The Professionals (1966)

The ProfessionalsWhen I think of men-on-a-mission movies, I typically think of war movies, maybe some adventure and heist flicks among the bunch. I think of movies like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes among others. The best one though? Of all genres, it’s a western, and it’s a dandy. Maybe the perfect adventure movie, it’s 1966’s The Professionals.

It’s 1917 and the Mexican Revolution is still raging strong all over the country. Along the U.S./Mexico border, four men, Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), have been brought together to perform a dangerous mission. The little group, each of them a specialist in one way or another, has been hired by rancher and oil tycoon Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) to ride deep into Mexico and rescue his wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), who’s been kidnapped by a bandit and revolutionary, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). Maria is believed to be stashed away in a hacienda in the mountains with Raza’s small army standing guard. This quartet is the best of the best with few equals, but even this job seems to be too much, especially if they haven’t been told the whole truth of what they’re riding into. Can they pull off the job?

One of Hollywood’s all-time best directors and writers, Richard Brooks earned 8 Oscar nominations over his distinguished career. He may have more respected movies, but ‘Professionals’ is easily his most fun and most entertaining (for me at least). It’s one of my favorites, and I always enjoy catching up with it. Mutually appreciated by both audiences and critics, ‘Professionals’ is one of the best westerns of the 1960’s and really, one of the best westerns of all-time. It picked up two Oscar nominations, one for Brooks’ directing and one for his script. Not a flaw in sight. Sit back and enjoy this one, hopefully with a big tub of popcorn.

Let’s get the boring technical stuff out of the way. Boring, but necessary. Brooks earned a Best Director nomination for blending a movie that features the technical, storytelling, characters, humor, action and visual look. With filming locations in the Valley of Fire, Death Valley, along with Nevada, California and Sonora, the visual appeal is evident. On the trail thanks to some key landmarks, you’re always aware of where you are. As well, the traveling and action scenes are aided immensely by composer Maurice Jarre‘s score, especially the main theme. Listen HERE. Throw it all together, and you feel like you’re right there with our Professionals in the sweaty, sun-baked desert where bandits and revolutionaries are there behind every rock waiting to ambush you.

The cast is pretty insane in terms of pure talent and star power, but with each repeated viewing, it always comes back to the script for me. Adapting a western novel called ‘A Mule for the Marquesa,’ Brooks transformed a good book into a great movie. This is a story that loves it characters, both the good and bad, and more importantly, knows them well. The script absolutely crackles, Lancaster and Marvin especially relishing delivering one memorable one-liner after another. I can’t think of too many westerns that have the ability to tread that fine line between serious action and a sense of humor. Read IMDB’s memorable quotes HERE. What’s impressive? Even out of context, they still can put a smile on your face, give you a good laugh. When you actually see Lancaster, Marvin and Co. deliver said lines? Oh my, you’re in for a treat.

I love a good men-on-a-mission movie, and this one belongs right at the top with The Magnificent Seven, The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen as my favorites. Seriously…Lancaster, Marvin, Ryan and Strode…oh, and Palance, Cardinale and Bellamy! That sound you hear is my head exploding from awesomeness. Brooks’ script introduces our characters with lightning-fast ease and we get to know them in that quick flash. Marvin’s Fardan is an ex-soldier, a leader, an organizer and a planner, Ryan’s Ehrengard a horse wrangler, a cowboy, Strode’s Jake an expert tracker/scout and specialist with bow and arrow, and last but not least, Lancaster’s Dolworth is a mercenary, a philosophizing dynamite expert. That is a ridiculously talented cast with a lousy script, but combined with Brooks’ script, the end result is some of the most memorable western characters ever with a story to boot. You can’t pass that up now, can you?!?

When I think of Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin working together here, it puts a smile on my face. Their Bill Dolworth and Rico Fardan are the heart of the movie, mercenaries, soldiers and adventurers who are good friends who have worked together in the past, including previously in the Mexican Revolution. They too have a history with Palance’s Raza, making their job a touch more difficult. What the script and actors do so effortlessly is bring these characters to life. They’re tough, rough-hewn men who live by their word and their hard-fought ability to survive. They fight because they’re good at it, and maybe, just maybe, they like it a little bit. Their one-on-one scenes are some of the most memorable in the entire movie. When you throw the always reliable Robert Ryan and Woody Strode into the mix, you’re in for a treat.

