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…One of Our Aircraft is Missing September 12, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, War Films , 5 comments

Before the main feature, a short story… 

It was at my father’s wake, nearly 16-years-ago now, that Albert, his eldest brother, recounted what I thought was - is - a brilliant wartime tale. 

Albert was a mid-upper turret gunner and wireless operator serving in a Halifax squadron out of Lincolnshire. The old man of the crew (he was nicknamed ‘grandad’; he had just celebrated his 29th birthday), he was responsible for a pre-sortie ritual that the boys - in true RAF fashion - were loathe to break.

Some months earlier, Albert had been caught short just before clambering on board and despite his many layers of clothing - several centimetres from his bulky sheepskin flying jacket to his electrically heated undersuit -  had taken a leak on the mighty four-engined bomber’s starboard wheel. The raid was hell, the squadron copped a blizzard of flak outbound and on return…but Albert’s ‘plane didn’t boast so much as a scratch. It was obvious to all why. The pre-flight piss was now on the superstitious crew’s check-list, because the first time they didn’t do it…well, the consequences didn’t bear thinking about.

So, the armourers are making final adjustments to the bomb load, the last glimmers of a blinding sun on a frosty, crisp, autumn evening, just disappearing below the copse of trees at the far end of the runway. A picture postcard English scene, save for the entire crew  standing round the larger than man-sized wheel and hosing it down, the golden showers sending up great wafts of steam from the centre of the circle.

Mid-flow, and to the side, there is a tremendous thud, and the ground gives a ponderous shudder. One of the 500lb weapons has just fallen from the bomb bay, slammed into the tarmac, and is rolling threateningly towards them, a villainous looking grey cylinder filled with volatile high explosives. What kind of fuse has been fitted to this damn thing? They don’t hang around to find out.

They run. Well, they waddle. Swiftly.

Eight men, each clad as the ‘Michelin Man’, bounding, across the airfield pan, their flies undone, pants around their hips, their tackle flapping, the boys well and truly out of the barracks. The crew careered into the long grass at the edge of the tarmac, tried to bury themselves into the cool Lincolnshire earth and clamped their hands over heads. Eyes squeezed tightly shut, they waited for an explosion that would leave a crater the size of Grantham and hurl them, far, far into the air like so many loose limbed stunt dummies.

Of course, it didn’t go off. But that was the end of that particular irrationality.

That was the only story Albert, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross (subsequently stolen) when he stayed in his turret and nearly froze to death after his heated suit packed in, told me. I suspect his other memories of flying over a hostile Europe, while below him simply millions of Axis troops were trying to kill him, weren’t as much fun as nearly being blown to kingdom come by his own deadly pay load.

Albert is one of the reasons I’m drawn to wartime flying films, and in particular the film reviewed here. From the ‘posh’ end of the family, I didn’t have much contact with him as a child, but I was deeply impressed by him as a person though he didn’t know it. He’s heading into the sunset now, 93-years-old next month, unaware that he’s one of my heroes. Bless him.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had made four films together when they came to 1942’s …One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and it’s the first picture, jointly produced with J. Arthur Rank’s British National, they made under the banner of their own company The Archers.

A propaganda film intended to stiffen the backbone, …One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a reversal of the previous year’s 49th Parallel, with ’our’ boys trying to make it home across enemy territory instead of a German U-Boat crew in Canada. It’s also a love letter both to Bomber Command - whose losses were piling up - and to the people of occupied Holland, made at a time when those backbones were still most firmly against the wall. While it may be a flag-waver, the piece also displays a fierce intelligence and deftness of touch for which The Archers became almost universally admired.

The inspiration for the story is revealed at the start of the film; the execution of Dutch farm workers by the Herrenvolk for helping downed RAF crews, and the title itself, a phrase familiar to radio listeners at the time when the BBC would end news of nightly raids with the words‘one (or more) of our aircraft is missing’.

