The Sand Pebbles (1966)

the_sand_pebbles_film_posterIn a film career that spanned 24 years, Steve McQueen earned a reputation as one of the coolest actors to ever grace the screen. He had style and a cool, badass factor that was on display in movies like Bullitt, The Great Escape and The Thomas Crown Affair, among others. What’s lost in the shuffle? As downright cool as McQueen was, he was just as strong an actor. Nowhere was that more on display than 1966’s The Sand Pebbles.

It’s 1926 in China, and sailor Jake Holman (McQueen) is arriving at his newest ship, the San Pablo, a US gunboat from the Spanish-American War. Holman has a bit of a track record, transferring from 7 ships in 9 years in the navy. A more than capable sailor, Holman has little use for military tradition, the rigidity of military life, and the thought that he should be ready to die for a cause he doesn’t believe in. Instead, he wants to be left alone in his engine room, taking care of the ship’s engine like few can. Holman wants to mind his own business and not be bothered, but as China tears itself apart, the San Pablo finds itself fighting for its life.

From director Robert Wise, ‘Sand’ is a true epic in an era and decade that was full of big, gigantic, roadshow epics. Based off a bestselling novel from author Richard McKenna, it’s a gem. It clocks in at 182 minutes and streamlines the novel (which is 520-plus pages) to the essential character, story and history. It was filmed on-location in Taiwan and Hong Kong and looks and feels authentic. You feel like you’re there in 1920s China, a powderkeg just waiting to blow up. Composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score earned an Oscar nomination as well, mixing the booming, epic touches with quieter, more emotional moments and then some Chinese influences too. Listen HERE for an extended sampling of the score.

In his only Oscar-nominated role, McQueen absolutely brings it, showing off his acting chops in every scene. What’s most impressive is that he doesn’t ham it up, get too theatrical, or try to steal his scenes. He just does it, delivering his most human performance as Jake Holman, the US sailor/engineer who only wants to do his job. Talk about a tragic character, Holman gets one thing thrown at him after another. All he wants is to find his place in the world, but all the while, he’s pulled in 100 different directions. It’s an incredibly emotional part from the first time we meet Jake through all his trials and tribulations. Underplayed and perfect, nowhere is that more evident than Jake introducing himself to the San Pablo’s engine, stating “Hello, engine…I’m Jake Holman.” Criminally perfect, McQueen’s soft smile filling up the screen. Here is a man at his happiest.

McQueen leads an impressive ensemble, but his scenes with 2 characters especially carry the movie. The first is the love interest with Candice Bergen‘s Shirley, a young, idealistic and naive missionary who sees all the good in tortured Jake. Their scenes together are quiet and moving, two disparate souls brought together in unlikely situations. The other key relationship is between Holman and Po-Han (Mako, an Oscar-nominated part), a young Chinese man who Holman takes under his wing, teaching him all about the science of the engine. The scenes of the experienced engineer teaching Po-Han are the heart of the movie, bringing Jake and Po-Han to life, a brotherly relationship, a father-son dynamic, a teacher and student, but it all works.

So much more cast to mention! Reuniting after 1963’s The Great Escape, Richard Attenborough has an excellent chemistry with McQueen, playing veteran sailor Frenchy Burgoyne who clicks immediately with Jake. Frenchy’s subplot with a young Chinese girl, Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan) is especially heartbreaking. Richard Crenna delivers an incredibly underrated performance as Capt. Collins, the San Pablo’s much-maligned commander. Stiff, rigid, a patriot, intelligent but constantly worrying, Collins must find a way to get the San Pablo to achieve its mission, keeping countless plates spinning at all times. The crew includes Charles Robinson, Simon Oakland, Ford Rainey, Joe Turkel, Gavin MacLeod and Barney Phillips. Also look for Larry Gates as a devout missionary who won’t let anything stop him from achieving his mission.

While the story and historical setting are essential to the movie’s success, the true essential is the characters and how the history impacts them. Go along for the ride, regardless of your knowledge of Chinese history (I know pretty much nothing). There isn’t much action until the final 30 minutes, the San Pablo battling its way through a well-guarded boom defended by Chinese nationalist troops. The finale itself is far more small-scale, a moonlit plaza serving as the backdrop between several San Pablo sailors and some well-hidden Chinese troops.