Okay, we need an actor in the mid 1960’s to play a Mexican revolutionary….naturally, it’s Jack Palance! His Raza though is an underrated character, an equal to our Professionals, a somewhat disillusioned fighter who fights on because he loves Mexico, the people, and wants those in power out.  Then there is Claudia Cardinale, maybe the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen. Her Maria has some tricks up her sleeves as we’re introduced to her about halfway through. Bellamy is perfect in his part, beginning and end, as the worrying Joe Grant (or is he…). Also look for Jorge Martinez de HoyosJoe De Santis and Rafael Bertrand in key supporting parts. In a scene-stealing part, Marie Gomez plays Chiquita, one of Raza’s soldiers who has a history with Lancaster’s Bill.

What’s funny about ‘Professionals’ is that it isn’t an action-heavy story. Yes, there’s gunfights, chases and some memorable sequences, but it isn’t a 2-hour action scene. It’s the better for it. We get to know our characters really well in quick scenes featuring Brooks’ snappy dialogue. When the action does come, is it ever worth it, especially the pre-dawn attack on Raza’s hacienda deep in the mountains. Loud and chaotic, it is a gem. The other action is on a smaller-scale, tightly-edited firefights in claustrophobic canyons. So if there isn’t an overabundance of action, who cares? The general tone of the movie aids that cause. It’s not just a western. It’s also a buddy flick, a heist movie, a chase story, a love story, a history lesson of sorts, and with a bit of a twist mystery in the second half of a 117-minute feature film.

They don’t come along much better than this. One of those perfect action-adventure movies, one that’s hard to poke holes in. A phenomenal cast, a memorable script, and all you can ask for in a western. A true classic, for fans of the genre and even those who aren’t.

The Professionals (1966): ****/****

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Bataan (1943)

That John Ford, he left his fingerprints wherever he went. His classic 1934 war film The Lost Patrol was spun and spun quickly into remakes over the next 20 or so years, including westerns, Last of the Comanches (an underrated gem), a Soviet film using the same premise, and two World War II movies released the same year in 1943, Sahara and Bataan. Today’s review. A Pacific setting with Bataan.

In the months following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces sweep across the Pacific against an unprepared American army. The fighting is especially rough on the Bataan peninsula, American forces retreating and defending with ever-dwindling supplies. Small forces are being ordered to hold their positions, including Sergeant Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) and Corporal Jake Feingold (Thomas Mitchell). Their mission? Blow up a key bridge over a deep mountain pass and prevent Japanese forces from rebuilding the bridge and advancing on the retreating army. They join a small squad that’s been assembled to do the job, commanded by Captain Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman), and pull it off, the bridge going up in a huge, ground-shaking explosion. Lassiter is killed soon after though by a Japanese sniper, leaving a command void. Sgt. Dane steps in, pulling the men together as they prepare to hold off a Japanese force that’s increasing in numbers by the hour.

World War II is often remembered for the Allied victories like D-Day, Iwo Jima and countless others. The defeats? Not so much. This isn’t a defeat. This is the WWII defeat. Outnumbered and under-supplied, American and Filipino forces held out for three months before surrendering and ultimately becoming part of the infamous, horrifying Bataan Death March. How then do you spin that story to an audience during a war where the fighting raged stronger than ever? You don’t spin it. You present it almost as is with all the gruesome, hard-to-watch truths. From director Tay Garnett, this is a no-frills, brutally dark and effective anti-war movie that manages to illustrate the heroism of those men fighting on Bataan.

Movies released during a war about said war tend to be straight, out-and-out propaganda flicks, stories and characters meant to inspire and get the audience’s patriotic juices flowing. This movie….does not, not in the typical sense at least. Without resorting to any flag-waving tactics, ‘Bataan’ lays things out there about the heroism of the soldiers fighting on Bataan. The truth of it is that these men were basically abandoned by the government and armed forces because rescue simply wasn’t possible. They did a nasty job all the while knowing that the end of the road would not be a pleasant one. Here in ‘Bataan,’ a small 13-man squad is stationed in the jungle on a remote hillside overlooking a bridge in a mountain pass. This battle will not change the course of the war or even be remembered, but in the face of impossible, almost suicidal odds, these men stayed and fought. A true story? Nothing documented, but you know firefights and battles like this happened, and that’s what rings true the strongest.