The narrative is very simple; the crew of an RAF Wellington, call-signed ‘B’ for Bertie, fly to bomb Stuttgart. After completing their mission, they are hit by flak and limp home on one engine. When that too starts to stutter and fail, they abandon the aircraft and the six crewmen bail out, 30 miles from the Dutch coast, the enemy all around them. They have to escape back to England…somehow.

The crew is representative of Britain, or at least what Britain should be; fighting back, fearless, indomitable, cheerful under fire. Lead by their young, fresh-faced pilot John (Hugh Burdon),  there’s also bluff Yorkshireman and co-pilot Tom (Eric Portman, getting a rare chance to employ the accent of his native Halifax), Welshman Bob (former footballer Emrys Jones), actor Frank (Hugh Williams given an opportunity for some theatrical in-jokes, and to dress up as a woman), West Countryman Geof (Bernard Miles with his ’simple man’ schtick) and the sage Sir George, the elder statesman of the crew (in truth, too old to fly) played by the always excellent Godfrey Tearle.

In typical Archers fashion the Germans themselves are not demonised per se. They are, at one point sympathised with as ’an unhappy people’ and flying out to bomb the city, the crew discuss their happier memories of Stuttgart and its inhabitants (Pressburger was educated at the University there), but that still doesn’t stop Tom dropping a bottle of warm urine out of the hatch from which he’s just bombarded the Germans with propaganda leaflets. When the boys of ‘Bertie’ hit the deck, it’s a different story - taken in by sympathetic Dutch, they find the Germans are, unsurprisingly, hated by the occupied Hollanders.

Robert Helpmann has the thankless task of being the only Dutch villain, a dandified quisling, who gets his just desserts. Polyglot Peter Ustinov shows off his Dutch playing the church padre (his first screen role), look out in the same scene for Alec Clunes (father of Martin and the very spitting image…) as the organist who plays with fire, taking the rise out of a menacing Nazi. You’ll also spot Powell himself, by the way, as the airfield despatcher, orchestrating the raid as well as the film.

But the glue that holds the film together is the escape itself; two key Dutch underground strands lead by two actresses, first Pamela Brown as the spirited ‘Else Meertens’, then Googie Withers as ‘Jo de Vries’, all shoulder pads and attitude. These are strong, independent women, of a type that a war in which the menfolk, by necessity, desert the household, produced by the bucket load, but also which the Archers relished in portraying.

Says Else, with as much defiance as she can muster: ‘Do you think that we Hollanders who threw the sea out of our country will let the Germans have it? Better the sea.’

Pressburger gives Jo another speech, one which must have given some comfort to those at home that gave thought to the fact that we were actually bombing these occupied countries, and that midst the ruins must lie the bodies of innocents as well as the enemy. As the engines of another Bomber Command raid thrum overhead, Jo points out of the window to the streets below: ‘You see? That’s what you’re doing for us. Can you hear them running for shelter? Can you understand what that means to all the occupied countries? To enslaved people, having it drummed into their ears that the Germans are masters of the Earth. Seeing these masters running for shelter, seeing them crouching under tables. And hearing that steady hum night after night. That noise which is oil for the burning fire in our hearts.’

It’s stirring stuff now, but must have fired the spirits of cinema audiences in blacked-out and blitzed Britain. The ‘Boys Own’ escape is nicely handled, with a mixture of tension, high drama and light comedy, the democracy the crew forms in adversity a counterpoint to the dictatorship on display previously in 49th Parallel. All in all, a very neat package put together by a team that would go on to become cinema giants; not just P&P themselves, but David Lean in the editing room (where the foundations of his genius lay), and Ronald Neame handling cinematography.

There are some blissfully beautiful shots - the setting sun glinting off the skin of the Wellington’s sturdy geodetic frame, the little row boat gliding up the harbour ‘neath a bomber’s moon. A word too for the production design and special effects - the bombing scenes, the crash of ‘B’ Bertie and the locations; Lincolnshire successfully disguised as the Netherlands - all wonderfully well done.

