Uncommon Valor (1983)

Uncommon ValorHere’s a trivia question for you. Are there more movies about the Vietnam War, or more movies about rescuing Vietnam War POWs? With the Rambo movies, the Missing in Action flicks and others, there were plenty of the latter. Lost in the shuffle at times is an underrated war film from 1983, Uncommon Valor.

It’s 1982 and after 10 years of one frustrating roadblock after another, retired U.S. Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) has finally had a breakthrough. His son, Frank, was captured in Vietnam in 1972 and has been missing in action ever since. Rhodes finally has been able to gain military intelligence that his son — and other missing Americans — are being held at a prison camp in Laos. Assembling a small team of specialists, including several members from Frank’s old unit, Rhodes begins to plan a dangerous mission into Laos to rescue the long missing Americans. The odds are stacked heavily against him, but for Rhodes, it’s been too long. Something needs to be done.

Where Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action movies are basically thinly-veiled excuses for Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris to kill people in a variety of gruesome fashions, ‘Valor’ goes for a more straightforward, no frills approach. It’s the better for it. It doesn’t try too hard to pander to viewers, simply laying things out and going from there. Director Ted Kotcheff turns in a good one here, a film audiences went out to see in droves in 1983.

So if you’re new to movies, Gene Hackman is the Man. He’s always awesome, always able to play a variety of characters. His Col. Rhodes is the glue of ‘Valor,’ a career military man who’s tortured by the memory of his son. Is he alive? Dead? Why is nothing being done to bring him — and other prisoners — home? It’s a subtle part, mostly underplayed, as he holds his team together, all in hopes of them working together to accomplish something truly worthwhile. The sacrifice involved, well, that becomes the issue. Like in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ is it worth to save a life if it costs several more to get the job done? A solid leading part for Hackman.

In the men-on-a-mission angle, ‘Valor’ borrows from The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven and many others. Assemble the team, train them and unleash them on their mission. If the recipe ain’t broke, why fix it? Right?!? There are some cool parts amongst the team, including Wilkes (Fred Ward), the hand-to-hand combat specialist and tunnel rat, Blaster (Reb Brown), the explosives expert, Sailor (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), the burned out fighter, Scott (Patrick Swayze), the weapons trainer, Johnson (Harold Sylvester) and Charts (Tim Thomerson), the helicopter pilots, Jiang (Kwan Hi Lim, a Hawaii Five-O regular), a black market operator and trail guide, and Lai Fun (Alice Lau), Jiang’s more than capable daughter. A fun, oddball, rag-tag group to fill out the team!

I’ve always been a fan of this one. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but it doesn’t need to. ‘Valor’ gets its message across without being heavy-handed in its delivery, especially as we get to know these Vietnam vets and the struggles they’re going through. A potentially suicidal mission into Laos? Yeah, maybe that’s the redemption they need, or at least some sort of closure. The forming of the team and the training sequences are excellent, but the best is saved for the chaotic attack on the POW camp in the final act. A big twist in the final minutes, as well as some surprises with who makes it out and who doesn’t.

Not a classic, but an excellent flick, especially its unsettling, almost wordless opening sequence set in 1972 Vietnam. Also look for Robert Stack as MacPherson, Rhodes’ payroll and financial backer who’s also hoping to reunite with his son, also believed to be a POW in Laos. Well worth tracking down/watching.

Uncommon Valor (1983): ***/****

 

 

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Back to Bataan (1945)

One of the more horrific events in American military history, the Bataan Death March is hard to comprehend some 60-plus years later. As an event in time, it marks a low point for the U.S. military, but it often hides the rest of the Philippines involvement in WWII. While the fighting continued as the Allies island-hopped across the Pacific, guerrilla fighting raged on in the Philippines, small groups of left behind American soldiers fighting alongside Filipino natives, like 1945’s propaganda-heavy but highly entertaining Back to Bataan.