This ahead of its time WWII flick gets points because of its casting. The squad left behind to do the job features an array of multi-ethnic characters, including white, black, Hispanic and Filipino soldiers defending the bridge. I’m typically hurt or miss about Robert Taylor, but this is one of his absolute best. His Sergeant Bill Dane is the American soldier, a tough, no-nonsense veteran trying to hold his command together. His growling voice, his chin covered with a two-day growth of beard, he looks like a tough NCO you’d want to follow into battle. Some of the movie’s strongest dramatic moments have Dane quietly considering if what he’s doing is right, if maybe he should give the order to retreat. But no, a soldier’s duty is a soldier’s duty, even if doing his job is incredibly dangerous and could likely claim both his life and the lives of all his men. Kudos to Mr. Taylor, an excellent, scene-stealing performance.

A forerunner of movies like The Dirty Dozen, ‘Bataan’ features an ensemble cast of actors from different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. In 1943…so that’s impressive. Along with Taylor and Mitchell, look for Lt. Bentley (George Murphy), the pilot with a busted plane, Cpl. Todd (Lloyd Nolan), the troublemaker, Purckett (Robert Walker), the talkative sailor, Ramirez (Desi Arnaz), the tough Latino out of Los Angeles, Matowski (Barry Nelson), an engineer, Hardy (Phillip Terry), the medic, Katigback (Roque Espiritu), a Filipino pilot, Salazar (Alex Havier), the Filipino scout, Eeps (Kenneth Spencer), an African-American soldier and demo expert, and Malloy (Tom Dugan), the grizzled vet and cook. In as subtle fashion as possible, the cast shows the complete effort of the war, that everyone was involved in fighting and working together. White, black, Filipino, Hispanic, any and all, a cast and story ahead of its time concerning war movies.

Maybe the most striking thing about the movie is its portrayal of violence. We’re not talking Peckinpah-esque blood squibs, but there is blood. The violence is brutal and harsh without being graphic. It is quick and hard-hitting, the camera never lingering too long on any one scene. Characters are dispatched without warning, often in shocking fashion. An extended hand-to-hand combat scene late actually has the film sped up, giving the fighting a frantic, chaotic feel. The movie is interested in getting a message across, but again, handles it in incredibly subtle fashion. What is it? Sacrifices have to be made in war, and here, these men are ready to give their lives to hold this otherwise pointless speck on the map. The ending especially works, maybe the only real incident of true propaganda in the entire movie, but it just flows. A very emotionally effective ending.

Oh, and one more thing. ‘Bataan’ was filmed mostly on an indoor set, a claustrophobic, congested jungle flush with vegetation. Fog rolls in, blanketing the outpost at almost all times. Japanese snipers are all around, an almost entirely unseen enemy just waiting to strike. As far as mood and setting the scene, this WWII film is pretty perfect. The whole movie is for that matter. A gem of a film, one of the first anti-war films I can remember. Gutsy considering it was released right in the midst of the war.

Bataan (1943): ****/****

The Last Command (1955)

The Last Command 1955One of the three members of the Alamo trinity along with David Crockett and William Travis, Jim Bowie and his famous knife have been a ripe subject for Hollywood feature films. Often enough, those flicks have little to nothing to do with Bowie’s actual exploits, including a handful of B-westerns that look to bank on the famous name. A rare exception and a pretty decent little biography about the last 2 years of Bowie’s life is 1955’s The Last Command.

It’s 1834 as famous knife fighter Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) returns to Texas on his way back home to see his wife and children at their home in Mexico. A land owner and Mexican citizen, Bowie discovers the ever-increasing rumblings of revolution, the Texans looking to fight for their rights from a Mexican government seemingly hell-bent on ignoring those rights. Bowie preaches peace, only changing his mind after his wife and family pass away. Now, Bowie can throw himself into the conflict, especially when Stephen F. Austin (Otto Kruger) returns from Mexico City preaching that the only resolution will come from fighting. As Mexican dictator Santa Anna (J. Carrol Naish) leads an army north from Mexico, all roads point to San Antonio and a crumbling old mission turned into a fort, the Alamo.

Anyone familiar with John Wayne’s The Alamo from 1960 will no doubt notice some similarities between that film and this 1955 flick from Republic Studios. The reason? This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor. He wanted to make an Alamo film, but disagreements with the studio drove the two sides apart. The end result was simple; Wayne left Republic, Republic made the film without Wayne, apparently out of spite. There are some similarities, from Davy Crockett’s death to the Alamo defenders raiding the surrounding Mexican army for artillery and many others. The biggest difference though is obvious, a focus on Jim Bowie.

