Action Adventure movies


GOLD FOR THE CAESARS. Adelphia Compagnia Cinematografica / Films Borderie, Italy, 1963, as Oro per i Cesari. MGM, US, 1964. Jeffrey Hunter, Mylène Demongeot, Ron Randell, Massimo Girotti, Giulio Bosetti, Ettore Manni. Directors: André De Toth, Sabatino Ciuffini (Italy), Riccardo Freda (uncredited).

   Peplum par excellence. An Italian production with Andre De Toth credited as its director (there’s some dispute as to how much actual work he did on the film), Gold for the Caesars isn’t exactly the type of film that is rich in character development. Instead, it relies upon costumes, sword fights, and campiness to get its point across. And that point is celluloid escapism, pure and simple.

   Jeffrey Hunter, a long way from the set of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), portrays Lacer, a slave in the hands of Rome. He’s also an architect, responsible for aiding in the construction of a bridge in Spain. Enlisted by a local Roman leader to aid in the search for gold in hill country occupied by the Celts, he is forced to choose between a life of enslavement versus a chance to risk it all for freedom. Along the way, he falls for a Roman slave girl.

   That’s about it, to be honest. That’s the essence of the plot. But you know what? In an era of overwrought CGI productions, there’s something slightly charming about being able to watch an admittedly mediocre sword-and-sandal film that actually has a large cast of extras portraying soldiers and slaves alike.

   Make no mistake about it: if this movie was remade today – a highly dubious proposition to be sure – both the Roman and Celt warriors would likely be “made” of CGI imagery rather than a cast of hundreds all dressed in traditional costumes. And a lot of it would probably have been filmed on green screens rather than outside. I can’t overly recommend anyone going out of his way to see Gold for the Caesars, but I’m not going to be unduly harsh on it either.


THE GREEN GODDESS. Warner Brothers, 1930. George Arliss, Ralph Forbes, H.B. Warner, Alice Joyce. Director: Alfred E. Green.

   Speaking of surprises, there’s a nifty one at the end of The Green Goddess, a remake of a venerable Silent Film derived from a creaky play by William Archer. Both films starred that shameless old ham George Arliss (whom a critic dubbed “The Man of One Face”) delivering a magnificently fruity performance as the half-mad ruler of some lost city in the remote regions of what C. Aubrey Smith used to call “Injah.”

   This film may be the spiritual progenitor of every “lost city” serial and B-movie ever made. Certainly, all the elements are there, what with the doughty downed flyers (Ralph Forbes and H. B. Warner, back when he had hair) and the woman they both love (Alice Joyce) at the mercy of heathen zealots, playing cat-and-mouse with Arliss amid splendiferous sets and keeping upper lips stiff to the point of Lockjaw. There are hairbreadth escapes, human sacrifices, stylish lust, and everything else kids go to the movies for.

   At Center Stage, though, is the unforgettable Arliss, who — how can I describe it? — manages to ham it up without overacting. He ladles out every line of his drippy dialogue with all the relish of Robert Newton or Tod Slaughter, yet somehow manages to gently kid the whole thing at the same time.

   It’s a performance of enormous gusto and more complexity than you might think, and as a reward for it, Arliss gets to wrap up the film with a Closing Line guaranteed to awaken even the most jaded viewer, Watch it and see.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #44, May 1990.

SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR. Warner Brothers, 1939. Brass Bancroft #1. Ronald Reagan, John Litel, Ila Rhodes, James Stephenson, Eddie Foy Jr., Rosella Towne. Director: Noel M. Smith.

   I really can’t imagine that anyone who went to see this movie in 1939 could have possibly come away from it saying to his wife or her husband, as the case may be, that that guy’s got what it takes to be President someday! But what they definitely would have gotten was a good look at an amiable, good-looking actor with a lot of personal appeal if not necessarily a wide range of acting ability.

   Although only a small budget affair from Warners, the movie itself did so well that three more in a follow-up series were made. I’ve listed two women in the cast, but you can forget about them, even though one of them plays Brass’s fiancée, showing up only at the beginning and once again right at the end.

   In between this is a guys’ story only, one dealing with a tough gang of hoodlums actively smuggling people across the border by plane into California. (How tough are they? Watch this movie and you’ll find out.)

   As for Brass Bancroft, he’s a pilot recruited by the secret Service to go undercover and find out who he Big Boss is. To this end he is framed on a counterfeiting rap and sentenced to a term in prison. Our star of course does this standing on his head. Figuratively speaking, of course. And in spite of his longtime sidekick’s attempt to help (Eddie Foy, Jr.), he’s pretty good at catching bad guys, too.