Commanding a company of Filipino scouts late in the Bataan defense in spring 1942, Colonel Joe Madden (John Wayne) is called back to HQ with special orders. In an effort to ease the pressure on the front line troops, Madden will be sent behind the lines to organize guerrilla units. As he arrives though, the Allies surrender, and the Japanese are now in charge of some 70,000 prisoners. With a small ragtag group of American soldiers, Filipino natives and Filipino scouts, Madden goes to work nipping at the Japanese war effort in the face of impossible odds. With Japanese reprisals instantaneous and brutal, Madden seeks help, one of his men, Capt. Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn), the grandson of a Filipino hero, now a prisoner. Together they fight on, hoping the Allies will return to the Philippines in time.

What is most appealing and interesting about this Edward Dmytryk-directed WWII story is the timing. It was released in theaters in the United States in late May 1945. The war was still very much going on, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still two-plus months away. I’ll go into the propaganda angle later, but there’s just something appealing about the story. It is straightforward, honest and even in its force-fed attitude, entertaining. The action is kept to small doses, but when it’s there, it’s loud, chaotic and doesn’t have that whitewashed feel of a 1940s war movie, including several impressive stunts for the Duke. The military-themed score isn’t real subtle, but it works in its obvious ways. Japanese…DUN DUN DUH! Americans….Cue the hero music!

Not one of his best roles, this is nonetheless one of my favorite John Wayne performances. The 38-year old Wayne was just heading into his prime as an actor, and it ends up being an interesting middle  ground. He doesn’t look like a kid anymore, but he doesn’t look like the heavier Duke of the 1960s. As the main star here, Wayne’s Col. Madden ends up being the face of the American involvement in the guerrilla movement. Who better to lead a warring nation against invaders? A similarly very young looking Quinn gets the showier part, the disillusioned Filipino trying to decide if the fighting and cost in lives is worth it. Knowing that both Wayne and Quinn would go on to become huge stars, it’s fun seeing them in early parts as rising stars. Quinn also gets a love interest, Fely Franquelli as Dalisay Delgado, an American agent working undercover for the Japanese (think Tokyo Rose).

And then there is the propaganda. By spring 1945, the Allied forces would win the war in the Pacific, it was just a matter of time. ‘Bataan’ nonetheless lays it on pretty thick in the propaganda department. The Japanese officers (including Richard LooPhilip Ahn, and Leonard Strong) are maniacally evil, sneering, conniving and diabolical whenever possible. Loo’s Major Hasko actually pets a Filipino girl’s hair at one point, seemingly practicing to be a Bond villain. Granted, the Japanese war effort in general was despicable, inhuman and horrifically awful, but ‘Bataan’ makes it cartoonish in its portrayal. There’s also the opposite. A Filipino teacher (Vladimir Sokoloff) is hanged rather than pull down an American flag. Instead of ripping the Japanese, it builds up the glory of America, especially young Filipino fighter, Maximo (Ducky Louie), and his American teacher, Ms. Barnes (Beulah Bondi), arguing. Late, a mortally wounded Maximo wishes he could have learned to spell ‘liberty’ correctly. The weird thing? Even in its cheeseball corniness, it works somehow.

While it isn’t a classic WWII film, ‘Bataan’ is a highly entertaining movie to watch, especially in a double-bill with 1942’s Bataan. The history is interesting, the prologue showing the freeing of Allied prisoners at Cabanatuan Prison Camp (read more HERE), the real-life incident depicted in 2005’s The Great Raid. An excellent story in 2005, but in 1945 it was just four months removed from the actual incident! Timely much? The real-life P.O.W. survivors even make an appearance (watch HERE). How cool is that? Talk about a time capsule. There’s some humor as well, Paul Fix‘s displaced American hobo, Bindle, talking with Alex Havier‘s loyal and capable Filipino scout, Sgt. Bernessa, about the beauty of being a hobo. Also look for Lawrence Tierney as Lt. Waite, an American officer debriefing the guerrillas before the action-packed finale. Just a good, old-fashioned war movie, one that could have gotten bogged down in its propaganda message but manages to rise above it.

Back to Bataan (1945): *** 1/2 /****

Death Rides a Horse (1967)

The middle film in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, 1965’s For a Few Dollars More, is considered one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made and is also my personal favorite of the genre. Two years later, 1967’s Death Rides a Horse hit theaters, and hhmm, something sure seems familiar. Borrowing liberally from Leone’s earlier western, it uses the same basic storyline with some almost identical scenes. Thankfully it does enough to stand on its own.

