Force 10 from Navarone

force_10_from_navarone_movieReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a huge hit with audiences, made a ton of money at the box office and impacted countless WWII and espionage movies in the years to come. It was so popular author Alistair MacLean was approached about writing a sequel in novel form that could also be a film sequel. Well, it took some time, and there was plenty of drama, but here’s 1978’s Force 10 from Navarone.

It’s 1943 some months after the successful raid on the island of Navarone, but Major Keith Mallory (Robert Shaw) and explosives expert Corporal Miller (Edward Fox) have been brought together for another impossible mission. They’re being attached to Force 10, a team of agents commanded by Colonel Barnsby (Harrison Ford) being dropped into Yugoslavia to help aid the partisan army battling the Germans. Mallory and Miller have a different mission though. A German agent who blew their cover on Navarone is now believed to be an officer among the partisans. Can they find him and kill him before he does more damage? Will Barnsby and his team pull off their seemingly suicidal job? The odds sure aren’t in their favor.

I re-read both MacLean novels about the Navarone team this May. They were favorites as a young reader. I liked them, the stories are fun and exciting with some great characters, but the twists, turns, coincidences and pure luck get to be a little much at times. Convoluted and confusing come to mind! The movies are the rare efforts better than the source novels. ‘Force 10’ probably would have been better suited as its own stand-alone movie. No cast members return and the connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best. Still, the ingredients are there for a fun espionage story with one of the coolest casts ever.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Force 10’ had a smaller budget — which is reflected in some of the special effects and borrowing footage from other movies — and does have a disjointed feel at times. Different versions were released, one 118-minutes and the other 126-minutes, with some scenes transitioning in rough fashion as if there were more cuts with an even longer story. Hamilton’s sequel was filmed on location in Yugoslavia, and it looks great, like we’re really isolated up in the mountains with the partisans battling the Germans. Composer Ron Goodwin (Where Eagles Dare) turns in a whistle-worthy score as well to aid the espionage action.

Replacing Gregory Peck and David Niven is no easy task — I imagine — so Shaw and Fox make an interesting choice. The duo puts a different, lighter spin on Mallory and Miller. There’s a more comedic touch, some more laughs, as the two unassuming agents save the day again and again with their know-how and savvy in the field. A year after the somewhat successful Star Wars, Harrison Ford is solid as Barnsby, an experienced young agent who doesn’t think his two older tag-alongs are worth the risk….until he learns otherwise. The trio has an excellent chemistry among the crazy mission, even more so when an escaped prisoner, Sgt. Weaver (Carl Weathers), a medic, stows away on the mission. An eclectic, oddball mix of agents, but a good one!

Plenty more names worth mentioning though! The always-welcome Franco Nero plays Lescobar, a partisan officer working with Force 10 to accomplish the mission. Barbara Bach plays a double-agent seemingly working for both sides (but she’s got some secrets to reveal along the way, and a nude scene FWIW). James Bond villain Jaws, Richard Kiel, has a fun part as Drazak, a bear of a man and a dangerous, brutal knife fighter. Also look for Alan Badel as a partisan commander, Michael Byrne (Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) as a sinister German officer, Angus MacInnes as Reynolds, a member of Force 10, and Petar Buntic as Marko, a key resistance fighter.

A bit of a slow start in the 126-minute version, but once things get going, the momentum picks up in a big way. ‘Force 10’ really hits its groove in the last 60-70 minutes as the missions really come to light with some good twists and turns along the way. Fox’s Miller especially has a doozy to reveal in the closing scenes. A lot of fun though with Shaw’s Mallory delivering a great final line before the credits roll.