   Don’t expect too much from this one, as it doesn’t have a lot to give, but you may find this one as much fun to watch as I did.


13 HOURS BY AIR. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Brian Donlevy, Alan Baxter, Fred Keating, Ruth Donnelly, Adrienne Martin, Benny Bartlett. Screenplay Bogart Rogers, based on his story “Wild Wings” with Frank Mitchell Dazey. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A bit different than what you might expect from director Leisen, though he often did films about flying or flyers (Arise My Love).

   This is an early aviation film with the usual Grand Hotel cast, first Captain Jack Gordon (MacMurray) meets Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) desperate to get a ticket on the flight to San Francisco. Of course he can’t resist helping even when he sees a headline about a woman in a fur coat who held up a jewelry store with two men.

   Add to the passenger list Zasu Pitts as the high-strung nanny to wealthy young Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett, billed as Binnie Bartlett), a small handful of ill manners and painful tricks, then a mysterious Dr. Evarts (Brian Donlevy), the nosy Mr. Palmer (Alan Baxter), and a foreign fellow threatening Felice (Fred Keating), plus co-pilot John Howard and stewardess Adrienne Martin who just got engaged.

   The usual comedic misdirection abounds, and this one almost falls into the runaway heiress genre of screwball comedy, with Bennett and MacMurray both veterans of such lighter fare, but then the plane is forced down in bad weather in a snowy field, and it turns out there is a killer on board willing to sacrifice everyone so he can escape to Mexico.

   No surprises here. Waldemar proves his worth, MacMurray gets the girl, and the bad guy gets decked while all the romantic entanglements get explained simply as soon as everyone stops playing cute and just talk to each other. Leisen often combined comedy and drama in his films.

   Granted the model work is distractingly crude, though good for the time, but aside from that I’m a sucker for these closed world films whether on a train, a plane, or ship, and this one boasts an unusually good cast and a solid plot that, while slight, gets by on good dialogue and the quality of the players. It plays like one of the better stories of this sort that appeared in the slicks and the pulps of the period, and is a good example of a genre that writers such as Ernest K. Gann and Arthur Hailey would push to the bestseller list and would be adapted into memorable films later.

   Better than average fare in a genre that would become a staple in the decades that followed.


ALISTAIR MacLEAN – River of Death. Collins, UK. hardcover, 1981. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1982. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1983.

RIVER OF DEATH. Cannon Films, 1989. Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. Director: Steve Carver.

   I imagine a conversation between Alistair Maclean and his editor going something like this: “Imagine a story where you have an adventurer, an Allan Quatermain sort ripped straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, who discovers that a Nazi war criminal is not just hiding in South America, but that he’s hiding in a lost city originally founded by a hitherto unknown Indian tribe!” That is, to be sure, an intriguing premise to a story.

   But there are obvious questions raised by the idea. How did the Nazi get there? What is he doing there? Just hiding out or up to something far more nefarious? And who is this adventurer who gets the honor of serving as the tale’s protagonist?

   Sadly, it’s the near complete dearth of character development, to say nothing of the achingly dull plot, which relegates Maclean’s River of Death to a minor work in the author’s far more distinguished canon. Hamilton, the hero of the story, is introduced to the reader almost simultaneously with other characters, all of whom will play far lesser roles in the plot.

   There’s no real moment in the first third of the novel when the reader gets a feel for Hamilton and learns why he might be so motivated to return to the site of this so-called lost city. That, along with the fact that many of the characters seem to speak exactly alike, is unnecessarily confusing and does very little to keep one engrossed, let alone interested, in what’s transpiring.

   And then there are the Nazis. In the novel’s prologue, which is undoubtedly the best part of the work, Maclean is at his best at least as far as this work is concerned. He paints a picture of two Nazi war criminals. It’s the end of the war, when it’s clear to all but the most deluded fanatics that Germany is about to be a defeated power. Two S.S. officers, Van Manteuffel and Spaatz, decide to abscond to South America with treasures they have looted from a Greek monastery.

   But Nazis aren’t the sorts to play fair. It’s no surprise that Von Manteuffel, a poorly developed arch-villain if there ever were one, decides he’d rather have the loot all to himself and have his would-be partner in crime out of the way.

