Attack (1956)

Attack 1956As long as there have been wars, there have been anti-war films. When I think of waves of anti-war films though, I start to think of the late 1960’s, especially in the U.S. as Americans grew disillusioned with the Vietnam War. But how about an early anti-war effort from the 1950’s that was ahead of its time in so many ways? Here’s 1956’s Attack.

It’s 1944 and Allied forces are advancing all over Europe on German forces. One infantry unit is dealing with a command issue though, especially as the fighting intensifies. Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) is a platoon commander in an infantry company commanded by the cowardly Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). In a recent engagement, Cooney’s outright cowardice and indecision cost the lives of an entire squad when he refused to commit a reserve to the fighting. As Costa tries to decide what to do, the Germans attack all along the front (the battle of the Bulge), pushing the American forces back. Can Costa hold his men together, or will Cooney’s inability to command cost the lives of even more men?

From director Robert Aldrich, this 1956 World War II movie is an oft-forgotten gem. Based off a Norman Brooks play, it never gets the credit it deserves for the truly dark, honest look it takes at war. These are normal, everyday soldiers trying to get through the war unscathed. These aren’t super-men single-handedly winning the war. Their commander’s general ineptitude at everything he does has some of the men, especially Costa, considering shooting Cooney because no one in the command system will do anything. The commanders are either inept or self-serving while the enlisted men simply want to survive the war.

In a career that featured one memorable tough guy performance after another, Palance delivers one of his best here. His Lt. Joe Costa is as tough as hell and an ideal platoon commander, but he’s human too. After years of fighting, all the death is starting to wear on him, especially when there was potential to stop those deaths. His Costa becomes obsessed with stopping Cooney, no matter how and no matter the consequences. Eddie Albert is frighteningly good as the inept Cooney, a company commander with some serious emotional issues, from alcoholism to daddy issues to fear of failure to…well, just about anything you can think of. Two amazingly different but incredibly memorable parts.

Aldrich had a knack for assembling some damn good casts, and though ‘Attack’ doesn’t have a ton of star power, it’s a damn good cast. In one of his first major roles, Lee Marvin is a scene-stealer as Lt. Colonel Clyde Barrett, the battalion commander using Cooney for his pull back home politically. William Smithers is excellent as Lt. Woodruff, Cooney’s executive officer caught in between his commander and the men in the company. The men in Costa’s platoon include Richard Jaeckel, Robert Strauss, John Shepodd, Jim Goodwin and a scene-stealing Buddy Ebsen as Sgt. Tolliver. Also look quick in the opening scene for Strother Martin as an infantry soldier and Peter van Eyck as an SS officer.

Considering the film’s rather dark subject matter and the timing in the Happy Days-esque 1950’s, it’s not surprising that the US Army wanted nothing to do with Aldrich’s film and offered no support. The result? A lower budget, gritty war film shot on the backlots in a Hollywood studio. It works nicely, ‘Attack’ reflecting its stage-based roots with some long dialogue scenes broken up by some surprisingly realistic, chaotic combat scenes. It’s hard not to look at the bombed-out French town and see the similarities with the finale to Saving Private Ryan.

A lot to be said here, ‘Attack’ getting progressively darker and darker with each passing scene. Aldrich leans on his film noir roots for some great uses of darkness and shadow as tensions rise. Even on repeated viewings, I’m surprised where the story ends up going in the final third of a 107-minute movie. It’s never gotten the credit it deserves, but it’s an anti-war classic. A must-watch.

Attack (1956): *** 1/2 /****

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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): ****/****

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

sons_of_katie_elder_1965John Wayne is my all-time favorite. He is, was and always will be the coolest. By the mid 1960’s, he was still one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and around the world. His lifestyle — and smoking packs a day — took its toll though, with production on one of his movies being delayed for several months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One lung and two removed ribs later, Wayne came back with a vengeance, turning in one of his most underrated performances in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder.

It’s been 10 years since gunfighter John Elder (Wayne) has returned home. When he gets word that his mother, Katie, has died, John heads home to Clearwater, Texas. There he finds his three brothers, Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler/cardplayer, Matt (Earl Holliman), a hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest brother and a college student. John and his brothers find out how much things have changed, not only the circumstances that led to Katie’s death, but their father’s death some 6 months earlier. The family ranch is now owned by an aspiring businessman/rancher, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). John intends to find out what happens, righting any wrongs that may have been done on the family, but mostly, he wants to honor Katie and leave the Elder name in a positive way.

This was an interesting turning point in Wayne’s career. The health scare woke the Hollywood legend up in a way. From this point on, Wayne finished his career with more fan-friendly roles. He knew what his fans wanted and delivered. They weren’t always the deepest or most hard-hitting roles — there were exceptions, The Shootist, True Grit, The Cowboys — as Wayne surrounded himself with family, friends and plenty of familiar faces. As for ‘Sons,’ I maintain that it belongs in the list with the trio of movies listed above. It is one of my favorite westerns, not just a John Wayne western.

A lot to recommend here. It’s an old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys western, but there’s more to it (in a big way). From director Henry Hathaway, ‘Sons’ blends familiar western elements and mixes in family drama and a bit of a murder mystery. Now that’s a unique premise! The filming locations in Durango, Mexico are a gem, a beautiful backdrop with cinematographer Lucien Ballard turning in one gorgeous scene after another. Oh, and music composer Elmer Bernstein delivers one of his best, most unheralded scores, including a highly memorable main theme. Give it a listen HERE.

I liked this movie as a kid, but I’ve loved it as an adult. Why’s that? I love the idea of family here, brought to life by Wayne, Martin, Holliman and Anderson. Their chemistry is impeccable. It’s simply perfect, brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and must get back together, reminiscing, bonding, arguing and fighting. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quartet of brothers sitting at their Mom’s house talking…and arguing and even starting a fist fight. Katie ends up being an off-screen character too, a woman you feel like you’ve met by the end of the movie. Family is a key element in countless westerns, but it’s rare it felt this authentic from beginning to end.

It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Oh, that’s Wayne just playing the Duke.’ It’s fair depending on the role you look at. When he did it right though, it was just so perfect. He’s the iconic western hero — flawed but upright, fighting for what’s right, loyal and honest. His John Elder makes it look easy. Martin was always an underrated dramatic actor — just look at his other pairing with Wayne, 1959’s Rio Bravo — and he doesn’t disappoint here as Tom, always ready with a quip or a line or a gimmick. Holliman isn’t flashy, just solid as Matt, the brother who went straight. And Anderson holds his own as young Bud, no easy task with the talent around him.

A pretty cool cast backs up our brothers. James Gregory does what he does best, playing a smarmy, backstabbing villain with George Kennedy as his hired gun, Curley, Dennis Hopper as his bookish son, and Rodolfo Acosta as another enforcer. Martha Hyer plays Mary, a young woman who knew Katie well and tries to tell her boys what an impressive woman their Mom really was. Paul Fix and Jeremy Slate are excellent as Sheriff Billy, a calming, longtime peace officer and Deputy Ben, a hot-headed youngster trying to make his way. Plenty more familiar faces including Strother Martin, John Doucette, John Qualen, Rhys Williams, Sheldon Allman and even Karl Swenson playing dual roles.

At 121 minutes, ‘Sons’ is far from action-packed. There’s actually only one major set-piece, one major gunfight, set at the famously beautiful El Saltito waterfalls in Mexico. The beauty of it all? You don’t need the action. The story builds and builds, the tension growing as we learn the truth of what’s happened. It’s just a gem of a western that doesn’t always get its due. It should though. ‘Sons’ is an underrated classic.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ****/****

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 Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****