Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Sergeant RutledgeWoody Strode was a Hollywood legend. A former college football player, Strode transitioned into films, starting off in bit and supporting roles before building to scene-stealing roles and appearances, one of the first African-American actors to do so in Hollywood history. He truly broke through in 1960 with a trio of roles, The Last Voyage, Spartacus (the most iconic of the 3) and Sergeant Rutledge, an interesting — if flawed — western that was ahead of its time.

It’s 1881 in the American Southwest and a trial is set to begin at a cavalry outpost. On trial is Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Strode) from the 9th Cavalry — a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers —  who is well-respected by the officers and the troopers for his unquestioned ability and leadership as a soldier. The charge against him? The rape and murder of a young white woman and the murder of her father, the outpost’s commander. Rutledge’s defense is Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), the sergeant’s previous commander. The evidence is damning against Rutledge with no hope of an acquittal, both because of the evidence but also the horror of what he’s believed to have done, a black soldier raping a white girl. Will the truth come out?

Before a Congressional hearing, director John Ford famously said “I’m John Ford. I make westerns.” In a long, distinguished career, Ford is especially associated with the western genre, from his cavalry trilogy to The Searchers to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. ‘Rutledge’ is interesting because of the subject matter and of its ahead of its time portrayal of the west. For one, the Buffalo Soldiers are a focus, the film playing almost like a tribute to the bravery of the black cavalry troopers. For two, the counter, the depiction of racism in a dark, uncomfortable story about rape and murder. As the trial develops, it’s just that, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. Where he started with The Searchers in a more realistic west, Ford continues here and returns again in Cheyenne Autumn.

Ford’s westerns typically stuck to pretty traditional storytelling devices. Later in his career, he branched out with ‘Rutledge’ a prime example. It’s a courtroom drama told with a flashback developing within witnesses’ testimonies. The storytelling technique works out nicely, the drama unfolding almost like a stage play. Ford is synonymous with the outdoors, huge vistas and natural landscapes, so it’s pretty cool to see him thrive filming indoors on a set (more on locations later). Unique lighting, cool camera work, it’s a change of pace, but it works.

Strode’s Sgt. Braxton Rutledge is a character that steals the show. At times, Strode can be a little wooden, but he definitely gets his chances to show off his acting chops! His testimony is a highly memorable scene, a very human moment. You get little touches of his history too — Hunter’s Cantrell finding a piece of paper Rutledge carries with him that gave the former slave his freedom — as well as the sergeant’s fellow soldiers and the respect we see they have for him. Strode delivers his best performance in a distinguished, history-making career. Juano Hernandez is excellent too as Sgt. Skidmore, another Buffalo Soldier and a former slave.

Having worked with Ford five years earlier in the classic The Searchers, Hunter actually gets more screentime as Lt. Cantrell. He’s a solid lead to keep the story moving, a character who takes part in both the courtroom and the flashbacks as an Apache war party goes on a murderous rampage. Hunter was an underrated actor, and he was always likable on-screen. His budding romance with Constance Towers (a key character Rutledge saves from Apaches) never really develops, taking away the more interesting focus of Rutledge, the trial and the cavalry patrol. Ford regulars Jack Pennick, Chuck Roberson and several others play supporting/background parts.

Other than the romance that goes nowhere, my biggest issue is the usual light-hearted Ford touches he always insisted on in his movies. Case in point, the wives of the officers, the old white ladies ‘ooohhhhing’ and ‘aaahhhing’ at the more scandalous moments of the trial as they fan themselves. It’s a story about a rape and murder, and these comedic touches are HORRIFICALLY out of place. Willis Bouchey plays the president of the court martial, balancing the trial and the officers’ wives. Carleton Young delivers a harsh, overdone performance as Captain Shattuck, the prosecuting officer.

If the courtroom drama isn’t pulling you in, the flashbacks of the cavalry patrol  should appease the more traditional western fans. The filming locations in Monument Valley and Mexican Hat in Utah are appropriately beautiful, an authentic backdrop to the wild west story. The movie overall is a unique gem though, both for its traditional elements and its more innovative, unique elements like the courtroom drama. Definitely give this one a watch.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960): ***/****

Advertisements

Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)

Support Your Local SheriffI’m a fan of the western genre who likes his westerns played straight. Sure, there are comedic westerns that work, flicks like Blazing Saddles and the Three Amigos to name a couple, but for the most part….meh. While not a classic, 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff! has plenty of positives, especially for a western comedy.

