Against the Wind (1948)

againstthewindposterWhen is it too early to release a war film? Do you let wounds heal? Do you tell a story regardless of the timing? In the late 1940s, studios around the world had to answer those questions. The war films that were made didn’t often shy from the truth, films like The Best Years of Our Lives, Twelve O’Clock High, Battleground and The Sands of Iwo Jima among others. Here’s one that’s been almost entirely forgotten, short on star power but a good story, 1948’s Against the Wind.

It’s relatively early in World War II. A Catholic priest, Philip (Robert Beatty) walks into a British museum requesting to see a specific office. Everything is not as it seems though. Philip has been recruited to join the Special Operations Execute (S.O.E), a unit placing undercover agents behind enemy lines as well as working with the Resistance in France, Belgium and across Europe. Philip finds himself working with men and women from countless backgrounds and cultures, all with their personal reasons for joining the cause. That cause has low percentages for survival though as these brave men and women will put their lives on the line to get the job done, day after day.

That plot synopsis came across as more positive propaganda than I intended. Touches are there though for sure in this 1948 British war film from director Charles Crichton. Only 3 years removed from the end of WWII, ‘Wind’ goes behind the lines in a story that while dark and atmospheric, it isn’t necessarily hard-hitting. It’s not heavy-handed – thankfully – and is content to tell the story of the brave men and women who risked their lives to aid the war effort. They didn’t fight on the front lines and would never get any headlines for their efforts.

So why is ‘Wind’ so generally forgotten? Well, for one, there are many more British war films that would be released in the 1950s and 1960s with far more star power. Recognizable faces are on display here, but only one big name I would say. Instead, we get an excellent ensemble that more than rises to the occasion. It’s somewhat disjointed early as we get to know our undercover/espionage agents, but it all clicks together once these individuals end up being sent out to their missions.

Who to look for? The biggest name is Simone Signoret in her first English-speaking role. She plays Michele, a Belgian refugee who has to prove herself to her fellow agents because of her past and…well, cuz she’s a woman. Beatty’s Philip is an interesting character who I would have liked to learn more about, a Catholic priest taking advantage of the relative freedoms offered to him as a member of the clergy. Jack Warner is the smooth-talking Max, Gordon Jackson as Jack, the quiet explosives expert, Paul Dupuis as Picquart, the Frenchman working with the Gestapo, Gisele Preville as Julie, precocious and curious, John Slater as Emile, a Frenchman torn between his duty and his family, Peter Illing as Andrew, the veteran agent with plenty of experience, and the always welcome James Robertson Justice as Ackerman, the station chief and commander.

If there’s an issue here, there are too many characters. Most of those mentioned above are more than capable of carrying movies on their own. My biggest criticism is that I would have liked to get to know more about them. Signoret is excellent as Michele, Jackson (later of The Great Escape fame as McDonald) is a quiet scene-stealer as the explosives expert, and Slater as Emile especially stand out. Justice too almost feels like he’s auditioning for his similarly scene-stealing part 14 years later in The Guns of Navarone. Too many interesting characters isn’t a bad thing, just a relative criticism.

The movie really hits its groove in its second half – 96-minute running time – as our agents parachute into Belgium with a variety of missions. Parts of the missions early on almost feel rushed (studio cuts?) until 2 aspects of the mission are revealed. One, there’s a traitor in the group. But who? Two, one agent is captured before he could swallow his suicide capsule and needs to be rescued. Naturally, he’s in a heavily guarded Gestapo prison. The rescue is underplayed and subtle but highly dramatic, incredibly atmospheric and the Belgian locations – filmed in black and white – are stunning to see. Never overdone, the action sequences are quick and harsh, realistic and straightforward. An excellent ending, and an especially strong last 45 minutes.

