A Walk in The Sun (1945) with Dana Andrews and Company

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Opening as it does with the cover of its source material, A Walk in The Sun makes itself out to be a bit grand and simultaneously undermines a certain amount of its ethos as a gritty war picture. Is it a fallacy to think a book can never capture all the textures of life? Does the same hold true with film? I’m not sure.

Regardless, the story is set in 1943 in Salerno, and, keeping with this novelistic form, an all-knowing narrator (voicework provided by Burgess Meredith) gives a brief word on each of the soldiers who will walk through the frames of the film. Some of them are quite familiar.

The real opening of the action feels a bit like further delay tactics. We are on the loading dock of a troop transport. The side has yet to go down, and the assault has not started. We are forced to wait in this pervasive dourness fashioned for the soldiers out of the cinematic mise en scene.

It’s our first indication of what this film will be about, and yet it concerns itself with the interims and the in-between-times when men wait for what’s next. The nervous chatter of the men matches the nervous new sergeant who is meant to lead them. Already we have some internal conflict with everyone unsure of what is ahead.

It feels a bit like D-Day, but this is Italy. Instead of meeting steep opposition, they take the beach relatively easily, entrenching themselves and waiting. Their most mettlesome member (Dana Andrews) never said a truer word when he notes, “you can’t fight a vacuum.” All there is to do, for the time being, is dig in.

Their subsequent mission is to blow up a bridge and take a farmhouse. Simple enough. For the conventions of a movie narrative, it makes following the action lines quite efficient. Except, A Walk in The Sun is rarely about its objective, until it finally is. In other words, it takes so many meandering trails and paths, riding conversations to the eventual outcomes.

Robert Rossen’s script is probably too self-aware and witty for a fox hole, but this is Hollywood, after all. At any rate, it ably captures the nervous ticks — the repetitions making up human speech patterns. We have catchphrases. Norman Lloyd comes to mind (“You guys kill me”) as the company’s wry misanthrope, observing the world around him, drolling on about some future battle in Tibet to end all wars.

A jocular Richard Conte seems to relish the chance to run off his mouth as the talkative Italian-American, Private Rivera, always up for razzing his buddy and touting his own exploits as a gunner. There’s the ubiquitous nature of cigarettes or “butts” on the warpath, looking particularly anachronistic in the hands of a G.I. played by Sterling Holloway. Lloyd Bridges is one of the staff sergeants and an imposing fellow but the real center, equal parts cynical and indomitable, is Andrews as Sergeant Tyne.

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Of course, in the army, it’s not always the most capable soldiers who are calling the shots. Between wounded superiors and casualties, this mantle falls on Sergeant Eddie Porter (Herbert Rudley), an indecisive brain with little practical military experience. The prevailing question remains, is he going to crack under pressure?

Certainly, a lot happens in the ensuing scenes, however, what feels most pertinent are the aforementioned lulls because a majority of our time is spent passing time with the soldiers. In these interludes, the narrative is intercut with song and score while being lent an introspective edge thanks to Meredith’s constant omniscient input. Here again, is this trace of self-importance cropping up.

However, A Walk in The Sun settles into something genuinely compelling as we realize we are getting the alternate portrait of war. Lewis Milestone chooses the theatrical nature of all the G.I.s crammed together in the frame just as his lateral shots capture the minimal action setpieces at their most dynamic.

We observe the shades of insubordination and passive aggression in the chain of command, a result of the lack of confidence in superiors. This is further compounded by lapses in judgment and real-world miscues, like forgetting your only pair of field glasses back down the road. It’s not so much atmospheric or authentic as it gives a sense of the personal truths of war. It brings the war picture down to ground-level, to its most intimate and idiosyncratic. In other words, it’s the epitome of human.

They must leave their wounded along the road to be picked up later. The sound of planes overhead is an infantryman’s worst nightmare. And still, they bide their time. Each man’s mind becomes distracted by anything but the war. They reminisce about Norman Rockwell’s paintings and the future of the covers of Time magazine.

Maybe it’s someone recalling their favorite records from Russ Colombo or Bing Crosby. The fat life would be getting The Andrew Sisters autographs and playing music all day long. For his part, Sergeant Ward, a farmer by trade, can’t stop thinking of nice, juicy apples, nowhere to be found in an arid environment like Italy.

During one telling interaction between an Italian-American soldier and two native Italians straggling through the countryside, I couldn’t help thinking this would have never happened with Japanese-Americans in Japan. In fact, the irony is that the all-Nisei 442nd Unit was also stationed in Italy on their way to rescuing The Lost Battalion in 1944.

There might be a single instance of heightened conflict in A Walk in The Sun; it’s when they come upon an Axis armored car and proceed to blow it up. But these types of moments are dealt with quickly, and the film sinks back into tentative homeostasis.

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We can easily condense the narrative by jumping to the final push in realizing their mission. It’s relatively straightforward. We know what they need to accomplish, but the execution and the synchronization are key. It feels unnecessary to expound upon the results in great length. It’s about what you’d expect from an all-out ground assault. Of course, there’s a cost.

More intriguing is a fabled backstory to A Walk in The Sun. Fresh off his own military service and already a prolific journalist and screenwriter in his own right, Sam Fuller brazenly lambasted Milestones’ picture for its fictions even as he praised the earlier All Quiet All The Western Front. Because it is true the film from 1930 is a crowning achievement in pacifist cinema and a tour de force for the director.

Certainly, juxtaposing the final images alone, All Quiet on The Western Front goes out unsparingly. The full brunt of the gut-punch is felt as we see how much war has ravaged humanity. Its successor does not elicit the same guttural response. Then again, to parry Fuller’s point, it might be safe to concede its primary intentions were of a different nature altogether.

It becomes even more compelling to consider a brash young Fuller’s statements in lieu of his own forays into war pictures. He had several actioners of note including The Steel Helmet, which is easy to tie to A Walk in The Sun.

This earlier film perhaps is wordier — the characters mouths are filled with plenty to go on about. However, where I feel they can be linked together is through this sense of utter disillusionment with war. These are not career soldiers driven by dreams of valor and accolades in the service of their country.

Certainly, they are human. They have these kinds of thoughts too. Most of the time it’s idle chatter. It’s the mundane moments in-between where they are just people in a soldier’s uniform. What becomes apparent are their preoccupations, fears, and foibles, cutting through their daily existence. It comes down to survival.

Again, A Walk in The Sun might be a tad verbose and a bit too manicured and manufactured for a wheeling-dealing future maverick like Fuller. What it doesn’t sell us short on is the reality of wartime conflict. It’s not a pretty or mythic business between the gods. It’s brought down to earth into all our messy human concerns.

The message it preaches implicitly feels sharply antithetical to typical propaganda pics. It lives out apathy and levity as much as bare-knuckled heroics. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we’re provided some essence of what war truly is.