Following a gold strike, the town of Calendar, Colorado sprouts up almost overnight. The town founders can barely keep up with the ever-growing town as prospectors, gamblers, drifters, troublemakers, bandits and cowboys rule the town. Then, one day an amiable drifter named Jason McCullough (James Garner) rides into town and takes the unwelcomed job as sheriff. He’s on his way to Australia but figures he could use the work in the meantime. His first job? Arrest Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) for murder, a shooting Jason saw happen in the saloon. Joe’s father, Pa Danby (Walter Brennan), rules over the territory though and rounds up all his family to go rescue his son. Jason has to start figuring what to do; keep up with the job or bail and head for Australia.

By 1969, the western genre had changed courtesy of the spaghetti western and released the same year, The Wild Bunch. Things were darker, bloodier, more violent. ‘Sheriff’ avoids those changes, going for a lighter tone in a story that loosely resembles the 1959 classic Rio Bravo (and also has touches of High Noon). A veteran of the genre, director Burt Kennedy handles things well, adding some excellent humorous touches along the way without being too heavy-handed. It’s got the look of a TV western, but it’s fun throughout, clocking in at 92-minutes with an episodic storyline. It was followed up two years later with a like-minded, sorta unofficial sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter!

In the late 1960s, Garner was a frequent star in westerns, including Hour of the Gun and Duel at Diablo and even ventured into spaghetti westerns with 1971’s A Man Called Sledge. He’s perfect casting to play Jason, an amiable drifter with a somewhat cloudy past who is nonetheless lightning-fast with a gun but doesn’t like to use the gun if necessary. He stands by what’s right and has plenty of good ideas to keep folks on their toes. Garner plays the material straight, his charming on-screen presence underplaying scenes that could have been easily overplayed. He delivers lines with such ease, stealing his scenes with an impressive supporting cast. Garner manages to put a new, different and funny spin on that archetypal western character, the drifter riding along from town to town. Credit to Garner for an excellent leading role.

In the romantic lead department, Joan Hackett plays Prudy, the daughter of the town mayor (an excellent Harry Morgan). They’ve got some chemistry — Garner and Hackett — but the scenes feel a little forced, slowing down an otherwise fast-moving story. So often cast as a shifty-eyed, murdering back-stabber, Jack Elam steals the movie as Jake, Jason’s unlikely deputy. Quick with a gun and quick with a solid one-liner, Elam and Garner are perfect together, the duo returning two years later in ‘Gunfighter.’ Henry Jones, Willis Bouchey and Walter Burke round out the town board, the pleasantly corrupt folks running the town with Morgan’s Mayor Olly Perkins. Brennan looks to be having a ball as Old Man Danby, DernGene Evans and Dick Peabody as his dim-witted sons.

The problem too often with comedic westerns is that they’re simply trying too hard for the laughs. ‘Sheriff’ has those moments, a slapstick fist-fight in a muddy street notably early on. Its strongest moments are those instead that underplay the moment. Jason’s jail doesn’t have bars installed yet, but he convinces Dern’s Joe Danby to stay in the cell just the same. Sick of showdown after showdown with hired guns, Jason starts to throw rocks at a rival gunfighter. In the midst of a gunfight, Jason spectacularly finds a way to get across a street unscathed in a scene that always, always makes me laugh. The movie is full of those little moments that bring a smile to my face with ease.

A lot to like here, from the cast that looks to be having a ton of fun, notably Garner, Elam and Brennan with Dern stealing his scenes as well. The humor and comedy is perfectly played in this lighter-hearted western that manages to push a lot of the right buttons. I’m not a comedy western fan, but this one is a winner.

Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969): ***/****

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969)

Good Guys and Bad GuysThe end of the wild west has been an ideal setting for some of the most memorable western films, notably 1969’s The Wild Bunch. It reflects the end of an era, cowboys, gunfighters and drifters squeezed out by the advances of technology and time. Inherently dark, right? Not much room for comedy, right? You’d think. Reflecting the changing times in the west, 1969’s The Good Guys and the Bad Guys tries to tread that fine line right down the middle.

