Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Special Veterans Day Edition: John Wayne in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic 1949)

Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.

SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker, charged with molding a batch of new recruits into a fighting Marine Rifle Squad. Among them are Conway (John Agar ), the resentful son of Stryker’s former C.O.; Thomas (Forrest Tucker ), an ex-sergeant with a grudge against Stryker; Regazzi (Wally Cassell ), the obligatory hustler from Brooklyn; and the battling Flynn brothers (Richard Jaeckel , Bill Murphy).

Stryker’s hard-ass attitude causes many to dislike him, but the Marine lifer cares about the men’s safety and wants them all to come back alive. When the men are granted a brief leave, Conway meets and falls in love with Allison (Adele Mara ) at a dance, and marries her. But the honeymoon’s a short one as the squad is shipped to Tarawa, where a fierce battle is being fought. The island is taken, but at a deadly cost, as Stryker’s battlefield heroics saves the lives of many (but not all) of his squad, and Thomas’s slacking off to drink coffee gets one killed and another seriously wounded.

When Stryker finds out about Thomas’s lollygagging, they have it out in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that almost gets the sarge locked up, but Thomas turns out to be a stand-up guy, and his remorse is evident. After a brief stopover in Hawaii, their next mission is Iwo Jima, a raging battle that goes on for days and results in many casualties before they finally take Mt. Suribachi. But Stryker doesn’t live to see the iconic flag raising as he’s cut down by a sniper’s bullet. The men gather around their fallen leader, and Thomas reads an unmailed  letter Stryker wrote to his estranged ten year old son (and if your eyes don’t well up with tears during this scene, there’s something wrong with you). The flag is raised, and Conway calls the men back to battle using Stryker’s favorite saying – “Saddle up!”.

Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker is a contradiction in terms. He’s tough and relentless with his men for a reason – he wants to give them the tools to survive the brutal war. He’s a Marine Corps lifer whose dedication to service cost him his wife and child, and that in turn caused him to hit the bottle hard. The scene where, while on leave in Honolulu, he picks up a bar girl (Julie Bishop ) and goes back to her place, only to discover she’s doing what she does to feed her fatherless child, is a tender moment in a tough film, and went a long way to help Wayne receive his first Oscar nomination.

Director Alan Dwan was an old pro who made his first film in 1913. While not a stylist like Wayne directors John Ford or Howard Hawks, Dwan was more than competent in any genre, and his action scenes are second to none. Among his many film credits are the 1922 ROBIN HOOD, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, THE THREE MUSKETEERS (’39 version) , BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, THE WILD BLUE YONDER, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, and THE RESTLESS BREED. Actual newsreel footage of the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima are cut into the film to match DP Reggie Lenning’s studio-lensed shots, and editor Richard Van Enger’s work earned an Academy Award nomination, as did T.A. Carmen and Howard Wilson for their use of sound. Harry Brown’s original story was also nominated; he cowrote the screenplay with Wayne’s personal writer James Edward Grant. Besides those previously mentioned, the cast includes James Brown, Peter Coe , Hal Feiberling (later Baylor), Arthur Franz , Don Haggerty, Martin Milner , William Self, George Tyner, Richard Webb, and Dick Wessel.

Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph

Also in the film are Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, recreating that famous flag raising moment caught on camera for all eternity by photographer Joe Rosenthal. Real-life Marines 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Col. David M. Shoup, Lt. Col. Henry P. Crowe, and Lt. Gen. Holland Smith make appearances as themselves. These men are the real heroes of the battle of Iwo Jima, and today we honor their memories, as well as the memories of all who fought and died in the service of our country, men like 94-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from that grueling battle of Iwo Jima, which resulted in 26,000 American casualties and 6,800 dead…

Semper fi, Marine!

Wherever you are here in America, take the time to stop and thank a vet for their service. And keep those you love close at heart.

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.

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (United Artists 1945)

William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.

Burgess Meredith  plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty roads, and slogging across muddy rivers, as they campaign through the rugged Italian terrain. Pyle and Captain (later Lieutenant) Walker (Mitchum) bond, the diminutive writer and the battle-hardened Walker sharing Grappa as they discuss life, love, and the pain of losing comrades in the midst of war.

