A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

a-reason-to-live-a-reason-to-die-posterIf a formula ain’t broke…don’t fix it! Nowhere is that more applicable than with movies. If a movie succeeds, tweek it, twist it, spin it and do your thing. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a gem, an American army major tasked with leading 12 convicts sentenced to death or hard labor on a suicide mission. A classic! In its wake, countless war and western flicks followed the formula, like 1972’s A Reason to Live, a Recent to Die.

It’s early in the Civil War in the Southwest territory as Union and Confederate forces battle back and forth. A disgraced Union colonel, Pembroke (James Coburn), is seeking some revenge but his plan is suicidal (at best). The former commander of the impregnable Fort Holman, Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Rebs without a shot fired. Now, he’s approaching his former commanders with a way to take back the mountaintop fort. His men? Eight men rescued from the gallows at the last second, including an amiable drifter, Eli (Bud Spencer). All the while, Fort Holman and its psychotic commander, Major Ward (Telly Savalas), awaits. Pembroke can’t wait to exact his revenge, if he can keep his death squad in check.

As is so often the case with spaghetti westerns, it can be difficult to track down the full versions of so many of these movies. The genre itself was hugely popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, especially in Europe and plenty of third-world countries around the world. The versions that made it to America at times? Heavily cut, heavily edited, and often times a shell of what the original, intended version really was. The version I’ve seen is the heavily-edited 92-minute version. The full version — about 111 minutes — is available at Amazon for $90 if anyone wants to split it with me and just share the DVD…

What remains is a fun, entertaining but somewhat disjointed western from director Tonino Valerii (also directed My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and The Price of Power). An introduction to Coburn and Spencer was cut entirely, now we actually are spoiled by the ending in the opening minutes unfortunately. Then, it’s a quick flashback to where the mission all started (sorta). What follows a little barebones. Little time for exposition, quick, aggressive cuts that leave scenes jumping from one to another without much in the way of a transition. It’s all built around getting the story to the attack on the fort with no interest in characters, story or background. So if you’re patient for some action…

All that said, it’s hard not to be excited for a western starring Coburn, Spencer and Savalas, right? The backstory — however rushed — between Coburn and Savalas does provide a good twist in the film’s last half, explaining why Pembroke surrendered the fort without a shot. Coburn is the leader tasked with an impossible mission, leading his death squad without the squad actually killing him! His manipulation continually holds his men at bay. Spencer gives the movie a lighter touch as Eli, a drifter who sides with Pembroke during the mission. Savalas’ part amounts to an extended cameo, a script that doesn’t give him much to do, especially considering his backstory and how crazy we’re told he is. Eh, story is overrated!

The star power is in our lead trio. As for Pembroke’s death squad, spaghetti western fans will enjoy seeing some familiar faces, but it’s not big stars by any means. The wild west convict commandos include Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the questioning NCO — who potentially killed Pembroke’s wife? I don’t know…cut scene! –, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), the murdering deserter, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), the horse thief, Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a murderer and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a black market seller who’s latest deal killed 30 Union troops and Turam Quibo as a half-breed Apache. Quibo is also in Adios, Sabata and miscredited here in the ‘Reason’ casting listing. Not a likable group by any means, but an interesting mix for sure.

If you’ve made it this far, it must be because of the action. Using the same awesome filming set as 1970’s El Condor, the Fort Holman location is awesome, providing an incredible backdrop for an impressive attack that runs about 25 minutes. Explosions, dynamite, Gatling guns, twists and turns, a crazy body count, and who can make it out from our death squad? A whole lotta fun in a beautifully choreographed final action sequence.

Flawed though it is, ‘Reason’ is pretty fun, and I’ve watched it 3 different times over the last 6 or 7 years. Familiar locations from El Condor, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and plenty others, and a cool — if somewhat out of place — score (listen HERE) helps make for a fun if flawed final product. In the vein of ‘Deserter’ and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. A mess but an entertaining mess!

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972): ** 1/2 /****

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The Wrath of God (1972)

wogposSimply put, but…Robert Mitchum was cooler than you. He’s cooler than everybody. A Hollywood legend, Mitchum was one of the first true bad boys. He didn’t care. He did things his way, and his laid-back but memorable acting style produced plenty of classic movies and performances. One of my favorites? A brutally underrated, truly odd western that’s all but forgotten, 1972’s The Wrath of God.

