Mister Roberts (1955)

mister_roberts_281955_movie_poster29By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.

A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).

You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.

Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.

Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.

The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.

In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.

Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****

 

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The Green Berets (1968)

green_berets_postOne of America’s most iconic and well-loved actors, John Wayne was never one to pull punches, especially when it came to his personal politics and beliefs. Nowhere was that more evident than his 1968 film The Green Berets, a film that earned a fair amount of money and has been ripped pretty uniformly in the almost 50 years since its release.

As the fighting intensifies in Vietnam, Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne), a Green Beret officer, is prepping to go in-country with two A-Teams of Special Forces soldiers. Also along with the troops is an American journalist, George Beckworth (David Janssen), who questions why American troops are even involved in Vietnam to begin with. He tags along with Kirby and the Green Berets as they build a base camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. As the new arrivals help strengthen the camp, Beckworth is in for an eye-opening trip.

I wrote a review for this 1968 movie years ago on Amazon and struggled then with what to see about it. After watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Vietnam these past few months, I’m struggling even more. I’ll watch any Wayne movie basically – and this one is entertaining – but it’s tough to watch. You don’t think a lot about propaganda movies from the 1960s, but this certainly qualifies. Its views on the war are uncomfortable and entirely one-sided, clearly an effort to convince American viewers what the fighting in Vietnam was really like. The results? Mixed to negative to hated depending on the reviews.

The only solution I can come up with? ‘Berets’ is more watchable if you look at it as an effort to highlight the ability of our Special Forces soldiers and their varying capabilities. It is a heck of a time capsule to the late 60s, dated and somewhat blind to just about anything going on in the world. Still, certain moments resonate, most of them having to do with the heroic actions of our soldiers. Heavy-handed? Obvious? Rigid? Yeah, ‘Berets’ bats 3-for-3 in those departments.

Some of the more superficial complaints about the movie are the ages of the cast. Wayne was almost 60 at the time, and yes, obviously a 59-year old man wouldn’t be leading a Green Beret team into combat. The same for the entire cast. If that’s your deal-breaker, you’re already in trouble here. Wayne is okay as Kirby, but it’s nothing flashy. Janssen is us, the viewer, questioning and struggling to grapple with any potential moral dilemmas. Wayne’s Kirby is telling us which way to think, detailing the horrors of war and the atrocities committed in a war unlike the world had ever seen.

The supporting cast has some interesting faces, but the movie isn’t really interested in hard-hitting, in-depth characterizations. Jim Hutton plays Sgt. Petersen, a scrounger attached to Kirby’s A-teams. Some lighter comedic moments, including one especially heavy-handed effort as Petersen quasi-adopts an orphaned Vietnamese boy (Craig Jue). Subtle it is not! Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques play veteran Green Berets, Muldoon and Doc.

Plenty of other familiar faces rounding out the troops, including Bruce Cabot, George Takei, Patrick Wayne, Luke Askew, Edward Faulkner, Jason Evers, Mike Henry, Chuck Roberson and Rudy Robbins. Takei delivers an interesting part as a South Vietnamese officer with Askew also memorable as Sgt. Provo, a volunteer on the team with an interesting conundrum.

Watching ‘Berets’ is easier when you try and ignore the Vietnam War angle and just look at the story as a more traditional war story with plenty of stock characters, story conventions and genre features. An attack on the fire-base camp by thousands of VC and North Vietnamese troops highlights the middle of the movie, an extended sequence that runs about 25 minutes. Uncomfortable, violent and with some shocking moments to boot. A later mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general feels tacked on to end the story on a more pleasant note, featuring supporting parts for Jack Soo and Irene Tsu.

Also, worth mentioning is composer Miklos Rozsa’s score with some familiar notes from King of Kings and Ben-Hur (listen HERE). I’m not going to completely rip this movie. I’ve always found it entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It hasn’t aged well and was released at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it was filmed before the Tet offensive when American opinion truly started to shift against involvement in South Vietnam. Timing? She can be a bitch to deal with!