Mitchum stands tall as Walker, his breakthrough role after toiling for five years in mostly ‘B’ Westerns. Walker, with his scruffy beard and stoic demeanor, is the embodiment of the American fighting man, fiercely loyal to his troops, tough when he has to be, tender during somber moments. The haunting final scene, as the soldiers solemnly pass by Walker’s corpse, will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest hearted viewers. Mitchum’s restrained performance, under the watchful eye of director Wellman, led to his casting in larger roles and eventual superstardom.

Former Middleweight boxing champion Freddie Steele does outstanding work as Walker’s second in command, Sgt. Warnicki, whose eventual crack-up after trying to hold it together for so long is amazing to behold. The rest of ‘C’ Company’s main players (John R. Reilly, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd, William Murphy) all get their chances to shine, and real-life veterans of the Italian, Sicilian, and African campaigns are featured to add further authenticity.

William Wellman’s insisted on having his actors train with actual soldiers in California to insure that authenticity – they didn’t call him ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing! Wellman, DP Russell Metty, and the rest of the crew worked as a team, much like the soldiers themselves, to create a realistic depiction of the harshness of war. Wellman was a combat veteran himself, having been a fighter pilot during WWI, which helped provide the backdrop for his Oscar-winning film WINGS. Otho Lovering’s editing deserves special credit for putting it all together.

War correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945)

The real Ernie Pyle was killed in action covering the Pacific front in Okinawa on April 18, 1945, two months before THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released. War correspondents like Pyle were just as brave as the soldiers they covered,  putting themselves in harm’s way in order to bring the battle directly to the public, and sharing the human interest drama of the foot soldier’s struggles and triumphs. As we set aside this day to honor those who served, I leave you with this quote on returning veterans from a man who served in his own small way, the late Ernie Pyle:

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.”

 

 

Roger of the Skies: VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN (United Artists 1971)

Producer/director Roger Corman finally cut ties with American-International Pictures after they butchered his apocalyptic satire GAS-S-S! Striking out on his own, Corman’s next movie was VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN, a World War I epic about famed German aerial ace The Red Baron and the Canadian pilot who shoots his down Roy Brown. There are grand themes, as Corman sought to make a statement on the futility of war, the end of chivalry, and the mechanized savagery of what was to be “the last war”. The film looks good, shot in Ireland, with exciting aerial footage, but despite all the outer trappings VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN is still a Corman drive-in movie.

John Philip Law also looks good as Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the aristocrat/warrior who became the feared Red Baron. Law was always great to watch, whether as the blind angel in BARBARELLA, the black-clad supervillain in DANGER: DIABOLIK, sexy Robin Stone in THE LOVE MACHINE, or the fabled sailor in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Unfortunately, his acting left a lot to be desired, for Law had the range of a popsicle stick, and was just as wooden. His Red Baron lacks the charisma necessary to make the audience care about him, and scuttles the film’s impact.

Don Stroud was originally slated to be Von Richtofen, but instead has the role of Canadian Roy Brown, who ultimately shoots down the Red Baron. Stroud adds some life to the movie with his performance, as he did in films like COOGAN’S BLUFF, BLOODY MAMA, ANGEL UNCHAINED, and JOE KIDD,  and as Mike Hammer’s cop pal Pat Chambers in the MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER TV series. A very underrated actor usually stuck in supporting parts or leads in ‘B’ flicks, Stroud gets a chance to shine here and runs away with the film’s acting honors.

There’s some incredible aerial action  shot by DP Michael Reed and choreographed by real-life RCAF pilot Lynn Garrison (who’s interesting life story can be read on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Garrison.  The planes were leftover from 1966’s THE BLUE MAX, and Corman shot the whole thing in Ireland rain or shine, believing a war wouldn’t take the day off because of weather, so why should he? The dogfights between Von Richtofen’s men and the British flyers are realistically done, though the climactic battle itself is, well, anti-climactic.

Barry Primus (BOXCAR BERTHA, NIGHT GAMES) is young Hermann Goering, member of Von Richtofen’s squad whose actions foreshadow Nazi atrocities to come. Veteran Hurd Hatfield (THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY) lends his touch of decadent elegance to the brief role of German plane manufacturer Anthony Fokker. Corin Redgrave (son of Sir Michael , brother of Vanessa and Lynn), Ferdy Mayne , and Stephen McHattie also appear in support.

Corman’s modern-day knights of the air saga isn’t a complete success, but is worth a look for fans of the auteur’s movies. I’d love to see what Quinten Tarantino could do with this material, preferably with a large part for Christoph Waltz. Are you listening out there, QT?