In the town of Progress, Marshall Jim Flagg (Robert Mitchum) catches wind of reports that a gang of outlaws has been spotted in the area. He figures they’re hovering around waiting to hit a train carrying an immense amount of money, but Progress’ mayor (Martin Balsam) isn’t having it. To shut up his veteran marshall, Mayor Wilker puts Flagg out to pasture, retiring him. Flagg instead takes matters into his own hand. He tries to stop the gang himself, a group led by young gunfighter, Waco (David Carradine), but his plan goes off course almost immediately. Now, Flagg must work with an old rival and an infamous bank robber, John McKay (George Kennedy), to stop Waco from hitting the train in time.

Between 1966-1969, Mitchum made 8 movies (so much for slowing down later in your career). Six of the eight were westerns ranging from near classics, 1966’s El Dorado to lesser flicks, like Young Billy Young. Mitchum seemed to know what his fans wanted — or at least what he liked doing as an actor. Reading his biography, Mitchum enjoyed making westerns, so he stuck with the genre. Why fix something that isn’t broken? From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Good Guys’ doesn’t rewrite the genre, but it’s pretty fun, able to inject some humor into a buddy story dynamic about the end of the wild west.

As the rivals who aren’t so different, Mitchum and Kennedy bring the movie up a notch from what would have been a much lesser western without strong actors in these roles. It’s the early 1900s and for better or worse, the duo has ‘outlived their usefulness’ as technology and the changing times have pushed gun-toting peace officers and bank robbers out the door. After they return to town, the two have a great scene as they discuss what used to be and how things aren’t like they used to be. Flagg’s been relieved of his duties and McKay has been left behind by his gang. So with nothing else to do, the former marshal and the former outlaw say ‘what the hell?’ and team up.

I’ll recommend this movie mostly because of Mitchum, a long-time movie star, and Kennedy, who was still relatively new to movies after spending years in guest starring spots on TV shows. As always, Mitchum has this ease of making characters likable, and it’s nice to see him in a good guy role. He was known for playing roguish brutes who were ultimately good, but Flagg is good through and through, even getting his own theme song. Kennedy gets some good laughs as McKay and has some great chemistry with Mitchum in their scenes together.

Balsam is a scene-stealer as Mayor Wilker, a local politician who has his eyes set on higher levels of government….while also seducing the married Tina Louise. Carradine isn’t given much to do (and no background), but he’s an impressive screen presence, even this young. John Davis Chandler is the only member of his gang to stand out as the unhinged Deuce. Douglas Fowley is excellent as Grundy, an old mountain man who sides with Flagg in trouble. Also look for Lois Nettleton, John Carradine, an uncredited Buddy Hackett, Marie Windsor and Dick Peabody.

The movie is at its best when dealing with Flagg and McKay in serious fashion. I’ve never been a fan of comedic westerns to begin with, and most of the attempts at humor here fall short. Balsam gets some genuine laughs, but the physical comedy comes up empty. The action is solid, especially the finale over the last 25 minutes or so as Flagg, McKay, Waco and his gang and Mayor Wilker and the entire town of Progress duke it out for control of the train. There are some pretty cool tracking shots — must have used a helicopter — showing the mass chaos of the chase.

Absolutely nothing spectacular about this one –check that, the New Mexico locations are beautiful– but as you’ve most likely figured out, a western has to be bottom of the barrel for me not to find something redeeming about it. Watch this one for typically strong performances from Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy and a great supporting part for Martin Balsam.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969): ** 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 /****

The Mountain Road (1960)

mountain_road_posterWhen it comes to war movies, the 1960s were a decade often dedicated to huge, big-budget, blockbuster flicks with all-star casts. It was only later in the decade that anti-war films gained popularity as the United States’ involvement in Vietnam increased with each passing year. So an anti-war film from 1960? It would seem to be a little bit ahead of its time, no? Here’s 1960’s The Mountain Road.