3.5/5 Stars

Objective Burma (1945): Errol Flynn During Wartime

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It’s nearly ubiquitous for all the old war movies to open with an instructive title card supplying some context and placing us in the scenario at hand. While not the apex of visual storytelling, it does serve a concrete purpose. Objective Burma is, of course, about the Burma campaigns — the toughest road — opening a corridor that had to be opened. It proved to be a combined operation across the spectrum of Allied forces, and the first ones to go in were the paratroopers.

This is where our specific story begins. It must be noted the events have been conveniently recast and, therefore, the history books were rewritten for the sake of Hollywood convenience. At first, you assume Errol Flynn might be a Brit until you realize all his crewmembers are tried and true Americans. And he’s one too.

From then on, we know where our picture stands. In fact, everyone else — aside from a Chinese ally and their native guide — American. Two personal favorites would be the ever-wise-cracking Richard Erdman (who passed away in 2019) and George Tobias, always good for a couple of jabs at his mother-in-law. Look close enough and you’ll even pick out a young Hugh Beaumont while veteran actor Henry Hull plays an Ernie Pyle war correspondent-type.

I find the script, penned by Ranald MacDougall and loaded with witticisms, useful in building unique voices all throughout the company, even offsetting all the typical wartime shop talk. The idiolect of each is conveniently differentiated so even in the melange of personalities, we get a flavor instead of a muddy amalgam of white noise. It serves the picture well, especially due to its substantial running time.

The terrain is fittingly immersive, but sometimes it feels that instead of finding the action within the environment, the story is content in simply being a nature tour, moment by moment. It remains some small comfort having James Wong Howe. His work in transforming Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden into the miry underbrush of East Asia is quite the feat. One is reminded how Sam Fuller turned another section of Los Angeles — the grounds of The Griffith Observatory — into Korea for The Steel Helmet. In both cases, it works.

Their first task is to take out an enemy radar tower, and it couldn’t be easier. They quite literally catch the Japanese out to lunch and calmly mow them down after their forces have fanned out into position. It’s a bit like a video game, if not like shooting fish in a barrel.

Surely the rest of the movie cannot be this easy even as it remains flippant toward the enemy, continually referred to pejoratively as “Japs” or “Monkeys. It’s too true. Their subsequent air pickup has to be aborted due to imminent enemy forces, and Captain Nelson (Flynn) splits his unit up to find a new checkpoint. Though disoriented, his command is held together. The other contingent is not so lucky with only a few stragglers making it back unscathed.

One of the mortally wounded, cradled in the arms of his buddy, says he’s never seen anything like it. It was a slaughterhouse. The Japanese were waiting for them in a clearing and mowed them down. Later, when the remnant tries to recover the rest of the dead, they realize the maimed bodies of their comrades carved to pieces, all but unrecognizable, if not for their dog tags.

It’s this brand of sadism that makes antipathy toward the Japanese enemy that much easier. It’s not an out and out lie. We know these types of despicable practices took place in service to the radicalized nationalist ideology. When men become so arrogant and callous, their capability for evil only intensifies.

What is problematic is not that the enemy is all but faceless; it comes down to the same issue of mowing down the Japanese earlier. There is a double standard we often hold ourselves to. It’s another incongruity. Consider the fact that, in real life, prisoners taken by the Allies would have been executed in order to move forward with the operation. It makes pragmatic sense. In the film, they’re conveniently killed off in the opening skirmish so there’s no need to show the messy business. To be clear, it’s not a matter of making allowances for the enemy but realizing the shades of gray in our own conduct.

At the midpoint, one cannot repudiate the fact our covert operatives are no longer the chipper aggressors soaring toward victory. Their ambitions are now forced to become even more elemental. Somewhere around this juncture, Objective Burma ceases to be a war movie and becomes a fraught survival story.

The straits are dire. They’re all but trapped, surrounded by enemy forces patrolling on all sides, and the grind — not to mention the loss of their comrades — is grating on them. Morale begins to crumble as fatigue sets in. The bottom line is that they never cave completely in either regard, despite the hardships in the jungle.

One might chalk it up to their leader, and it’s true Flynn commands with a strong yet compassionate fortitude. He cares deeply about the well-being of his men, even as he stands unswervingly by the orders they’ve been designated with. Upon receiving word to disregard all previous orders, they get ambushed in a clearing over a supply drop and vaguely chart a course north to a destination they don’t know. They’re following orders, clinging to the hope of some deliverance. But even if there is help coming, the enemy knows their position.

In one final stand, they entrench themselves on a hilltop, sweating it out into the wee hours, surrounded by a maze of tripwires to keep the Japanese at bay. They are outnumbered, the enemy cloaked in darkness, looking to overtake their position. I cannot think of anything more terrifying.

Their triumphant stand is made in an instance of clarity, thanks to a flare lighting up the night sky, and a barrage of grenades they’re able to lob at their retreating enemies. The film see-saws back toward one side decimating the other. It’s a pulse-pounding final setpiece still underlined by this sense that the “good guys” won so all is well. Understandably, in 1945, there need not be any ambiguity to the moral gradient.

The story of why Flynn found himself only playing soldiers and never actually being one is a subject of some personal mortification. His laundry list of ailments went beyond his bad heart to purportedly include tuberculosis, malaria, and back problems. True to form, the studio kept it all conveniently on the down-low — quelling any leakage as to maintain the image of their masculine star. Of course, it created a bit of dissonance in the wartime years.

One of the curious results was the observation Flynn was never more malleable and easier to work with than during his wartime cycle of films. Whether it was his embarrassment in not being able to fight himself or his drive to do his part in Hollywood’s propaganda machine is not clear; although it may have been some of both.

Because, in 1945, I hesitate to say Errol Flynn was on the way out, but certainly with the end of WWI,I and the beginning of the post-war years, it was a time meant for a more youthful batch of matinee idols and stagy rebels meant to reflect changing times.

By 1959 Flynn would be dead, his career plummeting to its conclusion due to hard drink and hard living. For now, he still fit the ideals of the generation but even that had to be doctored by Tinsletown to hold onto the last vestiges of one of the 1930s preeminent action icons. The war changed everyone. Even Errol Flynn.

3.5/5 Stars

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): Robert Mitchum Shows His Chops

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Charles M. Schultz was one of the great memorializers of WWII in that he kept events like the D-Day invasion or the art of Bill Maudlin in the public forum for as long as Peanuts was syndicated. If I remember correctly, it was also through his strip I first became aware of the name Ernie Pyle.

It’s not too far of a stretch to think the former Sergeant Schultz (who saw action in Europe) eventually saw this movie because, before he ever penned a frame of Peanuts, this was the first homage, not necessarily just to Pyle, but also to the soldier that he chronicled for the folks at home.

