The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Writing reviews about World War II, I’ve watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII’s outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They’ll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), ‘Heroes’ is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn’t yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a “nice” factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. ‘Heroes’ is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There’s no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it’s about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, ‘Heroes’ doesn’t have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard’s Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there’s little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He’s prim and proper and interested in the bottom line — the success of the mission — more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint.

The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson’s right-hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy HerbertGraham StewartJohn Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newley, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, ‘Heroes’ follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England…..dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed ‘Cockleshell,’ as Stringer’s team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It’s here where I started to question. If I didn’t know this was in fact a real mission, I’d say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I’ve always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <—documentary (1955): ***/****


Stalag 17 (1953)

Well, there are just certain movies I should have reviewed by now. I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions how much I like prisoner of war movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, but the first one to really put the WWII sub-genre came along in 1953, Stalag 17, a classic that doesn’t always get its due.

It’s nearing Christmas in 1944, and a breakout is planned in Stalag 17, a German prisoner of war camp deep in Germany for Allied fliers. The night of the escape, the two prisoners making the attempt are machine gunned outside the barbed wire fence, leaving the prisoners they left behind in Barracks 4 to question what’s going on. How did the Germans know details of the escape? The prisoners look to J.J. Sefton (William Holden) as the culprit, a possible stoolie who trades and bargains with the German captors for all sorts of luxuries from eggs to cigarettes to booze. Maybe Sefton has been giving away all their secrets for his own benefit, but Sefton knows otherwise. He may be a chiseler, but he’s not a traitor. The problem is simple though, he can’t prove it. Who among the other prisoners in Barracks 4 is the real culprit? He’s going to need an answer and need it quick before his bunkmates decide they’ve had enough of him for good.

From director Billy Wilder, ‘Stalag’ is a gem of a film, one of my favorites going back to when I was a kid. It was based on a Broadway play that had 472 showings over its run. The stage-based play roots are obvious, but in a good way. Filmed in a very appropriate, very effective black and white, ‘Stalag’ is set almost entirely in Barracks 4 as the story develops, Christmas approaching ever quicker. The only departures we have from the barracks are outside into the camp compound. We never leave the camp, the entire story based in Stalag 17. The crowded, claustrophobic barracks becomes another character with the bunks almost bumping into each other, the windows with the frost and ice sticking to the panes, the clothes hanging from lines hung from wall to wall. Franz Waxman‘s uncredited score is solid as well if underplayed, Johnny Coming Marching Home a key component of the story as well.

One of three nominations the movie received went to William Holden as Barracks 4 chiseler and general trouble-maker J.J. Sefton. Nominated for his part in Sunset Boulevard but not winning, Holden got a much-deserved win here, taking home the Oscar. More impressive? He was going up against Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Holden brings this character to life, a less than sympathetic but still appealing individual who’s decided to make the most of his prisoner of war status. He’s going to live in comfort, and if that means dealing/trading with his German captors, then so be it. It’s not an issue until his bunkmates decide he’s the traitor giving the Germans all their secrets. This is where Holden’s acting steps up a notch, a desperate man now fighting for his survival instead of his personal comfort. Not often remembered as one of his best, but it’s a goodie.

Holden’s performance comes as part of a very solid ensemble cast that doesn’t feature a ton of A-list stars, instead turning to a group of familiar character actors. Start with Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Harry Shapiro, the barracks cut-ups, Richard Erdman as Hoffy, the barracks chief, Peter Graves as Price, barracks security, Neville Brand as Duke, the hothead, and Gil Stratton as Cookie, Sefton’s mousey assistant, and Robinson Stone, Robert Shawley, and William Pierson rounding out the bunch. Don Taylor co-stars as Lt. Dunbar, a prisoner in transit who comes under SS questioning, Jay Lawrence his impersonating, smart-mouthed traveling companion, Sgt. Bagradian. The comedy between Animal and Harry gets to be a little much at times, Bagradian’s impersonations a little forced, but as a collective whole it’s a good, strong, deep group of interesting characters.

It is hard to watch this without seeing the obvious influences some 10-plus years later with TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Director Otto Preminger stars as Von Scherbach, the Stalag commander, an old-school German aristocrat and gentleman while Sig Ruman plays barracks guard Sgt. Schulz, a VERY obvious influence on John Banner’s famous Sgt. Schultz character in the TV show.