And that ending…my goodness, that ending. As tough as it is, McKenna’s novel is actually much more harsh! The final line is a doozy, one that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. McQueen at his absolute finest — up there with Papillon as his strongest performance — in this epic historical story with a great cast, well-developed story and memorable musical score. A must-see!

The Sand Pebbles (1966): *** 1/2 /****

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Bullitt (1968)

Let’s cut away all the fluffiness and cut right to the bone. Steve McQueen is maybe the coolest actor to ever work in Hollywood. An underrated actor who had an incredible on-screen presence, he had his biggest success and popularity in the late 1960s. The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, Thomas Crown Affair, The Sand Pebbles, all excellent parts in good to great films. Nowhere was McQueen more at his coolest than 1968’s Bullitt.

A respected and hard-edged San Francisco detective, Frank Bullitt (McQueen) has been tasked with a somewhat dull but essential task from ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Prepping for a Senate hearing about a Mafia takedown, Chalmers has enlisted a key witness (Felice Orlandi), and Bullitt and two other detectives must babysit him over a weekend until the hearing. Instead, the witness is killed by two assassins, forcing Bullitt to find out what’s going on. Something doesn’t fit together as he examines the clues and evidence, but the pressure is on. Chalmers needs a scapegoat, and Bullitt seems like the perfect target to take the fall. Knowing he’s been backed into a corner, Bullitt has an extremely limited window to find out exactly what’s going on.

The late 1960s were one of the most influential periods in Hollywood history, changing the way films were made and more importantly, the stories that were told. From director Peter Yates, ‘Bullitt’ is a police/cop movie like none before it. It is a smart, stylish cop drama/thriller that gets better with each viewing. For starters, it was filmed in San Francisco, setting the stage for Dirty Harry, McQ and a whole cop genre to move into the city. It is an ideal backdrop for the story; a polished, good-looking city that is nonetheless hiding secrets. The score from Lalo Schifrin is a good mix of quiet, soothing jazz and faster-paced, more traditional yet still exciting musical cues (listen HERE). The style in an almost documentary-like fashion reflects some of the French crime thrillers that I’ve really come to appreciate, giving ‘Bullitt’ a different edge more than just the same old, same old cops and robbers story.

That starts with Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt, a veteran cop who always gets the job done but usually how he wants to do it, not how he should do it. That basic write-up is as cliched as the countless cop movie stereotypes that have been done to death in the years since, but McQueen gives the lead performance a different edge. Never one for huge dialogue scenes, McQueen’s Bullitt is a huge presence whenever he’s on-screen. He does more with a look here or there than many actors could do with an entire monologue with the camera trained on them. There’s a self-assured confidence in the part, a quietness about it too. Bullitt is an expert at what he does, but he’s not interested in fame or accolades. He does it because he’s really good, so good that he’s become almost desensitized to the violence he sees on a daily basis. McQueen = cool.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the plot, Steve McQueen’s badass-ness (is that a word?), and hhhmmm, what else? Oh, right, the cars. Some 45 years since its release, ‘Bullitt’ is still remembered fondly for an infamous car chase that opened the door for countless knockoffs, remakes and retries. Driving his 1968 Ford Mustang, McQueen pursues two assassins (driver Bill Hickman, killer Paul Genge) in, around and through San Fran, two muscle cars going at it for everything they’re worth. Schifrin’s soundtrack is left by the wayside, just the sounds of the two engines doing battle providing all the soundtrack that’s needed. Looking back on it now, it isn’t a flashy sequence, but it is clear how much it has influenced just about every movie car chase since. It is an extended sequence that runs about 10  minutes total (near the film’s halfway point), one that will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.

Now sometimes at the expense of the film’s style is the film’s story. It took me 3 or 4 viewings to really get everything down just right. Not to throw this out there as a cop-out, but an understanding of the story isn’t a must here. You watch for the style. Some reviewers/critics have an issue with the pacing, some point-blank stating that it’s a boring movie. It isn’t an action-packed movie, that’s for sure. ‘Bullitt’ takes its time but always knows where it wants to go. A chase through a hospital is subtle and underplayed but incredibly full of tension, as is the finale at the San Francisco airport as Bullitt chases a suspect across runways in use. We see little departures into San Fran with Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), on dates and at work, to Bullitt’s apartment, to follow up with witnesses. It’s rarely flashy, but there’s something charming just the same about that assured style.

