Santiago (1956) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you’ve seen the World War II picture China (1943), also starring Alan Ladd, you’ll know what to expect from Santiago. They’re pretty similar, but both are worth watching. Here, an American gunrunner, Caleb “Cash” Adams (Alan Ladd), is drawn into the Cuban War of Independence while delivering a shipment of arms and ammunition to the Cuban rebels in the 1890s. Despite a few talkier moments, this is a well-told tale with a fair amount of action.

Often resembling a western movie, this is an interesting and atmospheric look at the lives of amoral, greedy gunrunners in the late nineteenth century, set in places like a seedy bar’s backroom, a paddle wheeler’s cargo hold, and the steamy jungles of Haiti and Cuba. The characters are easy to keep track of, and the action scenes are well-handled. Worth noting is an unusually graphic (by 1956 standards) headshot received by one character towards the beginning of the film.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, there are a few dialogue-heavy scenes (mainly towards the beginning), but they’re tolerable. While there is a prominent romantic subplot, it doesn’t subtract from the experience as much as a similar subplot did in China. Also on the down side, the ending is fairly abrupt. Some might even call it anti-climactic (I’m not sure I would, though), concluding just as the flick was starting to heat up.

Santiago, which makes a good double feature with the aforementioned China, is a solid action-adventure picture with a story that has a lot of potential. Does it fully reach that potential? Eh, not quite, perhaps due to some budgetary restrictions. Still, if you’re looking for a movie set around the time of the Spanish-American War, Santiago is a good choice to watch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

China (1943) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released during World War II, China serves as an interesting and entertaining piece of American propaganda designed to educate the U.S. populace on the struggles faced by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion of their homeland. Cynical, tough oil salesman David Jones (Alan Ladd) wants nothing to do with the conflict, despite living in China. He’s content to go about selling his product to the highest bidder, which is frequently the raping, burning, murdering Japanese. With his partner, Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix), he finds himself driving a truck full of displaced Chinese and a teacher of American descent, Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), across the countryside in an effort to outrun the war.

China works best as a war-based action-adventure picture. The film begins with an ambitious long take that immediately throws the audience into the story and action is relatively frequent after that. Gunfire and explosions are the name of the game here, although the finale isn’t quite as exciting as the sequence where our heroes acquire the explosives used for said ending. Ladd is a convincing action star, and Bendix is excellent as the sidekick.

On the down side, there’s a lot of romance to yawn at. The movie tends to get bogged down in it, with Bendix reminiscing about his old hayrides back in the U.S. and whatnot, when the picture could be focused on the Japanese getting their just desserts. There’s even the threat of a romantic triangle breaking out at one point, but this potential disaster doesn’t fully materialize. Another flaw with the flick is that the Japanese threat doesn’t really feel quite immediate enough at times during the first act. However, it becomes very real after that.

Romance aside, this is probably one of the more effective and cool World War II flag-wavers made during the war. The fascinating, if fictional, plot is enough to absorb the viewer, and the action gets a thumbs-up. The film’s Wilsonian idealism shines through all the carnage and romance to stir the audience into making the world a better place when the war concludes. War and action-adventure movie aficionados will find enough here to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The War Wagon (1967) Review

Director: Burt Kennedy

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 101 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of my favorite westerns to star either John Wayne (playing Taw Jackson here) or Kirk Douglas (playing Lomax here), this heist picture sees the two of them team up to rob an armor-plated stagecoach transporting a fortune in gold dust. The film plays out like a Mission: Impossible movie set in the Old West. It’s an old-fashioned, traditional western, with the typical tough-talking, yet oft-humorous, dialogue, but it has enough to distinguish itself from the pack.

The War Wagon features a really good musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin, including a catchy theme song. The action, while not non-stop, is above average. The standout scene in this regard is the barroom brawl, which is one of the very best of its kind in western film history. They really trash the place. The picture’s also worth watching just to see Wayne and Douglas fighting on the same side. The latter even makes a joke about his famous chin dimple at one point.