We jump right in with a truck loaded with men being hauled to the front where the action is. Not only do they pick up a furry passenger, they take on a civilian as well because Pyle (Burgess Meredith) is intent on getting as close to the epicenter of the action as possible. He wants material bearing an authentic mark.

The man who agrees to let him aboard is none other than Robert Mitchum, their scraggily and sleepy-eyed leader, who never seems to be perturbed. As a related consideration, it becomes intriguing to chart his early career with all his bit parts as soldiers finally leading to a heftier role. These included his blink and you’ll miss it cameos only a couple years prior, in everything from The Human Comedy to Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. What followed were stepping stones like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and finally, The Story of G.I. Joe.

It doesn’t feel so much as we are seeing Mitchum transformed into his future persona. He appears unflappable as much off-screen as he is on. It’s more so a matter of Hollywood realizing who he was and what compelling qualities he brought to the lead. Certainly, he’s masculine; he has a handsome, distinctive face, but there is something more to him. It’s the suggestion of not caring about any of the distractions around him. This underlying coolness in any manner of situations. It all catered to his future stardom at RKO.

But back to the trenches. Although we get Artie Shaw out on the front, the production also ladles on the dramatic diegetic scoring a little too thickly when they experience their first casualty. We know the import of the moment only to get clubbed over the head with it just to make absolutely certain it didn’t escape us.

Otherwise, the film causes us to brush up against the elements in an immersive even dispiriting manner courtesy of cinematographer Russell Metty. You begin to live vicariously through the platoon and understand their daily struggles. This is The Story of G.I. Joe at its most effectual, succeeding in precisely what Pyle was striving to do. We get a tactile sense of his life’s work as a war correspondent.

Day after day, company C, 18th Infantry makes its way across Italy. All sorts of men, big and small, fill up their ranks. Freddie Steele, coming off his intriguing turn in Hail The Conquering Hero, is no less watchable here as a grizzled soldier intent on finding a victrola so he can hear his son’s voice. It’s the sole shred of home, keeping him sane in the chaotic world he’s subjected to day in and day out. Many of the others aren’t so lucky, more or less lacking his indefatigable brand of grit. The mental toll is high for all parties.

I know it’s set in a different country but with the rubble, bell tower, infantry, and tanks rolling across the grounds I couldn’t help thinking of the midsection of Saving Private Ryan because The Story of G.I. Joe, as one of its precursors, documents the life of the common man as well as the skirmishes he’s subjected to.

They systematically take down a pair of Germans lurking behind the debris to clear the area. Later, one of their company (John R. Reilly) has an impromptu wedding ceremony in the bombed-out premises — Pyle being tapped to give the bride away. A little over a decade later Stanley Kubrick would end up marrying his wife who appeared in his seminal war movie Paths of Glory. William Wellman cut out the middle man, so to speak, by having his wife (Dorothy Noonan Wellman) in an uncredited role as the nurse who weds the G.I.

Without resting on their laurels, they are tasked with taking a new position. It’s ruled over by a monastery — a religious relic the enemy have conveniently fashioned into an impregnable observation post; they won’t give up the ground. What’s worse, the hesitant allies won’t bomb the building. We’ve reached an impasse until human life finally takes precedence over maintaining ancient artifice. As it should.

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The holidays come, and it’s a drab affair, men clinging to dreams of the family and food back home — from turkey to cranberry sauce. Of course, they aren’t granted such amenities where they are so all they have are their private memories. In between the barrage of artillery fire, one of the company’s members (Wally Cassell) picks Pyle’s brain about his time in Hollywood. For a brief solitary moment, he drools over starlets like Carole Landis; it removes him from his current reality of muck and mire.

Christmas might be a complete wash if not for their commanding officer scrounging them up some turkey and a bit of wine as they slog through the perpetually miserable conditions. They manage a bit of yuletide cheer in spite of the bleak landscape around them.

It feels less like propaganda in the typical sense or at least it’s all the more effective as an empathy picture, putting us in the boots of the soldier so we get a feel for the lives they lead out on the front. You begin to realize how extraordinary they are in their very ordinariness.

Ernie Pyle winning the Pulitzer is like a drop in the can. It feels so inconsequential in the face of all they have gone through together, but the beauty is Pyle has gone through it with them. They have mutual solidarity in the thick of this continual absurdity.

On Christmas evening, after a typically long day, he sits down with the leader of the pack and pulls out one last turkey leg from under his jacket.  He picks off any fuzz and partakes in the delicacy. It’s a much-appreciated gesture. They trade off taking swigs of Italian moonshine scattered with conversation.

The most revealing revelation is the sergeant’s agitation of having to write the families of every young man who gives his life. In some queer way, he feels like a murderer, and it rankles him to see every new fresh-faced recruit who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. There’s a helplessness in him and yet it’s his job to keep them together, so he does the best he can under the deplorable conditions.

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This scene might be the most meaningful impression we get of Mitchum as a human being because he’s a believable G.I.b but here we see his honest chops as an actor. It’s no coincidence that this is the picture helping him transition to stardom.

The ending continues in this manner, offering up a melancholy denouement that feels like one of the more candid depictions of wartime reality. Where the war rolls on no matter what happens. It cannot wait up for the story of a film to catch up.

Of course, Ernie Pyle would never live to see the finished film, which he actually served as a technical advisor on. He was too busy continuing his work in Okinawa where he was killed by an enemy machine gun. It’s a tragic detail, but it makes The Story of G.I. Joe all the more pertinent. If anything, it gets the truth behind Ernie Pyle’s writing, both his life and his death, right. It is the ultimate tribute to the man who tried to get the stories out of everyday heroes back to the reading public sitting in their living rooms.

3.5/5 Stars

“I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That all together we will try out of the memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that a never great war can never again be possible and for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do but perhaps murmur: Thanks, pal. Thanks…”

~ Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): WWII Written by Dalton Trumbo

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“One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here.”

It’s easy enough to lump Air Force and Destination Tokyo with this subsequent film because we have the impediment of years between us. We have yet another cast rallied around a star; this time it’s Spencer Tracy leading the charge, as the pragmatic James Doolittle, on a highly confidential mission that would be known to future generations as the Doolittle Raids.

In the contemporary moment, if they had enough time and/or money an audience would possibly have a much easier time differentiating because each picture took on a slightly unique facet of the war. Air Force is all but a flying fortress in the days leading up to and directly following Pearl Harbor. Destination Tokyo is about the recon needed for the Doolittle Raid. 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is a bit like the triumphant exclamation point or at least the start of one.

The work wasn’t done for the Allies but it was a sign of forward progress. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can fill in the open-ended conclusion. We know V-J Day eventually happened only a year later. Consequently, it was also deemed one of the more accurate war pictures as far as military details go.