   Fast-forward several decades. Spaatz, who managed to survive Van Manteuffel’s bullet, is now working and living in Brazil under the laughably generic name Smith. He hires Hamilton, the story’s hero-adventurer, to lead him into the Amazonian jungle under the pretense that he’s interested in seeing the lost city for himself. What he’s really after, of course, is revenge. He knows that Van Manteuffel is living a Kurtz-like existence out in the jungle.

   Most of the novel follows Hamilton and Smith, along with a motley crew of thrill seekers, as they traverse rough terrain, fight off Indian tribes, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. The dialogue is forgettable, as are the descriptions of the group’s infighting. Like slogging through the rainforest, it requires patience to get where you’re going.

   And, unfortunately, the payoff isn’t really worth it. Yes, they find Van Manteuffel and the implication of the ending is that the bastard gets his just desserts. Nevertheless, it all left me with a feeling of “so what.” Unlike Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (reviewed here), which raised all sorts of ethical and political questions, Maclean’s work seems to be content with just following through with a mildly quirky, albeit intriguing, premise.

   The cinematic adaptation of Maclean’s work isn’t much better than the novel itself. What starts off as a sweaty, low-budget adventure film with potential to punch well above its weight, ends up faltering under the weight of so many 1980s action movie clichés. You’ve got some gunfights, some explosions, uncivilized natives, and the cruel and sadistic Nazis.

   Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence, who portray the two Nazi war criminals, could have put in solid dramatic performances rather than the cartoonish ones they deliver here. Michael Dudikoff, who plays Hamilton, is stilted from the very beginning. He radiates as much personality as his character in the novel. Which is to say almost none. It’s a shame. When given the opportunity to do so, he was capable of so much more than phoning it in.

   The one exception is L. Q. Jones. A veteran of many Sam Peckinpah productions, Jones is a welcome presence in River of Death. He plays a shifty fixer, the type of guy you might very well meet in a small town Brazilian watering hole a million miles from nowhere. It’s a real good role for him and one that I admit kept me watching the movie longer than I would have otherwise.

SICARIO. Lionsgate, 2015. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber. Director: Denis Villeneuve.

   When a young female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is recruited to join an elite task force assigned to bring down a Mexican drug cartel, she agrees readily enough, but when she shows up for work, she finds herself on the outside and along only for the ride.

   And this is the problem. Not only is she totally confused as to what it that’s going on and what it is she should be doing, so is the viewing audience — and so was the scriptwriter. The story makes no sense at all.

   As it turns out, the task force is doing things totally illegally as far as respect of international borders is concerned. The ends justify the means? Well, maybe. The drug cartel and its elusive boss are doing very nasty things, and they deserve to be brought down. But why recruit someone who plays it straight and goes strictly by the book?

   It is also not to say that Emily Blunt is at all convincing as a tough head of a FBI SWAT team. She’s far too slight in size and stature. She’s a little girl playing with the big kids on the block in dress-up clothes. She’s very good at sitting in a car or a bus looking out the window wondering what it is that’s going on, but little else.

   Nor is the ending worth waiting for. It’s very dramatic, I grant you, and we do find out two things: (1) why Benicio Del Toro’s brooding liaison character has been hanging around since the beginning of the operation, and (2) the meaning of the film’s title (which translated means “Hitman,” or so I’m told).

   But when it comes down to it, Emily Blunt’s character is shoved aside for a good portion of the end of the film. While this does allow the real story to be told, it’s very unsatisfying that she’s not there to be part of it. Emily Blunt is the star of the movie, but there’s almost no reason she had to be in it. (Of course, if she isn’t, there’s no conflict of ideas, and it’s an entirely different story than the screenwriter intended to tell.)

   A complicated film, in other words, but one that just didn’t connect with me. The photography is nice, though.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD. Lionsgate, 2017. Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung. Director: Patrick Hughes.

   For an action comedy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard has a complicated plot, so let’s start with that, using the cast listing above, and in the same order. Ryan Reynolds is the bodyguard, two years earlier at the top of his game, but fallen into disgrace after he allowed one of his clients, a Japanese arms dealer, to be killed.

   Samuel L. Jackson is his client, a notorious hitman who has agreed to testify against Gary Oldman, the brutal dictator of Belarus, at the International Criminal Court, for crimes against humanity. Salma Hayek is Jackson’s wife, currently in prison, but as a bargaining chip, she will be released once Jackson testifies.