An episodic story that clocks in at exactly 120 minutes, there really isn’t a slow moment in Wilder’s Stalag 17. In directing his film, Wilder decided to shoot chronologically so that way the cast and crew wouldn’t know the twist — the identity of the barracks traitor — until the end of filming. The first hour or so of the movie blends the drama and comedy nicely setting up the second half of the movie. As the barracks traitor story comes to the forefront, that’s when ’17’ is at its best. The last 30 minutes are pretty perfect, Holden’s Sefton starting to piece the clues together in a great couple scenes, Wilder’s talent fully on display in shooting style, while the actual reveal and the finale are spot-on. This is a movie that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, but it sure deserves it. One of my favorites.

Stalag 17 (1953): ****/****

The Great Escape (1963)

I have two favorite movies, neither of which I’m able to pick one over the other.  I love them both, and all other movies come after it, first is 1960’s The Alamo which I’ve reviewed before and then there’s 1963’s The Great Escape. Introduced to it at a young age when I showed an interest in history, I’ve probably seen it 25 or 30 times straight through, and another 75 or 100 catching bits and pieces. For me, it is that rare perfect movie. Great story, impressive cast, exciting action, and one of the best soundtracks ever. You can’t ask for much more.

In World War II, both the Allies and Axis forces had to deal with how to handle prisoners of wars. In Germany, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was placed in charge of these Allied prisoners, placing them in P.O.W. camps all over their occupied territory. These prisoners — as was their sworn duty — tried countless escapes over the length of the war in typically small groups, sometimes getting as many as a dozen out. But one true story set the bar for heroism and courage among the prisoners, the true story of 76 prisoners escaping Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Literally hundreds of prisoners were involved in the effort as the escape even had an impact on D-Day some three months later.

It’s 1943, and a new prison camp has been built. The German Luftwaffe has taken the worst prisoners from all their camps and thrown them in this new camp that features all the security aspects they’ve learned from previous camps.  In this “perfect” camp, the Germans (Hannes Messemer is the commandant) intend to watch these men very carefully. Leading the prisoners is Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), dubbed ‘Big X’ for his leadership at the top of the ‘X Organization,’ a team of prisoners working together to bust out as many captured soldiers as they can. Bartlett has bigger plans though this time around. Instead of just getting two or three prisoners out, he intends to get 250 out of the camp with a large-scale plan that includes three extremely long tunnels under the barbed-wire fence. The plan seems impossible, but the prisoners go to work, slowly working their way toward escape.

Do you know the line ‘They don’t make them like they used to?’ This movie applies. Director John Sturges (one of my favorites and an underrated filmmaker overall) turns in his all-time best film, one that stands at or near the top in the lexicon of World War II movies. It is based in fact, sticking to the details and truths in the story, without getting bogged down.  There is action, humor (never overplayed, just natural humor arising from the situation), and characters you love and are generally rooting for. Composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a score that is one of the greats, especially the main theme, listen HERE. Bernstein’s score both drives the story as needed and keeps it grounded in the quieter, emotional scenes (including one where a tunnel is discovered and its tragic consequences).  Sturges filmed in Germany — as his assistant said, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’ An entire camp was built, an exact duplicate of the actual camp, bringing this 1963 epic up another notch in terms of realism and authenticity.

Sturges’ movies were famous for their male-dominated ensemble casts, but this may be his most impressive. Start with Steve McQueen as Hilts, the motorcycle-riding ‘Cooler King,’ the role that shot him to international stardom. Then there’s James Garner as Hendley, the scrounger, and Attenborough as Bartlett, the prisoner’s top man, a brilliant mind who comes up with this improbable plan. Not bad, huh? Oh yeah, there’s also James Donald as Ramsey, the senior British officer, Charles Bronson and John Leyton as Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings, James Coburn as Sedgwick, the manufacturer, Donald Pleasence as Blythe, the forger, David McCallum as Ashley-Pitt, “dispersal,” and Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the intelligence officer. Other prisoners include Nigel StockJud Taylor and Angus Lennie in a small but essential part as Ives, Hilt’s progressively wire-happy partner. A more impressive cast could be impossible to assemble.

What is amazing is that even with all those stars — some on the rise, some already established — is that they all register, they all make a lasting impression in a positive way. More on McQueen later, but Attenborough delivers a career-best as Big X, the driven even obsessed leader who wants to take the war back to the Germans, not sitting out the war comfortably as his captors intend. Garner’s Hendley bonds with Pleasence’s Blythe in some of the movie’s most touching scenes, two very different people forming a friendship. Bronson and Leyton as the tunnel kings certainly make an impression, carving three tunnels out of the Earth 30 feet below the surface. Bronson is at his best, a Polish flyer with claustrophobia who hides his fear of small, enclosed spaces and digs. Coburn doesn’t get a ton to do compared to the others, but is his usual, laconic self. There is not a weakness in the cast from top to bottom.