Much of Tracy’s time is spent as a no-nonsense observer of what is going on. The rest of his performance feels like it’s made up of monologues and yet, as is normally the case, he’s so candid and earnest when he delivers them. He quickly draws the moviegoer in just as he does with all the crew members under his command. It’s the magic he has over a rapt audience to the point you believe every word he says.

Otherwise, Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is pretty much our lead. I know he’s not much of an emoter, but he might as well be our stand-in for the American G.I. For the time being, he is surrounded by a bevy of compatriots including Robert Walker, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum, among others. They all raise their hands when it comes to volunteering for a top-secret mission.

There’s an electricity in the air as they prepare for news of their assignment even as they are warned that they will be pushed to the limit of their capabilities and then some. The utmost secrecy is maintained and their training is commenced in earnest. The work is hard and they play hard after.

One of the crowd is a goofy down-home caricature portrayed by John R. Reilly. He can be found pounding away to the rhythms of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the barracks, intent on any merriment he can muster during off-hours. Meanwhile, the crew of the self-proclaimed Ruptured Duck becomes proficient in their new skill set.

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In his free time, Lawson (Johnson) looks to get all the time in with his beaming wife as possible. Though Phyliss Thaxter glows with utter radiance in every scene, it does feel a bit overly twee at times.

Since a group of the fellas have their brides with them, they get together to dance, finding solidarity in songs like “Deep in The Heart of Texas” and a Hollywood mainstay, “Auld Lange Syne.” It’s especially effective for wringing out every last drop of emotion. Wives tearfully cling to their husbands for the last time, knowing that they will soon be separated for who knows how long.

Sure enough, the men get their assignment after coming aboard an aircraft carrier. They will be paying a visit to Tokyo by air and the anticipation sets in even as the flyers all look a bit like fish out of water (on the water). Regardless, it becomes a perfect excuse to play up the camaraderie between the army and the navy away from the football field. They’ve got a job to do, and they’ll do it together.

Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson share a most curious conversation lounging on the prow of the boat, staring off into the darkness. One can only imagine it is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo speaking — not in propaganda but humanity.

First, Johnson offers up how his mom had a Jap gardener once who seemed like a nice fellow. Mitchum says he doesn’t like ’em, but he doesn’t hate ’em either. They agree you get mixed up sometimes. Where are they going with this meandering interchange?

The answer: Trumbo’s brand of what might be most precisely termed “American progressivism.” Some rationale must be proposed for what is at hand and so he does his best. Though it foregoes demonizing the enemy, it takes an alternative path with the same conclusion. It’s the most rational progression. Drop a bomb on them or they’ll be dropping a bomb on Ellen or loved ones like her. It’s highly practical even as it remains problematic.

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Still, the gears are turning. They have their final briefing with Doolittle and agree to meet in Chungking for the biggest party they’ve ever seen. In reality, the moment of truth really does feel like little more than thirty seconds. When they hit the mainland a flurry of Japanese Zeroes fly over, only to pass them by without notice, moving on with their normal patrol. It’s a lucky break.

They end up dropping their loads on the designated targets with efficiency. It’s the aftermath where things get a bit dicier, not so much due to the enemy but weather conditions. The Ruptured Duck is forced to bail out, sustaining injuries, and rescued by Chinese locals under bleak conditions.

Though poorly resourced and kept on the run by impending Japanese, the Chinese are held aloft as loyal Allies ready to aid in this joint cause against the Japanese. It becomes so intriguing how they become such sympathetic figures. Two close-ups come to mind. The Chinese characters are not kept at arm’s length. We are given a chance to study their faces. It’s maybe not a lot, but it’s something. The juxtaposition between the Chinese station versus the Japanese is made supremely obvious.

So while Thirty 30 Over Tokyo has understandably been lauded for a certain level of historical accuracy, there is still a necessity to parse through its stances as a cultural artifact. Like any film, it is a product of its times and a tribute to the minds behind it, whether Mervyn LeRoy or Dalton Trumbo. Each man no doubt had his own agenda, be it bugetary or ideological.

To that point, the picture is framed by a corny romantic crescendo that’s difficult to take seriously. Otherwise, it an intermittently rewarding portrait of a specific time in WWII history. It’s difficult to remake a movie such as this without losing some of its inherent credibility.

3.5/5 Stars

Sahara (1943): Bogart Against The Nazis…Again

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The opening crawl of Zoltan Korda’s Sahara sets the scene, though contemporary audiences were probably already well aware of current events. This war film details the exploits of members of the Armored Corps of the Army Ground Forces. In June 1942 an American detachment joined British forces in North Africa to aid against the troops of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

We meet three of our heroes in the heat of battle. Their tank is stalling, mortars are bursting all around them, and they are the only contingent left from their company. With the finesse of a man whispering sweet nothings to a lover, Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) coaxes their tank Lulu Belle into operation.

His meager crew of Doyle (Dan Duryea) and Waco (Bruce Bennet) are grateful, if not slightly incredulous. However, they’ve learned to trust his shrewdness under fire. As becomes a habit, they make a bet on the outcome, and one of them always comes out of the jam a little bit richer. It’s this manner of gallows humor that allows them to cope with these high stake scenarios.

Before losing radio contact, they were ordered to head south, and they follow through on their orders, wind their tank coalition back from whence they came. However, this story, although it boasts an eventual objective, is really about the arid road to get there. Because out in the bleak sands of the Sahara they find themselves gathering up the dregs of other units, left all but obliterated by enemy stukas.

One can almost hear Bogart explaining how he came to the Sahara for the waters. He was misinformed, of course, but then that’s a different film altogether. In this picture, it’s all about camaraderie. A typically hardboiled Bogey takes the lead with his usual tenacity only after the British officer (Richard Nugent) of more propriety defers to his command.

He knows full-well they must enlist total discipline if they are ever to survive the perils set before them. The first order of business is rationing water against the cries of indignation from his subordinates and yet the rest of the British crew begrudgingly fall in, including the token “Frenchy” (Louis T. Mercier), who is resolved to do whatever it takes.

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The storyline systematically introduces new characters into the sand-swept drama, and they are not just new stimuli. They feel like living, breathing characters to tease out another facet of the world conflict. The first is a Sudanese soldier (Rex Ingram) toting a groveling Italian prisoner (J. Carroll Naish). In a plea to be taken along, he speaks of his wife and child and the relatives he has working in a steel factory in Pittsburgh.

The film looks destined to take its darkest turn when Bogart is intent on leaving the enemy soldier behind — they need to conserve as much food and water as possible — but he relents because in Hollywood the allies don’t do such things; even Bogart briefly sheds his steely surface layer.

