SgtSlaughter

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Reviews

The Big Red One
(1980)

Reconstruction Detracts from The Original Film
Let me start off by saying that this review is of the Reconstructed Version of the film released in 2004, not the original, 2-hour piece from 1980. Unlike most fans, I'm not a big advocate of this new version; I much prefer the original, and find many portions of the "new" version difficult to tolerate.

"The Big Red One" tells a simple story: in 1942, a grizzled Army Sergeant and his rifle squad land on the beaches of North Africa. The film will follow him and four infantrymen as they fight across North Africa, the Mediterranean and Western Europe, right up until the eventual German surrender in 1945.

I like Sam Fuller's war movies. Most of them are B-movies from the 50s and 60s, all of which pack a certain emotional punch and have a jagged edge and emotional realism that is largely absent from the slew of other war pictures produced at the time. All of Fuller's tales focus on small groups of infantrymen fighting on the front lines, and the various stresses they endure. "The Big Red One" is no different. There is no forced jingoism here; the movie is about five men who slog their way through battlefield after battlefield. Their only goal is survival. Nothing else matters.

The strong point of "The Big Red One" is that it always feels genuine. Fuller was a soldier – this film is largely autobiographical – and every little detail is right. We see things here that we don't see in other war movies. For example, soldiers put condoms over the barrels of the rifles to keep them from taking in water. This happened all of the time during the war; how often did we see it in WWII films before "Saving Private Ryan" rolled around 18 years later? Every bit of dialog between the soldiers sounds like it belongs there. People act and talk like soldiers do. The script feels genuine, authentic and fresh.

In the new cut, all of these strengths are unbalanced by the added material. Many of the scenes involving women (particularly in a castle, near the film's conclusion) come across as forced and distorted. The dialog never rings true and the cast sound as though they are reading from cue cards. In most cases, the reasons that many sequences never made into the final cut are clear; for example, an extended episode in which a band of French horsemen attack a fortified German position, contains no dialog, fails to develop the principle characters, and distracts from the story. In the original film, the pace was always fast and each sequence stood on its own. There were connecting themes and threads, yes, but nothing too bizarre took away from the realism. This new cut seems too surreal and loses a lot of the realism that was packed in the original version.

Favorably, the new cut is much more explicit. There is more visceral violence and profanity than in the original release. These elements had a touch of realism that was often absent from the original.

As it exists now, you will either love or hate "The Big Red One". I found the Reconstructed Version to be unbalanced and frustratingly slow-paced. I can't watch it over and over again like I could the original version. All of the sentiments and impact of the original cut are lost in a sea of aimless new footage which simply detracts from Fuller's message: The real glory of war is surviving. Nothing else matters. In the original film, you got this point in every scene. It could not be missed. Here, with so many in-jokes and meandering scenes going on, it's hard to tell what Fuller is trying to accomplish – let alone take the film seriously. I even fell asleep during my second viewing. That's how bad of an experience it was.

The Heroes of Telemark
(1965)

Visually Stunning Epic with Clichéd Characterizations
*HERE THERE BE SPOILERS* Anthony Mann made the mistake of stating during an interview that he thought a film's visual makeup was much more important than dialog. He stated that what you could say with words in several minutes you could say in a single silent shot of film. "The Heroes of Telemark" is a visually stunning war epic, but the lack of strong characterizations really lessens the impact of an important story.

Based on real events, the film tells the story of Norwegian resistance efforts to blow up the German heavy water factory high in the Norwegian mountains. When the attempt fails to be completely effective, the resistance finds themselves debating whether or not to sink a ferry on which the precious heavy water is being transported to Germany on – a ferry which also carries several dozen innocent civilians.

The film is about a very important incident that quite probably allowed the Allies to win World War II. Unfortunately, the story fails to draw in and engage the audience. The main characters are similar to those we've seen in many movies before and after this one was made. Kirk Douglas plays Dr. Rolf Pedersen, a Norwegian science professor who is drawn into the war for some rather ambiguous reasons. When we first meet him, he is opposed to fighting and elects to sit out the war; within minutes, not only has he helped seize a freighter in order to get vital information to London, he has also become the most vital member of a team sent to blow up a Nazi factory. Richard Harris appears as resistance leader Knut Straud, who is introduced as a tough and boisterous patriot, but fades to the background as quickly as Douglas takes center stage.

The host of supporting actors is totally wasted. Ulla Jacobsson ("Zulu") pops up as Pederson's ex-wife who cannot seem to make up her mind about getting back together with him; all she does is sleep with him, or yell at him because of his concern for nobody but himself. Seeing as Dr. Pedersen can't seem to make up his mind about being a loner or a patriotic idealist, I can understand why she left him. Michael Redgrave appears in a throwaway role as "Uncle", who has a few lines here and there and gets to die rather heroically.

The host of British and German co-stars including one of my favorite Nazi villains, Anton Diffring, unfortunately, have very little to do or say. What is also unfortunate is that every actor playing a Norwegian in this film is obviously English or America. None of them make any attempts to disguise their accents, which was incredibly distracting. I never believed I watching Norwegian resistance fighters; I could always painfully detect that they were British actors.

On the plus side, Mann does offer us some breathtaking outdoor sequences which would be imitated a few years later in the fabulous adventure yarn "Where Eagles Dare". There are quite a few tense scenes of the heroes scaling snow-covered peaks to attack the Nazi factory, which were shot entirely on location. Every ounce of this sequence looks incredibly authentic. There is a subsequent scene of the good guys escaping across the snow on skis from a large force of German alpenkorps troops, which again, must have been shot by a cameraman on skis. In fact, the only time I noticed any dated special effects techniques (notably rear projection) in the film was during a parachuting scene. And you simply cannot film a close-up of Kirk Douglas drifting across the sky, so this is very understandable and equally forgivable. Mann elects to use music very sparsely (sometimes not at all) during the action sequences and they are far the better for it. I loved hearing the blaring gunfire and whoosh of skis rather than a thundering piece of fanfare.

It's a pity that these adventure scenes were so well shot without engaging characters to really draw me into the action scenes. They were marvelously choreographed, but were not the least bit engaging because I could have cared less about the men and women who were in harm's way. It's a pity. Mann was dead wrong when he said that the visual makeup a movie was much more important than the character drama. He proves it with "The Heroes of Telemark". See the film and decide for yourself.

Merrill's Marauders
(1962)

A Movie that Shows Us What Real Heroes are All About
The best way to understand a man's emotions are to look into his eyes. What does the look on his face tell you about his mood? Sam Fuller knows that. This is a movie about the faces of ordinary men in battle. What brings them joy, what makes them angry, what fatigues them. Fuller, a former soldier himself, knows how to convey these emotions in a way few filmmakers ever have been able to.

In 1944, "Merrill's Marauders", a group of American volunteers, trekked across Burma to destroy several key Japanese bases. There was a legitimate fear that the Japanese would trek through Burma to India and link up with Hitler's forces in Europe. The Marauders played an important part in stopping this link-up, at great cost to their own lives.

The movie makes us understand what it must have been like to be a soldier in World War II. It's important to realize that the Marauders were expecting a reprieve very early on the campaign, and were pushed far beyond normal physical and mental limitations to complete their mission. Merrill (brilliantly portrayed by Jeff Chandler) has a heart condition himself, but keeps it a secret from his men, who come to loathe him – until he collapses from a stroke, and they realize he has been pushing himself just as hard, if not harder than, his own troops.

Just what causes the stress they endure? First, the death of their friends. Lt. Stockton (Ty Hardin, in one of his best performances) expresses frustration at having to write letters home to the families of the dead in his platoon. Gradually, the number of families he must write to increases. The men left under his command are trudging through several hundred miles of swamp, fearing detection by the enemy at any given moment. They are without sufficient food, infected with malaria and typhus, and lack enough medical supplies. Then have to fight off or meticulously avoid every enemy unit they encounter. By the end of the film, every man we saw at the start with a clean shirt and freshly shaven face is either dead, or wearing tattered clothes, unkempt hair and most likely wounded or exhausted from disease. These are normal men who miss their homes and families, and want to go home badly – they don't let the audience forget that, because it's almost all they talk about – and rightly so.

Although some of the battle scenes seem sanitized compared to post 1965-standards (the usual fake-looking "seizure" death scenes, bloodless hand-to-hand combat), the aftermath is shockingly realistic and haunting. There is one scene in which Lt. Stockton slowly walks across a maze of concrete tank-traps, where a pitched close-quarters battle has just been fought, and sees and endless tangled mass of bodies – both American and Japanese.

Fuller lets his camera linger on these moments. There is one scene where Merrill gives an order to his subordinate and Fuller keeps the camera on the officer's shocked and disappointed face for just long enough to let us start thinking about what is going inside the nameless man's head. Likewise, he makes the Philippine locations come to vivid life, especially the dark, confined sequence in the swamp. Only a few scenes set in pine forests near the end of the film look jarringly out-of-place.

"Merrill's Marauders" only weakness is in its almost forced jingoistic patriotism. The opening scene, a montage of documentary footage narrated by Andrew Duggan, sets us up for a flag-waving movie about American heroes single-handedly wiping out the Japanese Empire without effort, as has been seen in countless other war films. Likewise, the film's conclusion speaks of the heroism and dedication of the Marauders as if they and the entire U.S. military were immortal saints. These segments seemed tacked on, and I would bet in a minute that the military, who aided in production of the film, required that these scenes be included. Oh, yeah, and the ridiculous music score does not help much, either.

Am I patriotic? Yes. Do I support the American military? Of course. Who makes a war movie web site in order to cut down war movies? I love 'em. The body of the film is about ordinary fighting men and their dedication to each other. Not to a cause. I'm sure that when men were in the trenches together during WWII (and any other war, for that matter) their primary dedication was to their buddy next to them, not for a glorious cause.

I have a soft spot in my heart because Frank Merrill was my grandmother's cousin. So I have a bit of a tie to him and the history he and his men made, I suppose. That bit of prejudice doesn't change the fact that this is a great movie, and deserves a DVD release A.S.A.P.

None But the Brave
(1965)

Film is Wonderful; Only Minor Flaws Distract
When you get right down to it, war is a pointless human endeavor. All it causes is death and destruction. When we use war to achieve a right event (such as the defeat of Nazism in World War II), it was often avoidable had some other peaceful action been taken earlier. Proper, humane treatment of Germany after World War I may have prevented the outbreak of World War II. "None But the Brave" is an earnest attempt to show that the differences between men in war can often be settled peacefully, and working together for mutual survival often assures peace and serenity.

The plot of the movie is rather straightforward. A plane carrying about a dozen American soldiers crashes on a small Pacific atoll, where the remnants of a Japanese garrison have been all but forgotten by their superiors. About equal in numbers, the two opposing parties attempt to fight it out, but then realize the hopelessness of confrontation, and instead form a peace in order to share fresh water, food, and medical supplies.

The two leads, Clint Walker ("The Dirty Dozen") and Tatsuya Mihashi ("Tora! Tora! Tora!") both shine in their roles. The two men are parallels: both have a sense of patriotism and devotion to their nation and the men under their command, yet both are humanists who see no point in destruction. During the truce, the two form a true friendship, coming to understand their respective backgrounds and personal life stories with respect and admiration for each other.

