Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one figurehead emblematic of the proud foe is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edward’s Cheeky Service Sit-Com

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“On a sub you have to operate in close quarters.”

Operation Petticoat positions itself as an easy film to enjoy and a difficult one to love. It’s true Blake Edwards was capable of stirring up breezy even wacky entertainment, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to The Great Race. Even this is only acknowledging a very small subset of his filmography without consideration of the several exemplary dramas he directed.

He was usually aided by fine casts, who could carry the material smartly, and it’s little different here. Cary Grant was hardly ever ruffled nor stretched in his later career, and Operation Petticoat could hardly be considered more than a lark for him. He plays his quietly bemused self — this time a submarine Lt. Commander, who must make the most of a wonky situation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For his part, Tony Curtis is all but at ease as the wheeler-dealer with a touch of sleazy class. Let’s just say he’s got an affinity for the finer things in life and the ladies who can give it to him. It’s generally a delight to see Cary Grant return to a sub after Destination Tokyo, this time joined by Curtis, who looks to be relishing going toe-to-toe and rustling the feathers of his boyhood idol.

Forgiving the shameless pun, without its two stars, the movie would be sunk by mediocrity. If we want to give a slightly backhanded compliment, Operation Petticoat is a fitting precursor to some of the popular sitcoms of the ’60s.

Helping the argument are the presence of Gavin MacLeod, Marian Ross, and Dick Sargent representing, of all things, McHale’s Navy, Happy Days, and Bewitched. And of course, although it transposed the action of a submarine crew to a rural locale, one cannot forget Petticoat Junction.

Like McHale’s Navy, it would be all but impossible to pull off the wartime comedy set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor if we hadn’t at least won the war. This gives freedom for some creative license and a bit of zaniness sprinkled in with the typical military fare. One must only remember one gag recycled in the TV show, namely, sinking a truck with a torpedo.

Before they can even get afloat, they have to put their belching sub back into working order. The man up for the task is their latest addition Lt. Holden. Though the commander doesn’t relish the idea, he turns the other way and lets his junkman get to work pilfering everything he can get his grubby hands on. He’s able to do what no one else could, securing all the parts (by dubious means) to get them back in commission.

If we want to point out the film’s flaws, it takes about an hour to really churn up some steam by entering the waters of a 50s era rom-com afloat in awkward waters. Because once they get past the fear that the Sea Tiger will fall apart around them, they find their newest conundrum. They are being tasked with accommodating a batch of stranded nurses. It just isn’t done. It isn’t decent. And yet somehow in this film it happens and, subsequently, becomes the source for most of the comedy.

Quite mysteriously, all the shipmen aboard fall ill and need medical attention from the nursing staff. Their commanding officer all but scares them back to perfect health. Holden is all but smitten by bodacious blonde, Dina Merrill, who has the ill-fortune for always falling in love with Mr. Wrong. He’s not exactly the prototypical image of the upstanding, clean-cut boy next door.

Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg) strikes up a boiler room romance with the local fix-it man (Arthur O’Connell) because she proves just as resourceful as he is. He’s forced to mince every small-minded word he ever said about women and washing in his workspace. Commander Sherman is hardly on the lookout for such flings, simply trying to navigate their highly irregular and awkward situation and the perpetual clumsiness of Nurse Crandall (Joan O’Brien).

Between designated shower times for the ladies, the sharing of pajamas between co-eds, and allowing for Lt. Crandall’s curvaceous figure in the tight quarters of the submarine, he gets more than he bargained for, all played for wry comic effect, of course. It’s these later interludes milking the sheer awkwardness that exhibit touches of redolence on par with Pillow Talk or any such brethren. It’s a reason to miss the films of old. Cheeky and more brazen than expected, but mostly good-natured, especially compared to the hypersexualized culture we now live in.

operation petticoat 2.pngVarious scenarios spring to mind of farcical hijinks worthy of McHale’s band of Eight Balls. Prime examples are Holden setting up a supply depot casino to wrangle parts and even resorting to pig-napping to augment their New Year’s festivities. Seaman Hornsby causes quite the stir and in order to hold onto the plump porker, Commander Sherman generously opens up his subordinate’s quarters so a disgruntled native can raid them in recompense. He comes away with a golf bag, tennis rackets, and all the doodads you can imagine.