When movie fans think of The Great Escape, they usually go right to Steve McQueen, a rising star who got his crack at the big time here and didn’t disappoint.  His Capt. Virgil Hilts is one of his most iconic roles, the loner, trouble-making American prisoner who attempts escape attempt after attempt.  What’s funny is that his character basically disappears for vast stretches of the movie, only to reappear after a stint in the cooler and steal every scene he is in. This is McQueen at his laid back, scene-stealing best. With all the notable actor’s actors around him, he is the unquestioned star thanks in great part to the finale, a motorcycle chase across Germany with his captors in hot pursuit. It is one of the greatest chases sequences ever, caped with one of the most impressive stunts ever, a 7-foot jump by stunt man Bud Ekins over a high-strung barbed-wire fence. McQueen is my favorite, but this is always his best to me.

With a final run-time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, Sturges’ true story doesn’t have to rush along at a lightning pace…but does anyway. The first 105 minutes or so focus exclusively on the escape attempt, putting all the little details together that need to happen. The first and biggest of course is the digging of the tunnels, 30 feet down and over 300 feet straight out. A track is built to transport prisoners/diggers, and wooden boards are needed to shore up the entire length of the tunnel. Up above, forgers create documents, tailors make clothes, Intelligence gathers information, all part of an elaborate system of security and watchmen to make sure nothing is discovered by their ever-vigilant German guards. It would have been easy for this movie to get bogged down in these details, but The Great Escape revels in them, making the mundane and possibly boring, exciting at a breakneck pace.

It is a movie called ‘The Great Escape’ though, and it is at its most exciting once the prisoners do escape, 76 of them in the dead of night spread out all over the German countryside. The escape attempt covers the last hour of the movie, an incredible extended sequence that is hard to top. It is almost entirely dialogue free, Bernstein’s score playing over the action the whole way. Finally free of their camp, the prisoners make their efforts to hopefully reach freedom, some by train, some by bikes, others by planes, and in Hilts’ case, a stolen German motorcycle.  Sturges was an action master, and this may be his tour de force sequence.

I could go on and on with this movie, and I’ve already sort of done so. My head is full of little tidbits of information that I’ve picked up over the course of repeated viewings.  Above all else through the drama, the facts, and the action is that Sturges gets the tone right from Paul Brickhill’s source novel, and most importantly, the true story it is based on. These men did the impossible in an impossible situation. Knowing their chances of escape back to freedom were slim, they plodded on when they could have just as easily quit. If you didn’t know and just read the details — check out the Wikipedia entry HERE for more details — you would say there’s no way this happened, but somehow, some way, it did. The ending hits you square in the stomach as it should, but the movie ends on a positive note; McQueen’s Hilts once again in the cooler, bouncing his baseball off the wall.  You may capture him again, but you’ll never stop him from trying.

A perfect movie, one of the best around, and one of my two favorite movies.

The Great Escape <—trailer (1963): ****/****


Up Periscope (1959)

up-periscopeWith the premier of Maverick on TV in 1957, star James Garner became a huge star across America. He wasn’t limited to television roles though, quickly transitioning to feature film roles as well. One of his earlier efforts as he rose to fame was a World War II submarine story, 1959’s Up Periscope.

It’s 1942 and the U.S. is beginning to push back against the Japanese in the Pacific. With an invasion of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands forthcoming, a U.S. Navy frogman, Lt. Kenneth Braden (Garner) has been assigned an incredibly dangerous mission. Allied intelligence hasn’t been able to break a key Japanese code so Braden will be a passenger on the USS Barracuda, a submarine led by Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). The sub will sneak him onto a Japanese-held island where Braden will steal/photograph the code without being discovered. Meanwhile, the sub will wait off-shore until Braden can accomplish the mission. Can he though against nearly impossible odds?

Not remembered as one of the submarine genre classics that came out in waves following WWII, ‘Periscope’ is a solid if not flashy entry that’s worth a watch. Is the mission itself pretty goofy? You bet it is! But it’s exciting and features a strong cast, especially up at the top. Director Gordon Douglas had a string of these movies over the 1950s and 1960s, none of them considered classics but almost all of them damn entertaining.