The supporting cast is generally filled with clichéd, familiar characters (a tough sergeant, a grizzled corporal, some inexperienced grunts, etc.), but the story really isn't about them. Tommy Sands ("The Longest Day") plays a green lieutenant out for blood, and his acting is far over the top. There's a story behind this, and it's unfortunate that his delivery strongly distracts from the story. Frank Sinatra has little to do, as he was busy in the director's chair, but there is a great extended scene revolving around a leg amputation where his limited dialog and great facial expressions more than deliver the goods. When Sinatra had substantial screen time, he used it well, but unfortunately he didn't give himself enough to do and his character is basically a waste of energy.

Director of Photography Harold Lipstein ("Hell is for Heroes") does a fantastic job with the Pacific locations. The steamy tropical jungle truly comes alive, especially during a fabulous scene in which a monsoon sweeps over the island. Sinatra's direction lacks flair, and most of the action sequences are straightforward and bland. The firefight revolving around a Japanese boat is also grim and gritty; and the final confrontation between the Japanese and Americans really delivers, mostly because of the blatant anti-war message which comes about 30 seconds after the shooting stops.

The movie features a rather boring score by John Williams (who was just starting to break into writing film scores in 1965; most of his work had been in television prior to this film). Eiji Tsuburaya (of "Godzilla") fame supervised the special effects work, and unfortunately, I have always found his work below-par when compared to some of the innovations Hollywood could afford during this period. There's a scene in which two model planes on strings blast away at each other in the same manner toy airplanes fired rockets at monsters as they attacked Tokyo. I can understand the Japanese cast and crew, since this was a joint production, but someone else should have been running the special effects department.

These are just minor nitpicks. Sinatra does a very good job directing this film and he has taken far too much criticism from other reviewers. The statements made in this film are bold and honest, and there are many moving moments. The final act is a brilliant exercise depicting the waste and futility of war. If everyone could not only watch, but understand the philosophy portrayed in this movie, perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place.

Tobruk
(1967)

Good, But Could Have Gone Deeper
Loosely based on fact, "Tobruk" tells the story of an Allied mission to destroy Rommel's fuel supply at the port city of Tobruk. The film is quite entertaining, and there are some good ideas in the script, and some nicely shot action scenes, but the film never really rises above average.

In 1942, the fate of the Mediterranean hangs in the balance. The Allies have devised a scheme to stop Rommel's advance to the Suez Canal. A group of German Jews led by Captain Bergman (George Peppard), now working with the British, will escort a company of English commandos led by the staunch Colonel Harker (Nigel Green) across 800 miles of harsh desert right into the port of Tobruk, where they will knock out the harbor guns which prevent British troops from landing in the harbor. Then the British will land a strike force to destroy Rommel's colossal underground fuel dump. The movie follows the trek across the desert, where the characters bicker over opposing ideals and motives, discover a traitor in their midst, get stuck in a minefield, etc. etc., and as expected, resolve their differences during a climactic encounter with the enemy.

"Tobruk" is ultimately a movie about conflicting ideals. There are plenty of noisy action sequences and suspenseful moments, but at the heart of the story is a weakly established conflict over different moral standards held by the main characters. Director Arthur Hiller had a significant background in directing TV shows, and it shows. "Tobruk" has a small-scale feel to it from start to finish. The sets – even the vast outdoor desert plains – are never filled with thousands of extras. This is a movie about what goes on between a few main characters. What's unfortunate is that in "Tobruk" they're never fully developed and, therefore, it's hard to care when they are settled. Major Craig is a selfish pacifist, but all he really does is bicker about how much he hates being on the mission. Nigel Green's Colonel Harker is a typical English officer, playing a part written as most Hollywood roles for the English characters were. He demands order, obedience and when men don't stand up to his authority he just shouts a lot and gets his way. Of the leads, George Peppard makes the most of his role as Captain Bergman. Bergman, a victim of Nazi terror, is out for revenge and out to help re-unite the Jewish people. What's hard to swallow is that Bergman already seems to know the Jews will re-unite in Israel, when it wasn't re-formed into a nation by the U.N. until sometime after the end of World War II. Despite this, Peppard is passionate but never overacts. This is the type of role he was perfectly suited for, and it was fun to watch his performance.

All that said, "Tobruk" is still a pretty good movie. The question of heroism and duty is answered quite well near the film's conclusion, as each of the leads is forced into a situation they would rather not be in, where they must put their lives at stake in order to accomplish something important bigger than they are. Harker states, "We have few saving graces… perhaps our willingness to die for what believe is all that matters." Craig comes to respect Bergman's religious ideals and backs him up during the final battle sequence. And with that said… the final battle sequence is, quite simply, incredibly well-filmed. The Allied assault on the harbor guns is fantastic. There are dozens of soldiers running about on the beach as a huge artillery installation is blown to bits, and not the least part of it looks staged or faked. Later, this scene is put to shame as some of the heroes take out the entire fuel supply for Rommel with a tank. The fuel dump explodes in grand fashion, with dozens of huge explosions and orange fireballs, some of which must have been real. The visual effects are state-of-the art, especially when one considers that this film was shot in 1966. (It was nominated for Best Special Effects at the 1968 Oscars, but lost to Doctor Dolittle).

"Tobruk" is entertaining and a sufficient afternoon adventure story. From start to finish, and it looks and sounds very authentic. Nothing about this movie seems staged, and despite an average-quality script, it's engaging and thought-provoking. I would suggest renting it at some point.

Contro 4 bandiere
(1979)

Gritty Drama Mixes with Stock Footage and Clichés
Infamous hack Umberto Lenzi returns to the war genre, this time to remake his own 1977 epic "The Greatest Battle". Both films are rather uneven, muddled attempts to capitalize on the success of Hollywood's huge 1976 money-maker, "Midway".

Although "From Hell to Victory" is definitely the stronger of Lenzi's two back-to-back epics, the storyline is completely convoluted and a complete rip-off of the previous film. In August, 1939, six friends meet in Paris and vow to reunite every year at a café no matter what the circumstances. Needless to say, WWII changes that plan. Brett (George Peppard) returns to the United States and becomes an OSS officer; Maurice (George Hamilton) finds himself on the beach at Dunkirk; Jurgen (Horst Buchholz) joins the German army and becomes disillusioned by Nazism; Fabienne (Anne Duperey) joins the French resistance. Rick (Jean-Pierre Cassel) joins the RAF, and Ray (Sam Wanamaker) becomes a war correspondent. Their paths will cross throughout the film, concluding with a bittersweet reunion in France during the summer of 1944.

Okay, that said, let's analyze this "story" a little bit. Lenzi presents us with thumbnail sketches of his characters, and then jumps right into the action. Throughout, there is little to no character development; we simply follow several people through the war. This mess should not be as entertaining as it is. And, at first glance this looks like a very original piece of work, but fans of the director will realize that it's just a complete hack job: for one thing, Lenzi's characters are straight out of "The Greatest Battle": Peppard mirrors Henry Fonda, in fact, even Ray Lovelock shows up here to play his pretty-boy son who turns into a hero (again); Hamilton is a takeoff of Giuliano Gemma, and even accompanies Lovelock on a mission to France (as Gemma did to North Africa in the previous film). Buchholz and Duperey fall in love, despite the fact that they are on opposite sides, a la Stacy Keach and Samantha Eggar… the list simply goes on. A series of climaxes are taken straight out of "The Greatest Battle" as well: main characters kill one another from a distance without realizing they're killed a friend; the attack on a German bunker looks awfully familiar – this is the third time Lenzi has shot the same type of shoot-'em-up sequence! Secondly, Lenzi also stages much of the action around stock footage from other, better films. A good deal of the expensive-looking tank battles is lifted from the 1967 epic "The Dirty Heroes", and almost all of the aerial battle photography is taken right out Enzo Castellari's "Eagles over London". The Dunkirk evacuation, in particular, is a total sham. What's amazing is how well this stock footage is edited with the original sequences – I first saw "From Hell to Victory" a few years before "The Dirty Heroes" and "Eagles over London" and was awed by the scope; it wasn't until I saw these films that I realized how much of Lenzi's "work" was just cut from other movies. The only strong action sequence that stands out is a shootout atop the Eiffel Tower, which has got to be one of the most suspenseful, best-edited scenes ever shot. It compares to the most memorable moments in "The Last Hunter" and "The Dirty Dozen" – it's just that good.

For all of the lack of originality, this piece still manages to be fairly entertaining. The cast are all confident and able; it's finally nice to see Peppard in a role where he doesn't have to constantly chew the scenery (he's only a decent actor, not a dramatic genius); he simply is laid back and completely at ease with his surroundings. The ensemble cast does a pretty fair job as well: Ray Lovelock seems a lot more serious about his role than he did in "The Greatest Battle" and George Hamilton seems to be having plenty of fun as a French commando. Buchholz's performance is a little hard to swallow at times, and his character transition from pacifist to die-hard Nazi is not very rational because it is barely developed. Even so, he tries hard and makes his material fairly believable, even if he is still just delivering dialogue rather than really acting.

Despite its many flaws, "From Hell to Victory" has become a widely circulated World War II film through the blessings of rental stores, flea markets and eBay. There's nothing to indicate to American audiences that it is a spaghetti war flick: the principles are familiar American and European actors, and the film plays a lot like a Hollywood drama. Lenzi's direction is somewhat restrained in comparison to his earlier efforts, almost as if he is trying to disguise his work. The credits list the crew and director under pseudonyms, rounding out its "Americanism". It's not a great film in any way, but it's packed with action and engaging situations. Don't go digging for this one, but if you see a dusty video copy, it's worth checking out.

Un esercito di 5 uomini
(1969)

Purely Satisfactory Spaghetti Western
American actor Don Taylor tries his hand at directing a truly international "spaghetti western". A fast pace, fine musical score and satisfactory performances hold this rip-off of "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Wild Bunch" together over the course of nearly two hours.

"The Dutchman" (Peter Graves) recruits for of his old friends to go on a suicide mission. This involves infiltrating, capturing and then making off with a train filled with Mexican Gold. Each will get a small share; the rest will go to aid the Mexican revolutionary forces that the Dutchman has fallen in with.

Young writer Dario Argento's script doesn't hold up to his later flair, but keeps the familiar characters and plot line interesting enough to hold dedicated attention. The Dutchman is the typical hero of the piece, and Graves comes to life despite the fact that we know nothing about his background. He seems a little uncomfortable – somewhat uneasy – although his dedication to the robbery is very convincing. He does introduce the 4 members of the "Army" in an obligatory speech, and the rest of the cast stick their characterizations with little or no added ingenuity.

