War Films

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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE HEROES OF TELEMARK. Columbia Pictures, 1965. Also released as Anthony Mann’s The Heroes of Telemark. Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave. Director: Anthony Mann.

   The Heroes of Telemark, directed by Anthony Mann, is both a drama and action film about the Norwegian resistance during the Second World War. Filmed on location, it is one of Mann’s (Winchester ’73, El Cid) last movies.

   Film historian Jeanine Basinger, while not oblivious to its flaws, rightly categorizes The Heroes of Telemark as “a grand, epic adventure with moments of incredible tension.” The DVD version, with its widescreen ratio, is perhaps as close as one can get at home to the experience of watching it in a movie theater.

   The film’s plot, loosely based on actual events, centers around two characters, Oslo university physicist and womanizer turned resistance fighter, Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas looking consistently angry and determined) and Knut Straud (a character portrayed by Richard Harris and based on American-born Norwegian resistance leader, Knut Haukelid).

   Assisting them are Pedersen’s ex-wife, Anna (Ulla Jacobsson) and her uncle (Michael Redgrave). Their mission: to destroy a heavy water plant in the Norwegian county of Telemark that the Nazi occupying forces are utilizing in their race to develop atomic weaponry before the Allies are able to do so. The fate of the world depends upon them, and they know it.

   The Heroes of Telemark is not simply an action film. It’s also a character study of Pedersen, a reluctant hero. When we first encounter him, he’s in his laboratory in Oslo engaged in a dalliance with a student. He is initially hostile to the Resistance, blaming Straud and others for provoking Nazi retribution tactics against Norwegian civilians. He only joins the cause when he learns what the German invaders are up to in Telemark.

   Complicating matters are his still strong romantic feelings for his ex-wife (Jacobsson). Pedersen also repeatedly butts heads with Straud over the best methods by which to achieve their goals. Pedersen is much more ruthless than Straud and cares far less about so-called collateral damage. This will change by the time the film ends, with Pedersen regaining some of the humanity he lost in his ruthless fight against the Nazis. Overall, Douglas is successful in this role, even if his portrayal of the hotheaded Pedersen does begin at times to feel a bit one-dimensional.

   Aside from the strong plot, the film benefits from often stunning imagery and visuals. The scenes shot on location in Norway are quite spectacular. There are also numerous shots of bridges, motor vehicles, ships, staircases, and doorways. All of these are, of course, man-made creations that provide stark contrasts to the region’s snow covered natural beauty.

   There’s one scene in particular that merits close attention. This occurs toward the end of the film with a black train is pulling into a station, set to board a ferry. Look, in particular, for the red light shining onto the white snow, the white steam rising from the train’s engine, and the small, but noticeable yellow light at the front of the train. Little details such as these give the film an immediacy that is lacking in all too many contemporary films that rely too heavily upon special effects to deliver visual messages.

   Sound also plays a prominent role in the film, be it the aforementioned train’s whistle, the ticking of bombs, or the dripping of heavy water in the plant (also a strong visual). The buzz of the ferry’s engines, again at the end of the film, is also very noticeable.

   In conclusion, The Heroes of Telemark is worth watching. Those familiar with Alastair McLean’s oeuvre might especially appreciate it. The history of Nazi Germany’s quest to develop the atomic bomb has been largely forgotten. Yet it remains an important chapter in the history of the Second World War, along with the story of the Norwegians who sacrificed their lives and homes to stop the heavy water project.

   The Heroes of Telemark isn’t one of the best war films ever made, but it’s still a very good one.

A Review by MIKE TOONEY:

THE HUNTERS. 20th Century-Fox, 1958. Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Egan, May Britt. Based on a novel by James Salter. Director: Dick Powell.

THE HUNTERS Robert Mitchum

   Dick Powell, former pretty boy film leading man, directed a Korean War-era actioner about heroism, duty, and self-sacrifice. Unfortunately The Hunters spends far too much time on the ground wallowing in soap opera clichés and not enough in the air.

   Robert Mitchum plays a World War II fighter pilot retread who has volunteered to fly F-86 Sabres against Russian-made (and sometimes Russian-manned) MiG-15’s in what the United Nations and the U.S. State Department wanted to call a “police action” — but, as this movie makes clear, was a war.

   (Then, as now, the rules of engagement [ROE] favored the enemy — if the Red pilots got into trouble, they could always skeedaddle for the border and sanctuary. Just a decade later, American aviators were encumbered with similar limitations in the Vietnam War. At least one pilot in Nam, Col. Jack Broughton, let the world know about it in two books: Thud Ridge and Going Downtown.)

   Gradually, Mitchum falls in love with the wife of one of his subordinates, and she reciprocates. The fact that her husband is a coward at heart and is willing to let Mitchum have her in exchange for a favor almost pushes this film over the top. Only Mitchum’s integrity saves this sticky situation from unadulterated bathos.

   What he does towards the movie’s finale — going that extra mile that honor demands to save the man he’d easily be justified in leaving to the tender mercies of the Communists — elevates his character from merely a superior officer charged with responsibilities to out-and-out hero. His nonchalance after having resolved the dilemma is fun to watch.

   Also nearly over the top is Paul Sawtell’s opening musical score, a riff (or, if you prefer, a rip-off) of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Somehow, though, it seems appropriate.

THE HUNTERS Robert Mitchum

   Speaking of Wagner, then teen heart throb Robert Wagner steals every scene he’s in as a hot-shot throttle jockey whose recklessness costs the life of his wingman. Once Mitchum straightens him out — with a satisfying punch to the jaw — he becomes more of a menace to the Reds than his own guys.

   The main problem with The Hunters is its tendency to slide into clichés: the love triangle, the eager beaver who’s as much of a threat as the enemy at times, the would-be warrior who’s a coward when you come down to it. A better script coupled with those fine aerial sequences (see, for example, The Bridges at Toko-Ri) would have made this film a winner. The acting is first rate, with everybody convincing in their roles (although I do find May Britt rather weak in that department).

   As it is, if you can get past the sloppy melodrama, you should find The Hunters quite entertaining. If you happen to own the video, watch it through once and the next time fast forward to the flying scenes. They’re easily the best part of the movie.

THE HUNTERS Robert Mitchum

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