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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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): ***/****