I’ve often criticized Hayden for being one of the more wooden actors to ever grace the screen. Thankfully, he injects some life into his part here as the famous knife fighter. Read about Bowie’s life, and my goodness, this fella was up to no good seemingly as soon as he could walk. This 1950’s portrayal is a little tam, portraying Bowie as an upright citizen, a patriot, and a loyal, brave and capable fighter. Hayden has some fun with the part, bringing the right amount of energy to play Bowie. Like Wayne’s Alamo, the story here features an unnecessary love story, Bowie falling for 18-year-old Consuelo (Anna Maria Alberghetti), in scenes that do nothing but slow down the story. Hayden is up to the task overall though, leading a pretty impressive cast.

I’m an Alamo buff, so I’ve watched just about everything there is from Hollywood about the battle and the Texas Revolution. Director Frank Lloyd tackles the subject head-on, covering about two years (1834-1836) in a 110-minute movie. Things are a little slow-going early on as everything is laid out, but ‘Command’ really hits its stride about the 40-minute mark as the fighting kicks in, eventually leading to the siege and battle of the Alamo. Lloyd’s film gets credit for trying to set up the story, not just rushing to the Alamo. It plays kinda fast and loose with the facts at times — Bowie and Santa Anna are supposedly good friends, the Mexican dictator even calling him ‘Jimmy’ — but it’s a highly entertaining, mostly accurate(ish) story.

Telling a familiar story, we get some familiar faces along the way. Richard Carlson is excellent as Travis, idealistic Alamo commander (a little old but a good part), and Arthur Hunnicutt is a scene-stealer as a homespun, backwoods Davy Crockett. They aren’t flashy parts, but they cut to the core of who the 3 men were (or at least what I hope they were). Ernest Borgnine is also a scene-stealer as Radin, a rival turned friend for Bowie. Other Alamo defenders include young Jeb Lacey (Ben Cooper), Lt. Dickinson (John Russell), and familiar character actors in Jim Davis, Slim Pickens, Russell Simpson, Eduard Franz and Roy Roberts. Virginia Grey appears briefly as Susannah Dickinson. Some fun supporting parts, especially Hunnicutt and Borgnine.

The actual battle for the Alamo takes up about the last 40 minutes of ‘Command.’ The set is somewhat limited — we basically see one corner of the mission along with the wooden palisade — but there’s something oddly cool about the set built near Bracketville, Texas (where Wayne’s film was made). For a movie released in 1955, the final assault on the Alamo is surprisingly vicious and violent. Nothing graphic, but still pretty hardcore stuff for a 1950s audience. Each character gets their moment, their on-screen death with Bowie saved for last. And while not Wild Bunch bloody, many of the deaths leave a lasting impression. This was bloody, horrific hand-to-hand fighting at its worst, close combat on steroids, something the battle sequence definitely shows.

There’s nothing hugely memorable about this 1955 Republic picture, but I like it just the same. Composer Max Steiner’s score is a highlight — give it a sample HERE — and the Jim Bowie theme song (listen HERE) is pretty awful, but in an amazingly bad and memorable way. Lots of good actors, familiar faces and an enjoyable if unspectacular story. One IMDB reviewer points it out accurately. It’s neither a big budget A-movie or a low-budget B-movie, but it’s somewhere in between. Definitely check out the new Blu-Ray released in December 2018. It’s a beautiful print and far ahead of any other version I’d seen.

The Last Command (1955): ***/****

The Five Man Army (1969)

The Five Man ArmyThe spaghetti western genre was built around the weird of the wild west, typically greedy gunfighters, murdering bandits and psychotic villains. How can you go wrong?!? Well, not all of the westerns. Made with backing from Italian and U.S. studios, here’s 1969’s The Five Man Army, a heist western. Not too many of those out there.

It’s the middle of the Mexican Revolution with President Juerta, the government and the army fighting an army of peasants and revolutionaries. Siding with the revolutionaries is an American on the run, known simply as ‘the Dutchman’ (Peter Graves) who has taken on a job of taking down a heavily guarded train carrying $500,000 in gold. Not able to do it alone, Dutchman recruits four specialists to aid the mission, including Mesito (Bud Spencer), Augustus (James Daly), Samurai (Tetsuro Tanba) and Luis (Nino Castelnuovo). How can 5 men take down a train with 100 guards, 4 machine guns, a cannon and patrols riding along the train line every few miles? Well, the Dutchman has a plan in mind.