It’s the 1920s in an unidentified Central American country and three unique individuals have been brought together — blackmailed — to perform a suicide mission. The unholy trinity includes Van Horne (Mitchum), a machine-gun toting, bank-robbing priest, Keogh (Ken Hutchison), an IRA gunman on the run, and Jennings (Victor Buono), a cashiered British army officer now with his hand in anything and everything illegal, including gun-running. Their mission? Kill a rogue army officer, Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella), who causes constant trouble for the army and government. Their work is cut out for them as de la Plata lives up in the mountains surrounded by a small army of gunmen and a heavily fortified hacienda. Can the trio pull off the job, clear their names and get out alive?

I first caught this on TCM back in the early 2000s, then couldn’t find it, then finally tracked it down a few years later. It’s been a favorite ever since. Based off a novel by Jack Higgins (as James Graham), ‘Wrath’ is an oddity, a unique western that is unlike just about any other western I can think of. It’s so odd at times that a fair share of reviewers think it’s actually a spoof. My thought? It ain’t. Simple as that. From director Ralph Nelson, ‘Wrath’ is a western that while influenced by spaghetti westerns and the changing times for the American western, stands alone. It’s a funny, cynical, violent and for me, highly memorable flick. A gem, one I can go back and re-watch time and time again.

My best description is that ‘Wrath’ has style. Filmed on-location in Mexico, it feels authentic, like we’re watching the story take place where it did happen. Gorgeous looking flick with familiar locations you’ll have seen in other westerns, like Vera Cruz and The War Wagon. The final shootout at the de la Plata hacienda was shot in the same location as the finale to Vera Cruz, a ridiculously cool extended sequence. Composer Lalo Schifrin turns in a great score too — listen HERE and HERE — that’s jazzy and flamboyant at times, but also reminiscent of a spaghetti western score in other instances. An underrated score, especially driving the action scenes.

But back to that Mitchum guy. Underplaying his part but clearly having a ball, he adds a third “priest” part to his filmography, joining The Night of the Hunter and 5 Card Stud. His Father Van Horne has some secrets — explained late — but it’s such a fun part from the word go. When he makes his big reveal, taking out a Thompson sub-machine gun and mowing down a saloon full of bandits, it’s a genuine laugh out loud moment. It never lets up as Mitchum delivers a surprisingly layered part as Van Horne. What drives this quasi-priest? Is it greed or something else? Well worth finding out.

Rounding out the unholy trinity, Hutchison and Buono aren’t big stars, but they’re perfectly cast. The chemistry among the three actors is impeccable. Any big reason? A script that crackles with great dialogue and one memorable line after another. Jennings’ oft-repeated “We’ll get along famously!” is a favorite, as is Van Horne’s “All is not what it seems.” Check out IMDB’s Memorable Quotes (I added those quotes years ago. You’re welcome!) for a good sample of the quality of dialogue. One of my favorite — if unlikely — men-on-a-mission teams. Hard to beat a machine-gun toting priest, an IRA gunman and an overweight, hard-drinking gun-runner. Hutchisons’ Emmet also gets the love interest, a beautiful Indian girl, Chela (Paula Pritchett), who’s mute.

Mitchum, Hutchison and Buono dominate the screen, which is odd considering how low Emmet and Jennings are in the cast listing. The reasoning? The bigger names playing smaller parts, almost cameos. Langella hams it up as the unhinged Tomas, always seemingly on the brink of losing it. Oh, and he loathes priests (ALL priests) with a passion. In her last film, Rita Hayworth plays Tomas’ tortured mother, trying to hold it all together. Struggling with Alzheimer’s during filming, she apparently had trouble reciting/remembering lines. Also, John Colicos makes the most of a one-scene appearance as Colonel Santilla, the messenger of death and commander of the region who sends the trio on their suicide mission.

Also, look for familiar western faces in Gregory Sierra, Frank Ramirez, Enrique Lucero, Aurora Clavel, Chano Urueta and Jorge Russek in supporting parts. Sierra is especially good as Jurado, Tomas’ brutal, bullish enforcer.

