The Train (1964)

the_train_posterIn the 1960’s, the war movie was king. More appropriately, the huge, epic, big-budget blockbuster with all-star casts. One of the best though? A film that’s equal parts art house and action-adventure with an immaculate style, impressive action sequences and two great lead performances. One of the best war films ever made, it’s 1964’s The Train.

It’s August 1944 and Allied forces are quickly advancing across France. With the liberation of Paris imminent, a German colonel, Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield), makes a drastic call, commandeering hundreds and thousands of historic paintings from countless famous artists/painters. He intends to transport the priceless art into Germany via a guarded train, potentially saving it from its destruction. The French Resistance is aware of Von Waldheim’s plan and intends to save the priceless art. The resistance leader, a railway supervisor named Labiche (Burt Lancaster), questions the value of saving the art, especially with so many lives on the line. He goes along with it though as the resistance all along the train line readies itself to help the cause. Should they though? Are lives worth art?

Despite growing up on a wave of western and war movies, I didn’t see this movie until I was probably 20 or so. Well, I loved it and I still do. It’s an all-timer. What I’ve found so impressive about this World War II film from director John Frankenheimer is that it balances in impeccable fashion an almost art-house style with an action-heavy story featuring some ridiculously cool stunt sequences that were far ahead of their time. As well, it deftly handles its anti-war message without being overbearing, questioning the value of art and culture compared to a person’s life, or sadly, many people’s lives. A classic that while is universally respected and well-reviewed, still doesn’t get its due. One of the best war movies ever.

The question that drives this WWII story is as simple as that…is it worth it to die for a universally renowned painting? Is it worth for many people, many of them innocent? Lancaster’s Labiche is the conscience of that movie in that sense. He’s seen his resistance group dwindle from 18 to just 3 (including himself) over the years. The seemingly never-ending death has worn him down. He sees no value in risking his life — or those around him — to save a painting(s), no matter how famous. Labiche simply wants to survive, to see his friends survive. It’s only when he’s fully pushed into the situation that he commits to helping the cause, to fully stopping the art-loaded train from reaching Germany.

Even though some of his most respected performances are a tad overdone, Burt Lancaster will always be a personal favorite. I like my Lancaster a little more subdued, like here, his Labiche one of his finest performances. It’s fascinating watching the transformation he makes from unwilling participant to ringleader putting his life on the line. It is a quieter performance, a weary man at wits’ end. Beyond the acting though, this is an incredible physical performance. Lancaster runs across the screen, climbing, leaping, sprinting and dominates the screen, handling most of his own stunts. In one scene, he slides down a ladder, lands, sprints, stops on a dime, reverses course and jumps onto a moving train. Oh, it’s all in one unedited, uncut shot. It’s incredible.

Schofield’s Von Waldheim is the counter, an educated, highly intelligent officer who becomes more and more obsessed with accomplishing his mission. Obsessed is the key word, Labiche his constant thorn in his side. He matches Lancaster scene for scene, constantly countering with every roadblock thrown in his way. Also look for Jeanne Moreau as Christine, a hotel owner wavering over whether to help Labiche, Suzanne Flon as the museum curator trying to get help from the resistance, Michel Simon as Papa Boule, a veteran train conductor who sees what’s on the line on the art train, Wolfgang Preiss as Von Waldheim’s very capable second-in-command, Albert Remy and Charles Millot as Labiche’s fellow resistance fighters, Jacques Marin as a station master along the rail line, and Donald O’Brien as a persistent German sergeant.

Filmed on-location in France, ‘Train’ is a joy to watch. Frankenheimer chose to film in black and white, giving his WWII story a stark look, a visual that gets right to the point. He was clearly impacted by the French New Wave movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, filming ‘Train’ in an incredibly unique visual style. Scenes featuring quick cuts and off-center camera angles are balanced with long, uninterrupted shots from far-off angles. Case in point? A long shot as a train makes its way through a train yard being bombed by Allied bombers. A truly incredible sequence. That’s the whole movie, one impressive scene after another, building to an incredible ending, equal parts moving and uncomfortable. Add a memorable, underplayed score from composer Maurice Jarre, and you’ve got some great pieces for a puzzle.