I’m a sucker for men on a mission movies — The Professionals to Where Eagles Dare and a whole bunch in between — so it’s fair to say I fell for this one from the first time I saw it. From director Don Taylor (who reportedly filmed anywhere from some to none of the movie), ‘Army’ follows a familiar formula; recruit a team, introduce their specialties, reveal the impossible mission, let the team loose, and see who makes it out. ‘Army’ keeps you on your toes with a familiar story, throwing the audience a twist here and there. At its most basic, Taylor’s sorta-flick is an action-packed story that never waits too long in between gunfights and showdowns with Dutchman’s crew, revolutionaries, bandits and Mexican soldiers.

Westerns = awesome. Heist movies = awesome. Heist westerns? AWESOME. The calling card here (as is so often the case with quality heist flicks) is easily the actual heist sequence when the Dutchman and his crew hit the armored train. To this point, we’ve only been given hints as to how they’ll put off this impossible job. It all comes together in an almost wordless 26-minute extended sequence that is a masterful representation of how to shoot a tense, exciting heist action sequence. ‘Army’ was shot on-location in Spain (you’ll see some familiar locations from other spaghettis, including Once Upon a Time in the West), the heist sequence benefitting from those awesome locations. The heist does feature some crazy, absolutely ridiculous — and rather dangerous — stunts. Credit to the cast who look to be doing a majority of their stunts, and on a moving train at that. I love the movie on the whole, but the heist is the movie at its strongest.

So heist sequence? Check. Cool specialists for an impossible mission? Double check. Who better to lead an impossible mission than Peter Graves? Playing the Dutchman, Graves is the tough, no-nonsense leader of the team. His personal background and reason for leading the mission provides the movie’s most effective, emotional scenes. The team includes Augustus, the explosives expert, Mesito, the thieving strongman, Samurai, the sword-wielding Japanese fighter, and Luis, the bank-robbing acrobat. Each character gets his chance to shine, the ensemble working together in their scenes together. Daly is a scene-stealer as the doubting Augustus, convinced the mission will fail in bloody fashion. Spencer too has a ball as Mesito, providing some comic relief along the way.

The Five-Man Army is in just about every scene, but also keep an eye out for Claudio Gora as a revolutionary leader and Daniela Giordano as a Mexican girl who falls for Samurai.

Watch enough spaghetti westerns, and it gets to be an easy thing to overlook composer Ennio Morricone and his great musical scores. His ‘Army’ score is an underrated one (listen to the main theme HERE) mixing the big and epic with the quieter and emotional.  Augustus’ speech is aided by Morricone’s soothing score being played under his words, but then the action sequence is boosted by this perfect action score that keeps the story flowing at all times. If interested, the movie is available to watch on Youtube, which you can check out HERE. Well worth a watch. Just a damn entertaining heist western with a cool, underrated cast.

The Five Man Army (1969): ***/****

 

Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy 1958In a legendary career that earned him eight Oscar nominations and two wins, Jack Lemmon did it all. Equally adept at drama and comedy, he bounced back and forth between the two throughout his career. The genre he visited only once? The western. Here’s his lone western, 1958’s Cowboy.

It’s the 1870s and Frank Harris (Lemmon) is working as a clerk at a hotel in Chicago. It’s a dull life, Harris seeking something more. He gets that opportunity when Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) and his cowboys arrive in town after completing a long cattle drive from Mexico. Harris manages to convince Reese to let him on as a partner – he supplies some serious cash – to give him a chance to be a real-life cowboy. Reese is more than wary, even trying to back out of the deal, but ultimately takes the inexperienced Harris along. Reese, Harris and the cowboys head back south to build up another herd, but Harris has no idea of what he’s gotten into, but he’s a quick learner.

The cattle drive is one of those perfect, iconic western storylines, right up there with cavalry vs. Indians, settlers and the gunfighters. It’s a cool jumping off point for this Delmer Daves-directed western that isn’t necessarily hugely remembered. It’s a hot, sunny western that does show the darker, more honest side of being a cowboy. The portrayal of a cowboy is always romantic, idyllic, but the truth couldn’t be further from the truth. It was long hours in the saddle for not much pay and the constant threat of danger from weather, stampedes, Indians and bandits. Fun, huh?