Legend has it that Noel Coward visited the set during filming and was so impressed that he plundered members of the production team - most famously Lean and Neame - for In Which We Serve.

There’s no score by the way, not a note, save for the incidental music (the triumphal playing of the Dutch national anthem, Frank listening to his wife singing on the radio, etc.), and the rhythm of those aircraft engines.

Universal’s recent R2 DVD of the film is really quite good. While not perfect, the print used is in pretty good shape and the transfer is detailed with excellent contrast. The mono English soundtrack (no other track is available) is also similarly decent. Typically for Universal, there are no extras.

…One of Our Aircraft is Missing may not be regarded as front rank Powell and Pressburger, but even second class P&P rates higher than most. Highly recommended.

No More Heroes..? September 2, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film General, War Films , 7 comments

The news of a remake of The Dam Busters makes me shudder at the possibilities; there are so many obstacles to any potential success, that it defies belief that anyone would attempt such a project.

First, it’s a European and Commonwealth story; in the main, the all-important American audience may simply not care and stay away in droves (unless, that is, 617 Squadron suddenly becomes the 93rd Bomber group). Secondly, are film makers just too far removed from the event to actually recreate it with any semblance of reality? And, lastly, disregarding how the Americans receive the story, is the core modern movie audience itself too far removed to actually give a damn about history that isn’t quite ancient enough?

I watched A Bridge Too Far the other night, directed by a Briton, from a script written by an anglophile American. Viewing it for the first time in many a moon, it comes across as exactly the kind of product designed to make money by the barrow load; as a vehicle for a largely British action, Attenborough’s film was made to ‘play in Peoria.’

The sneering Germans are by turns cynical or cowardly, the tea slurping Brits (they run short of ammo, but tea? Not on your life…), snobby, incredibly stupid or chirpy cannon fodder, the ‘go get ‘em’ Americans - their involvement in actual events bolstered to increase overseas returns (it was ever thus) - totally heroic. That also extends to Gene Hackman’s Polish Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski, an American by proxy, and the glorification of the offscreen General George S. Patton at the expense of the equally unseen Montgomery. It’s ever so slightly stomach turning, that amongst the main characters, it’s Dirk Bogarde’s apparently casually uncaring Lt. Gen. ’Boy’ Browning that shoulders the blame for the failure of Operation Market Garden - but then, Browning was conveniently dead at the time the film was made.

In other words, the stereotypes are securely in place, as is box office success - it might work as a piece of cinema (and oddly, despite my vilification, I think it does at times), but as an attempt to accurately portray historical events and the people that took part in them, for the most part, it stinks. But then, this a movie, not a documentary…

British war movies are a bit of a mixed bag. Barged aside by the American war machine, both on film and in reality it seems, there are relatively few pictures made here that attempt a real dissection of men at war, that look at what makes them cowards (or indeed, what exactly is a coward) or gives them courage - what drives them to do what they do? Our home grown efforts take a handful of stereotypes, shake ‘em up and pull them out of a steel helmet - the cool middle class commanders, the cheeky Cock-er-nee chappies, the stoic civvies who endure the bombing but keep the lie alive that ‘Britain Can Take It’ (people booed and threw stones at Churchill as he made his photo opportunisitic tours of blitzed London). During wartime itself, there was an obvious need for producers to keep the spirits up and portray a mythic Britain, where everything would turn out alright in the end, that sacrifice in the name of the nation was needed, that we had to keep those upper lips stiff..and, of course, everyone knew their place.

After the war, in this country, it was films made by the middle classes, written by the middle classes and acted by the middle classes that for the most part kept these myths alive; in fact most successful British war films are told from the perspective of men who know what’s best for the ‘chaps’, or who die quietly without too much fuss, without messing up the nice white bed linen. Colditz, for example, still immensely entertaining, is portrayed as some sort of lunatic extension of an Oxbridge University, complete with footlights revue. Reach For The Sky features the courageous, egotistical, self-obsessed Douglas Bader; ‘gor blimey’ working class characters are reduced to packing bags or cleaning the boots of their flying officers.