War message aside (if you choose to ignore it…but DON’T), ‘Train’ is at its heart a cat-and-mouse action movie. Schofield’s Von Waldheim makes a move and Lancaster’s Labiche counters. Lather, rinse and repeat. Who will win in the end? I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but how Labiche and the resistance actually slow down the German effort is executed in a memorable sequence that features some great twists, all of it pointing to how huge the resistance effort is to stop the train. The last 30 minutes especially deliver, Labiche single-handedly trying to stop the train. In an extended sequence on a French hillside with a looping rail line below them, Labiche does anything he can to get the job done. Nerve-wracking is an understatement as these scenes develop. Just go for the ride and try not to get too nervous.

A classic movie, one of the best war films ever made, starting with Lancaster at the top and Frankeheimer delivering an amazing final product. The Train was ahead of its time upon its release and it more than holds up now over 50 years later.

The Train (1964): ****/****

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Force 10 from Navarone

force_10_from_navarone_movieReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a huge hit with audiences, made a ton of money at the box office and impacted countless WWII and espionage movies in the years to come. It was so popular author Alistair MacLean was approached about writing a sequel in novel form that could also be a film sequel. Well, it took some time, and there was plenty of drama, but here’s 1978’s Force 10 from Navarone.

It’s 1943 some months after the successful raid on the island of Navarone, but Major Keith Mallory (Robert Shaw) and explosives expert Corporal Miller (Edward Fox) have been brought together for another impossible mission. They’re being attached to Force 10, a team of agents commanded by Colonel Barnsby (Harrison Ford) being dropped into Yugoslavia to help aid the partisan army battling the Germans. Mallory and Miller have a different mission though. A German agent who blew their cover on Navarone is now believed to be an officer among the partisans. Can they find him and kill him before he does more damage? Will Barnsby and his team pull off their seemingly suicidal job? The odds sure aren’t in their favor.

I re-read both MacLean novels about the Navarone team this May. They were favorites as a young reader. I liked them, the stories are fun and exciting with some great characters, but the twists, turns, coincidences and pure luck get to be a little much at times. Convoluted and confusing come to mind! The movies are the rare efforts better than the source novels. ‘Force 10’ probably would have been better suited as its own stand-alone movie. No cast members return and the connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best. Still, the ingredients are there for a fun espionage story with one of the coolest casts ever.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Force 10’ had a smaller budget — which is reflected in some of the special effects and borrowing footage from other movies — and does have a disjointed feel at times. Different versions were released, one 118-minutes and the other 126-minutes, with some scenes transitioning in rough fashion as if there were more cuts with an even longer story. Hamilton’s sequel was filmed on location in Yugoslavia, and it looks great, like we’re really isolated up in the mountains with the partisans battling the Germans. Composer Ron Goodwin (Where Eagles Dare) turns in a whistle-worthy score as well to aid the espionage action.

Replacing Gregory Peck and David Niven is no easy task — I imagine — so Shaw and Fox make an interesting choice. The duo puts a different, lighter spin on Mallory and Miller. There’s a more comedic touch, some more laughs, as the two unassuming agents save the day again and again with their know-how and savvy in the field. A year after the somewhat successful Star Wars, Harrison Ford is solid as Barnsby, an experienced young agent who doesn’t think his two older tag-alongs are worth the risk….until he learns otherwise. The trio has an excellent chemistry among the crazy mission, even more so when an escaped prisoner, Sgt. Weaver (Carl Weathers), a medic, stows away on the mission. An eclectic, oddball mix of agents, but a good one!

Plenty more names worth mentioning though! The always-welcome Franco Nero plays Lescobar, a partisan officer working with Force 10 to accomplish the mission. Barbara Bach plays a double-agent seemingly working for both sides (but she’s got some secrets to reveal along the way, and a nude scene FWIW). James Bond villain Jaws, Richard Kiel, has a fun part as Drazak, a bear of a man and a dangerous, brutal knife fighter. Also look for Alan Badel as a partisan commander, Michael Byrne (Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) as a sinister German officer, Angus MacInnes as Reynolds, a member of Force 10, and Petar Buntic as Marko, a key resistance fighter.

A bit of a slow start in the 126-minute version, but once things get going, the momentum picks up in a big way. ‘Force 10’ really hits its groove in the last 60-70 minutes as the missions really come to light with some good twists and turns along the way. Fox’s Miller especially has a doozy to reveal in the closing scenes. A lot of fun though with Shaw’s Mallory delivering a great final line before the credits roll.

