World War, Too

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

In the military, nothing is worse than fighting the enemy, especially if he/she is in your own squad.  This is a theme covered (mostly) in this quartet of superb warrior epics all surrounding the years in the (mostly) European theater from 1941-45. UA, a thoroughly progressive studio, nevertheless (mostly) founded by ultra-right wingers, has given us some of the best (liberal and otherwise) war pictures ever made.  During the advent of talkies, Howard Hughes retained the company as a distributor for his 1930 odyssey Hell’s Angels, which became a blockbuster in the midst of The Great Depression (utilizing not only the new sound medium, but additionally featuring sequences in color and widescreen).  William Wellman’s 1945 classic The Story of G.I. Joe became one of the most beloved soldier pics of all-time (and made Robert Mitchum a star, with an Oscar nom to boot).  1949’s Home of the Brave tackled PTSD and racism.

Bizarre war flicks followed, like the Robert Parrish 1954 Korean conflict saga The Purple Plain, a vicious part of history likewise covered three years later in Anthony Mann’s splendid Men in War. We also virulently returned to the Great War via Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (also 1957).  Can’t leave out John Sturges’ 1963’s The Great Escape, one of the decade’s cinematic landmarks.  See where I’m going?

Sandwiched between the UA output of the 1950s and the 1960s are four extraordinary titles, all comprising jaw-dropping casts, fine directors, brutal confrontations (both physical and emotional), terrific camerawork (all on-location) and fantastic scores (accessible on these platters as ISTs).  The movies cover the personal hardships and escalating seething hatred that added that just one-more-piece-of-hell to the actual fighting.  They’re all in widescreen (albeit in varying aspect ratios), and, with the exception of one iconic 1960s title, are relatively unknown to the casual picture-goer.  As far as I’m concerned, each is a classic deserving a spot on any serious classic collector’s library shelf.

Up and at ’em!

 

A considerable hit in 1958, Delmer Daves’ KINGS GO FORTH, based on Joe David Brown’s scorching novel (screenplay by Merle Miller), has been almost forgotten today.  Shame, as it’s a terrific picture, and one of the director’s crowning achievements.  It certainly had the star power – and the liberal take on a once-taboo subject is perfect for today’s audiences.

The movie stars Frank Sinatra (then at his peak), Tony Curtis (a major movie from his major year), and Natalie Wood (in her second adult starring role, having scored twelve months earlier in Marjorie Morningstar in 1957).

Sinatra’s Sam Loggins is a New York tough self-made blue collar G.I. who has risen through the ranks as World War II draws to a close.  Stationed in the French Riviera sector of the European Theater (what the dogfaces termed “the Champagne Campaign”), proves to be a paradox of heaven and hell.  Incredibly insecure and lonely Sam meets Monique, a gorgeous French woman at a cafe during a weekend furlough.  His growing attraction toward her is derailed when her mom, an American ex-pat reveals that the girl’s father was black.  Loggins battles the Nazis and his racism, eventually overcoming the bigotry – but too late.  Monique has fallen for the charismatic pampered, handsome, jazz-playing Britt Harris, a rich kid playboy from a noted Jersey family, nicknamed the Pride of Newark (which should tell you something).  Sam tries to hate him, but Harris’ oozing charm and likeability makes it difficult.  Again, Loggins becomes emotionally twisted due to Britt’s being “born rich and handsome and I was born poor and not handsome.”
Loggins immediately tells Harris of Monique’s ethnicity, swearing that he’ll kill anyone who hurts the lost love of his life.  Britt’s response is surprisingly upbeat, brimming with pride and respect.  But Britt Harris is a sociopathic scumbag, and doing a black chick turns out to have been just “a kick.”  The Pride of Newarks’s blistering comment to Monique and her mother is one of cinema’s most vicious verbal smackdowns.  Loggins vows to kill Harris, and then gets his chance – when they both are recruited for a suicide mission.  The battles, the aftermath, and the epilogue are exciting and sublimely staged and acted.  Really, as indicated, this is one of Delmer Daves’ finest flicks.  The crisp monochrome location work by Daniel L. Fapp is as good as it gets, and displays all of the director’s trademark crane and moving camera tracking shots (thanks to Twilight Time’s sensational 35MM transfer, KINGS GO FORTH makes its Blu-Ray debut in its original aspect ratio, not seen since 1958.  The soundtrack is tops as well, with a wonderful score composed by Elmer Bernstein.   Wood truly showed she had what it took to be a grownup actress, and gives an enduring performance; Sinatra and Curtis, too, are fantastic, and have a smooth chemistry between them (Curtis immediately became an honorary member of the Rat Pack).  Frank had by this point more than proven himself as a superb actor, but it was Curtis, who excelled as the vile, cobra Harris – a continuing array of villainous bastards that began with Sweet Smell of Success in 1957, continued with his Oscar nom in The Defiant Ones and a heroic costarring lead in the smash The Vikings (the latter pair both released the same year as KINGS; 1958 was genuinely Curtis’ time).  A fine supporting cast appends the lead trio, and includes Leora Dana, Karl Swenson, Ann Codee, Eddie Ryder and jazz musicians Red Norvo and Red Wooten.  This movie really needs to be better known.