There are films, of course, that do break free of this straitjacket. As time moved on, so did the films and so did their attitudes; The Long and The Short and The Tall almost wholly focuses on the poor bloody British infantry, trapped in a war they don’t want to fight, in a country of which they know little. The Hill, another ‘war’ film in which the working stiff is the central to the narrative, an examination of the sheer madness of the military mind. It’s odd (well, not so odd) that another American, Joe Losey, directed the very underrated and very British King & Country, its story of alleged cowardice now part of current events (there are DVDs out in both R1 and R2 I would appreciate opinions of if anyone has them, by the way). I’ve only ever seen Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (apparently on Criterion’s slate) once, but if we are to value films for their accurate portrayal of men at war, placed precisely in a given time, it’s got to come high up the list. Devastating stuff.

I’m moving pretty far from modern warfare, but if I’m discussing the British working man at war I must give a nod to Zulu; James Booth’s Henry Hook is a shirking, thieving, drunken layabout with a proper sense of the value of his own neck. And he wins the Victoria Cross. Go on ‘enry! Let us not forget either Tony Richardson’s The Charge of The Light Brigade…I digress (again).

Right now, the second world war film seems to be moving back into vogue and it’s here, in the 21st century, that the question begs to be asked; are we not too far removed now from actual events to give them any sense of veracity? It’s one thing to portray, say, 19th century warfare and 19th century people inaccurately, but World War Two is within touching distance of most of us, who must know someone, still, of the right vintage.

And it’s here I wonder what they’ll do with The Dam Busters. If I was to, once again, state the bleedin’ obvious, it’s that people have changed in the last 60 odd years; whether it’s to do with diet, exercise or grooming - or central casting - but every time I watch a period piece now, everything seems wrong. Hair styles, teeth, body toning, speech patterns, skin colour (nobody tanned in the ’40s, except the rich and even then…), the actual basic shape of people has changed. Check out the average cast of a war film made in the ’40s or ’50s; look at the faces, particularly the faces of those a little down the cast list, and you’ll see what I mean.

We also seem to insist on slapping modern sensibilities on to people who, even at this short distance, might as well have come from Mars. Basic attitudes, dress, behaviour, moral code - what would have made the young men of seven decades ago blush bright red, even in the tap room of their local, is now the stuff of childrens TV. I think of my own family, my father, my uncles, who went to war, some that didn’t come back, some that came home broken, others who tucked the memories away in a private place, never to be shared. Real, plain, ordinary men, never portayed, in my experience, properly on film.

Just prior to World War Two, my current home town of Bolton was part of a ‘Mass Observation’ project, a snapshot of Britain in the late ’30s. It revealed, among other things, that despite the very recent memory of having been ‘lions led by donkeys’, the average man was eager to go to war. He would defend his home, his country and his loved ones. Many feared their wives and sweethearts would be raped by the invading Hun. I wonder, now, what a similar survey would turn up? I wonder…

Can the new The Dam Busters be sold if we present these men the way they were shown in Michael Anderson’s stirring film? Courageous boys - and they were all very young men - out to ‘do their duty for King and country’? Richard Todd, for intance must have brought his own experience to the table (he was involved in the taking of Pegasus Bridge on D-Day, and played his own commander in the admirable The Longest Day) and thus, brought a truth to his performance that would be difficult to replicate. Or will these more cynical times demand that the raid’s consequences, the killing of German civilians, and the actual failure of the Dam Busters raid to halt the German war machine, be scrutinised more closely? Does the war film now demand an explicit anti-war text (Barnes Wallice did agonise over what his bombs had wrought and what the raid cost in human terms)? Have we no time - has, indeed, the time passed - for heroes, especially British heroes?