One more thing. The connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best, making me think ‘Force 10’ may have been better suited to just be its own movie without the connection. It’s too goofy for its own good, but the resolution makes it worthwhile with a good reveal. All complaints aside, I’ve always enjoyed this WWII espionage adventure. It’s a movie with Quint, Han Solo/Indiana Jones, Apollo Creed, the always-welcome Edward Fox, a Bond girl, a Bond villain, and plenty of familiar faces. Not a great flick, but a highly enjoyable one.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978): ***/****

Operation Crossbow

operation_crossbowThe 1960’s were the heyday of World War II movies, epic films with all-star casts that became classics of the genre and in some lesser-known cases, immense fan favorites. I love The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade, The Guns of Navarone and many others…but everyone knows those, right? One of my underrated favorites is today’s review, 1965’s Operation Crossbow.

It’s 1943 and World War II is raging in both the European and Pacific theaters. While armies clash, efforts in Germany are being made to develop a devastating new weapon that could alter the course of the war. The Germans are building flying pilot-less bombs that can be thrown at London, but in more frightening fashion, the scientific effort is making startling discoveries in building an immense rocket, the first of its kind. Allied Intelligence is doing everything in their power to slow down, sabotage and cripple the continuing efforts, including one desperate ploy. Three agents (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp) are sent into Germany posing as engineers and scientists hoping to infiltrate the rocket facility. Their chances? Slim at best.

Loosely based on the true story of the Allied effort to thwart the German rocket effort, ‘Crossbow’ is rarely mentioned as one of the better WWII movies from the 1960’s. Director Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters) turned in a much longer finished product only to see it severely edited. What remains is a 116-minute running time that’s disjointed in spots but nonetheless very entertaining. The cuts give the movie three episodic stories — the German effort, the Allied response, the agents going in — while covering about three years worth of history. I’m curious what Anderson’s full version was intended, but what’s here is an above-average, highly entertaining finished product.

‘Crossbow’ doesn’t have the A-list star power of some of its 1960s WWII contemporaries, but this is a pretty cool cast full of true actors, recognizable faces and character actors. Anderson’s film is at its strongest when focusing on the three agents, Peppard’s Curtis, Kemp’s Bradley and Courtenay’s Henshaw. This trio isn’t true spies but highly intelligent members of the military with science backgrounds thrust into a life of a spy. The story delivers one intense, stomach-turning moment after another as they try and pull off the ruse. There are some cruel twists delivered along the way for one of the trio, and a general sense of the reality of what they’re doing. It isn’t glamorized or romanticized. This is life and death not only for the agents but thousands of other people.

Plenty more folks to look for. Richard Johnson is excellent as Duncan Sandys, the British official tasked with leading the anti-rocket effort, with John Mills as a ranking MI6 officer and Trevor Howard as a doubting scientist. Don’t miss Richard Todd either in a key part. On the German side, look for Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine and Barbara Rutting. Other essential parts include Anthony Quayle and Lilli Palmer. Producer Carlo Ponti also managed to get his wife, Sophia Loren, a key part that stretches on a little too long in delivering a potentially cool twist that never quite delivers. Still, it’s Sophia Loren! She’s on-screen for about 10 minutes or so but still gets top billing!

Crossbow’s story covers a lot of ground — almost a year and a half — but never feels like we’re being let out.  Supposedly a much longer finished product was turned in by director Michael Anderson only to have it cut heavily to the movie we see now which clocks in at just under two hours.  You can see where certain segments were cut, especially the German segment to open the movie, and other odd instances like Peppard gaining a bandage on his forehead, but we never see why.  But these are little things, not big disturbances that could ruin the movie.

While the V-2 rocket was actually used by Germany in WWII — over 3,000 were fired at England — the movie does have to have some sort of resolution if not necessarily a happy ending.  The finale is a whopper as Peppard and Kemp desperately try to pinpoint their underground location to a passing bomber force.  The huge underground facilities sets look like something out of a James Bond movie and provide quite an ending to a strong story.  Not as well know as some of its 1960s WWII counterparts, but definitely worth a watch or two.

Operation Crossbow <—-trailer (1965): ***/****

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): ***/****

The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen &lt;—trailer (1967): ****/****

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

where_eagles_dare_posterReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a fan favorite and was a key war movie in terms of its influence. It opened up all sorts of doors for one of my favorite sub-genres, the men-on-a-mission movie. Based off a novel by author Alistair MacLean, it was a gem. MacLean tweaked the idea when he was approached by a producer several years later for a similar but BIGGER and BETTER version. The result? From 1968, Where Eagles Dare.