Action in the Alps: WHERE EAGLES DARE (MGM 1969)

Alistair MacLean’s adventure novels, filled with muscular action and suspenseful plot twists, thrilled moviegoers of the 60’s and 70’s in such big budget hits as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ICE STATION ZEBRA. In his first foray into screenwriting, 1969’s WHERE EAGLES DARE,  he adapted his own work to the silver screen, resulting in one of the year’s biggest hits, aided by the box office clout of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood . The film’s a bit long, running over two and a half hours, but action fans won’t mind. There’s enough derring-do, ace stunt work, explosions, and cliffhanging (literally!) to keep you riveted to the screen!

A lot of the credit goes to veteran stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, in charge of all the action scenes as second unit director. Canutt staged some of the most exciting scenes in film history, from John Ford’s STAGECOACH to William Wyler’s BEN HUR, and certainly keeps things busy here. Director Brian G. Hutton was a former actor whose directing debut was 1965’s THE WILD SEED, starring the late Michael Parks . He and top British cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson worked together to beautifully frame every shot, and the spectacular view of the Austrian Alps (substituting for Bavaria) is breathtaking to behold. Hutton would work with Eastwood the following year on KELLY’S HEROES; he also helmed Frank Sinatra’s comeback THE FIRST DEADLY SIN and the 1983 Tom Selleck adventure HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.

A crack team of British commandos, led by Major Jonathan Smith (Burton) and American OSS Lt. Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), is assigned a dangerous mission. American General Carnaby, who holds important information about the upcoming European Second Front, has been captured by the Germans and is being held in the impregnable Schloss Adler (Castle Eagle) high in the Bavarian Alps. The team is tasked with raiding the castle and freeing Carnaby before the Nazis force him to talk. The seven men parachute down into the frozen tundra (one doesn’t make it), but there’s another member known only to Smith… British agent Mary Ellison (Mary Ure). In addition to the nearly impossible odds against them, Smith and Schaffer must contend with a murderer within their ranks!

Burton looks like he’s having fun playing Smith, a comic book hero to rival Nick Fury. Clint is cold as the Bavarian snow playing the assassin Schaffer, mowing down Nazis with the greatest of ease. The two men have a good chemistry, and I got a kick out of when Burton gets off a line calling Eastwood “a second-rate punk”. Mary Ure is right in on the action, machine gunning Nazis side by side with Clint. Why this woman was never a Bond Girl is a mystery to me! The plot, like all of MacLean’s works, takes many twists and turns along the way to get to the real reason for the mission, and you’ll enjoy trying to figure out what’s going to happen next.

There’s an odd connection among the supporting cast: all are noted for their roles in horror films! First, there’s everyone’s favorite Hammer vampire (sorry, Mr. Lee!) Ingrid Pitt , of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and COUNTESS DRACULA fame, playing Heidi the barmaid/spy. Pitt’s part is small but pivotal to the story, and she’s a welcome presence in any film. Patrick Wymark’s (Col. Turner) horror resume includes THE SKULL, THE PSYCHOPATH, and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, among others. Anton Diffring (Nazi Col. Kramer) was in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, CIRCUS OF HORRORS, MARK OF THE DEVIL PT. II, and THE BEAST MUST DIE. Shakespearean actor Michael Horden (Adm. Rolland) had roles in THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY and THEATRE OF BLOOD. Donald Houston (Capt. Christensen) played Dr. Watson opposite John Neville’s Sherlock Holmes, hunting Jack the Ripper in A STUDY IN TERROR. Houston also appeared in TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS and CLASH OF THE TITANS. Ferdy Mayne (Nazi Gen. Rosenmeyer) is best known as Count von Krolock in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Robert Beatty (Gen. Carnaby) was featured in SECRETS OF DR. MABUSE and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And Derren Nesbitt (Gestapo Maj. von Hopper) starred as one of the grave robbers in the little seen BURKE AND HARE.

WHERE EAGLES DARE has plenty of action, exciting stunt work, is marvelously shot, and will whet any action lover’s appetite. It should be viewed on a big screen, where I saw it upon release, but is worth watching on “the telly”, as they say in jolly olde England. If you’re unfamiliar with Alistair MacLean’s adventure stories, you can begin here, or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL, BREAKHEART PASS…  just steer clear of FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE!

