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): ***/****

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Big Jake (1971)

big_jake_ver2Over the last decade of his career — the late 1960s and into the 1970s — John Wayne was wary of following along with the Hollywood trend of ultra-violent movies. He even turned down the Dirty Harry role, later doing 2 pretty mediocre cop movies. It’s oddly appropriate then that over the span one of his best movies (and a fan favorite) is one that embraces some bloody violence. Here’s 1971’s Big Jake.

It’s 1909 along the Texas/Mexico border when an outlaw, John Fain (Richard Boone), leads his gang of murderers and cutthroats in a vicious attack on the expansive McCandles Ranch. Ten people are killed, and ranch owner Martha (Maureen O’Hara) sees her grandson kidnapped. Fain demands a ransom of $1 million, leaving a note that says simply “Follow the map.” Knowing her grandson could be killed no matter what she decides, Martha seeks out her estranged husband, Jacob (Wayne), to take the ransom money into Mexico and get his grandson (who he didn’t know) back. With help from his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), and an old friend, Apache Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), Jacob agrees, setting off to bring his grandson back alive or his captors dead.

I’ve long been a John Wayne fan, and this 1971 western from director George Sherman (although it is reported Wayne helped direct with an ailing Sherman) has long been a personal favorite. I watched TV edited versions for years, so it’s always fun to pop in the DVD and see the full 110-minute movie! With its surprising violence and even some uses of blood squibs, ‘Jake’ is obviously a departure for Wayne. It’s balanced out though with some odd comedy (mostly works), a familiar, deep cast, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico — a favorite spot of Wayne to make movies; The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated. This isn’t a western that rewrites the genre and is far from its revisionist peers of the time, but it’s damn entertaining from beginning to end.

By this point in his career, Wayne could have done a part like this with his eyes closed. To his credit, he never did. He brings a certain energy to the part, a rough edge as we learn about his Jacob McCandles and his past. This is easily one of his most quotable parts, the Duke delivering one crackling one-liner after another. It never feels forced, Wayne’s gruff delivery bringing it all together. His chemistry with his supporting cast is impeccable, especially his early (and too short) scenes with frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara. On the tough guy angle, his dialogue scenes with Richard Boone are pppppperfect, especially the build-up to the final showdown. Throw in the estranged father scenes as he reunites with his sons, Patrick Wayne’s James and Mitchum’s Michael, and you’ve got a bunch of positives in an at-times eccentric western.

The cast is far from done there, especially an underused Richard Boone as the calculating, brutal John Fain. Most villains cower in Wayne’s shadow, but not Boone. Watch THIS scene for an example (apologies for the low quality). Fain’s gang includes O’Brien (Glenn Corbett), a half-breed gunslinger, Pop Dawson (an unrecognizable Harry Carey Jr.), Kid Duffy (stuntman Dean Smith), a deadshot with a rifle, John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer), a machete-wielding psycho, Trooper (Jim Burk), an Army deserter, and Will Fain (Robert Warner), John’s brother who favors a shotgun. Singer Bobby Vinton makes a brief appearance as Jake’s third son. Also look for recognizable western faces John DoucetteJohn AgarJim DavisHank WordenChuck Roberson (Wayne’s stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne’s real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

After the opening narration and bloody and bullet-riddled raid, things settle in at a decent pace. Wayne’s introduction off a memorable line from O’Hara is a gem. From there, it’s a story on the trail as Jacob, his sons and Sam, and Jacob’s dog…Dog, trail Fain and the gang into Mexico, finally catching up in a boom town named Escandero. The final shootout and hostage exchange is a gem and the obvious highlight of the movie. It takes place in a walled-off Mexican compound — historically a key location in the Mexican Revolution — in the dead of night. Some great dialogue, a couple genuine twists and plenty of bullets flying.

One of my favorites, and a John Wayne gem. Highly recommended.

Big Jake (1971): ****/****

Shenandoah (1965)

As far as directing powerhouses of the 1960s, Andrew V. McLaglen will never be remembered as one of the greats. He started off in television before making the jump to feature film, teaming several times with John Wayne while also specializing in audience friendly “guy movies.” Good guys versus bad guys, lots of familiar faces and situations, you know the formula. One of his best? An underrated Civil War drama, 1965’s Shenandoah.