In another stroke of brilliance, some Einstein has the foresight to mix white paint with the red so they have enough for a new coat. For any of those who passed preschool, that makes — not gray — but pink. When they’re not picking up more passengers and wayward goats, babies are being born in the makeshift ward.

 The most cringe-worthy moment comes when they get caught in the crosshairs of a friendly battleship looking to sink the unidentified, highly irregular submarine. As one last resort, they signal their allies with a trail of women’s undergarments. Surely the Japanese would not resort to the same tactics. 

The resolution to the story is fit for the crowd-pleasing, sunshiny rom-com we’ve been offered. Cary and Tony say a cheering goodbye to their old friend The Sea Tiger, and we get some novel if unsurprising exposition about their love lives. In case you didn’t guess as much, a movie about a pink co-ed submarine is not going to push your brain or the envelope. For the generous viewer, it’s intermittently mirthful and relatively harmless amusement not to be taken too seriously.

3/5 Stars

Battleground (1949): Bastogne and The Screaming Eagles

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“We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race or a super-idea, or super-anything become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning to put out the fire before it starts spreading.”  ~ Leon Ames as the Chaplain

This is the story of Bastogne in 1944 and the renowned Screaming Eagles. Admittedly, if you’re like me, this means very little, but fortunately, we are in good company because the men we get to know over the course of two hours didn’t know anything about the city either when they first arrived. This was not the Battle of the Bulge; it was simply a stepping stone or a weigh station on the road to their future destination. That is until it became, you guessed it, a battleground in its own right.

For the time being, they can be found drilling in smartly executed formations and getting ready for an unnamed assignment ahead. This is our chance to feel them out before they get in the thick of everything.

Director William A. Wellman does them a service in the first full scene together spread out in their cots. There’s barely enough room for the dust to settle but within the close confines, camaraderie is immediately palpable as is each man’s personality.

What a great group of guys they are covering a lot of the bases of humanity. Van Johnson and even a Don Taylor are easy to pin down because of their broad appeal and charm. They make most any armed forces picture a little more affable. Among their finest traits is exuding good old-fashioned Americanism.

There’s old college grad Jarves (John Hodiak), who gets jeered for his presumed stuffiness. There’s the gruff cynic (Douglas Fowley) always playing around with his set of false chompers like his most prized possession. (They kind of are because without them he can’t eat). Squished in with them is the gangly and drawling southern boy (Jerome Courtland), who feels like an easy trope to target in these pictures. The new recruit (Marshall Thompson) can be found nervously bed-hopping from cot to cot trying to find one he can take.

In something genuinely unusual for the period, even a Latino from L.A. (Ricardo Montalban) is represented. His best bud Pops (George Murphy) all but has a ticket home on a hardship discharge. A young Richard Jaeckel rounds out the band along with a chaw chewing James Whitmore, acting as their weathered drill sergeant.

What is meaningful about these relationships is how they reach outside the confines of the film with this inferred history we don’t know explicitly, and yet we can read into it. We know what guys have a bone to pick with the army and the ones who are trying to make the best of it.

The perilous journey ahead is riddled with enemy planes overhead, and the fog of war is quite literally laid on thick, complimenting the mud the army trucks slog through on the road. One minute they’re diving into ditches at the sound of sniper fire, and the next they are tasked with the backbreaking toil that goes with digging in for the evening, only to be pulled away on revised orders.

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There’s absolutely nothing permanent aside from the constant patrolling, lack of sleep, and perpetual snow. Battleground is one of the snowiest war movies I can recall, at times, deeply striking and equally relentless

Private Holley scores quite a cache of eggs, dreaming of the scramble he’s whisking up in his helmet time and time again — only to get pulled off for another assignment. Watching the yolk drip from his helmet is one of the defining images of the film for me as is his utter indifference. You’re never clean so why even bother.