It’s 1944 in China and a U.S. Army engineer, Major Baldwin (James Stewart), has been given a command after a year in country. With Chinese and Allied forces in retreat and the Japanese army in close pursuit, Baldwin and a small squad of engineers have been tasked with slowing up that advance. With several trucks full of explosives, Baldwin and his squad destroy bridges and the road itself, as well as blowing up ammunition dumps and other keep locations, anything that the Japanese can use against them. Along for the ride is the widowed wife (Lisa Lu) of a Chinese officer who must stay ahead of the Japanese advance. With no law and order and chaos reigning supreme, can Baldwin and his men accomplish the mission and still meet up with Allied forces?

From director Daniel Mann and based off  a novel from a WWII veteran, ‘Mountain’ is an almost entirely forgotten WWII movie that doesn’t get the due it deserves. It’s a gem. Above all else, it is ahead of its time, asking questions that most war movies wouldn’t go anywhere near for years. What’s the cost? Is a mission worth it? Who is the real enemy? Shouldn’t a human life be worth more than just a number or an objective? Filmed in black and white, ‘Mountain’ was shot on-location with Arizona replacing 1944 China. It’s a bleak, isolated movie. You feel alone with Baldwin’s squad and the seemingly endless line of refugees on the road. Musical score is not memorable, the focus instead on the characters and story.

A World War II veteran himself, Stewart made the decision to not make any war films, mostly because they simply weren’t realistic enough. This script obviously pulled him in. A touch old for the part — there’s several mentions of “young” Maj. Baldwin even though Stewart was 52 at the time — he still makes the part his own. He’s an engineer, not an experienced commander. He’s not a fighter or a killer. His adjustments he must make to accomplish the mission and comparing the value of the mission to the lives of his men, it’s all thrown at Stewart’s Maj. Baldwin. The love subplot with Wu’s Sue-Mei falls short, but Stewart and Wu’s conversations about China and war provide some memorable, intelligent moments.

Not a big cast, but the supporting ensemble is excellent. Glenn Corbett is a quiet scene-stealer as Collins, the young soldier who has fallen hard for China and its culture. Likable and smart, he clicks with Baldwin immediately. Harry Morgan is excellent too as Sgt. Mike, the veteran who’s experienced everything a soldier can, working as a bit of a sounding board for Baldwin through the mission. The rest of the squad includes Mike Kellin, James Best, Frank Maxwell, Rudy Bond and Eddie Firestone and Frank Silvera as a Chinese officer accompanying Wu’s Sue-Mei. Stewart, Corbett and Best would reunite 5 years later in Shenandoah, although they didn’t share any screen-time together.

Things take a dark turn near the hour mark with a surprise death. It’s in that moment that ‘Mountain’ truly embraces its anti-war statuts. Baldwin begins to question everything his mission entails. Are the Japanese his enemy or are his supposed Chinese allies the true enemy? Also check out 1959’s Never So Few for a similar story concerning Chinese involvement during WWII. There’s some good action — small-scale firefights — and some genuine twists, and to Mann’s credit, no easy endings.

Well worth seeking out. Turner Classic Movies has aired it in the past if curious. Keep an eye on their schedule.

The Mountain Road (1960): ***/****

The Bridge at Remagen (1969)

Bridge at RemagenIt seems so obvious when you think about it, but a majority of war films are told from one side or another. Sure, there are exceptions, like The Young Lions, The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far — but there certainly aren’t many. One of the best is a film that’s rarely mentioned as a classic war film, a favorite of mine too, 1969’s The Bridge at Remagen.

It’s March 1945 and German armies are in full retreat back into Germany, Allied forces nipping at their heels. The German High Command has ordered all bridges over the Rhine river blown up in hopes of slowing down the Allied advance, but one bridge at the town of Remagen remains. A German general (Peter van Eyck) sees that 75,000 German troops will be cut off if the bridge is destroyed, and instead sends a close friend and fellow officer, Major Paul Krueger (Robert Vaughn), to hold the bridge as long as possible. Just miles from the bridge, an armored American infantry unit commanded by Lt. Hartman (George Segal) is leading the charge to Remagen, hoping to catch the Germans napping. After weeks at the point, Hartman’s men are exhausted, but pressure from HQ keeps the men going, hoping to end the war as quickly as possible. All roads lead to Remagen for both sides.