Another question that hangs heavy is what will they do with Gibson’s beloved labrador ‘Nigger’, also, famously, the codeword for successfully delivering the bouncing bombs? Do we excise the word with a deference to modern sensibilities (as it has been in some TV showings of the film), do we pretend it was never so. And in so doing, as Spike Lee said, ‘…if we don’t show these things, how is anybody going to know that they really happened?’ I’m not that old (honestly I’m not), but I do remember my grandfather owning a shoe polish that was ’Nigger Brown’; that’s where Gibson’s affectionate name comes from, the name of a colour, a little piece of casual, unknowing racisim from a time when the whole world was fabricated from such. Times have changed; we know better now. I also hope we know better than to cover it up.

We shouldn’t forget. If we intend to portray ‘real’ people (even ‘real’ people in fictionalised events), then we must not shirk from doing so. Real people, in real situations reacting as they would have, behaving in a contemporaneous manner. But I’m possibly asking too much of Peter Jackson and his production team; I certainly hope not. I fear a CGI bombing fest, a ‘cartoon’ film, in all possible meanings of the word. ‘Feel the force, Guy’, a ghostly voice may intone, ‘feel the force…’ At least we’ll get to see an accurate representation of the bomb itself, still on the ‘top secret’ list when the original film was made, and, comically, still on the same list when I made my first ‘Airfix’ scale model of a 617 Squadron Lancaster. The bomb design was accurate on that too, however.

It’s a lasting regret that no film has been made of Len Deighton’s coruscating examination of a British 1000 bomber raid on Germany. In the marvellous novel Bomber, there are no heroes, no villains, no winners, just losers. It is, as Jack Hawkins says in The Cruel Sea, ‘…it’s just the war…this bloody war.’

Indeed. But I return to thoughts (as I often do these days) of the men I know - knew - personally who fought, who saw things that nobody who wants to retain their sanity should. Who came home and, in that, oh, so English way, got on with it. Ordinary men you wouldn’t look twice at, queuing for their pensions, shuffling unsteadily down the streets, numbers dwindling fast.

And they are heroes still; every one.

The Blue Max August 18, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, War Films , 2 comments

First published in another form at The DVD Forums

The Western Front, 1916. A blasted landscape.

As far as the eye can see, a wasteland of mud, a few shrapnel scarred tree trunks, total and incredible destruction. Suddenly, the air is filled with sound of explosions, the chatter and whine of machine gun bullets and a motley band of dishevelled and terrified German troops run for their lives.

They are scythed down, all bar who one leaps into the water and corpse filled safety of a shell hole. Covered in filth, gasping for breath, he hears the sound of aircraft engines. He lifts his head and looks upwards, longingly, into a sky as clear and true as his blue, blue eyes.

Jump to 1918 and we see the same the same blue-eyed, blond haired soldier now wearing the uniform of the German Air Corps and thus transfigured into a higher being. He’s being transferred to his first squadron from training school. From the comfort of his transport, he looks with an almost condescending pity at the retreating battalions around him, lying by the roadside; those earthbound wretches from whose ranks he has very recently escaped. He swigs from a bottle of schnapps and with a toss of his wrist, charitably throws the remains to a thirsty trooper. Bruno Stachel has access to plenty of booze; he’s a flyer now, and, in more ways than just the obvious, he is on his way up…

The pre-credit sequence of the 1966 John Guillermin WW1 flying epic The Blue Max is economical film making at its best, getting pages and pages of narrative over in a couple of minutes. For Guillermin, an English journeyman director, this was his first big Hollywood film, though by 1966 he was an experienced hand, having worked with the mad genius Peter Sellers twice (the marvellous Never Let Go and Waltz of The Toreadors), Peter O’Toole (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England) and even had a stab at a legendary (if not a little shopworn by that stage) Hollywood figure with the pretty lame Tarzan Goes to India. Guillermin went on to helm The Bridge at Remagen, The Towering Inferno and the misguided but sometimes fun King Kong remake (man in ape suit; yikes! Jessica Lange; yum!)

