War Films


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TONIGHT WE RAID CALAIS. 20th Century Fox, 1943. Annabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb, Beulah Bondi, Blanche Yurka, Howard Da Silva. Director: John Brahm.

   Although Tonight We Raid Calais is most certainly a war film, it is emphatically not a combat film. Rather, it belongs to that particular subset of movies, filmed and released as the war was raging in Europe, in which ordinary people are forced to make a choice between accommodating themselves to the Nazi occupation or fighting back against the Third Reich despite great personal risk to their families. It’s a morale booster, to be sure, but one benefits from John Brahm’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography.

   Much like the superb Edge of Darkness (1943) starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, which I reviewed here, Tonight We Raid Calais tells that story of a small-town community that summons the will to take on the Nazis. Instead of a Norwegian fishing village, this film unfolds in northern France, not too far from the eponymous port city that sits across the English Channel.

   Geoffrey Carter (John Sutton), a French-speaking British commando lands in Nazi-occupied France with a mission. He is to seek out the precise location of a German munitions factory and to find a means of relaying that information to the RAF. After attacking and killing German soldiers, Carter hides out in a French farmhouse. The family, lead by patriarch M. Bonnard (Lee J. Cobb) is a house divided: Bonnard is a staunch French patriot opposed to the Nazis; his wife (Beulah Bondi) is grief-stricken by the loss of her son, Pierre; and his daughter, Odette (Annabella) who distrusts the British and is ready to somewhat accommodate herself with the German presence in her country.

   The plot, which runs at a steady clip, follows Carter as he both tries to ensure that Odette doesn’t betray his plans and works to enlist the local townsfolk into a plan to burn their crops at night so as to give the RAF a clear view of the factory. Getting in his way is the occasionally bumbling, but clearly devious Sgt. Block (a truly miscast Howard Da Silva who simply is not believable as a Nazi) who has more than a fleeting romantic interest in Odette.

   What really makes Tonight We Raid Calais a standout film, however, is not the rather standard “commando behind enemy lines” storyline, but rather a subplot that takes place (Spoiler Alert) toward the end of the film. After the local German commander executes M. Bonnard and his wife for their resistance activities, Odette takes it upon herself to avenge her parents’ deaths.

   Indeed, due to the aforementioned actions of the character portrayed by Annabella, Tonight We Raid Calais also belongs to the “female revenge thriller” subgenre that can exist comfortably within film noir, action films, or martial arts films. In this case, the female revenge narrative occurs within the context of a war film, making Annabella’s character much more memorable than the British commando she is aiding.

   Overall, this is one of the better World War II films released during the course of the war. It’s at times overly sentimental, but with an edge to it. There are some genuinely tense moments, much of it due to Brahm getting the most of his actors, including Lee J. Cobb who, although he was in his early 30s at the time of filming, was very convincing in his role a late middle-aged French farmer willing to sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


ATTACK! United Artists, 1956. Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, Buddy Ebsen. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Jack Palance, whose extensive movie career ranged from art house to grindhouse, starred in two World War II films directed by auteur Robert Aldrich; namely, Attack! (1956) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). I happened to watch the second of these two films about a year ago and went so far as to re-watch it about six months after that to get a better appreciation for Aldrich’s skillful – one might even say, singular – aesthetic.

   As far as war films go, Ten Seconds to Hell is a fairly untraditional one, both in terms of subject matter and visual presentation. In that movie, Palance, along with Jeff Chandler, portray defeated German soldiers tasked with dismantling unexploded Allied ordinances left in the obliterated cities of the newly defeated Third Reich. Filmed in black and white, the movie presents the men in shades of grey, reflecting their morally compromised position as former German soldiers now nominally working for the Allies.

   The film is not only bereft of active combat sequences, but it is also an exceedingly claustrophobic one, with scenes often filmed in confined, semi-interior settings in which the near possibility of death looms large over the proceedings. Death, such as it occurs, is the indirect, long-term result of prior human action rather than a fate delivered immediately at the hands of a gun or a tank turret.

   The same cannot be said for Attack!, the first of the two Aldrich-Palance war film collaborations. In this earlier film, death is a cruel, personal fate that comes as the direct, immediate result of human action or, as in the case of the opening sequence of the film, human inaction. The movie opens fairly quickly into a gritty combat scene. In a battle set outside a Belgian city, Lt. Joe Costa (Palance) is hoping to get support for his men, but unfortunately for his men that doesn’t come to pass. The reason, as we soon learn is that the company’s CO, Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert in a stellar performance) is a drunken coward who never wanted to be in combat and just wants to make his father proud.