   Last but far from least is Élodie Yung, an inexperienced agent for Interpol whose assignment is to make sure Jackson makes it to the trial on time. To this end she hires Reynolds, an ex-lover, as an outside agent in charge of transport. He demurs but he finally agrees when he is promised his reputation will be restores.

   Almost all of the pieces are in place, but of course there are some twists ahead, as well as lots and lots of bullets, explosions and other spectacular firepower. Lots of chases too, on foot, by car, on motorbike, and around and around the canals of Amsterdam. If you like movies with high body counts, this is the film for you. It is also a “buddy” film, with the hitman and his bodyguard always in wickedly sharp banter with each other as they make one hair’s breadth escape after another.

   But at the heart of the film, though, what it really is, is a love story. Two of them, in fact. Jackson is willing to testify and in all likelihood go to prison, but in exchange for his wife Salma Hayek’s release, it is worth it. Theirs is love-hate relationship, but course we know that love will win out.

   As for Ryan Reynolds, he broke up with Élodie Yung when he became convinced that she had something to to with his big failure two years before, but the torch he carries for her is a mile long. Once again, we the viewer, know that all will end well, and indeed it does.

   Don’t watch this movie if either overpowering but well-filmed mayhem or lots (and lots) of swears bother you, but if not, I think you may enjoy this one as much as I did. It did well enough with audiences last year that a sequel is in the works, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.


THE WHITE TOWER. RKO, 1950. Glenn Ford, Alida Valli, Lloyd Bridges, Claude Rains, Oscar Homolka, Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Screenplay by Paul Jarrico, from the novel by James Ramsay Ullman. Art Direction by Ralph Berger. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff.

   A sparkling gem of a film, easy to watch and dazzling to behold.

   The story is of a disparate group of mountaineers who set out to climb a mountain known as the White Tower, each for his or her own reasons. Jarrico’s screenplay sketches them out capably, and in the hands of top-notch players (check out that cast) they come to life with subtle nuance. I particularly liked the way the characters each reacted differently to Lloyd Bridges as the able and indispensible member of the team who turns out to be an unreconstructed Nazi and a complete jerk besides.

   TOWER wastes a bit too much time getting them all started up the mountain, but the rich Technicolor imagery of the beautiful Alpine countryside — gorgeouser than which there is nothing — makes the time pass pleasantly And once they start the climb…

   Let me digress a bit: Director Ted Tetzlaff knew how to milk a story, as witness THE WINDOW (1949) but he was primarily a cinematographer, with impressive films like NOTORIOUS and THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE to his credit. His cinematographer here was Ray Rennahan, who could look back with pride on DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, BLOOD AND SAND and DUEL IN THE SUN. And the sets (more on that later) were designed by Ralph Berger, who was responsible for the catchy visual backgrounds of WHITE ZOMBIE, THE LOST CITY, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and the first FLASH GORDON serial.

   Well, when three visual stylists like this get together, you can expect something special and they do not disappoint. The actual climbing is done in long shot by stunt doubles, but the way Tetzlaff and Rennahan capture the action, one never stops to think about that — at least this one didn’t; I was too busy gasping at the sight of them dangling from ledges and clawing at crevices to think about stunt doubles.

   When we see the stars in close-up on the mountain, it’s mostly in studio “exteriors” and it’s here where set-maker Berger really shines. I guess I knew on some level that Glenn Ford and Lloyd Bridges weren’t really hunkering down in a wind-lashed tent or clinging for their lives to fragile toe-holds in the snow, but that never occurred to me as I watched them doing it — the illusion is that good.

   WHITE TOWER ends as it started, with a bit too much Movie after the Story is over, but again there’s plenty of pretty pitchers to look at as you scrape the last husks of popcorn from your bag, and I can’t think of a better way to fill up the time.


CRIMSON TIDE. Buena Vista Pictures, 1995. Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Matt Craven, George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Rocky Carroll. Director: Tony Scott.

   Postmodern inter-textual awareness is the name of the game in Crimson Tide, a Tony Scott-directed war movie set almost exclusively on board an American nuclear submarine. There’s dialogue early on in the film, due largely to uncredited rewrites by Quentin Tarantino, that deliberately makes the viewer sit up, pay attention, and acknowledge that they are watching not only a war movie, but a specific sub-genre within that genre: the submarine film.

   As members of the crew wait upon a bus ready to transport them to the submarine, they engage in casual banter about submarine movies, referencing not only Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens in The Enemy Below (1957), but also Cary Grant’s appearance in submarine films and Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.

