War Films


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1935. Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Gertrude Michael, Kathleen Burke, Colin Tapley, Margaret Swope. Based on the novel The Drum by F. Britten Austin. Directors: Charles Barton & Louis J. Gasnier.

   As much as I like Cary Grant and as much as I appreciate Claude Rains, I still couldn’t find much to truly admire in The Last Outpost, a meandering romance-during-wartime melodrama.

   Grant portrays Michael Andrews, a British officer captured by the Turks during the First World War. A British intelligence officer, a mysterious man who calls himself “Smith” (Rains), comes to Andrews’ rescue and frees him from Ottoman captivity.

   The two men make their way through Mesopotamia, Kurdish tribesmen hot on their trail. Andrews ends up injured and back in a British hospital in Cairo, where he falls for his nurse, Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael). But all is not as it seems, for Haydon is actually married to a British intelligence officer who she hasn’t seen for three long years.

   By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out who that intelligence officer must be.

   Based on F. Britten Austin’s novel, The Drum, the movie would probably have been all but forgotten had Grant and Rains not appeared in it. The plot is formulaic, there’s a whole lot of stock footage, and the cinematography is nothing special. If you’re looking for a World War I film to watch, you can do a lot better than this mediocre programmer.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


RED BALL EXPRESS. Universal International, 1952. Jeff Chandler, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, Judith Braun, Sidney Poitier, Jacqueline Duval, Hugh O’Brian. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   Although it has a running time just over eighty minutes, Red Ball Express nevertheless manages to pack in many of the familiar tropes of World War II films. There’s the initial backstory setting the film into its proper historical context, a demanding company leader who needs to whip a diverse group of men into a fighting shape, the against-all-odds mission. In Red Ball Express, the mission, however, isn’t so much about combating the Nazis directly as it is supplying the American troops doing the fighting.

   Directed by Budd Boetticher, this Universal-International film is a fictionalized account of the eponymous Red Ball Express, the vast truck convoy network which delivered supplies to the Allies in France after the successful landing on D-Day. The movie is in homage to those soldiers who may not have experienced much in the way of direct combat, but loaded and unloaded supplies and drove trucks through inhospitable terrain. Red Ball Express was intended to assure that these unsung heroes’ sacrifices are not forgotten.

   Jeff Chandler, in a role quite different from some of the escapist, costumer fare he starred in around the same time, portrays the tough, demanding Lt. Campbell. He’s a hard-nosed, not particularly sentimental truck driver originally from Colorado tasked with leading a unit of diverse men.

   These men, some who are experienced in trucking and some who are not, are tasked with a difficult mission. They are to drive trucks to the front lines and deliver much needed supplies to fighting units. Their battle isn’t so much directly against the Germans as against the elements, exhaustion, and their own competing desires, needs, and prejudices.

   Not only is there bad blood between Lt. Campbell (Chandler) and the unit’s second in command, Sergeant Kallek (Alex Nicol), there’s also racial tension, both real and perceived, in the unit. We this through the eyes of the sensitive Cpl. Robertson (Sidney Poitier), who believes he is the target of racial discrimination.

   All told, Red Ball Express remains a significantly above average war film. Even though it’s a short film, the primary characters are all fairly well developed, each with their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Although the film itself fits squarely into the War in Europe genre, none of the characters are mere archetypes or cardboard cutouts. They’re much better fleshed out than that, providing the viewer the feeling that, under different circumstances, these guys could have been your friends. It’s a war film with heart that doesn’t mask the horrors of war or shy away from difficult issues, quite an accomplishment in any era, but ever more so in 1952.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


AWAY ALL BOATS. Universal International, 1956. Jeff Chandler, George Nader, Lex Barker, Julie Adams, Keith Andes, Richard Boone, William Reynolds, Charles McGraw, Jock Mahoney, John McIntire, Frank Faylen, Clint Eastwood (uncredited). Based on the book by Kenneth M. Dodson. Director: Joseph Pevney.

   With a solid cast including Jeff Chandler, Lex Barker, Jock Mahoney, Richard Boone, and Charles McGraw, Away All Boats had the potential to be a much better film than it turned out to be, at least from the vantage point of 2015. It’s not so much that the acting is bad or that the movie lacks action. It’s just that it comes across as a bit too preachy, a bit too melodramatic and innocent, even for its time.