First, there's Augustus (James Daly), a grizzled demolition expert who's been in hiding since Spanish-American War. Augustus and Dutchman are two tired, old men and they have a great dramatic discussion reflecting the changing of the times and how they no longer fit into society. Bud Spencer is a lot of fun as the dimwitted Mesito, a giant whose sole redeeming quality seems to be his brute strength. Interestingly enough, Spencer recorded his own dialog in English, and his real voice simply adds to the humor his character – he's got a thick accent, but good command of English, which balances out perfectly. Then there's Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba) a silent warrior who was rescued from a circus sideshow to help carry out the mission. Rounding out the band is Luis, a former acrobat-turned-outlaw who found a home in the Revolution while on the run from the Mexican Army. Throughout the piece, the heroes are out to satisfy their own greed, but a surprise ending ties together all of the loose ends.

The musical score of this piece is above-average work from the always-excellent Ennio Morricone, who contributed scores for some of the best spaghetti westerns, including "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". It's appropriately rousing and adds flair to the exciting moments, and occasional mournful and evocative in the slower, sad sequences – notably, Dutchman's moving speech near the end which explains just why he's in league with the Revolution. He also contributes a fine extended, ultra-weird piece when one main character falls from the train and has to run for several minutes to catch up with his comrades.

The film never has a boring moment. Taylor keeps his camera moving in every scene, always showing off sagebrush, pueblos and military garrisons which always look and feel real. The movie is about men on the go – it never stays in one location very long, and while there, something exciting is always happening. Every piece of dialog helps to flesh out the characters or explain the mission further. When people aren't talking, they're in an intense situation – whether it be the ambush of a Mexican truck, escape from a military prison, or the lengthy takeover of the train (which, perhaps, is one of the best extended action sequences ever caught on film) – there is never a dull moment.

Taylor manages to keep the action interesting enough and different enough in each scene, too – there's not just lots of fast gun-play going on. There is one notable capture-and-escape sequence involving a heavily fortified Mexican garrison, and the 20+ minute sequence depicting the infiltration and capture of the armored train is nail-biting. The stunts look to be performed by the real actors on a moving train – there is no rear-projection here.

The production values are higher than usual for this genre. The crowd scenes are truly massive, and Taylor is able to take time establishing his locations using cranes and long pans before jumping right into the action. Although the first half of the film has a dry, depressing look to it (the exteriors are barren and desolate) the second half features several large, open grassy plains – something not often seen in a film of this kind. The territory surrounding the train, especially, looks vast and open – only once do we notice the painfully obvious presence of a sound-stage, as the characters observe the train from a distance.

There are a lot of little things that go wrong with the production or some small parts of the film which lack badly needed care, however, which hamper the effectiveness of the proceedings. The second unit direction seems a bit half-hearted. When extras are shot and die, they slump over with considerable effort and never really look to have been shot. There are also noticeable gaps in logic – the heroes board the train in full view of some very unobservant Mexican guards; the main characters seem afraid of a giant cannon on the train, but it's not as though it can fire at them at such a close range. Also, the engineer (Jose Torres) is taken prisoner because he's allied with the military government, but near the climax, his character disappears. One moment he is standing on the train; in the next shot he is simply gone. What happened to him? In the end, "The Five Man Army" is no more than merely a hash of clichés, but manages to be engaging and entertaining throughout without offering anything new and notable.

Beach Red
(1967)

A Beautiful, Tragically Honest Look at Warfare
REVIEW OF THE REGION 1 MGM DVD

Rarely does a low-budget film make a major impact on one's life. If one watched "Beach Red" and walks away unaffected, then I must say the fault lies with the viewer – not the film. With haunting images and unflinchingly honest dialog, director Cornel Wilde drops a great big bomb on the audience.

"Beach Red" tells a straightforward story of an American Marine company which assaults a Pacific island, held by fanatical Japanese troops. The main characters include Captain MacDonald (Cornel Wilde), a former lawyer who hates the war he's forced to fight, and loves his wife and simply wants to return home. He struggles with holding the lives of men in his hands and being responsible for their deaths. Sgt. Honeywell (Rip Torn) is a career soldier, whose only goal is to kill Japanese and get his platoon through the war alive. Pvt. Cliff (Patrick Wolfe) is a minister's son who is not prepared for the horrors of war; and his only friend, Pvt. Egan (Burr de Benning), is an uneducated southerner who spends his free time flashing back to sexscapades. Rounding out the group is Colombo (Jaime Sanchez in a non-stereotypical performance), an insecure, somewhat cowardly veteran who chooses to conceal his fear with excuses to avoid criticism.

Wilde fleshes out these character using two rare techniques: the first involves brief flashbacks, often told with still frames shot in surreal colors, set to soft, soothing music while the character in question narrates the action. Characters may be conversing, but they're really talking to the audience. Each of the leads also has a number of voice-overs, which put the viewer inside their head. These voice-overs are simple and match the way a character would talk out loud; unlike the 1998 version of "The Thin Red Line", in which voice-overs were deeply philosophical, these thoughts are haunting and simple. Wilde uses the same techniques in scenes involving the Japanese, which breaks down the barrier between the "good guys" and "bad guys". These are just ordinary men on both sides of the battle line, involved in a war they don't want to be fighting. Yes, there is definitely an enemy, but they are not demonized and stereotyped as in other war films of the period. The Japanese are a formidable, foe, yes – but ordinary men with lives and families just like the main American characters.

Wilde uses color cinematography ceaselessly and perfectly. The opening beach assault takes place on a sunny day, and characters bleed and die on a beautiful tropical beach and, later, in the middle of a lush jungle. The atmosphere doesn't appear deadly at first, and it's quite sad to see war ravaging and destroying such a stunning landscape. The combat sequences are superbly staged. The first half of the film focuses on an inch-by-inch assault on the beach, encounters with snipers and machine-gun nests. Wilde fills the screen with action at all times. Even though the focus is on one or two main characters, we can always see dozens – often hundreds – of extras in the background. As they crawl through tall grasses, we can hear rustling and heavy breathing. Men scream in pain when they get shot and the dialog is often lost amidst the deafening roar of explosions. All of the actors look like soldiers in the middle of a pitched battle: they wade through chest-deep water with forty-pound rucksacks and don't wear any makeup. They're genuine soldiers in the middle of a genuine battle. The on-location shooting in the Philippines really gives the battle scenes a look of authenticity not often found in similarly-themed films of the same time period.

Wilde doesn't sanitize the graphic nature of war, either. Unlike many films of the 1960s, he uses graphic violence quickly and shockingly to help illustrate his themes. Quick, graphic moments are used only to shock and are not dwelt on or eulogized. One character has his arm blown off on the beach and we see a close-up of him staggering about in a delirious stupor, bloody stump gushing and severed limb lying on the ground. Close-ups of bayonet and knife stabbings are also pretty gruesome. There's another, tense scene in which the American infantrymen must storm a bunker complex and use flamethrowers to drive out the Japanese within; the aftermath is more-than-effective. These shots of death and destruction are shocking and rapid; then the focus moves on. Wilde makes his point with one or two frames, a line or two of dialog, or just a facial expression. He doesn't need to dwell on it. We get the message.

Wilde's film is a moving statement about the futility of warfare. The final foxhole scene, in which two enemies sit wounded facing each other and share cigarettes and water as they lay dying, is poignant without being an overstatement. The pain and sadness on each character's face is real as they realize that the only difference between them is skin color and uniform. At heart, they're both innocent kids, caught up in a conflict they don't want to be in. They should be at home with their girlfriends and families, not sweating, bleeding and dying in the midst of an inconsequential tropical island.

"Beach Red" is simply one of the great unknown war films. The ensemble cast never misses a beat, the battle scenes are grim and expertly staged, and the scenery is captured perfectly. This is easily the best fictional film about an island campaign to date, and one of the best war films ever made.

War Hunt
(1962)

Poignant and Moving Despite Budgetary Limitations
Director Denis Sanders isn't a very well-known or acknowledged filmmaker. After seeing "War Hunt", I looked up his filmography, hoping to credit him to another, more mainstream film – one does not exist. Fortunately, a man does not have to be well known or have a huge fan base to be a good director. "War Hunt" is one of the best low-budget sleepers in the video store, now available on DVD from MGM.

Running less than 90 minutes, "War Hunt" tells a powerful story about the toll of warfare on those who fight it. Idealism, patriotism and notions of heroism are forgotten in the midst of battle. Instead of making men into saints, war usually turns them into demons. Pvt. Loomis (an impossibly young Robert Redford) arrives in Korea during the last few weeks of the war. He meets Raymond Endore (John Saxon, "The Cavern"), an unhinged draftee who thrives on night patrols, during which he kills North Korean soldiers in their sleep. Endore has taken Charlie (Tommy Matsuda), a Korean orphan, into his care and Loomis also befriends the boy, hoping to wrest him away from Endore's dangerous influence.

Much like "Hell is for Heroes" which premiered the same year, "War Hunt" was shot on a shoestring budget in the Midwestern United States. From start to finish, it's obvious that the military did not back the production. After all, this is a very anti-military movie. There are only a few extras on-hand and we only see a few trucks. The lack of financing really shows through in the climactic scene in which hordes of Chinese troops attack the entrenched Americans; most of the explosions and reactions to them look utterly false and stagy.

Thankfully, this is not a picture about action and the glory of war – it's about the aftermath of such scenes. The fighting serves to push the conflict forward in the quiet moments of rest and recuperation when the bullets are done flying. In fact, in the film's third act, set during the cease-fire with the Chinese, the most devastating violence occurs. Endore sets off with Charlie to live in the mountains after the war's end, refusing to admit that he is part of the Army and must return home. The final conclusion between Endore and Captain Pratt (Charles Aidman) is quick, gritty and comes to an unexpected, powerful conclusion.

Sanders' ensemble cast is superb in every way. Redford, in his film debut, is actually quite memorable as Loomis. The first time we meet Loomis, we already know what to expect: we've seen this type of clean-cut, fair-haired boy before. He'll go on to undergo a baptism of fire and become the hero of the piece. Not so, here. Loomis arrives in Korea with ideals and patriotism; much like Charlie Sheen's Chris Taylor in "Platoon", he comes to realize that there are only two kinds of men in warfare: those who crack under its pressures, like Endore, and those who just want to survive, like his new found friends Crotty (Gavin MacLeod) and Showalter (Tom Skerritt). His scenes between Charlie are tender, poignant and moving. His encounters with Endore are chilling and unconventionally solved. As Endore, John Saxon brings a new meaning to the word psychopath. We've never met a wacko like him before. His mannerisms, dialog, expressions, are all played with utter randomness. It's as if he was handed the role and told "do what you want with it". There are times when Endore is almost completely human, but something in his eyes tells us that perhaps there is something slightly wrong with this guy. As the nature of his character is gradually revealed, we can't help but become shocked, almost frightened.

"War Hunt" is a cliché-free, freshly original and involving drama. It makes a strong statement about war's general destructive nature. This is a movie about survival and flawed idealism, not heroism and courage. Kudos to the director for choosing to pick such a controversial subject. The film is almost prophetic in that it approaches the Korean War with an attitude that would come across with force and power in Vietnam films 25 years later, like "Hamburger Hill" and "Platoon".

Ambush Bay
(1966)

Brainless, standard, and still entertaining
*Spoilers below*

"Ambush Bay" is the poster-child of how to make a war film based solely on clichés. Regardless, the result is a very entertaining look at espionage in the Pacific Theater.