Also worth mentioning, intended or not. The influences movies like ‘Wind’ had our obvious, in characters, storytelling techniques, twists and turns and plenty of genre conventions. Films like The Train, Army of Shadows, Operation Crossbow and many more all have touches of this underrated British war film released in 1948. As well, Beatty would later play a key role in the espionage-fueled Where Eagles Dare as General Carnaby in 1967. Well worth seeking out.

Against the Wind (1948): ***/****

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The Guns of Navarone (1962)

gunsofnavaroneI love westerns, I love war movies, and throw in some heist flick, sci-fi epics and secret agent movies, and I’m a happy camper. But let’s get a little more specific with my favorite sub-genre across all movies. We’re talking of course of Men on a Mission movies. One of the first and still the best, here’s 1962’s The Guns of Navarone.

It’s 1943 in the Aegean Sea and some 2,000 British soldiers are trapped on the small island of Kheros. The only option to save them is to send six destroyers in the dead of night to rescue them, but there’s a problem. The only route through the sea is defended by two immense, radar-controlled super-guns that are protected in a seemingly impregnable cave on the island of Navarone. With so much on the line, a commando team is sent in to destroy the guns, including Mallory (Gregory Peck), a commando/spy and former mountain climber, Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), a former Greek officer and Mallory’s partner, and Miller (David Niven), an explosives expert. Time is running out though, and the odds are stacked against the team. Can they somehow pull off the suicide mission and save the men on Kheros?

The late 1950s and much of the entire 1960s were packed with epic WWII movies, and ‘Guns’ belongs in that conversation right up at the top. From director J. Lee Thompson and based off a novel by Alistair MacLean, this men-on-a-mission epic has definitely stood the test of time. There are flaws (more later), but as a pure popcorn film full of excitement and adventure, it is hard to beat. Filmed on location in Rhodes and Gozo, it is a beautiful film, fully taking advantage of the widescreen format. The look of a WWII epic can get overshadowed, but it adds an element here. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in an Oscar-nominated score as well, a memorable score with a good theme and familiar notes.

But how about a team of specialists on an impossible mission?!? ‘Guns’ was one of the first films to use that basic premise to its full potential. Countless others followed in the 1960s and have ever since. The formula is simple. Assemble your team of specialists, all with their unique skillset, and give them something highly dangerous and likely deadly to perform. Who makes it out? Will the job get done? There’s nothing too crazy with the premise, but when handled correctly, it’s a gem. It belongs up there with The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare (another MacLean novel) as one of the sub-genre’s best.

This effort succeeds so well because of the casting. On my recent viewing, I came away impressed with Peck’s Mallory more than previous viewings. A capable officer, he’s thrust into an unlikely leadership role that forces him to make some incredibly uncomfortable decisions. An interesting part, and a solid character arc. Quinn is at his understated, scene-stealing best as Andrea Stavrou, a steely-eyed killer who hates the Germans. The Mallory/Stavrou history adds an excellent, mysterious edge to the story as well. And rounding out the lead trio, Niven lends some comedic effort as Miller, the explosives expert who has no real interest in war. Three Hollywood legends, and wouldn’t you know it? They all deliver.

The team also includes Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanical expert and knife fighter, Pappadimos (James Darren), the born killer, and Franklin (Anthony Quayle), the team leader. They’re joined on Navarone by two resistance fighters, Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala). Not enough for you? Plenty of familiar British faces lend supporting parts, including James Robertson Justice, Richard Harris, Percy Herbert, Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and Walter Gotell.

It’s easy to take for granted what an impact ‘Guns’ has had on the action/adventure genre since its release in 1962. The men-on-a-mission angle especially is the key, but it laid the groundwork for so many like-minded movies in the years to come. There are flaws — a touch slow at times, especially the cliff-scaling scene; the Germans seem too stupid for their own good at times — but there are few movies that are as exciting, as fun, and simply put, well-made, as this flick from Thompson and a talented crew.

A classic for a reason. If you haven’t seen it by now, make a point of seeking it out. Hopefully you’ll like it just as much as I did!

The Guns of Navarone (1962): ****/****