It’s 1864 in Virginia, and the tide of the Civil War has turned as the Union forces are slowly beating down the Confederate armies. Doing his best to remain free of the bloody fighting, farmer and patriarch Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) wants nothing to do with the war. Both for himself and his family — seven kids, one daughter-in-law — Anderson simply wants to keep working his 500-acre farm and get through the war unscathed. Fight for Virginia? Fight for slaves he doesn’t have? He fights for what he believes in, his family and his farm. Well, that’s what he’d like to do. While the fighting rages on, Charlie is stunned when he finds out his youngest son (Phillip Alford) has been confused as a Confederate soldier and captured by nearby Union forces. Now the war and the fighting that Anderson has done so well to steer clear of has landed square on his front porch. Can he find his son amidst the hell of war?

This was a movie I watched often growing up when my sister and I had sleepovers with my Grandma. It made an excellent Civil War double feature with Friendly Persuasion, and let me tell ya, they both hold up! I watched this McLaglen-directed Civil War drama for the first time in years, and it resonated just as much now as an adult as it did when I was a kid, if not more. McLaglen had some excellent movies to his name — The Wild Geese is a favorite, Hondo, McLintock are also excellent — but this is his best movie overall. The story is a series of very effective, often moving and often disturbing vignettes, all held together by the Anderson family. Filmed on-location in Oregon and California, ‘Shenandoah’ is an underrated visual film, and the musical score from composer Frank Skinner is a gem. So what stands out viewing this one as a 32-year old, not a 13-year old kid?

That would be James Stewart, one of my favorites in just about any movie he’s in. This doesn’t get the attention or notoriety as one of Stewart’s best performances, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. I love what he does with the part of Charlie Anderson, a stubborn, feisty Virginia farmer and widower looking out for the best intentions of his family. He doesn’t care about the war, about slavery, about Union and Confederate. He will do anything, ANYTHING, to protect his family. Stewart has some great scenes with the younger supporting cast, especially Alford’s youngest son, only called ‘Boy,’ with his daughter, Jenny (Rosemary Forsyth), daughter-in-law, Anne (Katharine Ross), and his sons. There are too many memorable, emotional scenes to mention, but my favorites are the most simple. Minutes before the Andersons go to church each Sunday, Charlie visits his wife’s grave and just talks to her. Simple perfection, Stewart absolutely nailing the underplayed but charged scenes.

Stewart is the unquestioned star of McLaglen’s film, but ‘Shenandoah’ offers quite the ensemble of recognizable faces. Glenn Corbett and Patrick Wayne play Jacob and James, the two oldest brothers. Corbett especially stands out as Jacob who’s beginning to question if their choice to stay out of the war is the right decision. Wayne is solid too, especially in his scenes with Ross. In her film debut, Forsyth is excellent, a subtle scene-stealer as innocent, tough and thoughtful Jenny who’s also interested in a young Confederate soldier, Sam (Doug McClure). The other Anderson boys include Charles RobinsonJim McMullan and Tim McIntire. Maybe the best thing you can say about the story is that the family dynamic, it just works. You believe them as one cohesive unit, one that stands together through thick and thin.

But wait, there’s more! Also look for George Kennedy as a sympathetic Union officer, Gene Jackson as Gabriel, a friend of Boy’s, a slave, Paul Fix as the local doctor, Denver Pyle as the pastor, James Best as Carter, a fellow prisoner who takes Boy under his wing, Harry Carey Jr. as another Confederate prisoner, Tom Simcox as Lt. Johnson, a Confederate officer, with Kevin HagenDabbs Greer and Strother Martin also playing small but memorable parts.

So 32-year old me certainly picked up some new things, or at least was able to process things differently. This is one hell of an anti-war flick. The portrayal of the latter stages of the Civil War is unsettling and often times, disturbing. Death awaits around every corner, hiding behind every tree. The lines are up in the air as the war takes a turn toward its ultimate conclusion. A late battle between a small Confederate camp and a larger Union force with heavy artillery is quick and awful and uncomfortable, one of the more underrated battle sequences I can think of. The last half hour especially features one kick in the gut after another that truly hammers home the anti-war message. And that last scene? Pretty perfect, the possibility of hope lingering in the air amongst all this pain and suffering and death. One of my favorite movies.

Shenandoah (1965): ****/****

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): ***/****