As a fitting inflection of the Cold War, we have Germans in G.I. uniforms sneaking behind Allied lines to wreak havoc and sabotage important strategic assets like bridges. More than anything, it continually triggers this terrifying threat of infiltration. Thus, one cannot help but draw a connection to the Chaplain’s stirring speech later on (reference at the top of this page).

Amid the paranoia, it’s almost hilarious to think that the best way of telling friend from foe is baseball terms, idioms, Terry and the Pirates references, and the relationship status of the war’s favorite pinup Betty Grable (Note: Cesar Romero is out for Harry James).

When they do come upon the Krauts, Wellman captures the firefight and the subsequent hand-to-hand combat in a stylized manner to conform to the Hollywood production codes. Regardless, he manages to accentuate the rough-and-tumble brutality through boots pounding on the snow and violent inferences.

Battleground leaves unabashed sentimentality behind and it is not squeamish about death. People get picked off one by one leaving a trail of dead and wounded in their plucky company. This carnage hurts because of the rapport we build up. But even in the face of these micro-tragedies, there is no time to mourn, and their stand against the Germans proves a gutsy one. There’s no other alternative in their minds.

As we bunker down, it’s true the ensemble melds together nicely with no one actor totally upstaging the others. Certainly, Van Johnson is just left of center, if not the undisputed headliner, but even he has to navigate conventional feelings of fear and loathing when it comes to military service. He is by no means impervious to the toils of war.

In a moment of duress, Holly looks all but ready to turn tail ignominiously, but he finds his courage in the urging of another man who looks up to him — as they double back on the German lines and catch them off guard. They’ve girded their loins about them now and when ceasefire agreements and surrender are suggested by the enemy, they unceremoniously scoff at the very idea.

As alluded to already, in the thick of the hard pelting enemy artillery fire, the Chaplain holds an impromptu service. He’s of a certain denomination, but a very succinct point is made of the fact his service and his message is all-inclusive. In fact, it’s hardly a spiritual homily at all but a candid rallying cry against the forces of evil. It’s one of the most blatant examples of the film getting on any sort of didactic soapbox.

In response, each man kneels down to pray in his own way the enemy artillery fire still bursting in the background. The results are a stirring image of solidarity. They have not yet begun to fight.

Even in the simulated soundstage action, there is a compelling commitment to the atmosphere, which aids rather than hinders the story being told. It brims with the elements and forces of nature on all sides. In a last-ditch effort, all the terminally ill are moved out of the makeshift hospital, and the walking wounded are brought in for one final stand of desperation.

There is a slight sense Robert Pirosh’s script skipped over what might have been the most rousing scene. Wellman tackles the counterattack from the rallied forces with their new batch of airlifted ammunition, gasoline, and K rations in only an extended montage.

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Although the ending of the war is a foregone conclusion, it very nearly could have been a letdown that we don’t get a more pronounced action scene. However, it’s quickly salvaged by the effectiveness of the final scene. It says all the same things and exudes all the same battered but resolute emotion with one simple drill, leading them off toward the rear. The men sound off with a renewed vigor knowing theirs was a job well done.

In my book, James Whitmore is the unsung hero of the picture because his grizzled mug brings so much understood texture to the world of the movie. Van Johnson is the vision of what an idealized American G.I. is and Whitmore is the more likely reality. And in the final minutes, he’s the one who leads them to the finish line. He maintains an unswerving grit and pride as tenacious as anyone.

Battleground is quite the sensational war picture while also holding the distinction of being one of the most high profile WWII films following the conflict’s cessation. It allows for this strange limbo of sorts where the war is still fresh and within grasp of the collective consciousness, but there is enough wiggle room to begin looking back in hindsight.

Surely it’s not a complete portrait, but it does well to blend shades of action with the everyday gumption needed to make it through such a conflict. What a pleasure it is to be reminded each of these soldiers is a singular human being.

It’s refreshing to have their warmth and their fears in plain view along with their courage. It feels like we can look them in the eyes and truly marvel because they are not a whole lot different than us in many ways. Their courage is extraordinary in just how ordinary it appears.

4/5 Stars

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