One Memorial Day I don’t know how many years back, I stumbled across this WWII movie on Turner Classic Movies. I’d never seen it, much less heard of it. It’s based on a real WWII battle — read more HERE — but because of a general lack of star power doesn’t get the attention/credit it deserves. From director John Guillermin, ‘Remagen’ is a product of the times as America was fully involved in Vietnam in ’69, a dark story about the closing days of the war in Europe. It doesn’t often get the attention of its many 1960’s MGM brethren, but it should.

 

Where this reflects the times is the portrayal of a war near its end, the soldiers deteriorating with pure exhaustion.  The end of the war is close, and the Germans are turning on each other.  Vaughn’s Krueger is promised a defense that doesn’t exist and reinforcements that can’t be moved.  The SS and Gestapo run rampant, ruling with an iron fist.  The ranks are thinned by deserters, and refilled with old men and young boys.  The Americans are always on the move, pushing themselves and the Germans to their absolute limits.  They’re bone tired but they have no option but to follow orders.  The rules of war are gone to a certain point, and survival has taken priority over everything else.  It is a cynical story at times, the effects of war wearing men down on both sides.  Frightening at times to see the portrayal of the closing days of the war presented in a realistic fashion.

The portrayal of the opposing forces is seen through the eyes of two junior officers, both with different missions but driven to the same point.  Segal is perfect as Lt. Phil Hartman (no relation to the SNL star), a company commander at his wit’s ends when it comes to commanding.  He’s trying to protect his men as best as possible, but HQ has their objectives.  Guest star E.G. Marshall as an American general callously states “100 may die, but 10,000 will be saved.” An honest statement in the big picture, but when you’re part of the 100, does it matter?  Across the river is Vaughn’s Krueger, a career German officer — not a Nazi — disobeying orders but still trying to save as many men as possible.  The two actors don’t share any scenes together, but there is a bond between them nonetheless.  They may be on opposite sides of the war, wearing different uniforms, but in many ways they’re the same.

In the honest portrayal of a war in its closing days, both sides aren’t shown as particularly heroic.  Ben Gazzara is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Angelo, one of Hartman’s men who is a good soldier under fire but rubs the Lt. the wrong way by picking clean the bodies of dead German soldiers.  Gazzara is so good in the part that you forget at times how despicable his actions are. Forced to kill a Hitler Youth teenager, he almost snaps when confronted.  All of the Americans aren’t shown in a positive light, including Hartman’s unit which includes Bo Hopkins, Matt ClarkRobert LoganSteve Sandor, and Tom Heaton. Bradford Dillman‘s Barnes is a good officer but he has no idea how to interact or treat his men. The Germans too are at each other’s throats.  Look for Hans Christian Blech in a solid supporting part as one of Krueger’s officers.

Bouncing back and forth between the American and German perspective could have caused a disjointed story, but that’s never really a problem.  Instead, it drives the pace at a lightning speed as the Germans fall back, the Americans pushing forward.  The action scenes are well-handled and nicely choreographed starting with the filming locations in Czechoslovakia where a bridge similar in appearance to the actual Remagen bridge was used.  There is an epic scale to the battles with the end result possibly being an earlier end to the war, but on a personal level we see Hartman’s men ordered across a bridge fully expecting it to blow at any moment.  Full of tension from the beginning, the battle sequences are aided by Guillermin’s camerawork, right there on the ground with the foot soldiers. You always have a sense of where the battle is, where all the men are stationed.

A highly underrated WWII story. Elmer Bernstein‘s score (listen HERE) borrows from some of his more notable musical scores, and at times sounds more like a western theme, but for the most part it’s good. An all-around solid look at the closing days of WWII and one of its key engagements. Highly underrated, well worth a watch.

The Bridge at Remagen (1969): ****/****

 

PT 109 (1963)

John F. Kennedy  is known for any number of things from a tragically shortened life. His beautiful wife, Jackie, his supposed affairs with Marilyn Monroe among others, his charm and popularity, his turbulent presidency that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most tragically, his assassination under the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald. One of the most fascinating parts of his adventure-filled life? His World War II exploits as told in 1963’s PT 109.

