Special Memorial Day Edition: THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE (United Artists 1968)

In the wake of 1967’s THE DRITY DOZEN came a plethora of all-star, similarly themed films. THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE is one of those, though just a bit different: it’s based on the true-life exploits of the First Special Service Force, a collection of American misfits straight from the stockades and the crack, highly disciplined Canadian military, forging them into one cohesive fighting unit.

William Holden  heads the cast as Lt. Col. Robert Frederick, tasked with putting the units together. His seconds-in-command are the cigar chomping American Major Brecker (Vince Edwards) and proud Canadian Major Crown (Cliff Robertson). The Americans, as rowdy a bunch of reprobates as there ever was, include Claude Akins , Luke Askew, Richard Jaeckel, and Tom Troupe, while the Canadians are represented by the likes of Richard Dawson, Jeremy Slate, and Jack Watson , war movie vets all.  Andrew Prine is also aboard as an AWOL soldier looking for a chance to see combat.

There’s plenty of conflict at first between the uncouth Americans and their regimented Canadian counterparts, but they’re soon resolved in the obligatory barroom brawl scene with some townsfolk that include NFL star Paul Hornung (Green Bay Packers) as a local lumberjack and ex-middleweight champ Gene Fullmer as a bartender. The men are now acting as one, but the powers-that-be decided to disband the unit, prompting Frederick to head to Washington and argue his case before Guest Stars Michael Rennie (as Gen. Mark Clark) and Dana Andrews (Brig. Gen. Naylor). They’re given a chance to prove themselves in Italy, and capture  an entire town away from the Germans on their own, despite the protests of Commanding Officer Carroll O’Connor .

The Devil’s Brigade, as the Nazis have dubbed them, are rewarded with a dangerous mission to scale a rugged, rocky hill and take out a German artillery stronghold. Many of the all-stars die heroically before the mission is accomplished, and the Allied forces are now able to march into North Italy. Action veteran  Andrew V. McLaglen directs competently, and stunt coordinator Hal Needham keeps things moving, yet it feels like we’ve seen this movie before, different characters maybe, but same results, and at 130 minutes is way overlong. It’s not a bad film, it just suffers from same old formula syndrome.

The real men of the First Special Service Force (1942-44)

The real First Special Service Force were an elite commando unit who first saw action in the Aleutian Islands, then were sent by Gen. Clark to Naples, where they served with dignity and honor. Following their bloody success (91 dead, 313 wounded), they were sent to Anzio where they stormed the beach and fought behind enemy lines, and later to the South of France during Operation Dragoon, with major victories (12,000 German casualties, 7,000 Nazi prisoners). The Force was disbanded in December 1944 with full honors, their mission accomplished and their efforts helping to speed the war’s end. Let’s not forget this Memorial Day not all those who fought and died for freedom were American, and remember our brave Canadian allies of the First Special Service Force.

Green Cheese? No, it’s THE GREEN SLIME (MGM 1969)

We all love a good cheese-fest every now and then, right? Well, THE GREEN SLIME delivers the limburger by the rocket-load, with its rock bottom special effects, silly looking monsters, overwrought dialog, and a cool heavy-metalish theme song (Who was that singer belting out the tune? More on that later!). This MGM/Toei Studios mashup was made with a Japanese crew and American cast, with an Italian pedigree, no less.

An asteroid codenamed ‘Flora’ is hurtling toward a collision course with Earth, and Comm. Jack Rankin is sent to space station Gamma-3 with orders to blow the thing to smithereens. Gamma-3’s Commander, Vince Elliott, holds a longtime grudge against Rankin, and his fiancé Dr. Lisa Benson just happens to be Rankin’s ex. I smell a love triangle brewing! Rankin, Elliott, and other crew members blast off to the asteroid to plant explosives, but there’s this Blob-like, pulsating ooze around gripping their escape vehicles (ominous music plays whenever the slime is shown in close-up!). One of the men wants to bring some of the stuff back, but Rankin smashes his dreams (and the sample), and they barely escape with their lives.

However, a splash of the slime gets on one of their spacesuits and makes it back to the station, and that’s when the fun really begins! The Green Slime gets loose and starts killing people. The stuff feeds on ‘energy’ and reproduces at an alarming rate, creating horrible monsters… well, they’re not so horrible, just midgets in rubber monster suits. Kinda cute, in their own monsterous way. The one-red-eyed, tentacled lil’ demons (that make dolphin-like noises) begin to take over the station, killing everyone in their path by electrocuting them. Can the Green Slime be stopped???