At two and a half hours, this could have been a bit of a slog, but it’s surprisingly entertaining, in fact, more entertaining than it has any right to be. As Stachel, George Peppard is excellent. In a nutshell he’s a quintessential patsy and everyone knows it but poor Bruno. From the off he’s used and abused, and ultimately he’s the victim of his own drive to be accepted and to break out of the stifling European straitjacket of class and status.

The battle lines are drawn when he’s asked by Heidermann (Karl Michael Vogler), the squadron commander who his ‘people’ are. Stachel is non-plussed, but Heidermann, who, like many airforce officers of the period is upper middle class, insists: ‘What does your father do?’ Stachel stammers that his father runs a small hotel, and then compounds his social faux pas by adding ‘It has five bedrooms.’ So exhausted have the German Air Corps become (like the Royal Air Force post Battle of Britain) that it has been forced to accept the lower classes into its ranks; what next? Egomaniacal ex-Corporals leading the nation of the Kaisers?

Heidermann is gently horrified and seems determined that this upstart will get nowhere. Stachel’s fellow pilots see this guileless child in their midst, and mercilessly take the rise, but Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) - though he refers to Stachel as ‘your kind’ - sees something in the newcomer to mark him out as a rival. Stachel confirms this when he determines that he will gain the respect of his peers, and the surest route is to kill. Winning the Order Pour le Merit, awarded to aces for 20 ‘kills’, and commonly known as ‘The Blue Max’, becomes Bruno’s obsession.

Still playing at war with notions of a demented ‘chivalry’* (don’t talk about your kills, don’t boast, kill your opponent then honour his memory, etc., etc.) Stachel is wrongly accused by his peers of not behaving honourably. Klugermann’s uncle, General Count von Klugermann (the ever magnificent James Mason), also treats the newcomer with contempt, but sees an opportunity to create a hero for the beleaguered German working classes - they are used to seeing Baron Von Richtofen lauded by the press, but says, von Klugermann, his eyes flashing at the mere thought,‘one of their own…?’

Stachel is also marked out by the Baron’s young wife, Countess Kaeti von Klugermann (Ursula Andress), as a future ‘kill’. The Countess fancies a bit of ‘rough’, especially one on the verge of becoming a national hero. The problem is, she’s already shagging Willi (no pun intended, gentle reader), her nephew by marriage.

This sets Stachel and von Klugermann on a collision course, but while Bruno’s star rises with every enemy ‘plane downed, he doesn’t realise that, one way or another, he’s doomed anyway. Against his will, circumstances, and the prejudice of others, turn him into the liar and the cheat that they all expect him to be. And there’s the fact that the 1918 offensive, which very nearly wins the war for Germany, soon becomes a headlong retreat. Will Stachel get the Blue Max and the respect he craves?

Guillermin’s film obviously takes wing with the spectacular flying sequences, directed by Anthony Squire, who had performed the same chore for David Lean with The Sound Barrier. Using replicas of Sopwiths, Fokkers, disguised modern biplanes, and other ’string and candle wax’ aircraft of the period, these are never less than exhilarating. The sparing use of models - hard to spot by the way - make for very realistic flying scenes, the biplanes and triplanes careering around the skies as mad kites, spitting machine gun fire like deadly airborne pea shooters. Towards the end of the film you see Peppard, a keen aviator, perform in his own monoplane.

The flying sequences are far better than those of The Battle of Britain, during which, the myriad problems of filming the airborne footage almost wrecked the production. Filming aircraft whose speeds were over 200 mph less than those of Hurricanes and Spitfires must have, in comparison, seemed a doddle. The ’scope cinematography by the legendary Douglas Slocombe is quite marvellous, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is used sparingly, but his main theme in particular is one of his very best. The way his conjures up the feeling of soaring, the thrum, thrum, thrum, of engines, the thrill of victory - quite superb.