 

 

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (20th Century-Fox 1944)

War is hell, not only on the participants, but on those left home waiting for word on their loved ones, dreading the inevitable. THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is based on the true story of five brothers who served and died together as shipmates, and their family. It’s a story of patriotism, of grief and loss, and its penultimate moment will rip your heart out. Finally, it’s an American story.

The Sullivans are a proud, close-knit Irish Catholic family living in Waterloo, Iowa. Patriarch Tom (played by Thomas Mitchell ) is a loyal railroad man whose five sons (George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al) climb the water tower every day to wave goodbye as the train pulls out. Mother Alleta (Selena Royale) keeps the family fires burning, with the help of daughter Gen. The scrappy brothers are a pint-sized version of the Dead End Kids, getting into mischief like a Donnybrook with neighborhood kids on little Al’s (future Disney star Bobby Driscoll ) First Communion day, getting caught smoking corn silk in the woodshed (Pop’s solution is to give them each a real cigar, causing the boys to throw up), and sailing on the lake in a leaky vessel that capsizes (foreshadowing things to come). Despite the boy’s boisterous nature and their various misadventures, the Sullivan household is filled with warmth and love.

Time marches on, and the boys are now in their twenties. Al, the youngest, surprises the family by marrying sweet-as-pie Katherine Mary (a young Anne Baxter), and presenting the Sullivans with their first grandbaby. One winter’s day, news comes over the radio: “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!” While Mom phones a local woman whose son was stationed on the U.S.S Arizona, the brothers decide then and there to join the Navy. Brother Al feels left out, having a wife and baby to look after, until brave Katherine Mary reluctantly talks him into signing up. Tom and Alleta proudly display a flag with five stars in their window.

The boys are all together on the U.S.S. Juneau off the Solomon Islands, and get their first taste of action. George is wounded during the raging battle, and the ship is fatally hit. Ordered to abandon ship, the Sullivans won’t leave without taking George, who’s in sick bay. In the midst of all this chaos, the screen abruptly turns to black.

We’re back home in Iowa, where the Sulivans get a visit from Cmdr. Robinson (Ward Bond).  He’s the bearer of bad news, and when Alleta asks which of her sons is gone, he solemnly replies: “All five”. Gen and Katherine Mary leave the room in tears, while Alleta sits stoically, her face in shock. Tom hears the train whistle blow and excuses himself, dutifully making the slow walk to work in silence, his face a mask of anguish and torment, his head bowed low. He boards the train as it steadily moves past the tower, looking up as if expecting to see his children there one more time. He gives it a small salute as he passes before finally breaking down in tears. It is one of the most heart wrenching scenes in cinema, and beautifully underplayed by Mitchell.

The real five Sullivan brothers (left to right) Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George

What really happened to the five Sullivan brothers? On November 13, 1942, the Juneau sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo. Navy brass ordered all ships in the vicinity to leave and avoid any further Japanese submarine strikes. Frank, Joe, and Matt were all killed instantly. Al, adrift in the ocean, drowned the following day. Eldest brother George survived four or five days on a life raft but, grief-stricken and delirious from hypernatremia (high salt content in the blood), jumped overboard. The parents were not informed until Alleta wrote a letter to FDR. On January 12, 1943, three Naval officials knocked on the door of the Sullivan home to relay the bad news: “All five”.

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of those brave souls who fought and died in service to our country and our way of life. Brave souls like George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan. We salute their courage and the sacrifices they made, yet let’s not forget the loved ones left behind, and the sacrifices they made as well. Whether you’re chowing on hot dogs and cheeseburgers at a family cookout, or cheering at your local parade, or just kicking back and watching a ballgame, take a moment today to reflect on those who gave all in defense of freedom. And to maybe say a prayer for the loved ones left behind.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the brave men and women who gave their lives to the ideals of Freedom and Liberty)

 

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)

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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher Bertha Barnes and little Maximo, whose village has been taken over, and whose principal refused to take down the American flag, and was hung in it’s place in a gruesome scene.

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The resistance fighters come across the infamous Bataan Death March, where Bonifacio has been taken prisoner. They free him, and Madden wants the men to rally around their former leader’s heir. He’s reluctant at first, but comes around and they make things hot for the Japanese. Little Maximo returns to his village and is tortured by the cruel invaders, but refuses to talk, and ends up sacrificing his life for the cause of freedom. Soon, the Americans are coming to the Philippines, and Madden and his guerilla band hold off the Japanese while the incoming Americans land and release the natives from their bondage.