 The Green Berets (1968): ** ½ /****

An Eye for an Eye (1966)

An Eye for an EyeThe wild west gunslinger is one of the most iconic archetypes to come out of the western genre, right up there with the cowboy and the cavalry trooper. But how about a more specific gunfighter? I’m thinking the disabled gunfighter, undone by wounds, disease, and any number of other plights. With 1966’s An Eye for an Eye, we don’t get one…but two disabled gunfighters!

An infamous bounty hunter, Talion (Robert Lansing) has given up his career with guns and started a family. An enemy from his past though, bloodthirsty Ike Slant (Slim Pickens), isn’t having it though, raping Talion’s wife, then killing her and their son, burning the house down on the way out. Swearing revenge, Talion picks up the gunman’s trail, eventually meeting a younger bounty hunter, Benny Wallace (Patrick Wayne) along the way. They form an uneasy partnership to track down and kill Slant and the two gunfighters riding with him. Their plan goes awry though, forcing the two unlikely partners to depend on each other far more than they ever anticipated. Can they put their rivalry aside to get Slant?

An interesting little western. Definitely a B-western with a smaller budget and cast, ‘Eye’ is still an entertaining, different western entry. I first rented it on Netflix years ago and recently recorded an airing on TCM. It’s not a classic, but it holds up. A second unit director predominantly, director Michael Moore (not that Michael Moore) works off a script from Bing Russell, a familiar face western fans will have seen in The Horse Soldiers and countless other TV westerns. It’s pretty traditional overall but rises above with a nice twist delivered near the halfway point. Stop your reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.

That nice twist? In a showdown with Slant and two gunmen, Talion’s gun-hand is crippled and Benny is blinded by a wayward bullet. Slant escapes, only to find out later that the bounty hunter duo is basically helpless and would be easy targets. Needing each other more than ever, Talion and Benny devise a plan where the crippled gunman calls out where the target is as if that target was a specific time on a clock, Benny doing the shooting. Pretty cool, huh? I thought so. It’s unique and different from just about any other western I’ve seen. It gets definite points for originality. End of relative spoilers.

Neither Lansing or Wayne had huge star power, but we’re talking two very capable western/action actors. I like Lansing’s Talion and the edge he brings to the part. Wayne — often overshadowed by his Dad, the Duke, nicely holds his own here. He does very well physically as the blinded bounty hunter, but he gets to show off his acting chops a bit (if a little overdone with one unnecessary twist late). As for Pickens, he looks to be having a ball as the villain, hamming it up and enjoying his turn as a bad guy. You realize he often played likable sidekicks, not getting many villainous roles.

Also look for the always welcome Paul Fix as a store owner in an isolated mountain town, working with his daughter (Gloria Talbott) and precocious son (a young Clint Howard). Another recognizable face, Strother Martin, gets to work the middle as a greedy gunhand who works for whoever pays him. A little slow-going at times as Talion meets (and sorta woos) Talbott’s Bri, but it’s never too slow. It definitely builds up the tension to the inevitable showdowns.

Something likable about this little-known western. Doesn’t rewrite the genre, but seems to enjoy throwing a new wrench into a familiar formula. Snow-capped, windy filming locations in Lone Pine, California definitely add to the mood. Worth a watch for western fans. I’m seeing different running times listed — avoid the “full movie” on Youtube at 76 minutes — but both versions I saw clocked in at about 95 minutes. Just a hopefully helpful FYI!

An Eye for an Eye (1966): ** 1/2 /****

The Deserter (1971)

the-deserterAs a freshman in college, I stumbled across the cast listing. That jumped to Amazon to see if the movie was available. Sure enough, a beat-up VHS tape was there and fairly cheap. Fast forward a couple weeks to Thanksgiving break — when I got home and a VHS player was available — and I got to sit down with a movie and cast that just sounded too good to be true. Verdict on 1971’s The Deserter? Brutally underrated, a ton of fun and deserves far more of a reputation.