   Directed by Joseph Pevney, this Universal International project features Chandler as Jebediah S. Hawks, captain of the Belinda, an amphibious attack transport ship. Captain Hawks is determined to make the Belinda the best ship of its kind, even if it means alienating himself from his crew.

   Chandler is perfectly competent here, a solid presence through and through. Although it’s by no means one of his best war films, he does portray Hawks with nuance. He’s a character who, despite his somewhat aloof nature, really does want the best for his men under his command.

   Despite some unnerving scenes in which kamikaze pilots attack the crew’s ship, and scenes in which the crewmen go a bit stir crazy, the film feels as it were just a bit too eager to provide the American movie going public with a somewhat sanitized view of war. This is especially the case when compared with some of the significantly more gritty war films that were released in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

   In conclusion, while Away All Boats isn’t by any means a poorly constructed film, it just doesn’t have all that much to set it apart from the many other average studio war films from the same era.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


SAHARA. Columbia Tristar / Showtime, Australia-US, 1995. James Belushi, Alan David Lee, Simon Westaway, Mark Lee, Michael Massee, Robert Wisdom, Jerome Ehlers, Angelo D’Angelo, Paul Empson. Written by David Phillips, based on the earlier 1943 screenplay by Philip MacDonald. Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith.

   Sahara, an Australian-American made for TV movie starring James Belushi, may very well be the best war film from the 1990s you haven’t seen. Or maybe you’ve seen it? Then you’ll know that I’m exaggerating, although not by a whole lot.

   Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Sahara is a gritty, taut remake of the classic 1943 film starring Humphrey Bogart. Set in Libya during the North African campaign, the movie has elements that create an eminently watchable and engaging war film: heroism, sacrifice, male camaraderie, and a ragtag group of men forced to undertake a seemingly impossible mission behind enemy lines.

   Although it took me a few minutes to get comfortable with Belushi as the lead in a North African war film, I now have to admit that his portrayal of Sergeant Joe Gunn, an American tank commander, was truly outstanding. Gunn is a sweaty tough guy, but with a soft spot for his men. He’s a complex character, capable of ordering his to mow down advancing German soldiers, but also responsible for saving an Italian POW from near certain death in the inhospitable desert. The look on his face upon seeing his friend shot and killed by a German infantryman is more reminiscent of war movies from the 1940s and 1950s than from the 1990s or after. That’s drama, folks. No overwrought dialogue or musical fanfare is needed.

   In many ways, that’s what makes Sahara such a compelling, if little known, war film. Yes, it has the requisite action sequences and solid, coherent plot. But Sahara has something too many war films made in the past twenty years don’t have: heart.

   With Trenchard-Smith’s skillful direction, which heightens the suspense, and with believable dialogue that draws you into the story, the viewer really does end up caring about what happens to the main characters. They’re all individuals, each with distinct personalities. The beaten down, but still plugging along, M3 Lee tank, Lulu Belle, has a personality all her own.

   A scene from the film, in which Gunn encounters a ragtag group of stranded Australian, British, and French soldiers, can be watched here:

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MALAYA. MGM, 1949. Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Valentina Cortesa, Sydney Greenstreet, John Hodiak, Lionel Barrymore, Gilbert Roland, Roland Winters. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Sometimes even a great cast can’t save a film bogged down with a lackluster storyline and undistinguished direction. That’s definitely the case with Malaya, an overall disappointing war movie about American smugglers working to get rubber out of Malaysia and into the hands of the Allied war effort.

   If you think I’m being too harsh, consider the all-star cast that’s bogged down by a mediocre script: Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lionel Barrymore. Plus there are some great character actors in this one. John Hodiak as a federal agent, DeForest Kelley as a U.S. Navy officer, Gilbert Roland as a smuggler, and Roland Winters as a German plantation owner living in Malaysia.

   And truth be told, Greenstreet really does steal the show in this one, making it worth watching for admirers of his work. In his final screen role, he portrays a character named The Dutchman, a scheming, world-weary saloon owner in Imperial Japanese-occupied Malaysia. There’s something both sad and charming about his character, a tired, obese man at war with his pet bird and, it would seem, with a life that has seemingly lost its purpose.