   The question is, why? Why have characters draw attention to the fact that their mission parallels stories told in cinematic war classics? It’s not typical for an action film to consciously draw that much attention to itself. But in this case, it not only works, but it works extraordinarily well in giving the proceedings a real edge. It serves to tell the viewer that what they’re about to watch doesn’t stand alone, but is part of a larger tradition in American war cinema.

   That’s not say that the movie wouldn’t have worked without this pop culture postmodern awareness. Far from it. Stars Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington are both on the top of their game as officers on board the U.S.S. Alabama. The two men couldn’t be more different. Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) is a jaded, solitary man, his only friend in the world his dog. He sees the world as a dark, hostile place and believes it’s the duty of Naval officers to destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys you.

   Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington) is younger, more cerebral, and a family man who believes that, in the nuclear age, the real enemy is war itself. When the crew is ordered to make preparations for a preemptive nuclear attack on a rogue Russian military base, it’s only a matter of time between the two men’s worldviews come into stark conflict.

   Well-directed and superbly acted, Crimson Tide also benefits immensely from a score by Hans Zimmer. Fans of The Sopranos and NCIS will appreciate seeing James Gandolfini and Rocky Carroll in supporting roles.

   As much as I enjoyed the movie – particularly the manner in which Hackman embodies his character with such gruff, stubborn conviction – I can’t say that it’s a film that necessitates repeated viewings. But for a fun, exciting ride, Crimson Tide delivers all the goods that one would want in an action film that doesn’t remotely insult the viewer’s intelligence.


ANGKOR. Mapel Pictures, 1935. Also released as FORRBIDDEN ADVENTURE, FORBIDDEN ADVENTURE IN ANGKOR, THE GORILLA WOMAN and PRIVATE LIFE OF INGAGI (!). With Wilfred Lucas and Fred Humes. Directed, at various times, by L.C. Cook and George Merrick. No writer credited.

   Another oddity, made up of some amazing film shot in 1912, the first motion picture record of the magnificent ruins at Angkor, when it was still a vine-covered ruin, before it became a tourist site — but

   With something added….

   Dwain Esper, the auteur of REEFER MADNESS, somehow got the original footage and hired George Merrick to shoot scenes with actors in false beards to match the original (more or less) and a half-dozen Hollywood hookers to run around topless as “native bearers.” Throw in a guy in a gorilla suit, and you got Cinematic Treasure.

   Like many low-budget cobble-jobs, ANGKOR is held together (sort of) by voice-over narration, here detailing a story about intrepid explorers in search of a cult of ape-worshipers, supposedly for the story behind the fall of the Khmer civilization. Okay.

   So we get the usual jungle-documentary stuff, silent and projected at the wrong speed, while the narrator talks about the harrowing trek, and invites us to watch cute fuzzy animal antics and a few staged scenes of dire peril. My favorite is a guy struggling for his life with a 12’ python (while, presumably, the cameraman looks on with clinical disinterest) until his fellow-bwana shows up, sees his pardner wrapped in the serpent’s coils, and shoots the snake from twenty feet away without injuring the struggling man he’s wrapped around – which if nothing else, shows a confidence in one’s marksmanship amounting to arrogance.

   At various places in the trek we break for scenes of the stand-ins, standing in as is their wont, in front of back-projected footage. Then we get to the native village where the plot thickens a bit. A sinister priest of an ape-worshiping sect (a monkey-monk?) warns the men not to help the white interlopers, and stalks off, leaving our stand-in heroes with the pleasant alternative of hiring the buxom ladies of the tribe as native barers.

   Esper got into trouble with the Breen Office at this point, and hit on the happy (?) solution of superimposing tree branches into the foreground whenever the ladies are on screen. This was passed by the censors, whereupon he showed the original version every chance he got. Stout fellow, that.

   Not content with mere fake-documentary sleaze, Esper then hired a guy in a gorilla suit to strut around trying to pick up jungle babes, who swoon over him – a theme first exploited in the notorious INGAGI (1930) which was still being shown to white-supremacist groups into the 1960s.

   I take a step back here, and muse on the vagaries of cinematic destiny, which transmutes an historic film record into racist titillation. We will remark on the ironies of fate and pass on.

   The result is a unique combination of spectacle and sleaze, a very bad film made remarkable by its own audacity, and while I wouldn’t recommend ANGKOR to anyone of any critical capacity at all, I have to say I enjoyed it more than I should admit.

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