Well, of course it can, but only by evacuating Gamma-3 and blowing the whole thing to kingdom come! This movie is derivative as hell, cobbling pieces of everything from Hawks’ THE THING to IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE , but it does have an endearing goofiness about it that makes it fun for sci-fi fans. Something not many people know (I sure didn’t) is THE GREEN SLIME is an unofficial sequel to Antonio Margheretti’s (aka Anthony Dawson) Italian Gamma-1 movies (WILD WILD PLANET, WAR OF THE PLANETS, etc). The special effects here are even cheezier though, if you can imagine.

Star Robert Horton looks like he’d much rather be home on the range in TV’s WAGON TRAIN than stuck in his space suit. Maybe that’s why his character Rankin is such a prick! Costar Richard Jaeckel (Elliott) seems frustrated having to play second banana once again, though he does get to redeem himself at the conclusion. Luciannna Paluzzi (Lisa) is beautiful, but can’t muster up any emotion for her one-dimensional role. The rest of the cast is a bunch of American actors who were probably on vacation and decided to pick up a quick paycheck. Hey, even actors gotta eat!

Kinji Fukasaku’s direction leaves much to be desired, in fact it’s pretty non-exsistant. He saw better days with 2000’s BATTLE ROYALE. THE GREEN SLIME is a Saturday Matinee flick that knows it, so I can’t really deride it too much. It just is what it is. As for that theme song, the singer belting out that proto-metal tune was Rick Lancelotti. Who, you may well ask? Lancelotti, also known as Rick Lancelot, was a minor 60’s figure who sang covers on TV’s SHINDIG, sang vocals for the kiddie show THE BANANA SPLITS, and worked briefly with rock maestro Frank Zappa. So now you know more about THE GREEN SLIME then you probably ever wanted (or needed) to! You’re welcome!

Happy 100th Birthday Glenn Ford: 3:10 TO YUMA (Columbia 1957)

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Actor Glenn Ford was born 100 years ago today in Sainte-Christine-d’Auergne, Quebec, Canada. Yes, the All-American star was actually Canadian, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1939. That same year, Ford signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and began a long, prosperous career with the studio. After getting noticed in films like HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE, SO ENDS OUR NIGHT, and TEXAS (his first Western), Ford took a break from acting and joined the Marine Corps to serve in World War II.

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After the war, Glenn Ford was one of Hollywood’s top leading men. He hit it big with 1946’s GILDA, co-starring Rita Hayworth in what may very well be the first true film noir. Soon he found himself the hero in a string of successes: FRAMED, MAN FROM THE ALAMO, THE BIG HEAT , BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, JUBAL, and TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But my favorite Ford role casts him as the villain, outlaw Ben Wade in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 TO YUMA.

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Based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard, 3:10 TO YUMA begins with cattle rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two young sons stumbling onto a stagecoach robbery by the notorious Ben Wade (Ford) and his gang. They witness the driver being killed, but Evans doesn’t get involved. He’s been beaten down by a harsh Arizona life, suffering through a severe drought, and needs money to survive. Wade and his crew ride to Bisbee, stopping at a saloon posing as cattle drivers, and alert the marshal to the killing. The town forms a posse and rides off, while Wade disperses his men so he can stay behind and dally with the local barmaid (Felicia Farr, wife of future Ford co-star Jack Lemmon).

Town drunk Alex Potter (Henry Jones in a good performance) arrives late to the posse, and tells them one of the strangers is still in town. They return, and Evans is used to trap Wade. The outlaw is captured, and the townsmen devise a plan to sneak Wade into Contention City by throwing the gang off the trail. Evans and Potter are the only men who volunteer to guard Wade at the hotel there while they await the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Now begins a psychological cat-and-mouse game between Wade and Evans as the gang rides into Contention, and Evans is left on his own to bring the killer Wade to justice.