Days before MacArthur's fleet is to return to the Philippines, a squad of Marines is dropped on Mindanao with a risky assignment: penetrate enemy territory and contact a spy named Miyazaki who operates out of a Japanese rest camp. They spy has information vital to MacArthur's intelligence department. They are experts in the field of killing, except for Grenier (Jim Mitchum), a PBY radio man who was assigned to the team at the last minute when the original radio operator got sick. Grenier doesn't fit in with the veterans, especially the macho Sgt. Corey (Hugh O'Brian).

The piece is clichéd from start to finish – in what movie have we not seen the characters, setting or mission before? Director Winston handles this nonsense seriously – so seriously, that despite the flaws, it's very easy to enjoy this movie, even in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. O'Brian gives a passionate performance, even if his character is anything but original and personal. His Sergeant is virtually a superhero, as Sgt. Wartell (Mickey Rooney!) reveals to Grenier by describing a series of Corey's early exploits on Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Rooney looks to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he scales cliffs and mows down Japanese infantry by the dozen, although he looks way too old and simultaneously boyish to be a believable career marine.

Although he gets third billing, Mitchum's is the most developed and believable character. He's a person any viewer can relate to: thrown into a situation beyond his control, Grenier is forced to adapt to ever-changing conditions – and fast – because his life may depend on it. He wants to do his job well, but doesn't have any natural talent, and therefore his peers look down on him with contempt. His performance never strikes a false note, and he even gets to lapse into some voice-overs to keep things fresh.

The on-location photography is stunning from beginning to end. Had this film not been shot in the Philippines, any credibility would have been totally lost. The exteriors are appropriately lush and beautiful. Winston and cinematographer Emmanuel L. Rojas don't just take us into the steamy jungles; we get to venture into rice patties, across streams and down rushing, crystal clear blue rivers. I absolutely hate it when producers try to make ridiculous locations like North American forests ("The Green Berets") or rocky plains of Spain (1964's "The Thin Red Line") pass for Asian or South Pacific jungles. The technique just doesn't work. Kudos to Winston for choosing to shoot this film in the actual locations it is said to have occurred at.

Although the movie runs nearly 2 hours, the time flies by. The pace is kept fluid in two ways. The characters are constantly on the go. The only reason they stop is rest, and we're treated to discussion revealing something of their character. For example, we don't get to know Corey as a person until late in the film when he develops a relationship with Tisa Chang's character. When the men aren't hiking or resting, they're engaged in some sort of combat with the enemy – patrols, tanks and indigenous cannibals constantly hamper their progress. Winston doesn't dwell on the supporting cast at all: most of them are non-essential characters that he kills off in a few early encounters with the enemy. We constantly ask ourselves "Who is going to get killed next?" This curiosity keeps us engaged right up until the climactic battle inside a fortified Japanese radio installation.

All of that said, it's necessary to point out several technical flaws which make the proceedings difficult to take seriously. The members of the squad are introduced quite extensively as masters in the art of warfare, but by the half-way point, almost all of them have been killed by Japanese draftees. Their detailed introductions are a waste of viewer time and engagement, since Winston seems to want to kill all of them off as quickly as possible. The death of one key character, involving "baked potatoes", has got to be an example of some of the worst screen-writing I've witnessed.

Some of the special effects (namely the destruction of a tank) are very below par, even for a low-budget film from 1966. Outdoor sets are used multiple times, to represent very different locations. The film's climax is packed with unlikely heroics, but by the time it arrives, viewers have dispensed with realistic expectations.

The ridiculous baseball-style caps look like something a Green Beret or Navy SEAL might have worn in the 1960s, but are totally out of place in a World War II movie. I took flak for this comment elsewhere. I don't care if Baseball caps are the "headgear of choice" for Marine air crewmen - these are Marines on an important mission and the last thing they'll be wearing in a green jungle is a bright red cap which yells "HERE I AM! SHOOT ME!"

Perhaps the unbelievable, overstated corny parts of "Ambush Bay" make it such an entertaining film; maybe it's more sincere performances of Mitchum and O'Brian that make it stand out from the deluge of "jungle patrol" stories out there. Whatever the reason, it's thoroughly enjoyable has been a favorite of mine since I caught it on cable as a kid. Now that it's available on DVD, a whole new audience may have opened up.

Tornado
(1983)

Better-than-average Pasta taste of the Vietnam War
Antonio Margheriti is easily Italy's most prolific director of the 1980s. He has dabbled in every genre imaginable. His Vietnam action flicks of the 1980s, including "The Last Hunter", "Tiger Joe" and the title piece are pretty solid films. "Tornado" is a fair film in its own right, but doesn't hold a candle to the earlier pieces in the trilogy.

The plot resembles Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron" with little innovation, but isn't a rip-off in any way. In the final days of the Vietnam War, an unhinged American Captain (Antonio Marsina, "Leathernecks") sends his Green Berets on high-risk missions behind the lines. Sgt. Maggio (Giancarlo Prete, "The Assisi Underground") doesn't take kindly to his commander's attitude towards his men; when his friend dies because of the Captain's blundering, they get in a fight and Maggio winds up en route to the stockade. Well, he winds up escaping from the authorities and sets out across enemy territory to reach neutral Cambodia. Meanwhile, a reporter (Luciano Pigozzi, "Double Target" tries to expose the Captain's madness and save Maggio from his fellow troops, which are in hot pursuit.

Margheriti doesn't really do anything wrong in this film. It's a lack of good things and innovation that drags it down to an "average" status. The action sequences are cheaply staged and consist almost entirely of stock footage from "The Last Hunter". These shots are very well-integrated, but the action looks as though it is revolving around the old material. The musical score is okay and mood-fitting, but doesn't even come close to the "Last Hunter" score. And like "The Last Hunter" Margheriti again throws in a prisoner-of-war scene which totally apes the "Deer Hunter" bamboo cage sequence.

The one thing holding this movie together is a well-written script by the genius Tito Carpi ("Eagles over London") and Gianfranco Couyoumdjian and good acting to deliver the message. Prete is fantastic as Maggio; he's bitter and we always understand why. He's also tough, but with a sympathetic human side. We can relate to him; he's a man's man in a situation beyond his control which makes little sense. Marsina is even better as the maniacal Captain. He doesn't portray this officer as a full-blown lunatic. Instead, there's something quietly sinister about this man. The slight sneer in every expression. The quiet, level tone in every situation, no matter how intense or extreme. Marsina is simply brilliant. Finally, Luciano Pigozzi has a fair-sized part as the reporter, even if he doesn't get to do much except chew out both the Captain and Maggio for different reasons. He's got gusto and a real screen presence, even if he does look like some hillbilly from the swamps of Louisiana.

Unlike "The Last Hunter", Margheriti handles the story without an over-emphasis on its anti-war message. Although this is definitely an anti-war film (there are sentiments throughout and the ending will drive this theme home) it's handled in a realistic, straightforward way. The characters are fleshed-out naturally. The action scenes are believable, for the most part, and are meant to be taken realistically rather than symbolically. There's hardly any graphic violence and the profanity is sporadic. This is in no way an exploitative film, nor is it an allegory: it's a serious comment on the wasteful nature of the Vietnam War.

There are a number of memorable, stand-alone scenes throughout the picture. One, in which the Captain and his cohorts discuss finding Maggio - only to have him jump over their heads with a dirtbike - is simultaneously funny and grim. The discovery of a suicide and subsequent hand-to-hand fight is also very well-constructed.

"Tornado" is an un-original action piece with enough good performances and interesting situations to keep any war film fan engaged, though not on the end of their seat. Worth a look.

Submarine X-1
(1968)

Superficial, Boring and Clichéd from Beginning to End
"Submarine X-1" is just another of several WWII films that rolled out of Oakmont Productions in the late 1960s. Like "Attack on the Iron Coast" and "Mosquito Squadron", this flick lacks innovation, flair and plays like an extended episode of "Black Sheep Squadron". Movies like this were never meant for the big screen. Director Graham had worked almost solely on made-for-TV films up until this point, and it's no surprise that he went back to that medium. His attempt at making a war film is a big disaster.

The rather boring script is written by John C. Champion, who takes the X raid on the German pocket battleship Tirpitz and turns it into what should be a rousing tale of heroism and courage. It's not. Surprised? Lt. Cmdr. Bolton (James Caan, "A Bridge too Far") loses his submarine in the North Atlantic and his men blame him for the ship's destruction and death of 50 crewmen. Well, he's cleared of guilt and re-assigned to train crews of experimental midget submarines - and, what a shock - some of his distrusting former crewmembers wind up in the squad he's too train! I don't know where to start with a film like this. It's not particularly bad. It's just... well... not good. The sets, including some marvelous Scottish scenery and great submarine interiors, look beautiful and Ron Goodwin's music score is rousing as usual, these are the only good things about this movie. James Caan is a great actor; watch "The Godfather" series and try to say he's a poor actor. It's not that he can't act in this movie. He's never given an opportunity to act! He just mumbles occasional, witless dialogue and gives everyone around him strange facial expressions. The supporting cast don't make much of an impact, either. Everyone simply goes through their paces, carries out the mission and in 90 minutes, we've learned nothing about them and can't care less when some of them get killed. Interestingly enough, most of the supporting cast is comprised of English television-actors, which just adds to the "made-for-TV" look and feel of this film.

It's also important to note that everything about this movie is a pure cliché.. Bolton's character and those around him are built around our expectations based on other war films like "The Devil's Brigade". Bolton is simply a stereotype, and not even a two-dimensional one at that. The German characters range from stupid to stupider, from the parachutists that attack the secret submarine base and talk with terrible accents, to the Navy officers who question prisoners and yell a lot but never appear particularly menacing. They waste their time with interrogations about a surviving submarine, rather than doing something practical – such as sending one of dozens of E-Boats out to search for the sneaky enemy vessel! This film couldn't get anymore clichéd if it tried; all it lacks is a sappy love interest. Interestingly enough, there is one blond bombshell – but she only gets once scene and then is forgotten rather abruptly. The nuts and bolts of a good film are all present, but never developed.

The special effects are pretty poor, as is the case with every other Oakmont Production to emerge in its understandably short existence. The underwater photography is fantastic, but every time Graham takes his camera above the water, viewers are treated to shots of obvious toy ships being blown to pieces. The miniatures look like they came out of a Japanese monster movie – not a war movie! The camera-work in the talky scenes is unoriginal and flat and the film just looks boring.

When watching a movie like this, one has to take into account the time period in which it was made. "Submarine X-1" and every other film of its kind belonged on the small screen or, better yet, on the big screen as propaganda films during 1943 or 1944. As a late-60s "action" piece, this one ultimately fails despite some obviously good intentions.

Atentat u Sarajevu
(1975)

Overblown and Boring
This Yugoslav epic is loud, boisterous but, surprisingly, incredibly boring and flat. Even a few great actors can't make this story rise above average.

In 1914, Serbian terrorists head to Sarajevo. Their goal: intercept Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Christopher Plummer) and assassinate him, hopefully provoking a national uprising against the long-time Austrian menace.