The guts of the movie is the rivalry between Ford’s Reese and Lemmon’s Harris, the two pros carrying the 92-minute movie. We see Reese pushing the men, the focus on getting the cattle to market. It’s a harsh, unpleasant job he has to do. Harris thinks he’s too harsh though, questioning how far is too far. As the drive develops though, the roles begin to switch, Reese seeing maybe he has gone too far and Harris viewing the drive as profit and money alone. It’s a pretty cool back-and-forth that develops. There’s some genuine heat too on the trail, either man seemingly one good push away from pulling a gun. Excellent performances from Ford and Lemmon.

Not a huge supporting cast, but some recognizable faces pop up. Victor Manuel Mendoza is excellent as Paco Mendoza, Reese’s right-hand man. It’s cool (and ahead of its time) to see a Mexican cowboy in such a prominent role. The rest of the cowboys include Brian Donlevy, Dick York (later of Bewitched fame), Richard JaeckelStrother Martin and King Donovan. Donlevy is great as Doc Bender, a former gunhand turned cowboy. York is the ladies man and Jaeckel more of a villainous cowboy. Anna Kashfi plays Maria, Harris’ love interest living in Mexico.

My biggest complaint with ‘Cowboy’ is that at 92-minutes, it just doesn’t accomplish much. It takes quite a while to get going, and then when it reaches the cattle drive, it seems to be in a rush. We build to this big confrontation between Ford and Lemmon, and then it’s wrapped up in a flash, the story ending on an odd comedic note. The finale reminded me a fair bit of Red River, all build-up and then the payoff isn’t worth it. The drive itself feels especially rushed. The action is solid – including a showdown between the cowboys and a Comanche war party – but there’s not enough of it.

A lot of potential that never fully delivers. I still liked ‘Cowboy,’ especially with its Arizona and New Mexico locations and a good musical score from George Duning. I just wish it was a little better. The dark, honest story and its potential is there for the taking. Still, a western with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon in memorable leading roles ain’t a bad thing.

Cowboy (1958): ***/****

Battle of Britain (1969)

Battle of BritainThe 1960s were the age of big budget war flicks, all-star casts leading the way in stories about World War II films. The most notable is The Longest Day – the telling of D-Day – but there were plenty more, including The Battle of the Bulge and today’s review, 1969’s Battle of Britain.

It’s summer 1940, and Germany’s Third Reich seems on the verge of winning World War II following the disaster at Dunkirk. But as Great Britain prepares for an inevitable invasion, the Germans crossing the English Channel, Germany pulls up and waits, giving the Brits time to prepare. What will decide the coming battle? Air superiority, the mighty German Luftwaffe and its 2,500 plans ready to square off against the British RAF and its 650-plus planes. With the odds overwhelmingly stacked against them, the British prepare for a battle that could save or lose the country.

As far as history goes, you wouldn’t believe that the history actually happened this way unless the books told us. It’s crazy. If Germany had kept pushing soon after Dunkirk, World War II may have been over in 1940. Instead, in one of the most world-altering decisions ever, German forces halted, basking in the win and prepping for the invasion. So…yeah, a story that makes for an excellent feature film.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Britain’ is a more than solid telling of the battle of Britain, condensing four months of fighting into a 132-minute final run time. At times, the story feels a little too quick, too condensed, but you always have a sense of what’s going on and where the British and Germans stand. It’s a whirlwind final product, but as a viewer, you never feel lost. You’re able to keep up and go for the ride, the exhilaration kicking in as we start to see the tide of the battle turning.

So I’ve written 4 paragraphs without a mention of any specific cast members. What’s wrong with me?!? ‘Britain’ isn’t the biggest all-star cast, but there are plenty of British and German actors filling out some major roles. The pilots include Michael CaineIan McShaneChristopher PlummerRobert Shaw and Edward Fox among several other familiar faces. The RAF higher-ups include Trevor HowardLaurence Olivier, Nigel Patrick and Patrick WymarkHarry Andrews, Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson also appear as British government officials.

What’s cool here is though the story is British-heavy, the Germans are fairly portrayed and not shown as monsters, simply soldiers trying to accomplish a mission. Well, except Goring, he’s a lunatic. Curd Jurgens makes a quick appearance as a German representative while Karl Otto Alberty appears briefly as a high-ranking German officer.