   After the disaster on the battlefield, Costa, along with Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers) are determined to let Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin) know how little they think of Cooney. There’s a problem, however. Cooney hails from the same Southern town as Bartlett. Not only that, the two men have known each other since childhood and Bartlett once clerked for Cooney’s father, a local judge who we are to understand to be a big man in a small pond. Bartlett, who isn’t completely unaware as to what type of man Captain Cooney is, isn’t about to do anything to jeopardize his relationship with his friend’s politically influential father.

   When Cooney orders Costa and his men into a yet another unnecessarily dangerous combat situation, Costa loses his cool. He threatens Cooney with death should the clearly incompetent captain falter again in his judgment. Not surprisingly, Costa and his men get pinned down in a farmhouse, only to be deprived of assistance from Cooney. It’s at that moment that we realize that Costa was deadly serious about returning back to base and murdering his increasingly erratic and inebriated captain.

   This, of course, makes Attack! a particularly subversive combat film, one that the Defense Department officially refused to grant production assistance. The enemy as it is presented in Attack! is not so much the anonymous, nearly faceless German soldiers on the opposite side of the battlefield, but rather the company’s commanding officer.

   Albert portrays the drunken, cowardly Cooney with nearly perfect combination of pathos and rage, making him an individual to be pitied as much as feared. Trust me when I say that the scene in which the mortally wounded Costa returns to confront the drunken, whimpering Cooney is wartime drama at its best.

   Aldrich, far more than most directors, knew how to get the very best out of Palance, as his performance is simply breathtaking to behold in this gritty, morally complex war film. I wouldn’t go so far as to posit that Attack! is a particularly pleasant viewing experience, but it’s certainly a nearly unforgettable one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


SKI TROOP ATTACK. The Filmgroup, 1960. Michael Forest, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Richard Sinatra, James Hoffman. Screenwriter: Charles B. Griffith. Director: Roger Corman.

   What’s better: a bloated high budget war film that reaches for aesthetic and narrative greatness, but completely misses the mark or a decidedly downscale production that doesn’t aspire for greatness, but provides the viewer with a decent enough story and some well choreographed combat sequences?

   I ask because the latter is how I’d describe Roger Corman’s Ski Troop Attack, a movie that is by no means an outstanding combat film, but one, thanks to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, with just enough realistic sounding dialogue to make it a perfectly watchable low budget charmer.

   Filmed in South Dakota over the course of ten days, Ski Troop Attack follows the exploits of a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines in snowbound Nazi Germany.

   On skis, the men scout out the area and eventually make their way to a railroad bridge that they intend to destroy. Leading the group is the by the book (of course!) Lt. Factor (Michael Forest) who repeatedly clashes with the hot headed Sgt. Potter (a nearly perfectly cast Frank Wolff).

   Joining them for the mission are the Southern good old boy Pvt. Herman Grammelsbacher (Richard Sinatra) and the ethnic Yankee Pvt. Ed Ciccola (Wally Campo). There’s tension among the men, of course, but none of it rises to the level of actual deep animosity. It’s more of a friendly sort, exacerbated by wartime. In some sense, what makes Ski Troop Attack watchable is that it is at its core a buddy film.

   That said, the film is unmistakably low budget, with no big special effects or gigantic set pieces. But at a running time just shy of 70 minutes, the film nevertheless sort of works as it was surely intended: as temporary escapism. Look for scene in which a completely incongruous jazz score by Fred Katz plays in the background as three of the American soldiers line the railway bridge with explosives. It’s so creatively bizarre that it actually makes this quirky film more valuable to posterity than it naturally had any right to be.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


BATAAN. MGM, 1943. Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Bowman, Robert Walker, Desi Arnaz, Barry Nelson. Director: Tay Garnett.

   Although there are a few brief moments of levity, Bataan is overall a rather bleak portrait of men in wartime. Filmed on set and released in the midst of the Second World War following the notable defeat of U.S. forces in the Philippines to Japanese Imperial forces, Bataan is a brooding, claustrophobic movie and one notably bereft of flag-waving patriotism or uplifting musical fanfare.

   With a solid cast, one that features Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan in starring roles, this combat film is hardly one of the very best, but it remains a gripping and poignant reminder of the grim realities of modern warfare. The quasi-mythical plot is something straight out of The Alamo. A ragtag group of misfits from various American ethnic groups under the command of a surly leader, Sgt. Bill Dane (Robert Taylor), are forced into a last man standing suicide mission. Low on supplies and fatigued by war, they have been tasked with the nominally impossible mission of blowing up a bridge to slow the oncoming Japanese advance.