   But it’s not enough to make Malaya anything other than a run-of-the-mill late 1940s wartime film, one that just feels like a tired effort designed to be both patriotic and informative about a lesser-known chapter in the Second World War.

   James Stewart, of course, would soon get a new lease on celluloid life as a Western actor in Broken Arrow and in his collaborative efforts with Anthony Mann. Maybe that’s but one reason why this 1949 war melodrama isn’t very well known. But then again, there’s just no outstanding reason why it should be.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EDGE OF DARKNESS. Warner Brothers, 1943. Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky. Director: Lewis Milestone.

   Many of Errol Flynn’s movies have a sense of lightness to them. That’s often what makes them such watchable, timeless films. Flynn is most often cast alongside two comical companions or in singular pursuit of a lovely girl who initially despises him, but eventually comes to love him.

   He’s the gentleman forced into fighting for a just cause. Think the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) or the epic, iconic Dodge City (1939). They are adventure stories, where Flynn portrays the elegant good guy who defeats the bad guy and, in the end, gets the girl. But there’s a sense that all the fisticuffs and gunfighting have been in good fun, even if more than a few people have gotten banged up or shot down along the way.

   Edge of Darkness, while an exceptionally good war movie, is neither fun, nor would one would call a happy film. Indeed, it’s one Errol Flynn movie where he doesn’t portray a particularly elegant man and there aren’t any bad guys, at least not in the lighthearted sense of the term.

   In Edge of Darkness, a story about Norwegian resistance fighters during the Second World War, the proverbial bad guys – the Nazis – aren’t merely bad. They are evil. And they can’t be reasoned with, tricked into changing their ways, or laughed aside. They must be killed. It’s this premise, coupled with great cinematography and superb performances by Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, and Helmut Dantine, that set this beautifully gritty Warner Brothers war film apart from other anti-Nazi films of the era.

   Directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by Robert Rossen, Edge of Darkness is a very powerful film about a simple man’s determination to free his country from the grip of totalitarianism. Flynn portrays Gunnar Brogge, a Norwegian resistance leader in the small fishing village of Trollness. He’s determined to get weapons from the British and to use them to strike against the Nazis occupying his town.

   Brogge’s commitment to methodical planning is tested when he discovers that a Nazi soldier violated his girlfriend, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). Further straining the already tense situation is the fact that Karen’s brother collaborated with the Nazis in Oslo and that her father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Huston) is not fully committed to violent action against the German invaders.

   There are some very tense moments in this well-acted film, including a scene in which Brogge, along with others, is forced to dig his own grave — literally. The most memorable scene in the film, however, may belong to actor Morris Carnovksy, a veteran of the Yiddish theater and Broadway. Carnovsky, portrays Sixtus Andresen, a town schoolteacher who refuses to yield to the demands of the top Nazi thug in Trollness, Captain Koenig (Dantine). It’s a poignant reminder than individuals do have a choice when faced with tyranny.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE SMALL BACK ROOM. The Archers / British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1949. Released in the US as Hour of Glory (1952). David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusak, Leslie Banks, Sidney James, Robert Morley, Geoffrey Keen, Anthony Bushell, Renee Asherson. Based on the novel by Nigel Balchin. Cinematography: Christopher Challis. Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger

   The small back room of the title is in a once tony Park Lane building where myriad agencies including Professor Mair’s Research Section are situated. It’s just one of dozens of similar wartime sections belonging to no one in particular and answering to no one save a handful of civil service bureaucrats, politicians, and ministry officials, all maneuvering for influence, power, and glory. It’s 1943, and amidst the war petty politics and back stabbing still go on.

   Boffin Sammy Rice (David Farrar, Black Narcissus, 300 Spartans, Meet Sexton Blake), is above all this. All he wants is to do his job, contribute, romance his girl Suzy (Kathleen Byron), and find some way to dull the pain and the shame caused by his tin leg.