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Ford exudes quiet menace as Ben Wade, by turns charming and coldly calculating. He plays head games as Evans’ prisoner, his sly smirk masking his evil intentions. Ford’s calm demeanor as Wade is just right for the character, in a role that might have caused a lesser actor to chew the scenery. Heflin is his equal as Evans, who’s doing his job not only for the money, but to gain the respect of his children. The two actors work nicely together, elevating the material above the standard horse opera.

The supporting cast features Richard Jaeckel in his patented “top henchman” role, and also includes Leora Dana, Robert Emhardt, and Ford Rainey. Director Delmer Daves was responsible for some fine films, like DARK PASSAGE, BROKEN ARROW, A SUMMER PLACE, and two others with Ford, JUBAL and COWBOY. The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who also did the theme from TV’s RAWHIDE, and Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES . 3:10 TO YUMA was remade fifty years later with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the Ford/Heflin roles, one of the few remakes of classic films that really works.

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Glenn Ford went on to make many more pictures. THE SHEEPMAN, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, and THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER were among the best. He did a series of lower budget Westerns in the late 60’s-early 70’s, and starred for a season in a modern-day TV Western, CADE’S COUNTY, with old Columbia cohort Edgar Buchanan. Later, he had a cameo as Pa Kent in 1978’s SUPERMAN, and even made a slasher film (1981’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). Glenn Ford passed away on August 30, 2006, leaving a legacy of fine film performances. 3:10 TO YUMA may be his best, a complete change of pace that the actor nails with ease. Happy birthday, Glenn, and thanks for the memories.

 

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE DIRTY DOZEN (MGM 1967)

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Happy Veteran’s Day and thank you to all who’ve served!

One of my favorite WW2 movies to watch is THE DIRTY DOZEN. This rousing all-star epic, flavored with superb character actors and moments of humor, was a box office success and remains a perennial favorite among action lovers. The formula (a band of military misfits unite to battle the enemy) became so popular it’s been rehashed several times in several ways, but none have ever come close to having the panache of director Robert Aldrich’s lively original.

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Army Major Reisman is given the assignment of whipping twelve convicts into fighting shape and taking on what amounts to a suicide mission: conduct a raid behind enemy lines on a chateau where high ranking Nazi officers assemble for R’n’R. Reisman’s a rebellious sort (“very short on discipline”) with contempt for his higher-ups, especially rival Col. Breed. One of the officers calls him “the most ill-mannered, ill-disciplined officer I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet”, but General Worden believes Reisman’s the man for the job. The Major’s introduced to his new charges at prison. There’s cocky Chicago hood Franko, gentle giant Posey, ex-officer Wladislaw, religious nut Maggot, dimwitted Pinkley, and eight other murderers, rapists, and thieves. Reisman and his right-hand man Sgt. Bowren are to take this “dirty dozen” and turn them into a team.

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The deal is the men will get their sentences commuted if successful, but if one of them tries to escape, they all go back to face the hangman. Franko tries some initial pushback, but is brought into line by his peers. The cons learn to depend on each other, though Army psychiatrist Kinder considers them “the most twisted bunch of psychopaths” he’s ever seen. Breed almost gets the mission quashed after being embarrassed by the troop, but they’re given a chance when the dozen capture Breed’s squad during maneuvers. Feeling they’re ready to roll, Reisman leads his men on the mission in an exciting, grisly 45 minute climax. Only three make it back, and Wladislaw is given the last word: “Killin’ generals could get to be a habit with me”.

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WW2 vet Lee Marvin leads the testosterone fueled cast as Reisman, a good soldier who dislikes authority. John Cassavetes was Oscar nominated for his role as Franko, the defiant mobster who becomes a hero. Charles Bronson (Wladislaw) was an old hand at these all-star action films (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), and 70s solo superstardom was just down the road for him. Donald Sutherland  (Pinkley) adds another goofy characterization to his resume, and 70s stardom awaited him, too. Telly Savalas, pre-KOJAK, is slimeball Maggot, while TV’S CHEYENNE Clint Walker plays big Posey. Ex-NFL star Jim Brown makes his film debut, and his “broken play” run while setting off the hand grenades is one of the action genre’s most iconic scenes. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, and Robert Webber are on hand as members of the “big Army brass” (to borrow a line from WW2 vet Ed Wood). Richard Jaeckel is the loyal Sgt. Bowren, and singer Trini Lopez appears as Jiminez (and even gets to sing “The Bramble Bush”). Besides Marvin, actors Borgnine, Ryan, Webber, Kennedy, Savalas, and Walker all served their country during World War Two.