One more thing. The connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best, making me think ‘Force 10’ may have been better suited to just be its own movie without the connection. It’s too goofy for its own good, but the resolution makes it worthwhile with a good reveal. All complaints aside, I’ve always enjoyed this WWII espionage adventure. It’s a movie with Quint, Han Solo/Indiana Jones, Apollo Creed, the always-welcome Edward Fox, a Bond girl, a Bond villain, and plenty of familiar faces. Not a great flick, but a highly enjoyable one.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978): ***/****

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Operation Crossbow

operation_crossbowThe 1960’s were the heyday of World War II movies, epic films with all-star casts that became classics of the genre and in some lesser-known cases, immense fan favorites. I love The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade, The Guns of Navarone and many others…but everyone knows those, right? One of my underrated favorites is today’s review, 1965’s Operation Crossbow.

It’s 1943 and World War II is raging in both the European and Pacific theaters. While armies clash, efforts in Germany are being made to develop a devastating new weapon that could alter the course of the war. The Germans are building flying pilot-less bombs that can be thrown at London, but in more frightening fashion, the scientific effort is making startling discoveries in building an immense rocket, the first of its kind. Allied Intelligence is doing everything in their power to slow down, sabotage and cripple the continuing efforts, including one desperate ploy. Three agents (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp) are sent into Germany posing as engineers and scientists hoping to infiltrate the rocket facility. Their chances? Slim at best.

Loosely based on the true story of the Allied effort to thwart the German rocket effort, ‘Crossbow’ is rarely mentioned as one of the better WWII movies from the 1960’s. Director Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters) turned in a much longer finished product only to see it severely edited. What remains is a 116-minute running time that’s disjointed in spots but nonetheless very entertaining. The cuts give the movie three episodic stories — the German effort, the Allied response, the agents going in — while covering about three years worth of history. I’m curious what Anderson’s full version was intended, but what’s here is an above-average, highly entertaining finished product.

‘Crossbow’ doesn’t have the A-list star power of some of its 1960s WWII contemporaries, but this is a pretty cool cast full of true actors, recognizable faces and character actors. Anderson’s film is at its strongest when focusing on the three agents, Peppard’s Curtis, Kemp’s Bradley and Courtenay’s Henshaw. This trio isn’t true spies but highly intelligent members of the military with science backgrounds thrust into a life of a spy. The story delivers one intense, stomach-turning moment after another as they try and pull off the ruse. There are some cruel twists delivered along the way for one of the trio, and a general sense of the reality of what they’re doing. It isn’t glamorized or romanticized. This is life and death not only for the agents but thousands of other people.

Plenty more folks to look for. Richard Johnson is excellent as Duncan Sandys, the British official tasked with leading the anti-rocket effort, with John Mills as a ranking MI6 officer and Trevor Howard as a doubting scientist. Don’t miss Richard Todd either in a key part. On the German side, look for Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine and Barbara Rutting. Other essential parts include Anthony Quayle and Lilli Palmer. Producer Carlo Ponti also managed to get his wife, Sophia Loren, a key part that stretches on a little too long in delivering a potentially cool twist that never quite delivers. Still, it’s Sophia Loren! She’s on-screen for about 10 minutes or so but still gets top billing!

Crossbow’s story covers a lot of ground — almost a year and a half — but never feels like we’re being let out.  Supposedly a much longer finished product was turned in by director Michael Anderson only to have it cut heavily to the movie we see now which clocks in at just under two hours.  You can see where certain segments were cut, especially the German segment to open the movie, and other odd instances like Peppard gaining a bandage on his forehead, but we never see why.  But these are little things, not big disturbances that could ruin the movie.

While the V-2 rocket was actually used by Germany in WWII — over 3,000 were fired at England — the movie does have to have some sort of resolution if not necessarily a happy ending.  The finale is a whopper as Peppard and Kemp desperately try to pinpoint their underground location to a passing bomber force.  The huge underground facilities sets look like something out of a James Bond movie and provide quite an ending to a strong story.  Not as well know as some of its 1960s WWII counterparts, but definitely worth a watch or two.