Garner may always be remembered most for his starring TV roles, notably Maverick and The Rockford Files. To a newer film audience, probably for his key part in The Notebook! As a younger actor, Garner was as steady as they come. The Great Escape is my favorite Garner part, mostly because he makes it look so easy. That’s the case here. Garner’s Braden is cool, underplayed and ready for whatever the mission can throw at him. He’s not GI Joe though either (thankfully), just a capable officer who knows potentially what awaits him (he’s told not to get captured on the Japanese-held island). For lack of a better description, Garner is/was almost always likable on-screen. That’s certainly on display here.

Talk about two underrated actors, Garner and Edmond O’Brien are excellent together. Far from friendly, just two officers trying to do their job. O’Brien’s Stevenson is coming off a patrol that saw one of his crew die, maybe in needlessly cautious fashion. Fresh off the patrol, the crew is less than trusting. The veteran commander has to prove himself, both to himself and to his crew, all while trying to go by the book in a nearly impossible mission. Rock and a hard place for sure. Their chemistry though is excellent, heated and uncomfortable at times but never forced.

Among the crew, Alan Hale Jr. – pre-Gilligan’s Island – is a scene-stealer as Lt. Malone, a fun-loving and long-time ensign who everyone likes. There are also parts for Carleton Carpenter, William Leslie, Richard Bakalyan, Edd Byrnes, Henry Kulky and uncredited parts for Bernie Hamilton and Warren Oates (his first movie role). Slow-going early as we meet Garner’s Braden romancing Andra Martin’s Sally Johnson. Thankfully, there’s a twist in store for this kinda forced love story. Not your typical love story forcibly jammed into a war story!

All the war conventions are there here in ‘Periscope,’ the claustrophobic setting, the tension-ridden encounters with the enemy, both above and below the water, and that all-too familiar ping of the radar echoing through the conning tower. It’s in the last 45 minutes as Braden sneaks onto the island where the movie especially hits its groove. Stevenson and the Barracuda wait at the bottom of the island’s lagoon, their fresh air running out with each passing minute. A bit of a secret agent mixed with a submarine war story. A nice, little mix!

Worth a watch, especially for fans of the WWII, submarine and adventure genre! Also worth mentioning, the score borrows from Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. score from 1945’s Objective, Burma! which would also be sampled 3 years later in Merrill’s Marauders. It’s a good score so it’s definitely not a bad thing.

Up Periscope (1959): ** ½ /****


Operation Pacific (1951)

operation-pacificThe buzz for the World War II submarine movie truly picked up in the mid 1950’s and has been a consistent source for solid to entertaining to classic flicks ever since. The first true gem was 1943’s Destination Tokyo, but getting in on the formula before it truly took off, here’s 1951’s Operation Pacific.

It’s 1943 and American forces are pushing back against Japan in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. One submarine, the USS Thunderfish, is commanded by Commander Pop Perry (Ward Bond), with his second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Duke Gifford (John Wayne). Both experienced submariners, the duo has a strong, reliable crew. When back in port, Gifford is trying to reunite with his ex-wife, Mary (Patricia Neal), who’s now working as a nurse in a naval hospital. Out in the Pacific though, the war is up for grabs, and the Thunderfish and countless other American submarines are working to fix malfunctioning torpedoes that are not exploding on contact.

This 1951 WWII flick from director George Waggner is never mentioned as one of Wayne’s best films. Instead, it’s one of those movies that his fans and war movie fans will like, but ‘Operation’ won’t be remembered as a classic by any means. It clocks in at 111 minutes and is a little slow-moving at times but mostly entertaining, especially because of the three leads. Later submarine movies are more fondly remembered, but this one’s pretty good, if flawed.

Wayne and Bond were best friends on and off the screen, and their chemistry always shines through when they’re starring together. By 1951, Wayne was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, a trend that would continue for years. He’s the out and out American hero here, saving babies and nuns, defeating the Japanese navy with some gutsy decisions, and being a cool dude too (because that never hurts). Bond is excellent in an underplayed part, the veteran commander who has an inkling he knows what’s wrong with the malfunctioning torpedoes.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the love story slows things down to a snail’s pace. Wayne and Neal have some strong chemistry, which is funny because Neal apparently DID NOT get along with Wayne during filming. It doesn’t show. Their scenes together are solid, and Neal doesn’t get overshadowed, more than holding her own against the Duke. Still, their history simply isn’t that interesting, the problems they had never really get fixed, and you still know he’s gonna get the girl in the end.

