As I’ve often written (cinema-wise), nothing gives me greater pleasure than when the home video companies catch up with through-the-cracks obscurities and make them available in pristine 35MM Blu-Ray editions. Win/win, again, folks, for the Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios release of the 1952 war drama RED BALL EXPRESS.
Of course, you’ve never heard of it; that’s why it’s obscure. And we’re not simply talking about the movie. I’m also referring to the operation depicted in the motion picture. Why no one has heard of a 1952 black-and-white movie is understandable (although, in my world, unacceptable). But how come the actual Red Ball Express? And why haven’t there been more movies made about it?
Okay, let me backtrack. We’ve seen newsreels and movies and TV shows, read books and magazine articles about major battles during wars, particularly World War II. You see the tanks firing, the half-tracks rolling, the soldiers fighting. Now, how was that possible? I mean, who supplied the gasoline, the food (you know, they travel on their stomach), the medical supplies? You NEVER hear about that. Well, battalions of unsung heroes braved the war zones to do just that. And they were christened the Red Ball Express. Interesting cinematic idea, what? Well, there’s more. While the military (and even baseball, fer Christ’s sake) was still segregated, the Red Ball Express was equally populated by black and white soldiers. No favoritism, no outranking – all equals: fighting, driving, dying together.
True enough, not one of the Big Five (MGM, Fox, Warners, Paramount, RKO) was interested in the project, largely based upon veteran author Louis L’Amour’s autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man (he was a proud RBE trooper), so the vehicle ended up at Universal-International. They bit, and greenlit the pic, with the cooperation of the armed services who allowed the studio to do extensive filming at Fort Eustis, Newport News, Virginia.
The cast was to be a roster of U-I contractees, led by one the company’s stars Jeff Chandler, a top attraction in 1952 (plus newbies Hugh O’Brian and Gregg Palmer). In addition, RED BALL features such familiar Forties, Fifties, and Sixties faces as Alex Nichol, Howard Petrie, Harry Lauter, Richard Garland, Judith Braun, Arthur Space, and (a very early appearance by) Jack Warden. Other cast members (specifically the African-American actors, Bubber Johnson and Davis Roberts) were recruited independently. The script (a wonderful one, by the way) is by my candidate for screenwriting god, John Michael Hayes. Hayes wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rear Window; had he done no other picture ever, he’d still be on the first tier of the Neuhaus Hollywood scribe pantheon (he also penned several other Hitch titles, including To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry and one of my favorite big-budget westerns of all-time, Nevada Smith).
The movie was shot by Russell Metty, another Neuhaus nominee for best at his art (just check out his Sirk work!). Finally, the direction is by the brilliant Budd Boetticher, who beautifully infuses the narrative with the correct amount of drama, suspense (specifically, a seemingly cakewalk trek through a minefield), action (a breathless finale) and humor. And, yes, nothing is sugar-coated. The prognosis was grim for the RBE – a Rogue’s Gallery of “volunteers” considered expendable-plus (many of the selected troopers were a la Dirty Dozen picks). But they showed ’em. Boetticher tackles the obvious initial conflict of racism, and handles it well. Soon, even the pre-MAGA-type asshole becomes team player. Boetticher even manages to make the usually stodgy Charles Drake more animated than ever (he plays a former civilian writer, no doubt based on L’Amour).
The Red Ball Express mostly went “by the book,” as enforced by their reluctant, but liberal commander (Chandler), yet often veered off the road to aid suffering villagers on the brink of starvation and in dire medical need. It was truly a humanitarian outfit.
The jagged collision of cultural harmony is another plus in the pic’s DNA, working as unit of one – and occasionally shaming the dogfaces they’re serving. There’s even a feminist equality vibe, as the RBE often worked side-by-side with nurses/USO traveling convoy. This movie genuinely does have everything.
For Universal-International, RED BALL eventually paid off in big dividends. The excellent actor James Edwards was originally cast as the rebellious hothead Robertson, but proved to be too controversial when he refused to testify before HUAC. Searching the thesp directories for a last-minute replacement, the U-I suits settled upon a young up-and-comer with only a couple of movies under his belt. His name was Sidney Poitier. With Poitier, Chandler, O’Brian (as the reformed racist) and Maverick’s Jack Kelly heading the lineup, TV screenings were plentiful throughout the 1960s. Again, why it kind of subsequently disappeared is a head-scratcher.
The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of RED BALL EXPRESS is a treat and a half. Not only in rediscovering this movie and piece of American history, but doing so in a crisp 1080p transfer. Extras include audio commentary by film historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin (author of Combat Films: American Realism), plus a collection of related trailers.
A war flick that absolutely deserves a better rep, and certainly one of the best of director Boetticher’s U-I output, THE RED BALL EXPRESS is an authentic diamond-in-the-rough, worthy of a spot on any classic collector’s shelf.
THE RED BALL EXPRESS. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K24925. SRP: $24.95.