The one problem with movies in English, but seen from ‘the other side’, is the variety of accents employed. It’s easier to accept in this case, for instance, with the number of European actors in the cast, so everyone has a stab at ‘a Cherman ackzent’, except Peppard who gets by by enunciating his lines very carefully indeed… Anyhow, I’m always hugely entertained by Darren Nesbitt’s European accent, though this version is not quite as hilarious as the one he used for Where Eagles Dare. Bless. I must mention that Andress and Peppard do share the most erotic bedroom scene, which must have done wonders for fluffy white bathroom towel sales. Whatever happened to eroticism in movies?

The 150 minutes pass quite quickly. This is not a movie with any great deep meaning or message, even if it does examine the class system and the underpinnings of fame and celebrity; it’s just decent, solid entertainment.

Fox’s DVD of this film is pretty good. In anamorphic OAR, there are few instances of dirt or marks, and it’s pretty sharp with little evidence of edge enhancement. It is a little dark in places, but as I didn’t see this theatrically, I can’t confirm that this vaguely ‘antique’ look was an intentional stylistic production decision; it doesn’t detract as far as this viewer is concerned. They’ve retained the intermission screen, with Goldsmith’s original music to cover it - I love that. The only extra is a trailer. The R2, which is the subject of this review, also comes with a whole slew of subtitles and language options; you can listen in mono in English, French, German, Italian or Spanish.

*Chivalrous notions still exist; in Iraq the Americans lambasted their opponents for flying white flags, then, when US commanders stepped forward to parlez, insurgent spotters targetted them with morters. Far more chivalrous to blow people to little bits with rockets and tanks…Madness, madness…

John Ford Goes to War… July 16, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, About John Ford, War Films , 1 comment so far

John Ford’s love affair with the military possibly hit the heights with They Were Expendable, a ’from the heart’ view of the war in the Pacific.

Produced just as the war was coming to an end (and released after the conflict had ended - which proved its undoing at the box office), it’s a downbeat film in many ways, ’sacrifice’ the running thread throughout. In the Navy’s ‘Field Photo Unit’ Ford had served, had seen colleagues killed, and, as their commanding officer, had written letters to the families of the dead, the responsibility weighing heavily on him. Ford was on first name terms with ’sacrifice’.

‘Expendable’ was his homage not only to those that had served their country, but to those that had made that ultimate sacrifice, to those that would never come home.

Ford’s brilliant documentary style gives the film a grittiness that is founded in reality. His hero ‘John Brickley’ is based on his friend John Bulkeley’s experiences as a PT boat commander in the Philippines. There’s a vérité here that is rarely found in other contemporary war films; a deliberate stylistic decision from Ford, but also helped in the casting. As ‘Brick’ Brickley, Robert Montgomery’s service was on board PT boats (ironically his time in the service is thought to have fatally damaged his Hollywood status). Ford also went to great pains not to demonise the Japanese (they are never on screen), and it is to his credit, as news filters through of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Asian faces are amongst those seen reacting with horror

There’s no faux sentiment here; even the reverential treatment - usually meted out for such figures as Lincoln - granted his unnamed ‘General’ (obvious to all as Douglas MacArthur), is heartfelt and somehow right - young men were still dying as the film was in production, a point that the film puts right to the fore.

I can’t add too much more than the views and opinions in Mike Sutton’s DVD Times  review. But I do find a couple of lines of dialogue early on interesting. It’s very pointed in the opening credits that everyone of any military rank is credited so; thus the world is told that Ford, Montgomery, writer Frank ‘Spig’ Wead, etc., have served their country. But not John Wayne, who famously did not serve in the armed forces.

Brickley says in the first reel, to his pal ‘Rusty’ Ryan, played by Wayne: ‘What are you aiming at, building a reputation, or playing for the team?’Wayne, in fact, cemented his reputation as a major Hollywood player at Republic during the war years, fighting his nation’s enemy on a soundstage; Ryan eventually becomes that team player the stoic Brickley urges him to become…did Wayne become that ‘Superpatriot’, that cheerleader for the American way, to belie any suggestion that he wasn’t a ‘team player’? Was this the turning point, the trigger?