The Nazis, on the other hand, are another matter. A solitary German fighter pilot (Kurt Kreuger) looks to wipe out their faction with several sweeps overhead, strafing them with all he’s got. Ultimately, he’s shot down and taken prisoner. Of course, his Aryan philosophy means he doesn’t want to be searched by an inferior race.

Admittedly, it feels like a slightly ironic footnote. Major Tambul gets vouched for by his American ally and yet this country wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of racial equity either.

Later, the captured German turns his attention to the entire company, sneering at the ragtag assortment of soldiers they’ve gathered together. They’ll never outlast the German war machine. They’re too disparate. One is reminded of a similar tactic used by Sam Fuller in The Steel Helmet to highlight how the enemy (in that case, a North Korean) looks to play mental war games.

As a side note, it always fascinates me when you have seemingly native German speakers in these old WWII movies. Obviously, this never happened with Japanese (enter Richard Loo) and rarely with Italians. But with Germans and other Eastern Europeans, it was a different case because of the scourge of Hitler.

Kurt Kreuger, as well as John Wengraff, are a couple actors to add to this very unique category. In some ways, although they no doubt detested playing the despicable, the very fact that they are so diametrically opposed to the people they were portraying is another level of cutting derision.

In a subsequent desert storm, the company seeks desperately for any kind of shelter. It proves rather fortuitous leading them to water, which they must painstakingly extract from a trickling well, deep in the ground. It’s a vital resource, and the Nazis are in need of it too. They are the lumbering beast who is rapidly approaching — desperate for resources.

Now time is of the essence, but water is life so they wait to fill up their reservoirs. What this interim period does is give the Allies time to care for their equipment, but, practically, it also allows us to get to know each man better. Their religious beliefs, their wives, the places they call home.

I couldn’t help thinking of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan when one soldier asks where their commander is from. Gunn is far less accommodating. He simply says “no place, just the army.” In each case, their responses more than fit their respective backgrounds, and it gives them a moment to assert themselves as being all the more human.

When a German recon unit arrives, they are dealt with soundly and tempted with water. It’s all a ploy to draw the enemy in for as long as possible. Waco volunteers to try and go off for reinforcements to aid against the impending Nazis. For now, all they’ve got are the men in front of them.

Generally, the film revels in pithy dialogue, but there are a few instances it can’t help but wave the flag for a moment or two. For instance, when Bogart gets candid it feels like a “hill of beans” speech in Casablanca. It could be corny and sentimental but Bogey somehow makes his speech, spattered with references to Dunkirk, Bataan, Moscow, and China, feel like a stirring call to arms.

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However, they still have a treacherous enemy in their midst, bent on sounding the alarm for his countrymen — by any means necessary. Because, of course, the outpost is now drained of its liquid gold. They’re being played for suckers. This is when the Italian, Giuseppe, gets his moment to shine — his own speech denouncing Hitler and the German way. It’s a stirring stance even if it’s purpose is blatantly obvious.

With waves of German soldiers looking to take their post, the Allies rally to hold them up for a while, taking as many men down with them as possible. They fight the hundreds with their lusty force of less than ten. It’s a David versus Goliath-like struggle.

The tension doesn’t abate as Sergeant Major Tambul chases down the fleeing Nazi pilot in no man’s land. He tracks him down in a scene imbued with so much real emotion that Ingram got so caught up in the moment, he nearly choked Kurt Kreuger to death.

The strafing is heavy on both sides. Waves upon waves of Germans are brushed back, even as the defenders are knocked off one by one. American fortitude and teamwork involving everyone rules the day as want of water finally cripples the opposition. The drama cools off even as we must take account of the losses. Sacrifices are warranted on all sides.

Sahara is a rousing war film for the very fact it builds a whole world out of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert further fortified by a compelling scenario that’s easy to relate to. What it forfeits in terms of all-out authenticity, it more than makes up for with character. All of a sudden, World War II becomes personal and spearheaded by Bogart — a perfect embodiment of American grit and determination — we soon get behind every heroic action. It’s home front propaganda, nevertheless, functioning, at its best, as unadulterated entertainment.

4/5 Stars

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

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For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.

However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.

Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.

In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.

One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.

There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.

He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.

In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.

Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.

Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.

The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.

With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.

Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.

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It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.

Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.

The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.

It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.

But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Destination Tokyo (1943) and There’s No Place Like Home

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“This is sort of a blind date. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” – Cary Grant as Captain Cassidy

No pretense can be made to suggest Destination Tokyo functions as an original entry of a “men on a mission movie” from a couple decades later. For one thing, Cary Grant doesn’t strike one as the soldiering type. He’s not Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson.

However, it must have worked on at least one kid. Years later Tony Curtis would recount how he saw the picture in theaters and the images of Grant looking through the periscope inspired him to enlist (and maybe become an actor).

He ultimately realized both aspirations — even starring with his hero in the Blake Edward’s comedy Operation Petticoat, which ironically, is set aboard a submarine! In Destination Tokyo, Grant is more business but an amiable skipper nonetheless, with a family waiting for him back home. Still, he’s more than prepared to face the task at hand.

Although they are not much of a secret, thanks to the built-in spoiler in the title, Captain Cassady (Grant) waits the designated 24 hours into their excursion before opening their orders. Obviously, they’re headed to Tokyo. They are also required to pick up a package en route: a meteorologist named Raymond (John Ridgely).

What the film does well is creating an ecosystem for characters to be empathized with because once we have the framework of the task at hand, we can readily spend our time getting to know the men onboard.

There always must be the callow recruit and this story is no different with Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton) stepping into the role. Meanwhile, John Garfield has a fine time hamming it up as the spirited Wolf enthralling the stir-crazy crew with his exploits with the fairer sex. His active imagination fuels their own hopes and dreams about sweethearts all across the sea, whether they exist or not.

Dane Clark readily complies to the rank and file with his own average G.I. Joe, “Tin Can,” an equally spirited Greek-American intent on getting his chance to make the “Japs” pay. Alan Hale, always counted on for comic relief, is little different here as the bubbly chef Cookie doing his best not to clang pans when they’re diving deep to evade the enemy.

Otherwise, he’s a handy fill in for Santa Claus for a Christmas spent 20,000 leagues under the sea, metaphorically speaking, of course. For someone like Adams, this is his first Christmas away from his family and the accordion accompanied quartet singing out “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a few other yuletide favorites is a much-appreciated touch of home.

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The crew begins to truly feel the weight of circumstance when a pair of Japanese zeroes come upon them on the seas. They let ’em have it with their anti-aircraft deck guns firing into the sky.

One curious stylistic choice is to actually show the enemy pilots raining hell down on them. It hardly feels like an empathetic turn, however, and more of an easy way to label them. If you see someone like this, know they’re the ones doing injustices against us. We’ve got to stick it to them whatever the cost. It becomes more blatantly clear only minutes later. They’re backstabbers.