While the fighting rages in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific in 1943, Lt. John F. Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) arrives at a small naval base specializing in patrol torpedo boats (PT) meant to keep Japanese forces at bay. Kennedy is given command of PT 109, a beat-up old boat that has seen far better days. He’s given just a week to get the 109 ready for action, assembling a crew, including Ensign Leonard Thom (Ty Hardin), cleaning the boat, and rehabbing the engines. They manage to come in under deadline, Kennedy, his crew and the 109 thrust immediately into action. The day-to-day life of a PT boat is a dangerous one though, the boats meant to be used to buy time while the U.S. Navy still tries to recover from Pearl Harbor. Patrols, routine or not, rescues, deliveries, Kennedy and his crew take it all on, but the mission that will put them all in the history books awaits one pitch-black night in the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands.

One of my favorite movies growing up, I can still go back and visit this 1963 WWII movie from director Leslie H. Martinson and enjoy it from beginning to end. This isn’t the most hard-hitting of movies, but like some other WWII movies from Warner Bros., there is a distinct visual look and a straightforward style that plays well. Could things be tightened up a bit with a 140-minute movie? Sure, here and there, but it’s an excellent film just the same. It was filmed in the Florida Keys, and it’s sunny and sandy with plenty of palm trees to help stand in for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. The musical score from composers David Buttolph and William Lava knows when to lighten the mood and when to show the developing drama, a score that sounds similar to another Warner Bros. WWII movie, 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders.

Released in theaters less than six months before his death in Dallas, PT 109 was made with the help of Kennedy right in the midst of his term as President. He even had final say on the actor who would play him, Robertson being his ultimate choice. It ends up being a great pick, one that makes the movie far more memorable in my eyes. Besides the striking physical resemblance — look at Robertson in an iconic JFK picture HERE — Robertson nails the heroic, likable, charming part of a future American president. That’s the movie’s goal, to show Kennedy as a hero. More on the details in the next paragraph, but Kennedy’s actions were more than enough so Martinson didn’t have to stretch things too much. Robertson’s Kennedy is smart, quick with a comeback and a plan, a leader who’s respected by his men and fellow officers, and a capable commander with a knack for doing the right thing. It’s not the most in-depth characterization, but it never set out to be. Kudos to Robertson, already one of my favorites.

Semi-SPOILERS from here on in. The truth of the story behind PT 109 is remarkable in itself. Patrolling in the Blackett Strait a dark August night, the 109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer similarly on patrol. Kennedy’s boat was ripped in two pieces, two crewmen killed in the collision. Banding the men together, Kennedy got the survivors to swim to a far-off island and hopefully wait for survival. What followed is and was an inspiring story in itself, Kennedy ultimately winning the the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions. The movie itself is divided into two halves, the first introducing Kennedy, the crew, the boat and their exploits, the second half following its chapter in history as a Japanese destroyer tears the little boat apart. Both halves are excellent, but it’s hard to beat the second half as the survivors desperately wait for help in one form or another, Kennedy swimming out into the Strait at night to flag down an American ship.

While the focus is obviously on Robertson as Kennedy, the supporting cast is very solid without stealing the spotlight. Hardin as 2nd-in-command Ensign Thom has a good chemistry with Robertson, Robert BlakeNorman Fell, Clyde Howdy, John Ward and Biff Elliot starring as the most visible of the 109’s crew. James Gregory is a scene-stealer as Commander Ritchie, the leader of a squadron of PT boats, a veteran officer who’s never seen combat but is always searching for the best out of his men. Even Robert Culp shows up at the halfway point as Ensign Barney Ross, an old friend of Kennedy’s who ends up on the 109 for its fateful missionMichael Pate making a memorable appearance as Evans, an Australian coastwatcher who plays an integral part in the eventual rescue of Kennedy and the remaining survivors. Also lending his voice talents in an uncredited narrator role is Andrew Duggan.

This isn’t a WWII movie that rewrites the genre. It is a movie meant to honor the heroics of future president John F. Kennedy, and it does it well. Exciting with some good action, some genuine laughs and some lighter moments, and Robertson in a great leading part as Kennedy himself.

PT 109 (1963): *** 1/2 /****