Christopher Plummer ("The Royal Hunt of the Sun") and Maximilian Schell ("The Young Lions") are both fine actors – Schell is almost always brilliant in off-the-wall performances, and Plummer has carried a number of excellent dramas. Here, the two men seem to be sleepwalking through their roles. As Ferdinand, Plummer is both uninteresting and unengaging. There is nothing particularly bad about his performance; he is just weak and shallow.

Schell fares only slightly better in a more limited role as a Serb who provides training and arms to the terrorists. His interrogation is especially good, until the rather hammy conclusion. The young Yugoslav actors try very hard; this was the first "big" international film for all of them. Unfortunately, the script doesn't allow them to dig very deep into their hearts for any real emotion. They're committed to their cause, but the audience doesn't really know why – therefore, we can never really relate and end up feeling completely detached from the on screen action.

Veteran director Bulajic handles the production very well. His camera is always on the move, and the fast-paced editing during the climax is excellent. The last 10 minutes or so of the film are particularly nail-biting and engaging, ending with a bittersweet climax and rather mournful score. Again, though, the dramatic effect of these scenes is seriously hampered by a lack of character development.

This is a historically accurate film, make no mistake about that. In trying to re-create the details so faithfully, however, the producers did not take any creative liberty with the story. There wasn't anything particularly interesting or suspenseful about the events leading up to Ferdinand's assassination, and there is not much suspense or engagement in the film, either. A few encounters with the police or military authorities are resolved quickly with expected results. Plummer's stronger moments – including a great opening scene and, later, a discussion of an invasion of Serbia – fade into the background because they are never developed. Every scene in this film stands alone; while there is a continuous narrative, there is no strong uniting theme or ideal behind the storyline. This is simply a no-holds-barred look at history and the result is a tedious sequence of flat scenes.

"The Day that Shook the World" is a well-meaning movie that gets so caught up in self-importance that it fails to engage the audience in its story. High production values and a cast of stars do not guarantee success if the script is a weak failure. This is enjoyable only for history buffs or perhaps for an audience with a connection to the events. I can understand why foreign audiences may not enjoy patriotic American films; I cannot enjoy a patriotic foreign film if the themes do not apply to me in some way, and that is what this movie is – and inapplicable piece of nostalgia.

La colomba non deve volare
(1970)

Boring and Familiar Wartime Heroics
One of the kings of low-budget Italian action, Sergio Garrone, threw together this "drama" with little intrigue, character or action at all. The result is a rather well-meaning but bland and frustratingly boring by-the-numbers piece.

Spanish Nazi Pablo Vallajo (Horst Buchholz) works undercover in Libya, where he enlists the aid of some international thugs to heist several hundred gallons of fuel. He's to take the fuel to an isolated corner of the desert, where he will rendezvous with an Italian aircraft that needs refueling en route to an Allied target. Hot on the heels Vallajo is a British Major (William Berger).

This doesn't sound like a very interesting tale, does it? Surprise! It doesn't play out to be one, either. Everything about this film has been done before. The characters we're rooting for are on the "wrong" side, but not much is done to generate audience sympathy for them. Likewise, the English "villains" are not developed, either. Garrone's script (written with Tito Carpi) is based on clichés and never rises above this level. The actors don't do much except mumble and engage in rather pointless, short conversations for almost 90 minutes. That's a shame, because some fair talent was definitely on hand in this film: Horst Buchholz is a decent young leading man, and Sylva Koscina has certainly proved her worth in peplums and "The Battle of Neretva". William Berger is well-known for some of his work in spaghetti westerns, and the familiar supporting actors have all faired better. It's not that the script outright does anything wrong; it simply doesn't do much of anything right. Garrone is unwilling to take chances with his story and falls back on weak familiarities throughout. Even the "crowd characters" are a mass of clichés: the Arabs are vicious, ride horses and swing swords; undercover agents on both sides wear Fedoras and trench coats, etc. Garrone also overlooks the obvious or simple ignores it. The Allies try to stop Vallajo and disable the Italian bomber when it lands, but they never dispatch fighter planes to shoot it down.

At least Garrone does a fair job technically. While his direction is rather bland – there are only a few innovative pans (such as when Berger descends a flight of stairs) or experimental photography. The production values for this film seem unusually high, however: the Moroccan exteriors and desert visages look quite realistic, and the many interiors – offices, apartments, bedrooms, and war-rooms – are all well-furnished and never look like sound stages. The costumes are very convincing and it's fair to say that the film looks somewhat like a piece of American film noir from the 1940s. When it comes to combat, footage, though, Garrone again falls short. The few shootouts take place in badly-lit, nighttime exteriors and are incomprehensible. I've seen multiple prints of this movie; this is a consistent flaw, not the fault of a video distributor or simply aged film. Original shots of planes are constantly sacrificed for badly edited, black-and-white vintage footage shot during the 1940s. The technique is used over and over again and no attempt is made to disguise it. The best aerial footage here looks as good as the worst aerial footage in "Midway".

"The Dove Must Not Fly" is a very uninteresting, low-budget hack of earlier, better war films about similar operations. It is only worth look only for completest, or die-hard fans of the cast or director.

The Bridge at Remagen
(1969)

Well-acted WWII Drama with Excellent Battle Sequences
American director John Guillermin, known for several epic "clunkers", pulls together this rather tense look at one of the most important battles of World War II: American forces clash with the Germans at Remagen, where the last intact bridge over the Rhine stands between the two opposing forces.

The script divides attention evenly and fairly between the two forces. George Segal ("The Longest Day") is Lt. Hartman, a burned out and pretty tired junior officer who doesn't want to accept the responsibilities of command when his company commander is killed. The war is almost over, and Hartman is concerned with getting his men home. On the other side of the river, German Major Kreuger (Robert Vaughn) is equally concerned with saving lives – German lives. He becomes obsessed with keeping the bridge intact in order to allow retreating German soldiers to attack, despite orders from the High Command to blow up the bridge to prevent its' capture by the Allies.

The supporting cast is filled with fine performances. The standouts are Hans Christian Blech ("Battle of the Bulge") as Captain Schmidt, a weary Wehrmacht Officer who feels his duty is to protect the civilians whom Kreuger puts in harm's way by continuing a hopeless fight. Blech's acting ability ranges from quiet humility to occasional fits of rage, bringing a dimensionality to a role not commonly found in war epics. Joachim Hansen ("Breakthrough") disagrees with Schmidt; he is devoted to the High Command and wants a battle with the Americans more than anything. Both actors bring passion to their roles and make these very believable wartime officers, not simply normal caricatures and stereotypes.

Guillermin takes these characters and puts them in intense combat situations, making their humanity all the more believable. The best battle scene in the film has a platoon of American soldiers advancing onto the bridge under a smokescreen, but while they are in the open, the smoke begins to clear giving the Germans a clear field of fire. As some men are shot in the open, others move underneath the bridge to try and rip off as many explosives as they can before the Germans can ignite a secondary fuse to blow up the bridge.

In the aftermath of battle scenes like this, the human drama unfolds. Sgt. Angelo (Ben Gazzara, "Fireball Forward") is a tough GI who loots the bodies of the dead and sees the war around him as a chance to get rich and take the wealth home when it's all over. But when he must shoot a Hitler Youth member who is sniping at his men, then weeps when he realizes he has shot a mere pre-teenage boy. During a lull in the siege on the bridge, Hartman faces off with Maj. Barnes (Bradford Dillman), who wants him to take his men onto the bridge and capture it despite enemy fire and the threat of the bridge's imminent destruction. Hartman argues that he cannot risk the lives of his men; Barnes states that it will help to end the war faster is the bridge is captured, thus saving more lives in the end. It's a tough choice to make, and both decisions have their drawbacks.

The performances are complimented by three crucial technical elements: scoring, scenery and cinematography. Elmer Bernstein provides a sweeping score which resounds with the troops when they are victorious, yet mourns and seems to cry during some heart-wrenching scenes, such as an important scene between Angelo, Hartman and Schmidt at the film's conclusion. The Czech locations look magnificent – the film looks and feels real because it was lensed in Europe, in a location which passes for Germany perfectly. The cobblestones streets, rustic villages, rolling hills and clear rivers look amazing. Finally, Stanley Cortez's cinematography is fantastic; the composition of every shot looks well-planned and detailed. There is action going on in the background and foreground most of the time. The focus is not just on the main characters, but as in real life, there is stuff going on around them. Scenes of the battle on the bridge are standouts, as the action is captured from every possible angle, it's very clear what's going on and who is where at all times.

"The Bridge at Remagen" is a fine World War II film which succeeds in showing history, American patriotism and the horrors of war at the same time. It will leave you feeling glad that the Allies won the war and agonized over the great cost of such small gains. But when you realize how much a "small" gain really matters in the big picture, it won't seem as small anymore.

The Blue Max
(1966)

Excellent Aerial Photography Highlights WWI Adventure *POSSIBLE SPOILERS*
REVIEW OF REGION 1 20TH CENTURY FOX DVD

Unmistakably one of the most entertaining war films to come out of the 1960s, "The Blue Max" is the kind of film that could only have been made in Hollywood. Featuring some of the best aerial combat scenes ever shot and a great ensemble cast, it's enjoyable pulp fantasy for any war film fan.

The film opens with a brilliant, intense action sequence: Bruno Stachel (George Peppard, "Tobruk") dives into a mud-filled crater on the Western Front. He's visibly exhausted; his heavy breathing and unshaven face reveal how horrible front line conditions are. From above comes the sound of a dogfight – Peppard's bright blue eyes blare from a mud-covered face as he stares in awe at the action in the skies above him, the mood fully established with Jerry Goldsmith's evocative score. Flash forward two years: Stachel has transferred to the Luftwaffe and is a green, inexperienced pilot. A peasant, Stachel has little in common with his high-class comrades, members of the elite Officer Corps. He's ruthless and ambitious, and sets his sight on winning a Blue Max – the medal awarded to a pilot with 20 kills to his credit. With this award, Bruno will have won the respect of his comrades. Squadron commander Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler, "Patton") has one, and hotshot Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp, "Operation Crossbow") is awarded one early in the film. Stachel vigorously has to catch up to their status, and Willi takes a liking to him, helping him try to fit in.

As Germany is losing the war, Willi's uncle, General von Klugermann (James Mason, "Cross of Iron") enters the stage: he sees potential in Stachel for more than just flying prowess. This is a time when the common people of Germany need a hero. Stachel is a poor farm boy, someone they can all relate to. Von Klugermann sets out to make Stachel a national icon; when he received a minor wound, he's escorted to a cushy Berlin hotel and the press takes pictures of a nurse tending to his wound, plastering pictures all over the national newspapers. Countess Kaeti von Klugermann (the beautiful Ursula Andress) sets her sights on Stachel, and soon a steamy affair has begun, right under the nose of the General. As Stachel's selfish ambitions become more apparent and blatant, Willi's friendly competitiveness fades and their adversity becomes an all-out battle. All of this builds to an unavoidable, somewhat depressing ending.