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John Wayne, complete with scruffy beard, is his usual heroic self, and Quinn has never been bad in anything (although he has made some bad films, he always rises above them). The two macho men compliment each other well, with Quinn’s passionate Filipino trading off of Wayne’s stoicism. Wayne and Quinn only made one other film together, the 1947 South American western TYCOON, and it would’ve been interesting to have seen them make more.

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The wonderful Beulah Bondi shines as the schoolteacher, who’s just as tough as Wayne and his men. Miss Bondi was a two-time Oscar nominee (for THE GORGEOUS HUSSY and OF HUMAN HEARTS); although she never won the award, she did receive an Emmy for her final role in a 1976 episode of THE WALTONS. Always a welcome screen presence, Bondi appeared in classics and near classics like STREET SCENE (her film debut), RAIN (with Joan Crawford), the fantasy ON BORROWED TIME, with Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (both times as his mother), TRACK OF THE CAT (as Robert Mitchum’s mom), and A SUMMER PLACE.

That embodiment of Imperial Japanese evil, Richard Loo is on hand as the rotten Major Hasko. Loo, who was actually of Chinese descent, cornered the market on Nippon bad guys during the 40’s in such films as ACROSS THE PACIFIC, BEHIND THE RISING SUN, THE PURPLE HEART, GOD IS MY CO-PILOT, and FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO. Western fans will recognize Paul Fix (Micah on THE RIFLEMAN) as an American aiding the guerillas. And a young actor named Lawrence Tierney appears towards the end as Lt. Commander Waite, just before hitting it big in DILLINGER and other great noirs.

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Then there’s Ducky Louie, the boy playing young Maximo. Unlike a lot of child stars of the era, this kid had a natural acting ability, and holds his own with the pro cast. Ducky’s career was brief, appearing in only six films (most memorably in CHINA’S LITTLE DEVILS as a resistance fighter again,  and BLACK GOLD with costar Quinn). Young Ducky left show biz to become a dentist, and would be 85 if alive today (and if anyone can confirm whether he is or not, please let me know!). If his final death scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, you just don’t have a heart or soul.

Director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman were the polar opposites of John Wayne politically, and I’m sure some sparks must’ve flew during shooting. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca lends his dark noir touches to the film, and Roy Webb’s score “borrows” from KING KONG, as well as some patriotic tunes. At film’s end, we’re introduced to some of the real survivors of the Bataan Death March, marching along with the cast. Now if THAT doesn’t get you up and saluting, I don’t know what will! BACK TO BATAAN is a rousing actioner, depicting the brutal realities of war, and the brave men who fought for liberty and freedom during WWII. It’s also a fine example of 1940’s Hollywood filmmaking, and contains many outstanding performances, particularly young Ducky Louie.

The real Bataan Death March
The real Bataan Death March

Happy Birthday Errol Flynn: DESPERATE JOURNEY (Warner Brothers 1942)

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The actor known for his “wicked, wicked ways”, Errol Flynn was born June 20, 1909 in Hobart, Australia. The dashing Flynn skyrocketed to fame with a series of swashbuckling exploits: CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE SEA HAWK, and most notably THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He was also featured in some of the great Westerns of the era (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, SANTA FE TRAIL). Like all stalwart screen heroes, during the 1940’s Flynn made a number of wartime propaganda films to boost morale for the masses. One of these was DESPERATE JOURNEY, a totally improbable but highly exciting action yarn from the two-fisted, one-eyed Raoul Walsh, director of such macho fare as THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT.

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An RAF bomber squad is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines to take out a train depot. They accomplish the task, but are shot down by Nazi heavy artillery. Forced to crash-land, the survivors (Aussie Flight Lt. Terry, American Flight Officer Johnny, Canadian Flight Officer Jed, Brit Flight Sgts. Kirk and Lloyd)  are captured by the evil Nazis and taken before Major Baumeister. The Major tries to get airplane intel out of Johnny, but the cocky American gives him the double-talk and knocks the evil kraut out with the old one-two! The other men overtake the Nazi guards and escape, stealing some classified German documents on their way out (Johnny, reading one: “Degenerate democracy! That’s a great crack coming from Adolph!”) .