A beautiful looking film, with truth and genuine emotion showing in every frame.

1957’s The Wings of Eagles, like ‘Expendable’ part of that R1 Ford / Wayne Collection, is the story of the aforementioned Frank ‘Spig’ Wead (who had died 10 years earlier), starring Wayne as Wead, Maureen O’Hara as his wife ‘Min’, and Ward Bond as ‘John Dodge’ a (very) thinly disguised John Ford. Very highly romanticised, it’s far more interesting when viewed not so much the story of Wead, but about Ford himself.

The old man approached the project with great trepidation. Great pals, Ford said he didn’t want to film it, but he didn’t want anyone else to film it either. That was probably down to two factors; Ford was simply too close to Wead, and his story doesn’t make particularly pretty viewing. ’Pappy’ (as Ford was known) could fully identify with a man who had an unhappy family life, who was far more at home with his pals than with his wife and children, but who also treated old friends shamefully.

Ford does little to gloss over this, though his film is still, nonetheless, sympathetic of Wead, a navy flyer and record breaker, who was told he would never walk again after a fall at home. Wead not only succeeded in defeating the surgeon’s dim chances for his recovery, but also became a successful playwright and screenwriter.

Bond, surrounded by set decor from Ford’s own office, must have relished playing the irascible ‘Pappy’; barking at a bemused Wead in typical fashion. O’Hara - no problems with chemistry with her leading man here - is fine as ‘Min’, despite being hamstrung when Wead’s children objected to their mother’s drink problem being highlighted on screen. Those scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

The film does have it’s problems; Wayne is simply too old (despite heaps of soft focus) to play Wead as a young and impetuous flyer and the film’s knockabout opening reel doesn’t sit well as a result.

But as the middle-aged Wead, Wayne comes into his own, playing, if I recall correctly, without a toupee and revealing his balding pate for the first and only time on screen. The final scene, as Wead’s old navy and army pals line the deck to send him into final retirement, is wonderfully played by the Duke, despite the dollops of schmaltz on show.

Presented in anamorphic OAR, this is another very fine presentation of an MGM film, with that Metrocolor shining through, bright, sharp and clean. Not first rank Ford by any means, but interesting nonetheless.

The Greater Enemy

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, War Films , add a comment

There are, in this writer’s humble opinion, few British war films better than J. Lee Thompson’s Ice Cold in Alex. A heroic and episodic narrative that rarely lets up, John Mills, Anthony Quayle and the wonderful Harry Andrews on the top of their game, Sylvia Sims possibly the only weak link as the simpering nurse Murdoch; hardly her fault, given the hand she had to play.

Thompson’s admirable direction (he’s clearly inspired by The Wages of Fear) keeps the tension nice and taut while Christopher Landon’s script (from his novel) goes to some lengths to avoid the usual stereotypes that populated ’50s war films; this isn’t the typical ‘us versus them’ shoot ‘em up, this is about, as Hauptman Otto Lutz says, beating “…the greater enemy; the desert.”

There are some nice cameos from a plethora of familiar faces - David Lodge (indespensible, it seems, to casting directors during this period), Liam Redmond (excellent as the slightly eccentric Brigadier), Allan Cuthertson, Walter Gotell, Frederick Jaeger, Peter Arne and Paul Stassino. 

A word of praise for Warners / Studio Canal R2 which has been transferred very nicely to DVD from an almost pristine print - top marks too for presenting it in anamorphic 1.66:1; a rare beast.

Carlsberg finally woke up to the commercial possibilities a few years ago with their famous ad featuring the scene in the bar at Alexandria - as Captain Anson (Mills always claimed they used real beer and he was drunk after the 14th take) says as he downs an icy brew in one: “Worth waiting for.”

Still wonderfully entertaining - anyone fancy a beer?

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