At an isolated ranch where $100,000 is being guarded one rainy night, a gang of bandits and killers descend on the ranch, taking the money as they kill the guards and family. All except one that is…a young boy. Some 15 years later, the boy has grown up, and Bill (John Phillip Law), is looking for the men responsible for his family’s murder. A dead-shot with pistol or rifle, Bill is still inexperienced, but he has specific memories that will help him identify the killers without having seen their faces. As he travels though, he meets up with Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older gunman fresh out of prison. Their plans seem the same as both men are gunning for the same bandits. Will they work together or as foes?

Sounds like For a Few Dollars More, doesn’t it? The young gunslinger teaming with the older, more experienced gun-hand isn’t unique to just FAFDM, but it is an example of a movie that handles it really well. But in the wave of movies that were released after the Leone westerns, some similar stories popped up, and director Giulio Petroni uses that story as a jumping off point. Similar elements are there — the dynamic between characters, the blood-tinted flashbacks — but this is a movie that stands on its own. There’s a reason it is remembered as one of the best spaghetti westerns around. And wouldn’t you know it? This Lee Van Cleef guy is a big reason why.

By 1967, Van Cleef was a star thanks to the spaghetti western. He’d already starred in FAFDM, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Big Gundown, and with ‘Death’ adds another classic to his name. His Ryan is a slightly different version of Col. Mortimer, albeit a little more down on his luck. Even when his characters are in the right though, Van Cleef gave them a mean streak right up their back. He’s an anti-hero, but one you’re never sure of his intentions. Cool as gunfire starts, he knows what he wants and plans on getting it. Playing Colonel Mortimer for Leone is probably his most iconic role, but this is one of my favorites of his. Unfortunately John Phillip Law just can’t match Clint Eastwood’s part, but he does a respectable job as the revenge-seeking Bill. It’s hard to tell if it’s his acting or a bad dubbing, but wooden aptly describes the character. There is a chemistry with Van Cleef’s Ryan though and that goes a long way in saving the story.

So who should our revenge-seeking gunmen go after? ‘Death’ fills out a cast will plenty of recognizable faces, all just waiting to be picked off. Law’s Bill as a child saw little things he could remember about the killers; a tattoo, an earring, a scar, and now he’s looking for those clues. The killers include Luigi Pistilli as Walcott, now a respectable banker (saw him clearly), American actor Anthony Dawson as Cavanaugh (chest tattoo of four aces), a saloon owner and town boss, with two bandit brothers, including Jose Torres as Pedro (scar over his left eye) and Angelo Susani as Paco (an earring from his right ear that dangles). Also look for Mario Brega as one of Walcott’s henchmen, an actor continuing his trend of dying horrifically in spaghetti westerns, and Bruno Corazzari as another hapless henchmen. Don’t forget about him in the finale. Where is he hiding?

All the touches of a successful spaghetti western are here from the anti-heroes and the despicable villains to the dusty border towns and extreme close-ups. For a movie that’s 114 minutes though, it is not action-packed. The story builds up the tension as Bill and Ryan hunt down their revenge, but it’s rarely dull. Just don’t think you’re seeing two hours of shootouts and gunfights. The ending though is one of the more memorable finales of the genre; Bill and Ryan in an isolated Mexican mountain village shooting it out with Walcott’s men. A wind storm whips across the mountains, enveloping the town as sand, dirt and wind swirl around. If you were looking for action, this is the best place to find. Also worth mentioning, a twist that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it works nonetheless in terms of the two characters involved. Great finale, great ending.

Now in a spaghetti western, you’d be safe guessing that composer Ennio Morricone did the musical score, and here, you would be 100% correct. It never ceases to amaze me this man’s talents. Some scores had touches of familiarity, but his ‘Death’ score is unlike any other he did and in general, one of his most underrated scores from a long and distinguished career. Listen to the main theme HERE for an idea. Another sample comes late in the movie — dubbed Mystic and Severe — which you can listen to HERE and watch in context HERE. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of the score, using both those music cues in his movies Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds. A great score though to keep things moving in a great spaghetti western. Van Cleef was rarely better in bad-ass mode, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with too many that are better than this movie. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube, but the quality isn’t great.

Death Rides a Horse  (1967): *** 1/2 /****