Not a huge action movie, ‘Wrath’ saves its firepower for the last 30 minutes when Van Horne and Co. make their play against de la Plata. A bullet-riddled shootout in a village square packs a whallop, but the finale at the de la Plata hacienda is the best, most memorable part. Some twists, some awesome moments — Buono driving a Mercedes as a battering ram with one hand, blasting away with a machine gun with the other stands out — and plenty of action. Mitchum saves the best for last in a classic final line. A classic movie overall? No, not by a long shot, but one of my favorites and a hilariously entertaining western. A must for western fans, and well worth tracking down.

The Wrath of God (1972): *** 1/2 /****

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****

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): ***/****

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

EPSON MFP imageAbout 8 years ago, I started reviewing movies. A Blockbuster was still open near my house — oh, how I miss them — and I remember browsing through the aisles at one point thinking ‘Man, there are so many movies out there I haven’t seen.’ And so it began! I remember clearly coming home with today’s flick, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I loved it then and loved it now. A somewhat forgotten classic.

Posing as a preacher in an isolated Montana town, a former thief (Clint Eastwood) finds himself on the run. He’s picked up by an amiable young drifter, Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), who is a few minutes off of stealing a stylish Trans Am. The duo sticks together, both just drifting along looking for a chance to earn some cash, easy cash if possible. The thief, dubbed Thunderbolt by the papers, slowly lets out his story of how he got to be in this spot. “Aiding” the cause? Two of his former gang members are on his trail, all of them looking for clues to a supposedly lost take from a previous job. How to solve it all? That’s Lightfoot’s idea. What if they pulled off the same job in the exact same fashion? There have been crazier ideas…

Talk about a movie where a plot synopsis is unnecessary. This is the one. From director/writer Michael Cimino, ‘Thunderbolt’ is one of the most entertaining movies ever. It can’t be pegged into any one genre. At different points, you can call it a buddy flick, a road trip movie, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a heist flick, an Americana story, a modern western, and several more I could probably list. What makes it so special is that it doesn’t need a linear story. It can bounce among those genres at will and with ease. In terms of pure entertainment, I’m hard-pressed to come with many better.

An established star in Eastwood and a rising star in Bridges are immaculately perfect together. Their chemistry is impeccable. You don’t need a episodic, even linear story when you’ve got two characters like this who keep things moving and generally keep things fairly grounded. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt gets to play the straight man but still gets plenty of laughs. Bridges’ Lightfoot is the motor-mouthed, quick-witted and likable drifter, always ready with an observation, a thought, an opinion and a quick smile. The duo brings Cimino’s script to life. We learn about their background and history in snippets that are never overdone or forced. Like the on-screen chemistry itself, it all feels natural.

One of the best buddy dynamics ever really. You can’t help but like both men. Thunderbolt starts to look after Lightfoot like a little brother while Lightfoot idolizes Thunderbolt and his criminal exploits, not to mention his service during the Korean War. There is an easy-going charm to it all. It’s not Butch and Sundance — my all-timer for comparison of the buddy variety — but it’s really, reallllllly close.

This is a quintessential 1970’s movie too. In the vein of Charley Varrick, The Lineup and countless others, there’s a look and a feel to the story. I was born in 1985 so I don’t know this for sure obviously, but the painting of what 1970’s America is in Montana ends up being an additional character. Small towns, communities that keep to themselves, a picture of a decade that serves as a perfect snapshot. Cimino filmed on-location in Montana, and the visual look is stunningly gorgeous. You could freeze-frame individual shots, print them up and frame them. Was this an accurate vision of small-town America at the time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s what it should have been.

Two other always welcome character actors round out the thieving crew, starting with George Kennedy as Red Leary, a possibly unhinged killer who Thunderbolt always manages to keep under control. Kennedy shows off his range, brimming on psychotic episodes here and there, especially with a hatred for Lightfoot. Geoffrey Lewis plays Goody, the naive, not-so-smart but well-meaning thief who always tags along. An interesting quartet with a history, a backstory revealed slowly but surely as the 115-minute story develops. If it’s confusing early, stick with it. The payoff is worth it. Kennedy is the mystery man here — when will he lose it? — but he delivers some of the movie’s funniest, most memorable lines. His buzz-off to a snarky kid is an all-timer. No spoilers. Watch the movie.