It’s winter 1943-44 and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) has been summoned for an impossible mission. An agent with years of experience and countless missions under his belt, Smith and a small team of commandos, including an American Ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), will parachute into the snow-capped mountains of Bavaria on a rescue mission. An American general with detailed knowledge of the second front — D-Day — has been captured by German forces and sent to the Schloss Adler, a remote, well-guarded fortress on a mountaintop where he will be interrogated by German intelligence. The clock is ticking with the general’s knowledge potentially altering the course of the war. Smith, Not is all as it seems though as Smith and the team parachute into Germany. What exactly is going on?

The backstory here is fascinating. Burton’s stepson wanted him to do a good, old-fashioned, action-packed flick that audiences would love. Burton approached a producer, the producer approached MacLean who 6 weeks later came to him with the script (and later the novel) for Where Eagles Dare. It became a huge hit and is now considered a classic while still remaining a fan favorite. How can you not love a perfectly random story like that when a movie really hits it big?

Watching ‘Eagles’ and ‘Guns,’ you can’t help but notice the similarities. That’s a good thing though! The impossible mission, the crew of expertly trained specialists, the exotic location, the twists and turns, the betrayals, and as ‘Eagles’ seems to take it as a challenge, the obscene amount of ACTION. I have issues with the story — more later — but as pure entertainment, ‘Eagles’ is a gem, much like Guns of Navarone is/was. This 1968 war flick requires more viewer interaction (better pay attention, you’ll get lost qqquick once the twists start flying), but it’s worth it to keep up throughout the 154-minute run-time.

It’s just cool to watch Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play off each other. That’s all. It just is. Classically trained Burton and tough guy Eastwood have this underplayed charm to their relationship. Burton’s Smith knows what’s going on while Eastwood’s Schaffer is just trying to get through the mission alive. MacLean’s script provides so many great little moments between the duo with both actors not missing a chance to deliver a snappy one-liner. Also, the call sign ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy,’ there’s nothing fancy about it, but Burton’s delivery makes it seem like a Shakespearean sonnet. Sounds almost musical when you hear Burton speak. Moral of the story, both actors are having a ball with the old-fashioned, spy shoot ’em up.

Not much star power here otherwise. Mary Ure is a welcome addition to the cast as Mary, a fellow agent working with Smith. No damsel in distress either. She’s a Badass with a capital B, a part of the team quite capable of using a machine gun to save herself. In small but parts, Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark play high-ranking officers back at HQ waiting for updates. Donald Houston is the most visible of the rest of the team, but they’re there for the purpose of a twist or cannon fodder. Ingrid Pitt plays a barmaid with some secrets while familiar faces Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and Derren Nesbitt play German officers.

What I’ve always found fascinating with ‘Eagles’ is the pacing. The first hour is set-up, all foreboding and mysterious. Clues are dropped here and there — pay attention, it’s worth it — as we’re introduced to the team and the mission. We see Smith and Schaffer put plans into work that won’t pay off — maybe at all — until days later. It seems unnecessary or wasted, but the payoffs are worth it. Now, the middle, the gigantic twist and turn that come at you a mile a minute. It’s a great scene running about 15 minutes where Burton just takes over, oozing charm and mystery in an almost monologue-like scene. Then, there’s the hour-long finale, a bullet-riddled chase and running gunfight where Eastwood dispatches half the German army without a single wound. Ridiculous? Yes, 100 percent, but it’s so damn fun.

A couple other things. Composer Ron Goodwin’s score is a gem, driving the action forward at all times with big, booming music. Listen to an extended part of the soundtrack HERE. Austrian filming locations don’t disappoint either, giving a true sense of authenticity to the impossible mission scenario in the snow-capped mountains. As for the story itself, the twist is awesome and the payoff is very memorable. But let’s face it, it’s ridiculous. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING, works out for Smith almost down to the second. As was the case before though, it’s ridiculous and if you think about it too much, you might just give yourself a headache. The point is….it’s damn entertaining and a hell of a lot of fun.

Just go for the twisting, turning ride with this WWII men-on-a-mission classic. Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton would team up again a little over a year later with another WWII gem, 1970’s Where Eagles Dare. Also a must-see!

Where Eagles Dare (1968): *** 1/2 /****

The Guns of Navarone

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): ****/****