In a film with an understandable but generally misguided sense of Japanese culture, it does become an intriguing task to begin to unwrap the ideologies being promoted. One cannot quickly forget this is propaganda meant to mobilize mom, dad, and everyone else back at home.  It makes it easier to comprehend how ignorance and general misconceptions can be so widely propagated.

Delmer Daves would soon become well-versed in these kinds of wartime tales from The Very Thought of You to Hollywood Canteen and The Pride of The Marines. One can note actors like John Garfield, Dane Clark, and John Ridgely readily being recycled throughout. However, to its credit, instead of merely painting all Japanese people as terrors, it frames them as victims of a broken system of government.

The token metaphor alighted on are roller skates — those vehicles of carefree child-like recreation — we need more rollerskates in this world including the next generation of Japanese kids. Because it’s a far better alternative than more international conflict.

In the most harrowing interludes, the crew of the USS Copperfin surreptitiously sneak into the minefield of Tokyo Bay under the cloak of an oblivious enemy cruiser. They squeak past the enemy netting and hold their breath as they move into the heart of enemy terrain. Their covert mission continues with three men, including Wolf, going ashore to undertake reconnaissance. It feels somewhat eery for the very reasons two years later nearby locales would be absolutely obliterated by Big Boy and Fat Man.

The balance of the human drama with wartime objectives remains the film’s greatest strength. It’s not all pulse-pounding action necessarily, but it maintains interest through the investment in its characters over the long haul.

An unexpected complication involves an impromptu appendicitis operation. A former pharmacist student, not formally trained as a surgeon, is given the unpleasant task of removing the burst organ based on the written procedures in a textbook. Meanwhile, on land, Tokyo Rose jeers the Allies only for our protagonists to send vital weather reports over the radio to waiting Allied receivers. This entire operation is purportedly under the nose of oblivious Japanese operatives.

The most laughable reaction comes from an incredulous Garfield, “If the Japs pick it up, they’ll think it’s one of their own guys.” He didn’t take into account how stifled John Ridgely’s pronunciation sounds. My Japanese is abysmal, but it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to know he’s probably never spoken a lick of Japanese in his life. But I digress.

The return trip is fraught with bombardment from above as the Japanese get wise and in the ensuing pursuit, the sub gets hammered. The situation is dire with the interior leaking and filling up with water. It’s all hands on deck just to bail them out.

However, when the proverbial fog clears, miraculously, they’ve got off scot-free. The next prominent landmark they see is the Golden Gate Bridge, and it triggers all their fluffy feelings of Americana. After being in foreign waters, the relief of being back home in the good ol’ U.S.A is too great to pass up. As an American who has lived for an extensive period of time in Tokyo, somehow I can relate, though for very different reasons. There’s no place like home.

3.5/5 Stars

Air Force (1943): Howard Hawks Takes on WWII

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At times, Air Force functions like a staged documentary. It feels both instructive and informed by Howard Hawks’ own passion for aviation. It has the simple task of making sure the folks at home can empathize with their boys up in the air. In fact, it falls short of being a mere instructional manual because its highest purpose is to be a stirring propaganda piece.

Certainly, the War meant all hands on deck, even when it came to filmmaking. You had John Ford famously capturing The Battle of Midway. Frank Capra oversaw the series Why We Fight, as a member of the Army Signal Corps. George Stevens notably took footage of Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated. This is Hawks’ contribution to the same effort, mobilizing the American public behind the war, in part, by harnessing their emotions. In this regard alone, Air Force is generally a success.

Although some of its players have been generally forgotten in the modern movie pantheon, Air Force features a surprisingly robust cast of actors. Their leader is pilot “Irish” Quincannon (John Ridgely), who has been charged with leading the crew of the Mary-Ann, a much-beloved B-17 Flying Fortress. Its caretaker is a crusty veteran (Harry Carey) whose own boy is currently stationed in the Philippines.

The rest of them feel like fine red-blooded Americans, from co-pilot Gig Young, navigator Charles Drake, and a youthful Arthur Kennedy as their bombardier. George Tobias adds his humor while John Garfield ably plays the outsider with a chip on his shoulder.

They are a perfect menagerie for Hawks to impose his always cognizant sense of male camaraderie because what more galvanizing situation is there than the throes of war? Very little.  It’s this link — a kind of communal gravitational pull — that helps them weather thick and thin, as the enemy hounds them at every turn. Without it, the picture wouldn’t have much pathos. These relationships are experienced vicariously by the audience.

Their assumedly routine mission is humanized through sendoffs from loving mothers and wives. Later on, they pay a visit to a sister stationed as a nurse on an island hospital. All these touches are very purposeful, implying how each life is interconnected with a web of loved ones and sweethearts. This could be any of us if we grew up in wartime America.

Against these waves of systematic sentimentality, the bad boy cynicism of John Garfield fits like a glove, and he peddles his usual pessimism with ease. For a time, that’s all the conflict we have.

Then, they pick up Japanese radio chatter — it’s odd — they don’t understand what could be happening until they see it for themselves. It is, of course, December 7th, 1941, and they’re right in the thick of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When they finally get a chance to inspect the situation on the ground, the aftermath is understandably grim.

In the moment, creating a broad conspiracy involving fifth column dirty treachery on Hickman Field is an effective paranoia tactic. However, in hindsight, there are a few pernicious details used to paint the scenario, namely, a band of rogue vegetable trucks used to clip the wings of planes on the ground. As if the enemy had ground forces orchestrating sabotage to coincide with the aerial attack. This, in fact, (considering the Munson Report) never occurred.

Regardless, the crew is ordered to get on the move again before any other trouble arrives. Their next leg is Wake Island en route to the Philippines. Along the way, they strike up a playful competition with a pursuit pilot, allowing our men to reconcile their differences. Even a dog christened “Tripoli” conveniently doesn’t like Japs (ie. Mr. Moto)

The ensuing dog fights in the skies feel atmospheric and like a dead ringer for George Lucas’s original Tie Fighter-Millenium Falcon duel, with turret guns blasting away. In this chaos, their one solitary flying fortress becomes an emblematic symbol in itself, representative of the American spirit, grit in the face of adversity, and a never say die mentality.

Battered and broken as it is, their sole purpose becomes putting it back together again, to fight another day, and it’s fitting because that’s very much what America was forced to do after Pearl Harbor. A victory at The Battle of Midway would have meant little if we didn’t get to that point. Air Force seems to suggest, with men as tough of these, we got there and ultimately we prevailed. It’s an easy narrative to swallow about the “greatest generation,” and there is a certain amount of truth in it. However, it’s certainly not a nuanced picture. We know its intentions full well.