After his wife is brutally murdered by Apaches, Captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) shoots and wounds his commanding officer and deserts, going on a rampage killing Apaches. Two years later, the cavalry needs him and comes calling. An Apache chief is assembling a huge raiding party of Apache warriors below the border in Mexico with his attack looming, an assault that could wipe out hundreds. Kaleb’s mission is simple. He must recruit a small squad of men — specialists and troublemakers alike — and train them to fight like an Apache before leading them into Mexico to attack the Apache camp before it’s too late. Can Kaleb pull off the mission? Will anyone even get out alive?

For me, westerns with this formula don’t get much better than this. A western version of The Dirty Dozen, ‘Deserter’ is simply a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is crazy, especially when you assemble all those stars and recognizable faces for a men-on-a-mission flick. The formula is as straightforward as they get. Establish the mission, assemble a team, can the team pull off the suicidal mission and get out? Filmed in Spain and Italy (even Yugoslavia), ‘Deserter’ isn’t quite a spaghetti western, but it certainly has the feel of it. If you’re even a remote fan of the western genre, I guarantee you’ll get at least some entertainment value here. If not, I’ve got nothing for you…

A Yugoslavian actor who never quite made it big in the U.S., Fehmiu is an unlikely choice for the lead role as the vengeful anti-hero. Still, I come away impressed each time I watch the movie from director Burt Kennedy. Fehmiu is cold, harsh and brutally efficient at getting the job done. In undertaking the mission, he’s getting revenge hopefully. Nothing more, nothing less. Somewhat wooden at times, Fehmiu benefits from a script dripping with memorable one-liners, a script from western regular and always reliable Clair Huffaker. As for the rest of the cast….oh my. Just oh my.

What follows isn’t necessarily A-list stars, but instead, recognizable genre stars, character actors, and an all-around energy to fill out Kaleb’s death squad. There’s Richard Crenna as Brown, Kaleb’s former commander and rival, Chuck Connors as Reynolds, the bible-thumping Chaplain and dynamite expert, Ricardo Montalban as Natchai, the Indian scout, Slim Pickens as Tattinger, the wily veteran scout, Ian Bannen as Crawford, the British officer scouting the Southwest, Brandon de Wilde as Ferguson, the inexperienced young officer, Woody Strode as Jackson, the troublesome strongman, Patrick Wayne as Robinson, the Gatling Gun specialist, Albert Salmi as Schmidt, the vengeful sergeant, Fausto Tozzi as Orozco, the knife fighter, Doc Greaves as Scott, the sergeant, John Alderson as O’Toole, the fiesty Irishman, and Larry Stewart as the younger of the 2 Robinson brothers.

Other than some quick Kaleb exposition — he’s a dynamite man, a knife fighter, a Gatling gun specialist — we’re given little information about these men. We don’t need it though. It’s a specialist movie on an impossible mission. Who’s gonna make it? Who’s not? There’s some impressive star power so the guessing game will keep you guessing until the end. It did for me! Oh, and John Huston has a memorable turn as General Miles, the new cavalry commander who has to send Kaleb and his squad on the suicide mission. Under-utilized? Too much going on? Maybe, but it is F-U-N.

What are spaghetti westerns usually synonymous with? Their musical scores. No Ennio Morricone here, but composer Piero Piccioni brings his A-game in an often odd/bizarre score that resonates each time I check ‘Deserter’ out. Check out an extended sample HERE. The jazzy, playful theme is catchy as hell, but I love its quieter moments with an orchestra playing a soft, moving, mournful theme. Like I said, an odd combination but one that works.

So what else? The action isn’t overdone here with a couple little fights sprinkled here and there early. The extended training sequence has some fun surprises in store with the action — and mounting casualty report — kicking in over the last 30 minutes as the mission gets underway. Loud, chaotic and bullet-dynamite-knife-Gatling Gun riddled finale that does not disappoint. As I mentioned, the script is a gem of memorable one-liners (check some out HERE) in a story with dark undertones but some lighter, clever moments too along the way.

A hidden gem for me, and one of my favorites. I would love to see a widescreen print of the movie, having only seen pan-n-scan VHS copies and a public domain DVD that cut about 6 minutes off the finale run-time I saw on the VHS. If you can track a copy down, I highly recommend it. As far as entertainment value goes, this one is hard to beat.

The Deserter (1971): ***/****