There is a little bit of “back-and-forth” in The War Wagon that harms the pacing, but, for the most part, it’s a pretty focused movie. While the plight of the Native Americans during the Wild West period is acknowledged, they primarily end up being fodder for the gunfire of white people here. Still, it’s not as disrespectful as it could’ve been.

It’s not the best western flick ever made, but The War Wagon is an excellent action-adventure film with a terrific “hook,” the seemingly impossible heist on a fortified stagecoach. Released the same year as the groundbreaking and graphic gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the bloodless The War Wagon feels like a product of a bygone era in comparison. I suppose many people will see that as part of its appeal. If you’re a fan of one of the two stars (or both), there’s no reason to not watch this one.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mighty Joe Young (1949) Review

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A spiritual sequel to King Kong (1933) and The Son of Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young is also about a stop-motion primate on the loose. Jill Young (Terry Moore) is a young woman living in Africa with a pet gorilla (Joe Young, of course) who is convinced to move to the United States and participate in a new nightclub project schemed up by showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong). This one’s more kid-friendly than the other two monster monkey movies that I mentioned earlier, although it still has plenty of action, suspense, and life-threatening peril.

This spare-no-expense action-adventure film features an able cast that includes a young Ben Johnson (playing Gregg) as an Oklahoman cowboy who tries to wrangle Joe Young while in Africa. The numerous special effects here feel smoother than the ones in King Kong and The Son of Kong. The elaborate action scenes are probably some of the best of the 1940s. The decision to credit Joe as “Mr. Joseph Young” in the opening credits is a cute touch.

Mighty Joe Young sure knows how to successfully push an audience’s buttons, thanks to a winning combination of action and drama. Some scenes may be a bit too talky for children, and some of the animal fighting isn’t the easiest to watch (Joe beats up some lions during one of the big set pieces, but they’re mostly fake). Most viewers will find something to enjoy about this flick.

The original Mighty Joe Young forms an unofficial adventure movie trilogy along with the original King Kong and The Son of Kong. All three were directed (or co-directed) by Ernest B. Schoedsack and show off special effects that were groundbreaking at the time of release. If you’ve enjoyed the other two films, you have got to watch Mighty Joe Young.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Son of Kong (1933) Review

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Adventure, Fantasy

Runtime: 70 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released the same year as the original King Kong (1933), this direct sequel is smaller in scale, but is still an enjoyable experience. The plot follows filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who returns to Skull Island to meet Kong’s young son. He’s a cuter and cuddlier Kong, which goes along with the film’s more comedic and less action-heavy tone. He actually reminds me of the Abominable Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).

The Son of Kong, like its predecessor, takes a while to get to Skull Island, but that’s alright. The scenes in the East Indies port of Dakang evoke a strong atmosphere of a small-time, rarely-visited outpost of humanity. Of course, the primary reason to view this flick is for the special effects. They were state-of-the-art for the time, and are still a pleasure to watch. Max Steiner returns to do the musical score, which “quotes” the score from the original on at least one occasion. Overall, this movie seems a bit more intimate with the characters than the first one.

This picture was released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (prior to the enforcement of the Production Code), but it lacks any content that could be considered “Pre-Code” in nature…unless you count Baby Kong unintentionally giving the heroes the middle finger for an extended period of time after he injures his hand. The Son of Kong is generally a more kid-friendly movie than its predecessor, although its unexpectedly dark ending sort of negates its value as a family film. If you want to watch a retro gorilla adventure picture with your child, you’re better off with Mighty Joe Young (1949).