That quartet is in just about every scene in some variety. There are also small, supporting parts for Catherine Bach, Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague in The Andy Griffith Show), Dub Taylor, Roy Jenson, Bill McKinney and Gregory Walcott.

The momentum picks up in the second half as the heist Part 2 comes into play. Still some lighter touches but it goes down a darker path. I’m all for a downer ending, but this has always been a tough one. The heist is pretty cool though, packing some serious punch and some intricate timing. This is a movie that has it all in one capacity or another. One of my favorites, and hopefully one of yours too.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): ****/****

Midway

midway_movie_posterWorld War II had countless key engagements and battles that helped turn the tide of the war, and in a bigger sense, changed the tide of history. D-Day is obviously at the top of the list, but many others have been given a film treatment, like Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, and with today’s review, 1976’s Midway. What if the Japanese had won the battle? Would WWII have a vastly different path and end result? Things you can’t help but wonder while watching this underrated gem.

It’s late spring in 1942 and the U.S. Navy is still incredibly vulnerable following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A Naval Intelligence officer and pilot, Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), talks to a fellow intelligence officer who thinks clues point to a Japanese attack coming at the key Pacific island of Midway. Washington seems to think it could all be a trick, an ambush for what’s remaining in the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda) thinks otherwise though, committing his fleet, including two essential aircraft carriers and one carrier fresh off a battle that almost crippled the ship. An immense Japanese fleet is sailing for Midway, the outnumbered, undermanned Americans racing to meet them. The young war potentially hangs in the balance in the Pacific…

In the vein of The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora! (among many others) comes this 1976 wartime battle drama from director Jack Smight. It isn’t a classic, but it’s really solid. Flaws? Sure, one major one I’ll discuss later, but when the story sticks to the war-turning battle, ‘Midway’ is at its best. It definitely gets points for portraying the battle from both perspectives, both the American and Japanese forces. It isn’t the horrific, evil Japs vs. the saintly, heroic Americans. This is a battle between professional soldiers, sailors and pilots with the battle hanging in the balance. It isn’t the most personal story — more of a BIG picture story — but the history itself is fascinating and doesn’t need much else added.

One of the best parts of these big battle epics is typically the all-star casts assembled. Some are bigger, meatier parts, others are cameos, but the star power is always impressive. ‘Midway’ doesn’t disappoint. Heston gets the biggest part — and the personal subplot — as tough, stubborn, knowledgeable Capt. Garth. Heston specialized in these big movies, whether it be war movies, disaster flicks or historical epics, throughout his career, and he’s solid as usual. Fonda makes the most of an extended cameo, if a bigger cameo than the others in the cast. He brings some charm and personality to Adm. Nimitz. Other high-ranking Naval officers include Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Robert Webber and Hal Holbrook as the intelligence officer who sniffs out the Japanese plan.

Who else to look for? James Coburn and Cliff Robertson make lightning-quick appearances (like Mitchum’s). So does Robert Wagner. On the Japanese side, Toshiro Mifune cameos as Adm. Yamamoto while James Shigeta plays Vice Adm. Nagumo, the commander of the task force. As for the pilots, Christopher George, Glenn Corbett and Monte Markam represent the Americans with varying amounts of screentime. Also look for young Tom Selleck as an officer on Midway, Erik Estrada as a pilot and Dabney Coleman as a ranking naval officer. Pretty decent cast, huh?

If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s Garth’s subplot with his son, a young Naval pilot who has fallen in love with a Japanese woman. It feels forced to say the least, to add a human element to a story that didn’t really need it. The pacing drags a bit in the first 60 minutes as the story bounces among the American and Japanese forces and then the Garth family trials. The interment camps are one of the most horrific things to come out of WWII but in a story about the Battle of Midway, the story is out of place.

Giving the story a sense of realism is real footage filmed during the actual Battle of Midway in 1942, footage used in John Ford’s award-winning documentary about the battle. Once the two fleets begin to fight, that’s where the story takes off. The naval battle begins a chess match as the two sides put plans into effect, then re-plan and adjust. The history is pretty spot-on. You see how the battle turns with some good and bad luck, some chance, some poor decisions and some calculated decisions that pay off with war-changing events. Fascinating to watch it all develop.