There’s an interesting sidebar story that Frank Sinatra, Jr. told — one that I heard shortly before his passing in 2016.  During the filming of KINGS GO FORTH, the Sinatras discovered that the Boris Karloffs were neighbors in their California community.  Sinatra, a devout movie fan, couldn’t have been more thrilled, and became close friends with Boris.  Particularly taken with the horror star’s speechless interpretation of the Frankenstein monster, Frank asked the veteran thesp for some tips.  KINGS GO FORTH was a flashback picture, and contained silent action over Sinatra’s/Loggins’ narration.  Karloff, indeed, worked with Sinatra, and “threatened” to ask for payback, should he ever attempt to professionally sing.  “Anytime,” was Frank’s response, and that was a promise returned royally nearly ten years later when Karloff asked Frank to help him “speak-sing” the lyrics to “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Sinatra happily worked with Boris on the song, and it became a Top Ten novelty hit.  Just a nice story I thought I’d share with you folks.

 

One of director John Frankenheimer’s and actor Burt Lancaster’s career triumphs, 1965’s THE TRAIN comes roaring into High Definition Blu-Ray with a vengeance.

Stunningly shot on-location in France in crisp, black-and-white by Jean Tournieur and Walter Wottitz, and beautifully scripted (from their screen story adaptation) by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis (with uncredited assist from Walter Bernstein, Nedrick Young, Howard Dimsdale and Albert Husson; from the novel Le Front De L’Art by Rose Valland), THE TRAIN offers a physical/spiritual parallel of wartime priorities:  what defines a country and patriotism vs. the price of humanity.  Relax, it’s ingeniously woven within the narrative as to not interfere with the grand suspense thriller it is.

Paul Labiche (Lancaster) runs the integral railroad station outside a suburb of Paris.  On the surface, he wants no complications and seemingly cooperates with the Nazi high command who dominate the town.  In reality, he’s the head of the local Resistance, using brute force, if necessary, to sabotage any faction of the Third Reich.

On the opposite end is erudite, sophisticated Nazi officer Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), who also will show no mercy when it comes to defending his turf.  As with Labiche, Von Waldheim has a wartime dual purpose – outwardly to protect great works of art from destruction, but, in reality, to greedily whisk them away to Germany, where they are likely to become his personal property.  Besieged by artists and museum librarians to save the paintings, Labiche initially scoffs at the idea of risking lives to save canvasses.  His gradual realization that these masterpieces represent the soul of France transforms this mission into an obsession.  The bulk of the picture, concerning the title transport machine pits these two strong-willed men against each other in perhaps the ultimate mainstream movie ever filmed about the Resistance and the war.  A confrontation line between Von Waldheim and Labiche is one of my favorite quotable bits of dialog:  “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape.” Burt’s response is classic.