Backing McQueen up, Vaughn does what he does best; gentlemanly slimy to perfection. His Chalmers is smooth and suave, but he’s really a snake waiting in the grass to strike. Don Gordon (a longtime, close friend of McQueen) is nicely cast as Delgetti, Bullitt’s longtime partner with Simon Oakland and Norman Fell as their superiors. Also look for Robert Duvall in a small but key (and effective) part as a cab driver whose help Bullitt enlists as he tries to figure everything out.

One of my favorites, an iconic flick from the 1960s, and one of Steve McQueen’s all-time bests. Haven’t seen it? What’s wrong with you?!? Highly recommended.

Bullitt (1968): ****/****

The Savage Guns (1962)

tierrabrutal22If westerns are my favorite genre (they are), then spaghetti westerns would have to be my favorite sub-genre. Director Sergio Leone often gets credit for starting the spaghetti western craze, and he did…but his movies weren’t the first movies in the genre. Leone just put them on a worldwide level. The first spaghetti western (of sorts)? That’d be 1962’s The Savage Guns.

It’s 1870 in Sonora, Mexico along the U.S./Mexico border. A land baron, Ortega (Jose Nieto), is terrorizing the area and all its smaller ranchers, including an American, Mike Summers (Don Taylor). Ortega sends his right-hand man, Danny (Alex Nicol), and his gang to systematically rob the ranchers of all their money – calling it protection money – and then shooting them if they don’t comply. There seems to be no solution, until an infamous gunslinger, Steve Fallon (Richard Basehart), drifts into town. Will Fallon stand with the smaller ranchers or will he move along to the next town?

Well, a little mix-up here. The recent airing on Turner Classic Movies listed this western from 1973, not 1962. Whoops! ‘Savage’ was backed by British and Spanish producers, directed by Michael Carreras, and was the first western to be shot on-location in Almeria, Spain, specifically the same spot as the Caulder ranch in 1971’s Hannie Caulder. All the familiar touches that would become synonymous with the spaghetti western genre are there, from the locations to the big, booming musical — listen here —–> — score (composer Anton Garcia Abril) to the cynicism and violence evident throughout the story. It’s rough at times, a little disjointed and slightly odd, but its influence on countless westerns to come over the next 10-plus years is evident with each passing scene.

One of the biggest influences the spaghetti western had was reviving the careers of American actors who had lost their star power, or catapulting young actors into stardom and the spotlight. ‘Savage’ leans more toward the reviving department. Never a huge star but a reliable character actor, Basehart is a little miscast as Fallon, the deadly gunfighter with quite a reputation. He looks to be having some fun but doesn’t bring a ton of energy to the part. In his last starring role before turning to the director’s chair, Taylor is solid as Summers, an ex-Confederate officer who has vowed to never use a gun again. Nicols does what he does best, hamming it up as the sneering Danny Pose (quite an intimidating name, huh?).

Here’s the weird thing I’m trying to wrap my head around. This isn’t an especially good movie. In some parts, it’s downright dumb, even bad, but I was entertained. Partially, it’s the casting. No big names, just recognizable faces. It’s hard to describe though. ‘Savage’ plays out like a blueprint, a rough draft for what’s to come, especially its depiction of on-screen violence, and one particularly brutal wound for a main character. The spaghetti westerns especially took that to heart, wounding, crippling, maiming and torturing countless anti-heroes to come!

While American stars often filled out the lead roles, Spanish, Italian and actors from all over Europe played the supporting parts. Nieto is the villain, Ortega, who’s generally pretty weak and isn’t given much background. Paquita Rico plays Franchea, Sommers’ wife (not given much to do other than look worried). The lovely Maria Granada (listed incorrectly as Manolita Barroso on IMDB) plays Juana, the love interest for Fallon. The age difference between Barroso and Basehart sure makes those love scenes look…odd? Uncomfortable? Forced? Yeah, all of that. Spaghetti regular Fernando Rey is Don Hernan, an exiled rancher of sorts. Some other familiar faces pop up in supporting parts as bandits, farmers and soldiers.

All my criticisms aside, I genuinely liked this first spaghetti western, in spite of its flaws. The silent anti-hero, the over-the-top villain, the beautiful locations, the whistle-worthy musical scores, the mustachioed bandits, the brutal violence, it’s all there. It’s fun, and sometimes that’s all you need. Western fans should definitely get a kick out of this one. Keep an eye out for a re-airing on TCM, the print was gorgeous even if the audio was sketchy at times.

The Savage Guns (1962): ** ½ /****

Mister Roberts (1955)

mister_roberts_281955_movie_poster29By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.