   Making matters even more complicated is the threat of malaria and the fact that one man in the unit (Lloyd Nolan) may be hiding a secret from his past, one that involves his past interactions with Sgt. Dane.

   Bataan works best as a gritty combat film. Indeed, the action sequences are particularly memorable. The same, however, cannot be said for much of the dialogue, a lot of which feels artificial and stilted. The lack of women in the film is also particularly noticeable, making this film really more about male friendship in the face of imminent death than anything else. This is a man’s world, one replete with danger, and, even though there is a brief allusion to a romantic subplot, it’s one that is never developed.

   That’s actually for the best, as it avoids the pitfalls of far too many war films that have included some sort of romance to either offset the realistic violence or to appeal to a female movie going audience. Bataan is about men in wartime, all of who know that death lurks just around the corner in the steamy, tropical jungles that fate has chosen to ensconce them.


BATTLE OF THE BULGE. Warner Brothers, 1965. Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, George Montgomery, Ty Hardin, Pier Angeli, Barbara Werle, Charles Bronson. Director: Ken Annakin.

   For a war film that runs nearly three hours long, Battle of the Bulge unfortunately ends up feeling surprisingly incomplete. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great scenes and solid performances by a well known cast; rather, it’s just that the movie, when viewed in its entirety, doesn’t leave the viewer with a particularly compelling reason why this particular combat film is so much better, or so different, from others that came before it. The fact that the film isn’t particularly historically accurate doesn’t help matters, either.

   Directed by Ken Annakin, a craftsman known for his work in the British comedy genre, Battle of the Bulge was both photographed and exhibited in 70mm, providing the motion picture a truly larger than life glimpse of combat and ferocious tank battles. With an all-star cast, including Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas, it’s difficult not to enjoy the movie for these fine actors’ presences alone. Add to that an exceptional performance by Robert Shaw as a fervent German tank commander and you’ve got an enviable ensemble of top talent.

   Even so, the movie just doesn’t have enough tension or compelling subplots to make it a particularly memorable combat film. In some ways, it feels as if all these fine actors where merely going through the motions, playing their parts well but not giving their characters distinct idiosyncratic personalities. We never get a real sense of how the war has truly affected the American soldiers we are supposed to root for. And without that, Battle of the Bulge ends up being interesting to look at and engaging enough to continue watching until the end, but comes across a little too much like a documentary, or at least an historical recreation component of a documentary, for its own good.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


SUBMARINE RAIDER. Columbia Pictures, 1942. John Howard, Marguerite Chapman, Bruce Bennett, Warren Ashe, Eileen O’Hearn, Philip Ahn, Larry Parks, Forrest Tucker. Director: Lew Landers.

   If you can look past the “those treacherous Japanese fifth columnists” angle and production values that leave much to be desired, you may soon find that Submarine Raider is a decent enough flag waver that punches above its low budget weight.

   Directed by Lew Landers (along with an un-credited Budd Boetticher), this patriotic programmer is a highly fictionalized dramatization of events leading up to the December 7, 1941, Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. This isn’t Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943), a film that benefited highly from James Wong Howe’s cinematography. Not even close. But it’s not nearly as much a total clunker as I expected it would turn out to be.

   John Howard, who went on to a highly prolific career in television, portrays Commander Chris Warren, a submariner in charge of a vessel that rescues damsel in distress, a surprisingly calm and collected Sue Curry (Marguerite Chapman), from a lifeboat floating along in the Pacific. All was going well enough for Sue and her friends aboard a civilian ship until the Japanese Navy decided to blow them out of the water on their way to Pearl Harbor.

   This, of course, is historical nonsense. But it gets the story moving and makes international politics into a personal story. And speaking of personal stories, Commander Warren’s brother, Bill (Warren Ashe), is a government agent in Honolulu investigating Japanese spies. When he gets killed on December 7, it’s gloves off for our intrepid submarine commander protagonist.

   Watching Submarine Raider ends up being less an exercise in film appreciation than it is a glance backward in time to an era in which American anxieties about the War in the Pacific remained at an all time high. Look for the scene in which Warren toasts the Japanese Navy: “Bottom’s Up!” It’s all terribly dated, but then again, not every movie was made to speak to timeless, universal themes.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


ENEMY OF WOMEN. Monogram, 1944. Re-released as The Mad Lover. Wolfgang Zilzner (as Paul Andor), Claudia Drake, Donald Woods, H. B. Warner, Ralph Morgan, Gloria Stuart, Robert Barra, Byron Foulger. Written and directed by Alfred Zeisler.

   A real oddity.