The final minutes are all but a foregone conclusion, necessary for closing out the dramatic arc. There’s quite a large deal of bombs bursting, planes crashing, guns blasting — all key elements of the fog of war. Even in their archaic simplicity, there are some thrilling moments. However, most of what’s of interest still remains up in that airplane – – the men we’ve gotten to know along this arduous journey.

Of course, in 1943 the journey wasn’t done yet. Thus, there was the need for this picture in all of its patriotic fervor. In this realm, it’s fairly effective, amassing the third-highest box office pull in its day. There’s no doubt it spoke into a particular cultural moment. For those admiring of Howard Hawks, it’s a less-heralded but still intermittently gripping adventure in the skies, awash with jingoism though it may be.

3.5/5 Stars

Pride of The Marines (1945): John Garfield Plays Al Schmid

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During WWII there’s no question John Garfield was integral to the war effort despite having never served in the military. He did yeoman’s work when it came to morale, through his pictures at Warner Bros, originating the famed Hollywood Canteen with Bette Davis, and going on war bond tours with the likes of John Basilone.

No question he was a devoted champion of the Allied cause and so when he learned of the true-life heroism of marine Al Schmid, flipping through the pages of Life magazine one day, he started the wheels turning in Hollywood. Schmid was a Philadelphia native who was deployed in the deadly warzone of Guadalcanal in 1942. He and two mates held onto their gunnery outpost against hundreds of enemy soldiers. Their valor was not without sacrifice.

There are certain stories you could hardly write better for the cinema screen and The Pride of The Marines is one of them. As such, Schmid’s story fits fluidly into three distinct segments. It begins as a bit of a hometown romance. In the opening voiceover Garfield, in character as Al, explains how Philly and the Liberty Bell is all he’s known and although this is his life, it could have just as easily been someone else’s. There’s no missing that Delmer Daves’ film is a universal flag-waver for the whole country to get behind.

Like any red-blooded American, Al’s a confirmed bachelor, though he loves the company of his landlords, the genial Merchant clan. Jim (John Ridgely) is always good-naturedly tinkering on everything with varied success. His wife Ella May (Ann Doran) is just about the warmest beacon of hospitality one could ever meet. And if they are both benevolent spirits, their bubbly daughter Loretta (Anne E. Todd) is equally so. Al is affectionate toward them all, even as he remains fiercely independent. No girl the resident matchmaker tries to set him up with will make him think otherwise.

It’s much the same when he finds a quivering Ruth Hadley (Eleanor Parker) at the front door in the dark. A fuse is blown. The lights are out. The family scurries around as a brusque Garfield lets her in. He’s prepared to tear her apart as she confirms all his assumptions about the typical girl-next-door.

This is the rockiest of meet-cutes but I must say, I like it because there is this instantaneous conflict. No disrespect to Dennis Morgan in The Very Thought of You, but Garfield brings his brand of tougher authenticity that’s far more compelling. The beauty of Parker is not simply being an attractive face — on par with any of the Hollywood starlets of the 1940s — there is an earnestness and a feistiness present in her very being.

It comes out over a miserable bowling date tacked onto their already awful evening. She’s been continually humiliated, and she retaliates with her bowling ball and a forceful march out the front doors, which receives whoops and hollers from all the patrons. This is when we realize we have a story and with it a true love affair.

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At first, it’s tentative. The second stint begins as Al prepares to ship out after Pearl Harbor. Nothing has been agreed upon between them. He’s noncommittal. She’s not one to beg and plead, though she has her own private desires. Their hours together are dwindling and in one final burst of emotion, he asks for a promise: to wait for him and he provides a token of his faithfulness. They’re tied together now like we always knew they would be. There were too many sparks for it to be any other way.

The war can really be summed up in one extended scene played out within the morass of war. Enemy “Japs” wade across the divide toward their waiting machine gun encampment, mowed down in the mayhem. They taunt them throughout the night, coming relentlessly, hour after hour, only to be stopped dead in their tracks, piling up everywhere.

I couldn’t help feeling some amount of conflict in witnessing all this. I am an American and I love John Garfield as much as the next fellow but this senseless killing — even in a fairly chaste old Hollywood movie — still feels like too much. The problem is it featuring war at its most intimate.

“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” is a practical axiom, but it also makes hand-to-hand combat far too personal. The film tries, but you cannot keep the enemy completely at arm’s length. Watching something like Fire on The Plains (1959) and we get an idea of what their side of the story might be. In this case, a stir-crazy Schmid holds them off in a gutsy stand that, nevertheless, leaves him without the use of his sight.

Phase three is arguably the most significant yet. He must start to grapple with this new reality, even as he’s rehabilitated in an army hospital in San Diego with some of his wounded buddies. He’s lying to himself, believing an operation will give him back his vision. The letter he dictates to be sent to a concerned Ruth paints much the same tale. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

The best shot comes in the moment of truth when the bandages are off in the darkness and as a flashlight is about to be brought up to his face, the camera focuses on his jet black hair and goes black as the voices keep talking. The image says enough already. We know the outcome without seeing anything or, precisely, because we don’t see anything…

Still, Al’s not ready to come to terms with reality nor is he prepared to tell Ruth. He wants to disappear so she’s not burdened with his disability; he’s even more dismayed to learn the presentation of his Navy Cross will take place back home. Because a “Marine doesn’t lean on nobody.”

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The old conundrum is not a foreign one. Each one of us wants to be loved, but what if you come back and we are not the same person — disabled or maimed in some way — that our significant other fell in love with? Will they still take you back or loathe the very sight of you? The answer is not always obvious.

Ultimately, it is his solicitous caretaker Virginia (Rosemary DeCamp) and the moral support of his buddies, including Lee (Dane Clark), pushing him forward. In one private phone call, the nurse confirms her suspicions. Ruth fits into the unconditional love category. She’s not going down without a fight, even if it’s a battle over the heart and soul of her disconsolate husband.

We need not dwell on what happens next. The imagination can all but fill it in. A bit of deception, the warmest of welcomes home, and the long haul ahead, forged by two people together as one. Al Schmid would die in 1982 and receive burial in Arlington Cemetery, while his beloved wife would follow him there in 2002.

Predating the likes of Best Years of Our Lives and The Men, The Pride of The Marines digs into the trials of soldiers coming home from war. Garfield is the most capable man I can think of to bear the brunt of this trauma. He battles the demons with his usual grit.

When he’s not at the center of the drama, it falters a bit into the typical didacticism. All the boys with honest, real-life problems, nevertheless, feel like they’re being used to preach to the audience about the plight of the G.I. It’s real, but the heavy-handed roundtable instigated by Daves gets in the way of everything of interest.

The starry-eyed adulation Loretta showers upon him about his exploits in Guadalcanal is also peculiar to me. “You killed 200 Japs, didn’t you Al?” She sounds breathlessly incredulous at this gargantuan feat; it’s like a trophy. I couldn’t help feeling a bit queasy about the statistics in this domestic context. It just goes to show my conflicted nature as a Japanese-American (who lived a stint in Japan) trying to parse through the complexities of World War II.