It’s an impressive movie. It genuinely makes you appreciate the sacrifices made on both sides. Several American squadrons attacked the Japanese fleet with little hope of success, but they flew into battle anyways. Their actions and their subsequent deaths ended up altering the battle and in a far bigger picture, the war itself. A switch here, a change there, and maybe history is dramatically altered. A film well worth checking out.

Midway (1976): ***/****

The Train Robbers

poster_-_train_robbers2c_the_28197329_01In the later years of his career, John Wayne stuck with the genre that made him a star. Sure, there were some Dirty Harry-esque excursions into the rogue cop genre, but the Duke stuck with the western. The efforts weren’t classics, but they were always entertaining. Case in point, 1973’s The Train Robbers, flaws and all.

A train pulls into the tiny, isolated town of Liberty, Texas. Two passengers get off the train, an aging cowboy named Lane (Wayne) and a pretty young widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret). Lane has been hired by Mrs. Lowe to recover $500,000 in gold hidden somewhere in Mexico. Mrs. Lowe’s recently deceased husband is the only person who knows where the gold is, and he happened to tell her before he died. Unfortunately, several members of his old gang also would like to get their hands on the long-hidden gold, and they’ve hired a small army of gunmen to help them. With two old friends, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), along with three other gunmen, Lane and Mrs. Lowe ride into Mexico after the gold. Can they find the gold? More importantly, can they get out alive?

This western was a favorite of mine growing up. My Grandma recorded it off WGN, and I’d watch it whenever me and my sister had weekend sleepovers at her house. Does it hold up so many years later? Sorta. It’s still entertaining, but there are some major flaws. I wonder if it’d even be remembered if John Wayne wasn’t out front leading the way. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Train’ clocks in at a swift 92-minutes (more on that later). It’s unlike just about any other Wayne venture. Is that good or bad? I guess that depends on how big a John Wayne you are.

You watch this movie because of John Wayne. It’s a familiar part for him, the resolute, capable gunman/cowboy, albeit one who’s getting up there in years. This is a performance he could do in his sleep, but because he’s the Duke, you can’t help but like him. Kennedy’s script provides him with some great one-liners — both comedic and dramatic — and he carries the movie with that easy-going, likable charm. His chemistry with Taylor and Johnson is impeccable, especially as we learn about their history dating back to the Civil War. There are issues with the story and pacing, but the quieter moments among our heroic lead trio and the lovely Ann-Margret always manage to bring it back together.

Here’s the best way I can critique ‘Train’ without completely ripping it to pieces. In writing the screenplay, Kennedy had an idea for the quiet, windy opening (a la Once Upon a Time in the West), a shootout over the gold at the halfway point, and a final shootout for all the marbles back at Liberty. In between? Filler, and lots of it. I would wager 20-25 full minutes are just shots of Wayne, Margret and the crew riding across Mexico. I’m not exaggerating either. The only reason that isn’t a deal-breaker is the location shooting in Mexico (similar locations as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, Chisum, Big Jake), and a memorable, whistle-worthy score from composer Dominic Frontiere. ¬†Give it a listen HERE.

It just feels like something is missing. The bad guys are nothing more than a faceless gang of riders on the horizon. We never get a name or even hear them speak. Budget issues? An intentional choice? There was some pretty good potential with the entire story, the cast and the execution. It just feels like there’s something missing. Also look for Christopher George, Bobby Vinton and stuntman Jerry Gatlin as the rest of Lane’s crew. George has some good scenes with the lead trio and more than holds his own.

And then there’s the finale. It’s rare you can say a western had a legitimately good twist, but ‘Train’ has it courtesy of Ricardo Montalban. Until the end, he’s just a presence lingering on the trail with our train robbers. He’s got a secret though, one that provides a great ending, especially a quick scene between Taylor and Johnson and a perfect final line(s). If it’s slow going getting there, know that it’s worth it in the end. A flawed final product, a bit of a mixed bag, but still a John Wayne flick worth watching.

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****