It’s an interesting mix, following the high command in their war rooms with maps and radar equipment spread everywhere mixed in with the footage of the pilots waiting for the call to take off and battle the incoming German fighters and bombers. Plummer gets a love interest too, romancing Susannah York in his free-time. Not just lovey-dovey story either, but an actual emotional subplot. A good mix overall in an encompassing story that strives to do a ton and mostly succeeds.

High point beyond the cast is pretty straightforward. The aerial sequences are second-to-none here. World War II-era planes go toe to toe, battling over England for aerial control. The action is set to composer Ron Goodwin’s energetic, patriotic score (reminiscent of his Force 10 from Navarone theme), and you can just sit back and watch the crazy action develop. It’s never overly graphic, but the violence can be startling too, both blood squibs and then just the quicker, more visceral explosions as a plane blows up.

An excellent World War II film, solid casting and amazing aerial sequences.

The Battle of Britain (1969): ***/****

100 Rifles (1969)

100 RiflesA true Hollywood movie star, Burt Reynolds passed away this past week at the age of 82. The star of Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, Reynolds was one-of-a-kind. He was always having fun on-screen no matter the role. One of my favorite Reynolds’ flicks, a 1969 western, 100 Rifles.

It’s 1912 in Sonora and the Mexican Revolution rages on. In the town of Nogales, an American sheriff, Lyedecker (Jim Brown), is on a mission to bring a bank robber back to Phoenix. His bounty? A half-breed bandit, Yaqui Joe (Reynolds), who used the $6,000 he got from the bank robbery to buy 100 rifles for revolutionary forces. Lyedecker isn’t the only one hunting Joe though with the local military commander, Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), also desperate to get his claws into him. Catching the ire of the bloodthirsty Verdugo, Lyedecker must work with Joe to escape with his life. The duo become unlikely revolutionaries, on the run with the true revolutionary, Sarita (Raquel Welch), with Verdugo hot on their trail.

Far from a classic, ‘Rifles’ is still a highly entertaining western, mostly due to its cast and some solid action along the way. From director Tom Gries, it’s actually an off-shoot of the spaghetti western genre; westerns shot on-location in Spain and with European and American backing, but almost entirely American crews. You’ll see some familiar sandy, sun-drenched locations along the way, and the Mexican Revolution background provides a bloody, violent backdrop to the story (another sub-genre if you’re looking, the Zapata western). Also worth pointing out, Jerry Goldsmith — no stranger to memorable scores — steals the show with an underused soundtrack (listen HERE), including a great, booming chase theme.

Jim Brown, Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds. More movie stars than hugely dramatic actors, the lead trio is excellent in their parts. Interestingly enough, there was supposedly a fair amount of tension between Brown and Welch during filming, Reynolds often playing the peacekeeper. There’s a cool dynamic among the three, Lydecker the unwilling revolutionary, Sarita the true, devoted believer and Joe the bandit who’s unintentionally found a purpose. Lamas hams it up like his life depended on it and has a ton of fun as Verdugo. There aren’t a ton of speaking roles with a smaller cast, but those four do the heavy lifting.

Also look for Dan O’Herlihy as Grimes, the railroad execute looking to protect his train and its line, Eric Braeden as Von Klemme, the German military advisor (a staple of Zapatista westerns, Michael Forest as Humara, Sarita’s mute enforcer, and spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Paletes, Verdugo’s loyal sergeant.

I’m hard-pressed to say there’s much of a story here, instead a sorta extended chase scene broken up by action scenes that runs about 109 minutes overall. Lack of story? Not a huge problem here because the action and chases are pretty good — and surprisingly bloody and vicious. Gunfights, fistfights, chases and much of it on a moving train, it all adds up to a solid final product. Brown and Reynolds were two of the most physically capable actors around with the duo handling most of their own stunts, including several exciting fights with the two men handcuffed together. ‘Rifles’ saves its biggest explosions for the finale, an attack on the army train and then the train attack on Nogales. All-around good stuff though.

Couple other points worth making. ‘Rifles’ is — I believe — the first movie to have an interracial love scene, Brown and Welch passionately kissing and rolling around in bed. It’s pretty tame now but caused quite a stir in the socially charged 1960s. Welch’s Mexican accent is pretty cliched too, but the script seems hell bent on getting her nude, sorta nude and wet under a water tower. Not a complaint, just an observation! It’s a fun western overall, especially for the action and the buddy chemistry between Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds. Not a classic, but a lot of fun.

100 Rifles (1969): ***/****