Supporting Lancaster and Scofield is a fantastic cast of European players, including Suzanne Flon, Wolfgang Preiss, Albert Remy, Charles Millot, Richard Munch, Jacques Marin, Howard Vernon and Donald O’Brien (of special note are two spectacular cameos from French icons, Jeanne Moreau and Michel Simon).  A churning, terrific score by Maurice Jarre accompanies the action (of which there is plenty).  It was certainly a good year for the composer; THE TRAIN’s music, in any other time a standout effort, was eclipsed by his work on DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.  It was also a major year for UA, who dominated the box-office.  THE TRAIN was a huge hit with critics and audiences, but paled to the studio’s other blockbusters Help!, What’s New, Pussycat? and Thunderball.

Frankeheimer’s and Lancaster’s working relationship hit a new zenith, but it was a slippery slope.  The actor originally hired the director (after seeing some of his television output) to helm the underrated 1961 drama The Young Savages.  This led to Birdman of Alcatraz the following year, a shoot so acrimonious that Frankenheimer vowed to never work with Lancaster again.  That changed when Kirk Douglas hired the director for Seven Days in May.  During this production, Lancaster and Frankenheimer buried the hatchet, bonded, and planned THE TRAIN (in my opinion, their greatest work); a final collaboration, The Gypsy Moths, would be released in 1969.

THE TRAIN is one of the scarce Twilight Time titles that sold out almost immediately and warranted a second printing.  Either version is worth tracking down.

A funny sidebar; after a super successful reception, a beaming Lancaster emerged announcing, “If I knew it was going to turn out this good, I’d have done it with an accent.”  To which Frankenheimer drolly replied, “Thank God he didn’t know!”

 

1968’s PLAY DIRTY lives up to its title – with the subtlety of a blowtorch.  Taking the key word from one of the 1960’s biggest movie hits, The Dirty Dozen, this brutal, gritty adventure relates a similar tale.  Captain Cyril Leech, a disgraced but brilliant soldier, who has a prosperous sideline as a mercenary, doesn’t believe in “bringing ’em back alive.”  We’re not talking prisoners, we mean his own men.  This doesn’t sit well with social-climbing sleazeball Colonel Masters, who has fashioned an impossible mission to dismantle Rommel’s hidden fuel supply in the African desert.  Since the odds are next to nil that anyone will survive, Masters saddles Leech with a horrific band of rogue Brit commandos, all POWs with convictions for drug-dealing, rape, sadism, etc.  To assist with the doomed task, an expert in munitions is needed; ninety-day-wonder Captain Douglas is chosen, with a paid voucher to Leech that, for publicity sake, he be brought back breathing.  Stuffed shirt Douglas is no angel either; he’s a former BP executive.  Masters’ paper soldier plan is quickly hijacked by superior officer Brigadier General Blore, who’s an even bigger scumbag than he is.  And so it goes.

The mission, as expected, is hazardous and hideous, with Douglas having to watch out for Nazis, throat-cutting Arabs and his own men.  Nevertheless he proves himself quite a killer himself, earning the respect from the creeps in his battalion, particularly Leech.  A change in plans causes Masters and Blore to squelch the operation without notifying Leech or Douglas.  They fix this problem by simply leaking their whereabouts to the Germans.  Nice guys, eh?

PLAY DIRTY, a rarely-seen actioner, has become something of a cult classic over the past couple of decades.  And so it should.  The expert cast, led by Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport (the latter, excelling in an atypical leading role), is ably backed up by Nigel Green, Harry Andrews, Patrick Jordan, Daniel Pilon, Bridget Espeet and Vivian Pickles.  The movie’s other credentials are equally impressive.  It was produced by the 007 group (who in 1968 could do no wrong at UA, or anywhere else), scripted by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin (from a story by George Marton) and magnificently photographed in Spain (gruelingly and realistically standing in for the Sahara) by Ted Scaife (who likewise shot The Dirty Dozen).  A music score by Michel Legrand adds to the top-notch celluloid endeavors.  Of course, directing such an extravaganza requires a keen eye for this sort of thing, and they sure got it (well, the one that worked) with Andre de Toth (who, uncredited, did a rewrite), helming his final work – and one of his best.