Operation Crossbow <—-trailer (1965): ***/****

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****

 

Winchester ’73

winchester_73_-_1950-_posterIf you’re a fan of western movies and American history in the west in general, two firearms come to mind as the most iconic of the era. First? The Colt .45, a six-shot revolver made famous by gunfighters and cowboys. The second? The Winchester 1873 model, a repeating rifle that earned the nickname ‘the gun that won the west.’ The iconic rifle gets a starring role in an excellent western from 1950, Winchester ’73.

 

It’s July 4, 1876 in Dodge City with the town hosting a shooting contest bringing riflemen from all over the country. The prize? A so-called perfect Winchester rifle, dubbed the one in a 1,000 rifle. Among the competitors is Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a rancher/cowboy who’s a deadshot with a rifle. He wins via tiebreaker against a man from his past, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), but Dutch isn’t having it. He and two fellow gunfighters rob Lin of the prized rifle, racing out into the desert. Lin and his partner, High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), aren’t far behind. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Little Bighorn, reports of Indians on the warpath are escalating. Can Lin and High Spade track down the man and the gun while still keeping their hair?

John Wayne had John Ford, Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher, and James Stewart had Anthony Mann. The star-director combo team here for the first of five movies they would make together (6 if you add The Glenn Miller Story), and it’s a gem. I’d have to go back and rewatch all five, but this definitely belongs up at the top. At 92 minutes, it is an episodic story with an ensemble cast that moves along at a quick pace. There is almost the feel of a TV show with 15 or 20-minute segments as the prized rifle finds itself in new hand one after another. How though? That’s the fun. The Winchester ends up being a star, jumping from person to person with some bad luck, greed, violence, betrayals and some blood dotting the way.

 

Stewart rarely gets the credit he deserves in the western genre. Other than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he didn’t star in a classic western. This movie is close, as is The Naked Spur, and there’s a handful that are really, really good. My point? He plays a great anti-hero of sorts, although here he’s in more typical hero mode. His Lin — for lack of a better description — is a good dude, if a touch obsessed with exacting some revenge. His backstory is familiar but well-handled and feels a good twist. It’s leisurely revealed, but it’s Jimmy Stewart. You know he’s a good guy. His chemistry with Mitchell’s High Spade is excellent too, two driven cowboys who are stubborn, loyal and sturdy.

 

What appealed to me is that Mann’s film uses a whole bunch of genre conventions (you could say stereotypes) but manages to breathe some new, fresh life into it. Case in point is the cast, with the revenge-seeking cowboy, the saloon hall girl with a heart of gold, the unhinged gunfighter, the loyal sidekick and so many more. Everyone gets almost equal screen-time throughout. Look for Shelley Winters as Lola, the saloon girl, Dan Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean, a psychotic gunfighter, McNally as Dutch Henry, Charles Drake as Steve Miller, Lola’s fiance, John McIntire as gunrunner Joe Lamont, Will Geer as Marshal Wyatt Earp, J.C. Flippen as a cavalry sergeant and a young Rock Hudson as an Indian chief.

 

Also look for Tony Curtis and James Best as young cavalry troopers, Steve Brodie and James Millican as members of Dutch’s gang, and John Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson late as a potential bank robber. Familiar face Ray Teal has a shadow-marked supporting part as a marshal leading a posse.

 

Winchester’ covers a fair amount of mileage in its brisk 92-minute running time. The early shootout is a highlight, but there’s also a manipulative gunrunner, an Indian attack on a cavalry patrol, a posse chasing bandits, a bank robbery, a not forced (thankfully) love story, and a genuine good twist late. Filmed in black and white, ‘Winchester’ has an almost artsy look — plenty of shadow and silhouette, almost a noir western — and definitely capitalizes on the Arizona shooting locations, including Old Tucson.

Held in high regard by many, ‘Winchester’ still doesn’t get the classic attention it probably should. It’s a great western, entertaining with some action but also well-written and well-executed. Highly recommended.

Winchester ’73 (1950): *** 1/2 /****