realize that the only difference between them is skin color and uniform. At heart, they're both innocent kids, caught up in a conflict they don't want to be in. They should be at home with their girlfriends and families, not sweating, bleeding and dying in the midst of an inconsequential tropical island.
"Beach Red" is simply one of the great unknown war films. The ensemble cast never misses a beat, the battle scenes are grim and expertly staged, and the scenery is captured perfectly. This is easily the best fictional film about an island campaign to date, and one of the best war films ever made.
War Hunt (1962)
Poignant and Moving Despite Budgetary Limitations
Director Denis Sanders isn't a very well-known or acknowledged filmmaker. After seeing "War Hunt", I looked up his filmography, hoping to credit him to another, more mainstream film one does not exist. Fortunately, a man does not have to be well known or have a huge fan base to be a good director. "War Hunt" is one of the best low-budget sleepers in the video store, now available on DVD from MGM.
Running less than 90 minutes, "War Hunt" tells a powerful story about the toll of warfare on those who fight it. Idealism, patriotism and notions of heroism are forgotten in the midst of battle. Instead of making men into saints, war usually turns them into demons. Pvt. Loomis (an impossibly young Robert Redford) arrives in Korea during the last few weeks of the war. He meets Raymond Endore (John Saxon, "The Cavern"), an unhinged draftee who thrives on night patrols, during which he kills North Korean soldiers in their sleep. Endore has taken Charlie (Tommy Matsuda), a Korean orphan, into his care and Loomis also befriends the boy, hoping to wrest him away from Endore's dangerous influence.
Much like "Hell is for Heroes" which premiered the same year, "War Hunt" was shot on a shoestring budget in the Midwestern United States. From start to finish, it's obvious that the military did not back the production. After all, this is a very anti-military movie. There are only a few extras on-hand and we only see a few trucks. The lack of financing really shows through in the climactic scene in which hordes of Chinese troops attack the entrenched Americans; most of the explosions and reactions to them look utterly false and stagy.
Thankfully, this is not a picture about action and the glory of war it's about the aftermath of such scenes. The fighting serves to push the conflict forward in the quiet moments of rest and recuperation when the bullets are done flying. In fact, in the film's third act, set during the cease-fire with the Chinese, the most devastating violence occurs. Endore sets off with Charlie to live in the mountains after the war's end, refusing to admit that he is part of the Army and must return home. The final conclusion between Endore and Captain Pratt (Charles Aidman) is quick, gritty and comes to an unexpected, powerful conclusion.
Sanders' ensemble cast is superb in every way. Redford, in his film debut, is actually quite memorable as Loomis. The first time we meet Loomis, we already know what to expect: we've seen this type of clean-cut, fair-haired boy before. He'll go on to undergo a baptism of fire and become the hero of the piece. Not so, here. Loomis arrives in Korea with ideals and patriotism; much like Charlie Sheen's Chris Taylor in "Platoon", he comes to realize that there are only two kinds of men in warfare: those who crack under its pressures, like Endore, and those who just want to survive, like his new found friends Crotty (Gavin MacLeod) and Showalter (Tom Skerritt). His scenes between Charlie are tender, poignant and moving. His encounters with Endore are chilling and unconventionally solved. As Endore, John Saxon brings a new meaning to the word psychopath. We've never met a wacko like him before. His mannerisms, dialog, expressions, are all played with utter randomness. It's as if he was handed the role and told "do what you want with it". There are times when Endore is almost completely human, but something in his eyes tells us that perhaps there is something slightly wrong with this guy. As the nature of his character is gradually revealed, we can't help but become shocked, almost frightened.
"War Hunt" is a cliché-free, freshly original and involving drama. It makes a strong statement about war's general destructive nature. This is a movie about survival and flawed idealism, not heroism and courage. Kudos to the director for choosing to pick such a controversial subject. The film is almost prophetic in that it approaches the Korean War with an attitude that would come across with force and power in Vietnam films 25 years later, like "Hamburger Hill" and "Platoon".
Ambush Bay (1966)
Brainless, standard, and still entertaining
"Ambush Bay" is the poster-child of how to make a war film based solely on clichés. Regardless, the result is a very entertaining look at espionage in the Pacific Theater.
