Thu 17 Jul 2014
THE RAID. 20th Century Fox, 1954. Van Heflin, Anne Bancroft, Richard Boone, Lee Marvin, Tommy Rettig, Peter Graves, Will Wright, James Best. Director: Hugo Fregonese.
Every once and a while, I happen upon a movie from the 1950s that doesn’t have much of a critical reputation, but is both well made, and eminently watchable. That’s the case with the action/quasi-Western film, The Raid, starring Van Heflin, Anne Bancroft, Richard Boone, and Lee Marvin.
Loosely based on a Confederate raid on, and bank heist in the border town of St. Albans, Vermont, in October 1864 (you can read more about the actual historical events and timeline here), The Raid benefits from a strong cast capable of solid acting, a screenplay bereft of the type of sentimentality that ruins far too many historical dramas, and superb, crisp cinematography by Lucien Ballard, known by Western fans for his work in The Wild Bunch. The choreographed fight scenes, while by no means similar to those in the better-known epic films, are nevertheless quite well constructed.
The movie begins with a good old-fashioned jailbreak. Confederate soldiers, under the command of Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin), break out of a Union prison located close to the Canadian border. Among the men in their ranks is the hotheaded Lt. Keating (Lee Marvin), who you just know is going to cause problems as the story moves forward. The men make their way to neutral Canada and from there put in motion an ambitious plot to raid Union towns on the other side of the border. Among the conspirators is Lt. Robinson, memorably portrayed by James Best.
St. Albans, Vermont is the first target. Benton (Van Heflin) arrives in town, pretending to be a businessman named Neal Swayze. He finds lodging in a boardinghouse run by war widow Katie Bishop (Anne Bancroft) who lives there with her son, Larry (Tommy Rettig). Among the other boarders is a wounded Union soldier, Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone), a man with a burdensome secret that haunts his present.
The majority of the movie follows Benton as he interacts with fervently pro-Union members townsfolk, all the while plotting against the small Vermont city. Along the way, he develops a quasi-romantic attachment to the lovely Katie and some fatherly affection toward her son. When Benton stops a violently drunk Keating (Marvin) from shooting innocent people, he inadvertently becomes the town hero. Needless to say, this puts him in an awkward position, as his fellow Confederates, including Captain Frank Dwyer (Peter Graves in a not particularly memorable performance) are ready for action.
The Raid culminates in a fairly violent sequence in which Benton and his men raid the town, rob a bank, and burn down numerous establishments. Former Union officer Foster (Boone) attempts to stop them, in part to make up for his shameful secret. But it’s to no avail. In this film, at least, the South is victorious.
There’s thankfully very little sentimentality here. Benton doesn’t fall madly in love with Katie and abandon his mission. He’s a soldier through and through. There’s something very real about his character, although the scenes in which he is angry upon encountering anti-Confederate sentiment in the town are a bit hard to digest. One would think a spy would be able to hide his true emotions a bit better.
That said, Van Heflin was well cast in this role. He portrays a man conflicted, but one not a man about to abandon his homeland for a fairy tale romance. For his part, Lee Marvin succeeds brilliantly in his portrayal of an alcohol prone Confederate officer more interested in wreaking havoc than in following orders. He’s such a presence that you almost feel bad for the guy when he gets it in the chest. It was a relatively early role for Marvin, but you can see why he was going to have a long career ahead of him.
I’d hesitate to call The Raid a forgotten masterpiece. It’s simply a very good movie, one that has good characters and tells an interesting story. The fact that the film lacks a hero may explain its relative obscurity. It has a protagonist in Benton, but he’s not really a hero. But what if there weren’t any real heroes in the St. Albans raid? Maybe they were just men hundreds of miles from home, swept up in the torrent of a war that they didn’t ask for in the first place. Maybe that’s the whole point.