This is a character-driven drama firstly, and the action is simply a supplement to the story of the characters. Unfortunately, Peppard is a wooden lead. He speaks in unaccented English and never seems to be thoroughly involved in his part; it's as though he's sleepwalking through almost every scene. The rest of the cast deserves more credit. Co-star Jeremy Kemp is much more believable. He's sly, cynical and delivers fantastic deadpan humor. James Mason is brilliant as usual as General von Klugermann, a career German officer whose chief concern is for the German people and his nation's prestige. I have never seen Mason deliver a bad performance, and here he is simply fantastic. He's often cool and restrained, but lets anger and rage come out full-force at key moments. As his unfaithful wife, Ursula Andress is her typical self; beautiful and often barely concealed. A standout is Karl Michael Vogler as Heidemann. A veteran flyer devoted to his duty, Heidemann is a career soldier. He's been fighting since the beginning of the war, and although weary and tired, keeps doing his job. His chief goals are keeping as many planes flying as possible, despite Allied air attacks and supply shortages. He demands that Stachel's ambitions take second fiddle to strategic operations; when he disobeys orders, Heidemann threatens to have him court-martialed. Vogler's performance is excellent, and he walks away with each of his scenes.

Director John Guillermin and Director-of-Photography Douglas Slocombe weave some excellent flying sequences into the film's story. These action scenes are not independent conflicts between German and English fighters – conflicts between characters are developed on the ground and either expanded or settled in the air. The skies have never been bluer, and the vintage aircraft look fantastic as they dive, swoop and strafe enemy columns. The stunt work and special effects are genuine, even some brilliantly-staged crash sequences. Even the work of Guy Hamilton and crew in 1969's "Battle of Britain" pales in comparison to this. The scenes of trench warfare and bombing runs are massive and spectacular. The mud-splattered soldiers, vast fields dotted with rotting corpses and bomb craters, and some hand-to-hand combat has never looked more authentic. Every cent invested in the film was put to good use. Scenes in Berlin – particularly that in the hospital and food riots shot through a moving car window – are historically accurate.

Guillermin isn't afraid to experiment with the camera during the discussion scenes. Note how he often places two actors in one room on opposite ends of the frame, simply to capture the scope of the interiors. Marvelous pans show off huge numbers of extras and planes taking off and landing. There's also a long crane shot showing a huge, lavish dining hall at the Von Klugermann's mansion which captures the essence of nobility and aristocracy in one shot.

"The Blue Max" is a brilliantly shot, engaging and wildly entertaining World War I epic which should satisfy any fan of aircraft and war films. This is a must-see DVD, which preserves the CinemaScope ratio (a necessary asset, as pan-and-scan versions detract from the epic look of the picture) and also features a great restored surround-sound track and stunning digital image quality. It's the only acceptable way to see this film in the modern world.

Too Late the Hero
(1970)

Uneven WWII Drama seems more like a Vietnam Morality Play
Veteran director Robert Aldrich tried to re-work the success of "The Dirty Dozen" with a blatantly anti-war remake, "Too Late the Hero". Unfortunately, an able cast is wasted in this very anti-war effort, which plays out more like an anti-Vietnam allegory than a tale of wartime heroics.

In the spring of 1942, American Lt. Lawson (Cliff Robertson, "Up from the Beach") sits lazily on a Pacific island, doing everything possible to avoid hazardous duties. Captain Nolan (Henry Fonda, in a one-scene cameo) disrupts his comfort with a hazardous assignment. Lawson is flown to the New Hebrides for a cooperative mission with the British. We find that the British hold one end of the island; the Japanese hold the other. Lawson and a patrol will penetrate enemy territory to destroy a vital radio station.

At first, the film seems utterly predictable. Lawson is a type we've seen before – an unlikely soldier who redeems himself heroically by the final act. But with the introduction of the English characters and their Japanese counterparts, all audience expectations are shattered. Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott), the unit commander, proves to be a bungling – and homosexual – idiot, and the men have no faith in him. Pvt. Hearne (Michael Caine, "Play Dirty") is obviously dis-satisfied with Hornsby's indecisive "leadership", and after his incompetence results in unnecessary deaths, Hearne breaks into an open rebellion. Before long, the mission goes downhill, and Lawson and Hearne find themselves united in a mutual struggle for survival behind enemy territory.

Aldrich all-too-clearly means to convey a heavy-handed message that war is bad – very bad. He's got several points to make: officers are corrupt, cold-blooded incompetents. In one scene, Hornsby is seen to shoot wounded prisoners without flinching. In the past, typical Japanese characters have been portrayed universally as evil, murderous dogs. Here, Aldrich tries far too hard to humanize them. First, he introduces a sympathetic Japanese character, Major Yamaguchi (Ken Takakura) in the second half of the film. Yamaguchi is tall, handsome and compassionate – even though he is taunting the fleeing Allied soldiers over loudspeakers spread throughout the jungle. He urges them to surrender, promising good treatment – and seems utterly sincere. Secondly, Aldrich makes the English out as the villains. Pvt. Campbell (Ronald Fraser) is a coward who runs from battle, but also loots the bodies of dead soldiers – both English and Japanese. He stirs up dissension and even murders one of his own men who won't cooperate with an attempt to surrender to the Japanese.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not trying to say that all of the Allied troops were heroes or saints, as many historians and movie makers will try to tell you. Nor do I believe every Japanese soldier was a murderous villain. I tend to oppose war and find it utterly despicable - there are good men and bad men on both sides; some enjoy the killing and some would prefer to be anywhere else but in combat. But Aldrich goes to ridiculous extremes to show imperfections among the Allies (he nearly demonizes all of them in some way) and makes the Japanese look for compassionate and friendly than most of them were. We're supposed to see Allied soldiers during WWII as substitutes for the American military during Vietnam, and anyone will agree the two simply cannot be compared side-by-side.

The ensemble cast is what holds this piece together. The actors are all very capable and seem sincere, despite the lunacy of much of the script. Robertson seems a comfortable lead, although Lawson's character is never totally fleshed out. As the film begins, he's obviously a coward, but steps into the role of leader far too easily in the second half. He doesn't seem to struggle with his previous notions of warfare or leadership, his role has suddenly shifted without explanation. Robertson is so good, though, that this can be overlooked somewhat and is forgivable. As Hearne, Caine is the real star of the film. He's just as cynical as Lawson, but is open and blunt about it. He knows that Hornsby is incapable of leading and isn't afraid to point it out to him, even if it means a threat of court-martial. Throughout, his arguments seem legitimate, and Caine always come across as completely sincere. Finally, Denholm Elliott is exceptionally fine as Hornsby. He doesn't seem to know his role as a leader-of-men too well, and this often results in the deaths of his men and, ultimately, a botched mission.

The jungle locations are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Joseph Biroc, but never come across as particularly dark and foreboding. Here, gory death and destruction takes place among beautiful trees, ferns and flowers. Again, this is a film meant as an anti-Vietnam statement, and the jungle locations are a perfect setting.

Unfortunately, as I've repeated ceaselessly, "Too Late the Hero" can't seem to decide supposed to be a movie about a jungle patrol in the New Hebrides in 1942, not a movie about a patrol in Cambodia in 1968. The social commentary on the Vietnam War is delivered too heavily and blatantly distorted. The characters garnish little sympathy, and there is not enough action to keep the slow, talkative pace flowing. As a drama, it almost succeeds; as the action spectacular the trailer claims, it is barely serviceable. If you would like to see a well-made, moving film that uses WWII for an allegory on the Vietnam War, and war in general, see BEACH RED, made in 1967. It's a much more even-handed and a lot fairer than this piece - hands down.

4 - maybe 5 out of 10

Testa di sbarco per otto implacabili
(1968)

Competent Italian War Actioner
The king of average, mediocre Italian action movies, Alfonso Brescia, does his best work in this action-packed, anti-war commando story, released in 1967. "Hell in Normandy" may not be the best of a slew of Italian "commando" movies, but it's somewhere near the top of the pile, simply because Brescia manages to pack so much into a 90-minute running time.

American commandos, led by Captain Murphy (Guy Madison), parachute into occupied Normandy, where Lt. Strobel (Peter Lee Lawrence), a German spy, helps them penetrate a flamethrower installations which threatens the landings on Omaha Beach. Murphy is skeptical of his mission's practicality, but Strobel is fanatically dedicated to destroying the base, and the two butt heads several times before the film's bullet-ridden climax.

This was an Italian-French co-production, and was quite possibly shot in France – this is noticeable in the first few shots. For once, an Italian war films opens with the landscape actually looking like the country it represents. I can't count the times I've seen semi-arid climates and rock quarries passed off for "southern France", so Brescia's choice of shooting locations earns him major points in my book. The movie looks just as real throughout – uniforms, weapons, vehicles and sets all look very authentic. Many Italian directors, such as Leon Klimovsky and Umberto Lenzi, disregarded accuracy in favor of action, and that damaged their credibility. Here, one can respect the time and money Brescia puts into making his film look credible.

This was Guy Madison's first Italian war movie, and he hasn't grown comfortable yet in a part which he would eventually own in the genre – he's starred in several similarly-themed films, each helmed by a different director. Man, does this guy get around! That said, he seems a bit unsure of himself as Captain Murphy, quite possibly because the role has its limitations. Murphy is cynical and critical of the way his mission was planned by superiors and how he's been ordered to execute it, but that's about all he gets to say – and he says it so many times that his dialog gets old and worn out very fast.

In direct contrast, Peter Lee Lawrence seems to be enjoying himself as Lt. Strobel, and has plenty of good dialog as well as some physically active scenes to be involved in. From the moment we meet him, Strobel is obsessed with the success of his mission, even if it means killing anyone who gets in his way. But he also has a tender side, demonstrated in his love for the French partisan girl Denise (Erika Blanc), a relationship which never gets the full development it deserves.

Brescia then loads his supporting cast with familiar names and faces, most notably, Max Tarilli ("Hornet's Nest"), an always under-used and under-appreciated actor. Here, Tarilli is a vicious German Corporal who is hot on the trail of Murphy's commandos, and never ceases in his search. It's refreshing to see what talent Tarilli has, and he never appears less than fully convincing as the vicious-Nazi-type. Massimo Carocci, Pierre Richard, Giuseppe Castellano, Luciano Catenacci, Gianni Pulone, and Giovanni Ivan Scratuglia all have small parts, too, which give a necessary boost.

When stacked up against similar films, such as "Where Eagles Dare", "Attack and Retreat" or "Tobruk", this little action story doesn't hold up as well. But Brescia takes his craft seriously, and earnestly tries to make everything look and sound as good as possible given the circumstances. "Hell in Normandy" is a well-meaning war film with a good premise and enough good acting, suspense and violent action to keep it entertaining, even if it is all clichéd.

SGT. SLAUGHTER'S RATING: 3 Bullets

Paris brûle-t-il?
(1966)

Pretty Epic French WWII Film with Shaky Narrative
Director Rene Clement brings together the finest French, American and German actors of the 1960s for a rather muddled historical epic. Released in 1966, "Is Paris Burning?" is a rather mixed bag of historical drama and confusion.