Days before MacArthur's fleet is to return to the Philippines, a squad of Marines is dropped on Mindanao with a risky assignment: penetrate enemy territory and contact a spy named Miyazaki who operates out of a Japanese rest camp. They spy has information vital to MacArthur's intelligence department. They are experts in the field of killing, except for Grenier (Jim Mitchum), a PBY radio man who was assigned to the team at the last minute when the original radio operator got sick. Grenier doesn't fit in with the veterans, especially the macho Sgt. Corey (Hugh O'Brian).
The piece is clichéd from start to finish in what movie have we not seen the characters, setting or mission before? Director Winston handles this nonsense seriously so seriously, that despite the flaws, it's very easy to enjoy this movie, even in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. O'Brian gives a passionate performance, even if his character is anything but original and personal. His Sergeant is virtually a superhero, as Sgt. Wartell (Mickey Rooney!) reveals to Grenier by describing a series of Corey's early exploits on Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Rooney looks to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he scales cliffs and mows down Japanese infantry by the dozen, although he looks way too old and simultaneously boyish to be a believable career marine.
Although he gets third billing, Mitchum's is the most developed and believable character. He's a person any viewer can relate to: thrown into a situation beyond his control, Grenier is forced to adapt to ever-changing conditions and fast because his life may depend on it. He wants to do his job well, but doesn't have any natural talent, and therefore his peers look down on him with contempt. His performance never strikes a false note, and he even gets to lapse into some voice-overs to keep things fresh.
The on-location photography is stunning from beginning to end. Had this film not been shot in the Philippines, any credibility would have been totally lost. The exteriors are appropriately lush and beautiful. Winston and cinematographer Emmanuel L. Rojas don't just take us into the steamy jungles; we get to venture into rice patties, across streams and down rushing, crystal clear blue rivers. I absolutely hate it when producers try to make ridiculous locations like North American forests ("The Green Berets") or rocky plains of Spain (1964's "The Thin Red Line") pass for Asian or South Pacific jungles. The technique just doesn't work. Kudos to Winston for choosing to shoot this film in the actual locations it is said to have occurred at.
Although the movie runs nearly 2 hours, the time flies by. The pace is kept fluid in two ways. The characters are constantly on the go. The only reason they stop is rest, and we're treated to discussion revealing something of their character. For example, we don't get to know Corey as a person until late in the film when he develops a relationship with Tisa Chang's character. When the men aren't hiking or resting, they're engaged in some sort of combat with the enemy patrols, tanks and indigenous cannibals constantly hamper their progress. Winston doesn't dwell on the supporting cast at all: most of them are non-essential characters that he kills off in a few early encounters with the enemy. We constantly ask ourselves "Who is going to get killed next?" This curiosity keeps us engaged right up until the climactic battle inside a fortified Japanese radio installation.
All of that said, it's necessary to point out several technical flaws which make the proceedings difficult to take seriously. The members of the squad are introduced quite extensively as masters in the art of warfare, but by the half-way point, almost all of them have been killed by Japanese draftees. Their detailed introductions are a waste of viewer time and engagement, since Winston seems to want to kill all of them off as quickly as possible. The death of one key character, involving "baked potatoes", has got to be an example of some of the worst screen-writing I've witnessed.
Some of the special effects (namely the destruction of a tank) are very below par, even for a low-budget film from 1966. Outdoor sets are used multiple times, to represent very different locations. The film's climax is packed with unlikely heroics, but by the time it arrives, viewers have dispensed with realistic expectations.
The ridiculous baseball-style caps look like something a Green Beret or Navy SEAL might have worn in the 1960s, but are totally out of place in a World War II movie. I took flak for this comment elsewhere. I don't care if Baseball caps are the "headgear of choice" for Marine air crewmen - these are Marines on an important mission and the last thing they'll be wearing in a green jungle is a bright red cap which yells "HERE I AM! SHOOT ME!"
Perhaps the unbelievable, overstated corny parts of "Ambush Bay" make it such an entertaining film; maybe it's more sincere performances of Mitchum and O'Brian that make it stand out from the deluge of "jungle patrol" stories out there. Whatever the reason, it's thoroughly enjoyable has been a favorite of mine since I caught it on cable as a kid. Now that it's available on DVD, a whole new audience may have opened up.