   He’s content to run his section and use Suzy as a vent for the anger his constant pain causes, which only makes him feel guilty and more useless. An expensive bottle of Scotch he keeps in his apartment in plain view is the one escape, not to kill the pain — neither it nor the dope the doctors give him will do that — but to make him forget. He has sworn not to touch it, though he does get drunk in a local pub owned by ex-boxer Knucksie (Sidney James). That bottle is a symbol of more than his pain, it also symbolizes the life he has bottled up in its smoky depths as well.

   As the film opens Lt. Stewart (a young Michael Gough) of the bomb disposal unit arrives at Professor Mair’s section with a top secret problem soon assigned to Sammy; a booby trapped device being dropped by the Germans that has so far killed three boys and one man. It may be aimed at children to demoralize the British populace, but so far they haven’t found a live one to study, and when they do they need a man like Sammy to tell them how to handle it.

   Meanwhile everything is complicated by Sammy’s problems, political back-fighting led by R. B. Waring (Jack Hawkins), the glad handing minister whose purview the section falls under, Mair’s incompetence, a soldier tech with a problematic wife (Cyril Cusak), and Suzy’s growing anger that Sammy will not stand up and fight for what he knows is right but hides behind his pain and that unopened bottle of Scotch.

   The Archers of course were directors, producers, and screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger (The 49th Parallel, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, to name a few classics) who adapted this version of the novel by Nigel Balchin (Mine Own Executioner and the screenplay for The Man Who Never Was), a British novelist whose works in the manner of Nevil Shute were both suspense novels as well as serious mainstream novels. This is one of his best remembered novels and a fine example of his abilities.

   There’s an exceptional cast for this one, even in bit roles: Robert Morley, Geoffrey Keen, even Patrick Macnee gets a closeup if no dialogue, and Farrar, Byron, Gough, Hawkins, Cussak as a stuttering technician, Anthony Bushell as a bomb disposal officer, and Renee Asherson as a corporal assigned as stenographer to a bomb disposal unit are all outstanding. Asherson has a fine scene where she reads the last instructions dictated from the site where an officer was killed trying to defuse the bomb to Farrar who will be the next man to attempt it. It’s a thousand times more effective than filming the scene itself could have been.

   Christopher Challis’s cinematography must be mentioned as well; the location shots capture much of the wildness of some of the remote regions the booby-trapped devices carry Sammy and Stewart to, as well as the claustrophobia of crowded pubs and nightclubs with blacked out lights, tiny labs in the small back rooms of the title, and without the usual scenes in bomb shelters or footage of burning London, sketching in the aura of wartime England subtly. As it likely was for most ordinary people in London and the rest of the country, the war is always a presence even when it isn’t at the forefront.

   One outstanding sequence in the film is a surrealistic waking nightmare as Sammy waits for Suzy, the only person who can distract him from his pain, and must battle not only his pain, but the attraction of the bottle. As the clock ticks maddeningly, his pills fail him, and the bottle looms larger and larger until he even sees its outline in the pattern of the wallpaper, he breaks down.

   It’s a nerve-wracking scene, and wrenching to watch the otherwise taciturn and stoic Farrar deteriorate before your eyes. It’s as uncomfortable as anything in The Lost Weekend and as surreal as the famous Salvador Dali sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the shadows and light interplaying on that craggy face make some memorable impressions. There is a moment when in his pain he stamps down on the tin leg to crush the pills and the agony on his face is palpable.

   It won’t take much imagination or provide much of a challenge to know Sammy will end up defusing one of the booby trapped devices, the twin of one that has already killed, and with a hell of a hangover, in a climactic scene of tension, or that doing so will decide his future and the fate of his relationship with Suzy, but that is dramatic structure and there is no way around it in book or film, even if anyone was silly enough to want one. It’s a tense scene and all involved wring every sweaty drop of fear out of it.

   Neither the film nor the book is as well known here as it was in England, but if you can find the trade paperback edition I recommend both it and Balchin’s Mine Own Executioner (also an excellent film with Burgess Meredith and Kieron Moore) highly. And if you know the work of the Archers, especially of director Michael Powell, then that alone is enough to recommend the film.

   And for what it’s worth Farrar was a cousin of mine, and we share the family nose, no small connection, so forgive me if I think it is one hell of a performance for an actor who a few years before was playing Sexton Blake in B films.

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