Finally, in answer to that age-old barstool trivia question, “Name the members of THE DIRTY DOZEN”, here’s the lineup:

  • Franko: John Cassavetes
  • Vladek: Tom Busby
  • Jefferson: Jim Brown
  • Pinkley: Donald Sutherland
  • Gilpin: Ben Carruthers
  • Posey: Clint Walker
  • Wladislaw: Charles Bronson
  • Sawyer: Colin Maitland
  • Lever: Stuart Cooper
  • Bravos: Al Mancini
  • Jiminez: Trini Lopez
  • Maggot: Telly Savalas

But Could He Act?: Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR (20th Century Fox, 1960)

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Elvis Presley left this Earthly building on August 16, 1977. The King was undoubtably one of the greatest entertainers of his (or any) generation. He brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream, recorded country and gospel albums, and his stage shows were legendary. The movies, however, were another story. Critics complained about him being a ‘one-note’ actor in a series of formulaic musicals. But Elvis’s early films tell another story. Case in point: the 1960 Western drama FLAMING STAR.

Directed by Don Siegel (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST), Elvis gives a well-rounded performance as Pacer Burton, a half-breed youth caught in the middle of a war between white settlers and Kiowas in 1878 Texas. Pacer’s father Sam (John McIntire) is white, his mother Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) Kiowa. He has a half-brother, Clint (Steve Forrest), who chooses family over factions. When the neighboring Howard clan is attacked by a Kiowa war party led by bloodthirsty new chief Buffalo Horn (in a pretty violent for its time scene), the local townsfolk shun the Burtons. Buffalo Horn wants Pacer to renounce his white heritage and join with the Kiowas, but the youngster refuses. Neddy and Pacer go to the Indian camp to talk with their relatives, but they’re shunned by the tribe as well.

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When the two are escorted back to their ranch by Pacer’s friend Two Moons, they’re ambushed by the lone Howard survivor, who kills Two Moons and mortally wounds Neddy. The brothers race to town to get a doctor. The townsfolk refuse to help until Pacer grabs the doctor’s little girl and forces the doctor to accompany them. But they arrive too late, as Neddy sees “the flaming star of death”, and wanders outside to die, where she’s found by her husband in a heart wrenching scene well-played by veterans Del Rio and McIntire.

Pacer blames the doctor for wasting time back at town and goes after him with a knife. Clint restrains him, but the headstrong Pacer has had enough. Tired of dealing with white prejudice, he leaves to join the Kiowa, bring the body of Two Moons with him. Pa Burton is killed by marauding Indians, and Clint goes after them alone. He kills Buffalo Horn, but gets shot by arrows. Brother Pacer saves him, hiding him under a tree, and draws the Kiowa away. He ties Clint to a horse and sends him to the white town while vowing to fight the Kiowa alone at their ranch. Later we see Pacer ride into town, bloodied, shot, dying. He too has seen “the flaming star of death”, but wanted to see his brother one last time before going to the hills to die.

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Director Siegel was noted for his violent action movies, and FLAMING STAR doesn’t disappoint. Siegel, who guided young Clint Eastwood early in his career, gets a good performance out of Presley. Elvis shows a wide range of emotion as the conflicted half-breed torn between the whites and the Kiowas. The rawness of his reaction to the death of his mother was probably real, as Elvis’s own mother Gladys had died just two years previous to the making of this movie.

Given a sure-handed director like Siegel, a well written screenplay (by Nunnally Johnson  and Clair Huffaker), and surrounded with seasoned pros like Del Rio, McIntire, and the rest of the cast (Forrest, Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolpho Acosta), Elvis proves he had what it takes to be a fine dramatic actor. In films like this,KING CREOLE, and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, Elvis more than holds his own in the thespic department. It was only later, in fluff like PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE and SPEEDWAY, that The King chose to sleepwalk through his roles. Can you blame him? He must have been bored to death with the lame scripts. It was rumored Presley was up for the part of Joe Buck in 1969’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, but it was nixed by his manager, the carny con man Col. Tom Parker. That’s a shame, because Elvis could’ve done so much more with his film career. At least we’re left with his terrific showing in FLAMING STAR and a handful of others.

Long Live The King!!

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