A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).

You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.

Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.

Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.

The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.

In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.

Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****

 

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****

The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Writing reviews about World War II, I’ve watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII’s outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They’ll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), ‘Heroes’ is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn’t yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a “nice” factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. ‘Heroes’ is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There’s no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it’s about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, ‘Heroes’ doesn’t have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard’s Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there’s little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He’s prim and proper and interested in the bottom line — the success of the mission — more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint.

The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson’s right-hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy HerbertGraham StewartJohn Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newley, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, ‘Heroes’ follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England…..dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed ‘Cockleshell,’ as Stringer’s team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It’s here where I started to question. If I didn’t know this was in fact a real mission, I’d say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I’ve always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <—documentary (1955): ***/****

Rio Lobo (1970)

rio_lobo_1970Late in a career that spanned 6 decades (1920s through 1970s), director Howard Hawks went back to the well for what he knew audiences liked. Well, maybe what he liked too. After directing the classic 1959 western Rio Bravo, Hawks more or less remade the film 8 years later with El Dorado. He tried a third time, but didn’t wait as long for the trifecta with 1970’s Rio Lobo.

Late in the Civil War, a Union officer, Col. Cord McNally (John Wayne), is unable to stop Confederate raiders from stealing gold shipments being used for payrolls. He thinks one of his own men is selling information to the Confederate raiders, including Capt. Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Sgt. Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum), but the duo won’t tell him who until after their war. Once the war ends and the men go their separate ways, Cord hears from Cordona that he’s found one of the traitors in Texas. Cord heads for the town of Rio Lobo looking to find his man and get some answers (read = revenge). That’s not all though as Cord, Cordona (and some friends) get caught up in a range war with land and water deeds on the line.

Rio Bravo is untouchable in my mind. El Dorado, it’s pretty good but not quite as good. And Rio Lobo? It’s got more of a B-movie touch, a smaller budget, and is more interested in just being an entertaining western overall. There are good and bad, some obvious flaws, but it is damn entertaining. If you’re comparing the three like-minded movies, ‘Lobo’ borrows from both, but it leans more toward ‘Dorado,’ especially with the range war element. It was filmed on location in Old Tucson — where both previous films were at least partially filmed — with literally the same street being used for 2 different towns. There’s also a memorable if underused score from the always reliable Jerry Goldsmith. If there’s a flaw, it’s what Hawks once said about his films; characters are more important than story. He took that to heart in a big way, apparently rewriting the script during production.

A good counter to that? By 1970, John Wayne could have done a role like this in his sleep. Thankfully, he didn’t. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with a character with a twist. Not many Duke characters were looking for revenge! 63 years old at the time, Wayne even pokes some fun at himself, passing the love interest off to Rivero’s Pierre Cordona. The running joke becomes that old man Wayne is “comfortable” with men. In other words, he’s safe and won’t make a move on them. Rivero’s accent is a little much at times, but he has decent chemistry with Wayne. Mitchum is underused as the second banana, but he’s a likable on-screen presence, much like he was a year later when he paired with Wayne again in Big Jake.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss. A sex symbol of the 1970s, Jennifer O’Neill plays Shasta Delaney, a young woman with a checkered past searching for revenge. This is not a good performance to the point it is actually painful at times. The script does no favor for any of the female characters — Sherry Lansing and Susana Dosamantes — who aren’t given much to do and tend to overact/overdo it anyways. Still, for a lack of a better description, the babe factor is increased for a John Wayne western! The always welcome Jack Elam doesn’t show up until the second hour but hams it up as the shotgun-wielding Mr. Phillips. The villains — Victor French, Mike Henry, Robert Donner — make virtually no impression. Also look for David Huddleston, stuntman Dean Smith, Jim Davis, Edward Faulkner and Hank Worden in smaller parts.

A little slow at times and without much action, ‘Lobo’ doesn’t have much of a sense of urgency. The highlight is the first 35 minutes, a train heist with a unique twist unlike anything I’ve seen in a heist movie. The story goes the more traditional route after the first half-hour or so. It’s a touch disjointed blending the two and then adding another storyline, but it’s never dull. A bit of a guilty pleasure overall, but a worthwhile western just the same. Especially worthwhile for the Duke delivering a fun, even comedic part at times that balances out with the more action-heavy Duke. Also, see how many times you can spot Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson in different roles!

Rio Lobo (1970): ***/****