This pisses the Major off, of course, and he vows to hunt them down. But our plucky band of heroes thwart the Fascists at every turn, making monkeys out of them. After jumping some soldiers and stealing their uniforms, the crew hops a train (and it’s Goering’s private car, to boot!), and make their way into Berlin. They plot to blow up a chemical plant, and succeed, but Lloyd takes a bullet in the process. Terry meets up with a beautiful member of the German underground (what’s an Errol Flynn movie without a beautiful woman?) who tries to help them. She directs them to her parents place, and all seems well… until she walks in and discovers it’s not her parents, but Nazi sympathizers! Baumeister and his hoard surround the farmhouse, but the gang escapes yet again by stealing Baumeister’s car! (Though brave old Kirk doesn’t make it)

The furious chase continues until the Major’s car runs out of gas. Fortunately, our heroes stumble upon a captured British plane the Nazi’s plan on using to blow up a strategic waterworks. The trio manages to overpower the Nazis, but Major Baumeister and his men arrive on the scene, wounding Jed. Heroic Terry begins mowing down the Nazis with the plane’s machine gun, then takes off for the skies while heroic Johnny finishes the mowing down. All’s well that ends well, as Terry, Johnny, and Jed fly back to London, with Terry vowing, “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!!”

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WWII moviegoers must’ve cheered wildly at the spectacle of Nazis cut down by machine gun fire, and being made fools of throughout the film. DESPERATE JOURNEY was a box-office smash, even though Flynn was on trial for statutory rape at the time of its release (he was acquitted for those of you unfamiliar with Hollywood history). The film’s special effects were nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win (nominee Byron Haskin later went on to direct the sci-fi classic WAR OF THE WORLDS). Arthur T. Horman’s script was pure fantasy, more like something out of Marvel Comics’ “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos” than real life, but it hit all the right patriotic notes. Speaking of notes, Max Steiner contributes another of his rousing scores.

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Flynn shared  top billing in this with Ronald Reagan, who plays Johnny as a typically brash, wisecracking American. His “double-talk” scene earned kudos from both audiences and critics. This was Reagan’s last film before beginning a four-year hitch in the Armed Forces (he was stationed stateside).  When he returned to Hollywood, Reagan was relegated to B-movies, and his film career slowly fizzled out. That’s okay though, as Ronald Reagan found even greater success in his next career- politics.

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Major Baumeister is the epitome of Nazi evil as played by Raymond Massey. The growling, sneering Hun is a far cry from Massey’s noble ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS. Alan Hale Sr (Kirk) adds comic relief; he was Little John to Flynn’s Robin Hood in 1938 (offscreen, Hale was one of Flynn’s good drinking buddies). Arthur Kennedy is the sober-sided Canadian Jed. Ronald Sinclair (Lloyd) played young Ebeneezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL ; he later became a film editor mostly associated with Roger Corman. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sig Ruman, Nancy Coleman, Lester Matthews, and Albert Basserman. If you look close, you’ll also spot John Banner (HOGAN’S HEROES’ Sgt. Schultz), Walter Brooke, Helmut Dantine, and Phillip Van Zant.

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Then there’s Errol Flynn himself, with that rascally charm and roguish smile, leading his band of brothers through peril after peril. The virile Errol was actually classified 4-F during the war, suffering from heart ailments, chronic TB and Malaria, and assorted venereal diseases (not to mention his struggles with alcohol and morphine). But that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from casting him in more wartime dramas like DIVE BOMBER and OBJECTIVE BURMA. At least he could fight for his adopted country onscreen, kicking Nazi and Japanese ass and sending war-weary audiences home happy, at least for a while. Errol Flynn continued to make movies and carouse until his death in 1959, when his abused body finally gave out, a victim of his own “wicked, wicked ways”. He left behind a legacy of classic films for Hollywood fans to enjoy for years to come.

Special Memorial Day Edition: Audie Murphy in BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH (20th Century Fox 1961)

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When I was in college, I wrote a paper on Audie Murphy for history class. Murphy was a real American hero, the most decorated combat soldier of World War II. He held off an entire squad of German soldiers alone, armed with a machine gun and bleeding from a leg wound, under fire from both foot soldiers and tank fire. Then he rejoined his men and led an attack on the Germans, driving them back and earning the Medal of Honor for his valiant efforts.

Murphy was noticed by Hollywood upon his return from the war, and soon was cast in a successful series of Westerns: THE KID FROM TEXAS, KANSAS RAIDERS, DUEL AT SILVER CREEK, RED BADGE OF COURAGE, GUNSMOKE, and a remake of DESTRY. His autobiography TO HELL AND BACK was a national best seller, and Audie played himself in the film version. Surprisingly, Murphy only starred in one other war film, 1961’s BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH.