In the supporting cast, look for Philip Carey as Lt. Bob Perry, Pop’s little brother, a fighter pilot, and a rival to Duke for Mary’s heart (but you know how that’ll go). As for the Thunderfish crew, look for Scott Forbes, Paul Picerni, William Campbell, Martin Milner, Jack Pennick and Sam Edwards. It’s especially cool to see Pennick get more screentime – and even some lines! – as Chief, the Thunderfish’s veteran chief petty officer who helps develop the officers and keep the crew together. Not a big part, but a worthwhile one.

‘Operation’ is at its stongest when it is in the Pacific with the Thunderfish out on patrols. Not a ton of action, but what’s there is enjoyable. A lot of tension, some good twists and turns, and one genuine shock about a character’s demise. Nothing flashy, but a good, old-fashioned war flick with the Duke and Ward Bond leading the way.

Operation Pacific (1951): ** ½ /****


36 Hours (1964)

36_hours_movieposterOne of the greatest secrets in the history of the world is remarkable to fathom even now, some 70 years later. That secret? The Allies ability to keep the location of the D-Day landings under wraps despite the extreme efforts in the German intelligence field to deduce the location. It was a moment(s) in time that literally changed history. One of the more underrated World War II movies ever made covers the topic from the intelligence perspective, 1964’s 36 Hours.

It’s late May 1944 and the impending Allied invasion of the European mainland is on everyone’s mind. Where will the Allies land? Will it be at Pas-de-Calais? At Normandy? And when? Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner), an American intelligence officer, is one of the few who knows the truth, who knows all the details of the coming invasion. Unfortunately, German intelligence knows his status too and kidnaps him while he’s meeting a contact in Lisbon. Their plan? A German doctor, Major Gerber (Rod Taylor), has developed an incredibly in-depth plot to get Pike to reveal where the coming invasion will take place. Gerber intends to convince Pike that it’s 1950 and the war is long since over. There’s no way he could pull it off, is there?

The history behind the story in this 1964 WWII espionage thriller is fascinating in itself. An invasion featuring hundreds of thousands of troops and materiel, planes, tanks, guns, food and ships that would start the road to the beginning of the war was kept under wraps for months despite Herculean efforts of the German intelligence staff to procure the truth. What better basic premise to spin off of for a criminally underrated World War II movie?

I’ve seen this movie three, maybe four times and come away more impressed each time. I don’t want to give too much away featuring Gerber’s plans to confuse and manipulate Pike into giving away the site of the D-Day landings, but let it be said…I would have fallen for the plan. Hair dye, newspapers, records and radio stations, hundreds of actors at a U.S. hospital in post-war Germany, the effort is staggering. The key though is the details, with Taylor and Eva Marie Saint representing the point people on the dupe. Posing as an American doctor and a nurse with a tortured past from the war, the success of the mission depends on the duo’s ability to pull off the ruse. Just sit back and watch their plan develop. It is amazingly entertaining — and uncomfortable — to watch.

The 1960’s were a heck of a time for Garner (in between hit TV shows), and he delivers an excellent performance here. He is the viewer, holding a valuable piece of information, but not quite sure what’s going on. His Pike is highly-trained and highly-intelligent so there’s no way this German effort to trick him works, right? Right?!? Half the fun here is going for the ride and seeing him start to piece things together. Taylor similarly gives a fascinating part as Gerber. He’s not an evil doctor, not a bloodthirsty Nazi, but an intelligent, well-meaning doctor who clearly thinks so outside the box. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Garner is what holds the movie together, Taylor beautifully underselling his part as he tries to deduce a secret that potentially turns the tide of the war. Excellent lead performances from 2 of my favorite actors.

The third lead performance is a gem too, Eva Marie Saint as Anna, a concentration camp survivor enlisted as part of the plan because of her ability to speak English. In bits and pieces, we discover her tortured past, that past tearing her up inside as to what to do concerning Pike and Gerber. She’s got excellent chemistry with both Garner and Taylor, the trio dominating the 115-minute run-time. Also look for Werner Peters as the SS officer tasked with “overseeing” Gerber and his plan, an expertly creepy part, and John Banner as a German home guard soldier, an interesting part a year away from his debut as dimwitted Sergeant Schultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes.

If there’s a weakness in ‘Hours,’ it’s in the last 40 minutes. The tension and mystery early is classic, an easy 4-star review. But once some twists and turns are revealed, the story limps along to the finish. It just can’t sustain the momentum built up over the first 75 minutes. Still, this George Seaton-directed thriller is worth it for that first half alone, especially with a Dmitri Tiomkin score and beautiful black-and-white filming in Yosemite National Park (standing in for Germany!). Give it a watch for sure.

36 Hours (1964): ***/****



Against the Wind

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): ***/****