In August, 1944, the Allies are closing in on Paris. Hitler (Billy Frick) orders General von Cholitz (Gert Frobe, "The Longest Day") to take command and burn the city to the ground to prevent its capture. French resistance forces within the city won't permit this to happen, and Swedish consul Nordling (Orson Welles, "The Battle of Austerlitz") convinces Choltitz to make multiple concessions, allowing the resistance to make significant gains and hold on until the armed forces arrive.

The all-star cast is uniformly good, although many of the American stars have little to do. Gert Frobe is the real star of the piece. As Cholitz, he makes a strong and sympathetic character. Cholitz has to make important, difficult decisions – on one hand, he's concerned about his men's safety; on the other, he is trying to follow orders. Welles is somewhat engaging, but he disappears partway through the film without leaving a lasting impression. The script, by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal, combines several stories, allowing the host of characters little time to do much of anything. Gallois (Pierre Vaneck) and Dr. Monod (Charles Boyer) try to break out of Paris and reach the Allies; Colonel Rol (Bruno Cremer) and Chaban (Alain Delon) organize the resistance forces; Nordling and tries to free Francoise Labe's (Leslie Caron, "Father Goose") husband from a POW camp. It's hard for any of these subplots to make much on an impact, but like "The Longest Day" and "Battle of Britain", the characters are kept distinct enough that they are easy to follow, despite major time lapses between appearances.

The German characters are portrayed by a host of familiar character-actors. Helmuth Schneider ("The Dirty Heroes") plays a Sergeant who throws a pessimistic Corporal (Otto Stern, "Commandos") into a detention cell; Gunter Meisner ("The Bridge at Remagen") is his usual, evil self as an SS Officer in charge of a prison train; Joachim Hansen ("The Eagle has Landed") is a moral officer who tries to help Nordling gain concessions; Wolfgang Preiss ("Von Ryan's Express") has little to do as the commander of a demolition squad; and Karl-Otto Alberty ("Battle of the Bulge") is an SS officer. The American actors tend to have clunky cameos: Kirk Douglas ("In Harm's Way"); Glenn Ford ("Casablanca Express"); Robert Stack and E.G. Marshall are all limited to one or two scenes. Anthony Perkins ("Catch-22") and Skip Ward make more of an impression as infantrymen waiting to liberate Paris.

Clement handles every shot brilliantly. There are several standout scenes. One sequence has partisans ambush a German armored car. One soldier escapes, still smoldering from burns from an exploded Molotov cocktail. He proceeds to hijack a passing French car and make the driver take him to HQ, where his gruesome burns alert the neat-and-clean officers that something is not right in the city. The scene in which Francoise Labe searches for her husband amongst a throng of prisoners in especially moving, and the conclusion is brilliant and unexpected. In another scene, a French squad occupied an old woman's apartment to fire on a German barricade, as the old woman watches while preparing herself a cup of tea. In another scene SS officers arrive to secure a painting for Hitler's birthday from the Louvre, before Frobe burns down the city. Frobe informs them that the Louvre is in French hands, and they reply "But it's right across the street!" Without missing a beat, Frobe tells them to take a white flag over and see if the French will let them in. This grim humor and wit add to the human story within the big picture.

A lot of attention to historical accuracy and detail went into the film's production. Costumes, from French civilian dress to military uniforms are all accurate. The exteriors are beautifully shot in and around Paris, often with excellently staged wide shots showing off the narrow streets and just how vast and battleground was. The scenes of the French resistance gathering in the streets to march on the Police Station, set to Maurice Jarre's thundering, jovial score, are most memorable. The spirit of revolution and joy of liberation is so well-portrayed that you can feel it with the characters on screen.

"Is Paris Burning?" suffers from annoyingly bad dubbing, overlength and a lack of focus, but these are nicks in any epic film, and cannot be avoided in order to tell such a vast story. As its heart, "Is Paris Burning?" is a fine movie about human freedom, told with brilliance and gusto.

Le quattro giornate di Napoli
(1962)

Cream of the Crop
A cast of virtual then-unknowns re-enacts the German takeover of Naples following the Italian Army's surrender to the Allies, and the peasant uprising which ensued. "The Four Days of Naples" was released in 1962 and is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, in Italian with English subtitles.

What's most interesting about this film is that director Loy follows many characters and subplots, and often fails to resolve them because they become lost in the chaos of the house-to-house battle within the city. Frank Wolff ("Desert Assault") is Salvatore, who loves Maria (Lea Massari) even though she has married a rich man. The two wind up fighting along side one another; Gian Maria Volonte is the Captain who helps organize a partisan resistance; Aldo Giuffre (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is one member of an Italian artillery unit which becomes embroiled in the siege; and Enzo Turco ("Anzio") is a Black-shirt who is taken prisoner despite his Fascist convictions. Every member of the ensemble cast is passionate and utterly convincing. Many were virtually unknown at the time of production, and became big stars in Italy within the next few years.

Director Loy shoots his film with a documentary style. Some shots are well-crafted, though, and give the audience a new perspective on the action. One long pan from a rooftop from which partisans are firing on the Germans shows how the men move from street to street without any cutting at all. The black-and-white cinematography is utterly fantastic. Close-ups of faces deliver all of the drama that dialog simply cannot convey.

The film brings the viewer inside what occupation and resistance do the civilian population of a city. At one point, the Germans drive the citizens out of one quarter so that they can occupy it, forcing people to move in with strangers on the other side of the city. Later, they attempt to conscript Italian men into their labor force, which is what sparks the uprising. The camera follows us into individual homes and family situations, which are ripped apart by the affects of war. He then takes us to massive crowds as they riot in the streets. The scope of battle is excellently captured, as are the cramped alleys and rooms from which the citizens must fight.

There a number of standout vignettes: the Neapolitans throwing furniture from their windows atop the heads of Nazi soldiers in a narrow alleyway; one sequence in which a number of teens escape a reform school to join the fight; a prisoner-negotiation scene in which things go unexpectedly and several Italian civilians are caught in a crossfire; the scene in which the Italian men are taken in trucks to be conscripted, only to have their wives overwhelm the German guards. All of these scenes convey a spirit of freedom, aided by Carlo Rustichelli's rousing score.

"The Four Days of Naples" is a well-crafted drama, intended to be taken seriously, unlike many Italian war films which would follow a few years later. This is an inspiring drama of courage and determination, definitely a must-see for any fan of war films or the Italian cinema.

Il grande attacco
(1978)

Well-meaning war epic hurt by lack of plot and stolen footage
Director Umberto Lenzi's movies have always been the subject of criticism on web boards and even from nationally known reviewers, including Leonard Maltin. It seems as though he takes a lot of flak simply because his films are made overseas. At its heart, "The Greatest Battle" is really no better or worse than the slew of epic war films to come out of Hollywood in the 1970s.

During the Berlin Olympics of 1936, German Major Roland (Stacy Keach); American General Foster (Henry Fonda); reporter Sean O'Hara (John Huston) and Jewish actress Annelise Ackerman (Samantha Eggar) meet and become friends. Flash forward to late 1941: America is embroiled in World War II. Several more characters are introduced, namely: Foster's loser son, John (Ray Lovelock); gutsy British commando leader Captain Scott (Giuliano Gemma) and dedicated Nazi commando officer Lt. Zimmer (Helmut Berger). All of these characters become interconnected over the course of the next two years and wind up coming face-to-face at the Battle of the Mareth Line in North Africa. Each turn in a dedicated, honest performance – something to be admired in this genre.

Several familiar European actors appear in the supporting cast, and although their parts are unimportant to the storyline, it's essential to mention some of them: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart ("Hornets' Nest") plays John Foster's commander; Andrea Bosic ("Hell's Brigade") as the leader of Greek partisans; Ida Galli ("Eagles Over London") as Scott's estranged wife, and Venantino Venantini ("The War Devils") as her new husband; Geoffrey Copleston ("The Assisi Underground") as a menacing SS Colonel; Luciano Catenacci ("The Battle of El Alamein") as a British radio operator; the list goes on forever. Even Orson Welles ("The Battle of Neretva") narrates the proceedings rather unnecessarily – and, often, incorrectly.

For the most part, this is a plot less series of scenes, chronicling major events in the characters' lives and campaigns. Lenzi fills out the running time with stylistic action sequences and well-integrated stock footage. Lenzi's directorial style and energy are apparent in a number of battle scenes. He takes a lot of ideas and scenarios from his earlier war films – notably, "Battle of the Commandos" (a partisan ambush of a German armored convoy looks awfully familiar, as does a commando raid on a coastal bunker) and shoots them with a bigger budget and more professionalism. The Federico Zanni photography is simply dazzling and excellently edited by Eugenio Alabiso, one of my favorite genre-editors.

Unfortunately, a lot of familiar stock footage from "Battle of the Commandos", "Commandos", "Desert Assault" and "The Battle of El Alamein" is used as a substitute for original action footage, which really hampers the original, epic feel of the movie. But look at Hollywood's epic "Midway" released in 1976: it's a hodgepodge of stock footage and cameos, yet is much better received by audiences than this film. The major action sequences revolve solely around the stock footage, but that's okay in this movie, because the material surrounding these sequences is so good.

The production values are amazingly high in this film, setting it another notch among its' peers. The sets, from Parisian bars and brothels, to huge entrenchments, fuel dumps and railroad stations look fantastic. The costumes and props are appropriate, too. There are hundreds of extras, tanks, APCs, jeeps and airplanes dotting the screen, giving the film the appropriate epic look.

This Italian-produced war epic is typically underrated and undeserving of the criticism it so often receives. While it does lack a storyline and has no character development whatsoever… and contains reels of stock footage, the original material, style and slew of actors help to offset these flaws. "The Greatest Battle" is no better or worse than any similar film made in Hollywood, and is certainly much more entertaining and engaging than titles like "Midway".

The Dirty Dozen
(1967)

Excellent WWII Action Piece and Representation of 60s Pop Culture
Acclaimed director Robert Aldrich (also famous to war film buffs for his rule-breaking drama, "Attack") twists the familiar 'unit picture' into a famous story of unexpected heroism in the midst of World War II. Instead of making his heroes clean-cut, American draftees, we're looking at the dirtiest convicts the Armed Forces has got to offer.

OSS Major Reisman (Lee Marvin, "Hell in the Pacific") is an insubordinate Army officer who's facing a court-martial, when he's given one last chance for a reprieve: select twelve Army prisoners from a maximum-security detention center, train them for a top-secret mission behind the German lines, and then lead them into battle. If they succeed in the mission, they'll be released. For Reisman, it's a tough call, but it's his only chance to save his career.

The men he was to work with are a mixed batch, and director Aldrich packs a lot of character development into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. The most important of the "Dirty Dozen" is Franko, a small-time Chicago hoodlum who's facing the gallows for robbery and subsequent murder of a British civilian. It's clear from the start that Franko is a loner who thinks he's big stuff, but Reisman manages to prove that he's really all talk. More than once, he considers and even attempts escape from the remote training camp that the Dozen are forced to build – but maybe, just maybe, beneath that rebellious attitude, there's a chance for redemption.