What’s not difficult to comprehend is just how brilliant Garfield and Parker are as a couple and if they do a fine job, then their real-life counterparts are even more extraordinary. Because they weren’t picking up a salary from Warner Bros. They were out in the trenches in the real world, living life, and facing everything together.

3.5/5 Stars

Army of Shadows (1969) and The French Resistance

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Army of Shadows is another film from Jean Pierre-Melville that falls back into the realm of the autobiographical, even as it’s based on a book by French journalist Joseph Kessel. Because Melville, a resistance fighter himself, had a previous history with this very same world. The names and dates were real, living history for him, and he gladly blended it all into his movie.

It’s also defined by the director’s well-established palette of choice. True to form, it leans into his typically dismal and dour canvass as an overt extension of its characters’ malaise. A rainbow proves a total impossibility in a Melville picture. Equally surprising is a smile on a face or an intonation of laughter.

In the opening interludes, a prison van takes a detour past a rural cottage to pick up a couple basket of provisions. It’s a curious juxtaposition and somehow a fitting bit of exposition about our setting. Because Army of Shadows is a modest epic if you will, ably covering all the ambiguities of an institution like Vichy while simultaneously documenting the moral gradient of good and evil Hannah Arendt so perceptively termed “banal.”

Our hero is a bespectacled, well-mannered man named Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura); he also happens to be a vital member of the underground. Hence his arrest and sentence to a local camp. He seems unphased by the whole ordeal as if he’s been here many times before. It’s all unextraordinary after the countless things he must have seen and done.

The subsequent inner monologues are honest if not pedestrian, perfectly in line with the world being developed. Because it’s a film as much about expressions as it is words. Reading over people, waiting, biding time, and weighing the options laid out. In these early instances, Ventura establishes himself as an apt hero, given our context.

In this unsparing portrait of the war years — at the same time both moral and unsentimental — he’s the perfect barometer of the times, rarely showing emotions. He dare not. You come to understand why, when faced with the ordeal of having to dispose of one of your own — a craven traitor — for the good of the outfit.

The zealous young recruit Le Masque (Claude Mann) is eager to do his part, but he’s quickly stripped of his illusions. What follows is a devastating death scene — implied though it may be — because it effectively takes away all pretense of heroes and villains. It sets a precedent for the entire picture and where it will dare to go in order to pay homage to those who went before. One shudders to think that this is one of the easier decisions they have to make.

It becomes a reality of wartime existence. People die unceremoniously; they’re interrogated and tortured even as this onscreen brutality remains minimal. Still, each and every time we’re well aware of the aftermath and the ensuing consequences. It doesn’t make it any easier. The one lesson the experienced pass on to the naive is to always carry a cyanide capsule on your person.

Although the film is unsentimental, it’s not altogether unfeeling. Rather there is a maintained sense of wistfulness around the frames. Mainland Europe has been sent through the wringer, and it went on so long they almost came to accept the status quo. Even the German “Heil Hitlers” feel a bit bedraggled and half-hearted by now.

Army of Shadows is built on the foundation of a profound paradox. Because in reflecting its own subjects, it remains extraordinarily aloof while still managing to be deeply personal, even intimate.

They keep their humanity guarded. To show it would be a weakness to be exploited. But in this razor-thin web of moral ambiguity and dubious decisions, it’s the one element holding them together.

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It’s striking that while he walks down a dank corridor flanked by SS troopers to a foregone conclusion, scenes flash before Gerbier’s eyes. A pretty nurse in London. Walking in the forest with Mathilde (the inimitable Simone Signoret) amidst the calm of nature. They are glimmers of something else totally contrary to what he is experiencing at the moment. He clings to them fiercely because they offer some semblance of humanity.

The same might be said of Mathilde — an extraordinary woman of immense mettle with only one weak point — a family for whom she cares deeply about. Again, you cannot totally eradicate their hearts and souls.

This is not an action film; the events making up their days feel rudimentary and yet in each case, something might go horribly wrong. We live life right alongside them in this state of perpetual anxiety. Gerbier takes on an old acquaintance (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to run errands including transporting vital radio parts past the authorities.

They conduct a late-night rendezvous with a British submarine to evacuate P.O.W.s and some of their leaders back to the British Isles. In fact, these are some of the film’s most curious digressions.

A medal is bestowed for bravery. Gerbier and his companion Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse ) view the raptures of Gone with the Wind in the cinema rather pensively. Even with the air raids, life is seemingly brighter in Britain, with bits of freedom still hidden away behind closed doors and in dance halls. We wonder where the film can go from here? Is it stalling? No, it’s giving us the respite we desperately need.

I deeply admire seemingly ordinary people who are unwavering in their resolve to walk into the lion’s den for the sake of liberty, knowing full-well what they are getting themselves into. I believe Willam Goldman called it “stupid courage.” There’s no more startling example than those who willfully returned to Nazi oppression.

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In this case, it’s an easy choice as Gerbier feels beholden to rescue his comrade Felix (Paul Crauchet ) who is currently being held at Gestapo headquarters, tortured to the point of exhaustion. It spells an end of the beginning because, in these dismal days of ’42 or ’43, things would only get worse before they got better.

Army of Shadows settles on a cruel conclusion indicative of the storyline thus far. In this way, the film maintains its narrative integrity. There’s no happy-go-lucky denouement slapped on. No such luck. They are faced with the impossible problems — the “Sophie’s  Choices,” if you will. I am reminded of Mathilde masquerading as a nurse, helpless to save a friend lest she betrays her cover. Or there’s Luc breaking with precedent by showing his face in public to pay his final respects to a friend.

In its day the film was a victim of poor timing, being released in the wake of ’68 with De Gaule, the former war hero, more despised than ever for his handling of the student protests.

Thus, the film became commercial and critical collateral damage, even failing to garner wider release in American until 2006! However, now it’s easy enough to look at it and one can hardly begrudge Melville his brand of patriotism since it strikes such a resonate chord with his own experience. As such, I’m led to deeply respect the film for its uncompromising perspective. It drains you of all veneration and hero-worship from the opening shot of German soldiers clomping through the Arc de Triomphe.

The true miracles are of an ordinary nature. Survival and yes, maintaining even a shred of decency in such a compassionless world. Sometimes the ultimate act of love is the most painful. The most devastating revelation the very fact that everything you might be clinging to could just as easily be a lie. What’s more, we might never know.

Forget villainy. Heroism is not a far cry from jaded, fatalistic acts of duty by insignificant little people sadly forgotten by time. I felt compelled to believe its depiction even as they unnerve me. It leaves no pretenses about war-torn France.

4.5/5 Stars