   An independent production picked up and distributed by Monogram, this was written and directed by Alfred Zeisler, who was born in Chicago but rose to prominence in the German film industry of the 1920s and 30s, with memorable hits like Gold (1934) and Viktor und Viktoria (1933) on his resume. Like many other talents, he was forced out of Germany with the rise of the Nazis and ended up back in America, where he worked mostly on “B” products like this story of the rise and (anticipated) fall of Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and brief successor.

   Given that background, one would expect a strident film here, but Enemy is surprisingly restrained, even gentle at times. It doesn’t try to make Goebbels sympathetic or even likable, and yet ….

   Goebbels is played by Wolfgang Zilzner, an actor usually cast as a sinister Nazi underling in films like Invisible Agent and All Through the Night; the guy standing behind Peter Lorre, with a sullen look and no lines. But here he’s the star, and the film opens on him, with a smooth night-time tracking shot in the rubble of a recently-bombed Berlin neighborhood (tellingly evoked by photographer John Alton, one of the architects of film noir.) Goebbels’ car arrives on the scene and he enters one of the smoldering ruins, preparing a radio broadcast to the effect that the damage was “negligible” but there’s something strange about his manner, and as he slumps into what’s left of a chair, we flash back ….

   What follows is a rather staid account of the fortunes of Joseph Goebbels, starting off with him as a tutor spurned by his young student (Claudia Drake, the woman no one remembers in Detour) and hooking up with the rising Nazi Party more to recover his self-esteem than from any political conviction.

   There are some understated (and economical) vignettes as Goebbels takes power and publishers and broadcasters find themselves out of work or under arrest, usually done in a single scene on one set—an approach that heightens the sense of ruthless Nazi efficiency and saves money at the same time—and a surprisingly lavish bit at a swanky party used by Goebbels to push more propaganda.

   There’s also an unexpected and quite suspenseful sequence where he finds himself scheduled for a visit from the SS and has to get next to Hitler before he can be spirited away by his rivals. It’s one of those moments like the car-sinking scene in Psycho where the viewer finds himself suddenly identifying with a killer.

   In fact, as Enemy of Women goes on, it becomes less about the Nazis and more about Goebbels’ ruthless pursuit of the woman he loves (the Claudia Drake character) a pursuit punctuated by murder, kidnapping and detention, but with none of the gloating villains or noble martyrs so common in movies those days.

   The conclusion is skillfully and intentionally tipped off ahead of time as we suddenly recognize the room where Claudia Drake awaits her unwanted lover and this becomes, of all things, a story of losing the thing one loves by trying to possess it. The flashback ends as the master propagandist of the Third Reich delivers his prepared lies, and his close-up reveals the face of a man who realizes he is the herald of a fallen angel.

   No, there are no brave patriots here, no stirring speeches or beastly villains, but despite the trashy title, Enemy of Women hits its target by humanizing it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


JOHN PAUL JONES. Warner Brothers, 1959. Robert Stack, Marisa Pavan, Charles Coburn (Benjamin Franklin), Erin O’Brien, Bette Davis (Empress Catherine the Great), Macdonald Carey (Patrick Henry), Jean Pierre Aumont (King Louis XVI), David Farrar, Peter Cushing. Director: John Farrow.

   Aside from an exciting naval battle sequence toward the end of the film in which the title character, portrayed by Robert Stack, faces off with Sir Richard Pearson (Peter Cushing) and shouts that he has yet to begun to fight, John Paul Jones is an epic bore. It’s not so much that it’s a poorly constructed film or without a talented coterie of actors as it is that the script is remarkably, almost painfully, lifeless.

   In many ways, the movie, at a running time just over two hours, plods along from scene to scene, many of which are exceptionally abbreviated in nature. Sad to say, but at times this Technicolor film plays less like a fictionalized historical drama than as an educational biopic classroom film. That’s not to say that John Farrow wasn’t a talented director or that he wasn’t capable of creating solid movies worth watching. Unfortunately, John Paul Jones simply isn’t one of his more durable works.

   As far as Robert Stack, he may very well have been perfectly adequate in his portrayal of the Scottish-born Revolutionary War hero, but that just wasn’t enough. There’s something a little too stiff, almost genteel in the manner in which Stack portrays Jones. One could imagine other actors with a little more grit and subdued rage – Kirk Douglas and Jeff Chandler come to mind – in his stead.

   But then again, with a script that plays it safe and never once allows the title character to lose his cool or show some warm-blooded passion, it’s difficult to imagine John Paul Jones as any anything but a meandering daytime cruise to nowhere particularly exciting.

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.

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