Then there are some more sympathetic types: Wladislaw (Charles Bronson, "Battle of the Bulge") was once a front-line infantryman who shot his platoon's medic when the medic got scared under fire and started running – Bronson says "He took off with all the medical supplies… only way to stop him was to shoot him." Jefferson (Jim Brown, "Ice Station Zebra") has been convicted for murder – his defense is he was defending himself from vicious, racist MPs who were abusing him. Wladislaw and Jefferson find themselves allied in order to get Franko on their side, because they have faith in Reisman and aren't willing to let Franko's rebellion become infectious.

Also in fine support is Clint Walker ("None But the Brave") as the big Navajo, Posey, who punched a man too hard for shoving him. He really didn't mean to kill him; he just doesn't like being pushed. Posey comes off as a cuddly teddy bear who'd never intentionally hurt a soul, and it's clear from the start that he's one of the good guys. Finally, Telly Savalas ("Kelly's Heroes") lends a hand as the psychotic, racist, religious fanatic Maggot, who believes his job is to punish the other 11 men for their "wickedness". His motives are never really clear; all we really know is that Maggot is somewhat unhinged and potentially dangerous.

Even though Reisman and his squad don't get along, they're forced to become allied against a common enemy – the American General Staff, who want to do nothing short of shut the operation down. Aldrich again breaks the rules, making the conventionally "good guys" into the enemy. The Germans are barely mentioned throughout the first two acts, and only become involved for the explosive finale. The heart of this movie is anti-establishment behavior, right in the vein of the protest culture of the 60s: the good guys are the unshaven criminals, and the bad guys are the clean-cut, well-dressed Generals who come across as stupid and vain. As Colonel Everett Dasher Breed, Robert Ryan ("Flying Leathernecks") makes an excellent bully, a villain that the Dozen eventually unite to take action against.

Once the men have been trained and are finally cooperating and acting as a unit, it's time to set them loose on the Nazis. And still, the story doesn't become stereotypical. The mission is simple: the men will parachute into occupied France, penetrate a château being used as a rest center for high-level German officers, and kill as many of said officers as possible in a short amount of time. This operation involves stabbing defenseless women, machine-gunning prisoners, and finally, locking several dozen German officers and their mistresses in an underground bomb shelter, pouring gasoline down on them through air vents, loading said air vents with hand grenades, and then blowing up the whole place.

Characters and story aside, the film benefits from some superb editing by Michael Luciano. Director Aldrich and cinematographer Edward Scaife work hand in hand to compose every shot. The cramped, dank prison cells in the first act are utterly convincing, and the layout of the huge, magnificent German-occupied château looks, quite appropriately, like a cross between a marvelous mansion and an impregnable fortress. The battle scenes are well-choreographed, too. Never does a moment go by where we do not know where one encounter is happening in relation to what the rest of the squad is dealing with in and around the Château. Frank de Vol's sweeping score is used sparingly, and adds to both the humor and suspense of the picture. One scene, in which Donald Sutherland's character "inspects" a platoon of the 82nd Airborne, is set to a live orchestra's performance perfectly.

War is a really a dirty business – this isn't a movie about men playing by the rules. It's about breaking every rule in the book to get a job done, and if a few innocent bystanders get in the way, they're simply collateral damage. On a higher level, Aldrich's film reflects culture attitudes of the late 60s. Moviegoers wanted a film which encouraged breaking the rules, which showed the higher levels of the American military as deeply flawed, and made the dregs of society into the heroes of the piece. It's a cynical representation of the time it was made in, but holds up flawlessly 40 years later, in a culture which has probably been shaped by the attitudes the film reflects in every frame.

10/10

Attack
(1956)

Fantastic War Movie - No Holds Barred
One of Robert Aldrich's classic war movies explores pyschological pressure and just how war effects men mentally. Even the "good guys" have their bad sides, and the bad guys are so screwed up you either sympathize with them or hate them.

During the fall of 1944, Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert) commands a weary infantry company. Lt. Costa (a young Jack Palance) realizes that Cooney is unfit for command when he freezes in combat. Costa and close friend Lt. Woodruff (Bill Smithers) try to inform their superior, Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin sporting a southern drawl) of Cooney's incompetence; instead, White wants to stay out of the way and hopes for the best. He owes Cooney a chance to become a hero so he can look good back home. Well, as you might have expected, Cooney again freezes in combat, this time costing the lives of several of Costa's men - and Costa goes looking for vengeance in an awesome climactic sequence.

The supporting cast is dotted with familiar faces, including Robert Strass from STALAG 17 as an oafish, emotional dogface; the late Buddy Ebsen (BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL) as Costa's loyal platoon sergeant; and Richard Jaeckel (who's appeared in at least a dozen war flicks) as another young soldier. Kudos to Bill Smithers, who does a fantastic job in an early role as Costa's rational friend. His final scene will leave you stunned and reeling.

The movie features a number of memorable scenes which combine physical action, superb dialog and emotion perfectly. One scene in which a mortally wounded Jack Palance prays that God will let him live long enough to kill Cooney is gut-wrenching. Interestingly, both Cooney and Costa have lost their grip on sanity. It's clear from the beginning that Cooney is a whackjob, and Costa is perfectly sane. But he becomes madly (no pun intended) obsessed with killing Cooney, that he forgets everything else - including his own men which is fighting to save. Instead of focusing on thousands of troops and big explosions, Aldrich delivers enough punch in his small-scale story to knock you down. Interiors and exteriors are beautifully shot, confining the action within small spaces to deliver maximum intensity and efficiency.

ATTACK! is an honest film - yes, this type of thing did happen; read or see BAND OF BROTHERS (particularly episode #7) to witness a brutally accurate account of flawed leadership resulting in disaster. I give an 11/10.

Colli di cuoio
(1989)

Decent Spaghetti War Flick
An action-packed, brought to us by Ignazio Dolce - the guy who directed several other 'Nam action flicks including "The Last Platoon". It's a plot less little exploitation movie, filmed on a shoestring budget in the Philippines.

Richard Hatch (who also starred The Last Platoon) leads a top-notch Italian B-movie cast, including a beefy Jim Mitchum (In Harm's Way) in one of his last roles, as well as Vassili Karis (SS Girls), Antonio Marsina (The Rangers) and Robert Marius. Anyway, Hatch leads a patrol and finds a cache of US weapons being transported by the VC. So, he gets back to base and leads an intelligence officer out to track down the arms dealer. Well, after some good double-crosses and shoot-em-ups, Hatch gets back to his base in time for a big climactic battle.

The film looks and sounds a lot like "The Green Berets", or "Zulu", or even "The Alamo" - but doesn't equal any of those earlier epics. At least half of the movie concerns these guys defending a small village atop a desolate hill, while the VC charge out of the surrounding jungle and blast away with mortars and M-16s. These battle scenes are excellently done, filled with some dizzying photography, lots of good explosion effects and slow-motion photography.

There is plenty of good-looking Filipino scenery. Most Italian 'Nam or Mercenary movies were shot in the Philippines to take advantage of very cheap production costs and good-looking geography. You never for once doubt you're in Vietnam. The soldiers look sweaty, grimy and angry. The Vietnamese villagers look emaciated, tired and scared.

The movie does have its low points, though. The script really lacks character development and the actors fail to deliver any strong material. For the most part, they just sit around swearing at each other. All the GIs are interchangeable, since none of them have the least bit of personality. The production also looks pretty low-budget. Men shout that there's "A million VC out there!" and it only looks like maybe 20 or 30 guys are attacking - and notice how they all look exactly alike? The number never decreases, even after Hatch and company have blown away about 100 guys. The ending also really upset me, since it leaves the story hanging and has Hatch blowing away about 3 dozen VC while charging out in the open. Of course, the VC just keep coming with firing back and Hatch is standing out in the open, never running out of ammo. Sheesh.

"Leathernecks" is just another in the slew of high-octane, low-plot Vietnam action-exploitation flicks to come out in the 80s. It's a fun little flick, but don't expect anything special.

Fuga dall'arcipelago maledetto
(1982)

Barely Satisfying Action Flick
Antonio Margheriti's second entry in his Vietnam Trilogy is surprisingly the weakest of the three films (the first being "The Last Hunter" and the third being "Tornado"). However, despite some lackluster and uninspired direction, several quick action sequences and great cast chemistry hold this flick together over the course of 90 minutes.

Sometime during the mid-1970s, three Vietnam vets, Tiger Joe (David Warbeck, "A Fistful of Dynamite"), Midnight (Tony King, "The Last Hunter") and Lenny (Luciano Pigozzi, "Tornado") run weapons to Cambodian refugees who are fighting against the Khmer Rouge forces. When Joe is shot down behind enemy lines, he meets a beautiful guerrilla fighter (Annie Belle) and the two basically run around blowing up enemy bases while Lenny and Midnight search for their missing buddy.

That's about all there is to this quickie actioner. It's obvious that this was shot right on the heels of the classic "The Last Hunter", in order to make use of leftover money and sets, and fill out the contracts of several of the actors – the cast and crew of both films are virtually identical. The production values are awfully low, and it shows. The film is almost completely void of Margheriti's signature slow-motion photography, and there are only a few big explosions. Margheriti and crew obviously produced this film in haste, and it shows. There's no variety of camera angles: no cool zoom-ins, no low angle photography, nothing to manipulate light and dark sets. Even the miniature work is below par: we do get to see one bridge and a toy train comes crashing down, but that's about it.

Most of the story revolves around a ragtag bunch of guerrillas and Cambodian peasants wandering the Cambodian jungle (actually the Philippines) and constantly running into enemy patrols, which they dispatch with machine-guns and knives rather quickly and without much effort. This is yet another film where a handful of un-trained civilians with AK-47s can suddenly mow down tons of trained enemy soldiers, who don't seem to understand how to take cover or aim their weapons. A good deal of the action footage – particularly that of helicopters and the burned-out village – is lifted directly from "The Last Hunter".

This only thing holding this plot less, mindless piece together is the great chemistry of the leads. Everyone involved in this film seems to be having a good time, even if they're not delivering incredibly thoughtful dialogue with gusto. David Warbeck, another British actor who failed to make it in Hollywood like Sean Connery and Roger Moore did for the James Bond series, went to Italy where he made a ton of decent action pictures (often for Margheriti). Here, he's enjoying himself as a witty Brit who simply gets to take an M-16 and grenades and kill half of the Khmer Rouge without effort. Tony King over-states every one of his scenes as Midnight (well, when he does he not overact?) but is great fun. Pigozzi seems right at home as Lenny, the type of part he was born to play, and despite his age and build, gets to be involved in some very physically demanding sequences. His final scenes are a bit corny and forced, but great fun for that exact reason.

This is a very entertaining and attention-holding film, but Margheriti doesn't offer us anything new to think about and doesn't seem to be experimenting with either the script or technical side of the production. If not for the presence of a great cast, this flick would have been a total waste of time. As it exists now, you'll probably watch it once, enjoy it but forget it almost immediately. Check out Margheriti's "The Last Hunter" instead; the series should have been left where it was.

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