The pic, not surprisingly, was beset by disasters and turmoil from Day One.  Originally, Leech was to be played by Richard Harris, who bolted early on, reportedly due to a dispute about his haircut.  More likely, it had something to do with de Toth, a notorious sadist on and off camera.  How de Toth got the gig is a classic movieland story in and of itself.  Needing an accomplished action director, Bond producer Harry Saltzman put out a query for suggestions.  “Get Bundy!” was an oft-received reply.  “Bundy” was a nickname for Andrew Marton, an ace action-man, who had codirected the 1950 classic King Solomon’s Mines.  Unfortunately, for Marton, de Toth, too, had a nickname:  “Bandi,” and that’s who they mistakenly got.  Never mind. It worked out swell (although the rigors and stress of the men under fire is frequently waaayyyyy too authentic, particularly a sequence where a man-controlled makeshift conveyor belt is utilized for pulling vehicles up a desert hill).  De Toth was rewarded for PLAY DIRTY by becoming Executive Producer on the next Caine/Salzman/UA  project, 1969’s Billion Dollar Brain, the third and final Harry Palmer spy thriller.  The Twilight Time Blu-Ray looks fantastic, and is sure to please any war flick fan.

 

Another great obscurity, 1969’s THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN boasts a distinguished cast, a fantastic score, terrific action and a powerful message.

Based on a true incident (the taking/destruction of the Ludendorff bridge, housed between Remagen and Erpel, on March 7, 1945), this riveting, engrossing pic examines both sides of the coin – and each is vile.  Whether a blunder or for gain or just because one can, the results in war are always the same: dead is dead (it’s also a variation of the definition of insanity).  The Americans and the Germans seemingly are in a contest to see who can sadistically kill the most men and innocent civilians, lives being relegated to mere impressive statistics.  Leading the U.S. are the snarky, belligerent rebellious troops, headed by Lt. Hartman (George Segal), based on the real-life Karl Timmermann.  Also along for the ride are Ben Gazzara, Bo Hopkins, Robert Logan and Bradford Dillman.  Commanding the carnage is Brigadier General Shinner (E.G. Marshall), who delights in trapping the Germans, thereby hastening their deaths (a mere 75,000 men). The Germans, too, have no problem taking one of their illustrious own (Robert Vaughn in an excellent performance), and sacrificing him up for Der Fuhrer.  Truth is, the Nazis’ plan to blow the bridge is botched, so, too bad/that’s life/auf wiedersehen, boys.  The Americans decide to help matters by detonating the German explosives themselves, shrugging off the townsfolk as collateral damage.

THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN is one unnerving war thriller, with dialog (script by Richard Yates and William Roberts; story by Roger Hirson) as sharp as a bayonet in the gut (“Come on, you can rob him later,” offers a soldier looting a dead boy’s body).  REMAGEN’s filming was an adventure worthy of its own movie.  It began shooting in Czechoslovakia (the first American movie shot behind the Iron Curtain), but increasing and dangerous political unrest forced the company to flee (the remainder of the flick was lensed in Italy).  The curious thing about the bridge that everyone (particularly the Germans) wants to destroy is that it was built BY the Kaiser’s troops during the Great War in order to quicken their connection to the two towns.  Irony transcends the Iron Cross.

REMAGEN was directed by John Guillermin, possibly the apex of his praiseworthy filmography.  It was shot in scope by the outstanding Stanley Cortez, and features one of my favorite Elmer Bernstein scores (and that’s saying a lot!); I still play my CD soundtrack constantly.  The Twilight Time Blu-Ray looks amazing, and the mono track really has a theater kick.

1969 was a strange time for a war movie, and REMAGEN, I recall, ended up going directly to the nabes (it played the grindhouse circuit constantly throughout the early-mid 1970s).  In the half-century-plus since its release, the picture has become a revered underground fave.  And for good reason.

KINGS GO FORTH. Black and white; widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE TRAIN. Black and white; widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

PLAY DIRTY. Color; widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN. Color; widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  SRP: $29.95@.

 

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com

 

 

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