The thirty-second movie of Audie Murphy. Starring Audie Murphy, Gary Crosby, Dolores Michaels, Alejandro Rey, Marjorie Stapp, Barry Atwater, and E. U. Andre. Summary: Audie Murphy performs in his second World War II movie after his autobiographical movie, TO HELL AND BACK. In this movie, Audie plays Craig Benson who is a civilian employee of the Navy working to help supply guerrilla insurgents in the Philippine Islands during World War II. The Japanese have already occupied the Pacific island country and the job is extremely hazardous. But Craig Benson has an ulterior motive for working in the enemy occupied islands. He is looking for his wife Ruth, played by Dolores Michaels, who has been fighting in the resistance with a group of local guerrillas with whom he was separated from two years before. Unfortunately, she believes her husband to be dead and has become romantically involved with the Filipino resistance leader Julio Fontana, played by Alejandro Rey.

Audie’s fighting the Japanese in this one, as Craig Benson, an American who was separated from his wife Ruth when the Japanese took over the Philippines.  Since then, he’s spent the past two years working with the U.S. Navy, helping to arm guerillas and searching for Ruth in the process. Benson’s dropped off with a shipment of arms on one of the islands, where he’s met by Army sergeant Sackler, who lends him his guide Blanco to search for rebels.

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Benson and Blanco are ambushed by the insurrectionist army of “General” M’Keever, who wants the arms Benson has brought. Benson doesn’t trust the wily general, and with good reason. M’Keever pulls a gun on Benson when, out of nowhere, Julio Fontana and his own rebel army attack the camp. After rescuing Benson, Fontana tells him he has seven Americans hiding out with him. Benson says needs to get the Americans to safety, and he’ll give Fontana the arms to battle the Japanese. But to Benson’s shock, one of the Americans is Ruth.

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Benson leads Fontana, Ruth, the Americans, and a few fighters across the dangerous terrain to the shore where the arms are kept, while Fontana’s right hand man Tiger Blair and the rest wait behind. What Benson doesn’t know is Ruth and Fontana are now an item, as she thought him long dead and joined with the freedom fighters. They arrive back at the shoreline, where the arms are stashed in an old wrecked ship, when they’re suddenly surrounded by the Japanese army, and now must fight for their lives to survive despite insurmountable odds.

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BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH is a great title, but the film’s only so-so. Although there are some flashes of violence in the beginning, the “battle” doesn’t really get started until we’re about two-thirds of the way through. It’s talky and melodramatic, spending too much time on the love triangle and not enough on the battle. Audie Murphy had great screen presence, but truthfully he wasn’t so great as an actor.  Given the right material, like in RED BADGE OF COURAGE and NO NAME ON THE BULLET, he excelled. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t give him much to work with, and the result is, except a few brief moments, rather tame.

The supporting cast consists of mainly Familiar Faces from the ranks of television. Dolores Michaels (Ruth) was a B starlet of the 50’s who ended her career in episodic TV. Alejandro Rey (Fontana) makes his American film debut here, and he’s good; his best known role was Carlos Ramirez, friend of THE FLYING NUN. Gary Crosby (son of Bing, ADAM-12) plays Sackler, and winds up getting eaten by a shark for his troubles! Ivan Dixon (Tiger) is better known as Kinch on HOGAN’S HEROES. William Mims, who’s flamboyant as M’Keever, popped up all over episodic TV in guest spots. One of the Americans, the wounded Jeff, is Barry Atwater. If that name rings a bell, you’re probably a horror fan, as Atwater portrayed the vampire Janos Skorzeny in the classic TV Movie THE NIGHT STALKER.

Young Lt. Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor on 6/2/45
Young Lt. Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor on 6/2/45

Director Herbert Coleman was associated with Alfred Hitchcock as an assistant director and producer. Producer/screenwriter Richard Maibaum’s credits stretch back to 1936’s WE WENT TO COLLEGE, but film buffs will surely recognize his name as writer of 13 James Bond movies, beginning with the first, DR. NO. BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH isn’t the most exciting war film, but it has its moments, and it does star a real war hero, Audie Murphy. Today, while you’re at your family cookouts, take time to remember men like Murphy, who gave so much to this country in the service of freedom. We owe them a huge amount of gratitude. Even in these crazy, divided political times, there’s no country I’d rather be a part of than the United States of America!