The character played by Victor Wong is merely named “Chinese Cook” here in the opening credits, although he’s called “Charlie” approximately five thousand times during the course of the movie. Anyway, The Son of Kong isn’t as good as the original, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth watching. It’s actually quite good. The monster brawls are fun to watch, and it’s a delight to see some of the characters from King Kong return.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

King Kong (1933) Review

Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy

Runtime: 100 minutes (standard version), 104 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the best monster movies ever made, King Kong is a highly ambitious film that, once it gets going, piles on the special effects and action. A film crew led by famed director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is out shooting a new picture on an uncharted, tropical island when they discover a massive gorilla named Kong that’s worshiped by the local natives. Made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code era (prior to the Production Code being enforced), this is one sweet ride.

King Kong is very reliant on special effects, and, in all fairness, they probably won’t be mistaken for realistic by modern audiences. Still, they’re spectacular and imaginative, being far more fun to watch than computer-generated imagery (CGI). There’s something exciting about watching an effect that exists in the real world, as opposed to one that only exists in a computer screen. After a somewhat slow opening, the flick really takes off once Kong arrives. From then on, it’s almost non-stop action. This has to be one of the first of the throw-everything-at-the-audience-except-the-kitchen-sink action pictures.

Max Steiner’s musical score is awesome and vigorous. The film’s emotional component is often overstated, although Kong still manages to elicit sympathy from the viewers. For the most part, though, he’s a vicious killing machine. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is screaming almost constantly throughout the movie. It’s not a bad thing, and the howls of other characters amplify the film’s considerable violence. The depiction of Skull Island’s natives may be problematic for some. I wouldn’t call it outright racist, but it is stereotypical and patronizing.

Impressively massive in scale, King Kong serves as an early special effects extravaganza. Be patient with the picture’s introductory scenes and you’ll be rewarded with a one-of-a-kind action-adventure treat. It’s still a remarkably worthwhile movie, even if the effects aren’t exactly life-like.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) Review

Directors: Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 63 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the gems of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood of the early 1930s (before the Production Code was enforced), The Most Dangerous Game tells the story of a shipwreck survivor named Bob (Joel McCrea) who finds himself stranded on a South Seas island ruled by the mad Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who’s taken game-hunting to a whole new level. Putting action-adventure, horror, and thriller elements in a blender, it’s a wonderful piece of pulp.

The whole motion picture is short as Hell, clocking in at a little over an hour. There’s a very, very good musical score from Max Steiner – one of the first to play frequently over the course of a talkie film (prior to this, most sound movies only had scores over the main and end titles). The performance from Leslie Banks as the villain is appropriately lively and crazed. Banks even tries to convince the hero to join him, since apparently they aren’t so different deep down, which is now a classic action-adventure film trope. The Most Dangerous Game, while being primarily focused on violence and horror, does have a fair amount of comic relief, and, yes, there is the obligatory romantic subplot, but it doesn’t distract too much from the cool stuff.

While short, this isn’t exactly a fast-paced movie. It contains some talky sections that slow down the mayhem somewhat. Some of the fighting looks a bit dated, and a viewer should be prepared for a little bit of cheesiness (like the “He got me!” shark attack).

The Most Dangerous Game isn’t a perfect flick, but it’s got it where it counts. There’s a bit too much yapping, but it’s on a solid footing when it lets the action do the talking. Its short runtime means it should make an exceptional companion piece to either Island of Lost Souls (1932) or King Kong (1933), if you need a Pre-Code adventure double-feature.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) Review

Director: Erle C. Kenton

Genre(s): Adventure, Horror, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 70 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

My all-time favorite horror movie, Island of Lost Souls is a supremely depraved flick about a shipwrecked sailor, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), trapped on a remote tropical island ruled by mad scientist Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). While the film’s atrocities are mostly kept offscreen, this movie is still as potent as they come. Pulpy and lurid, the Rotten Tomatoes blurb for Dave Kehr’s review of the picture describes it as “dripping with sex and sadism.” I couldn’t have put it better myself (although I would’ve also added “sweat”).

Combining South Seas adventure with gripping sci-fi horror, Island of Lost Souls has a thick atmosphere of cruelty. The costumes and make-up are excellent, and the lighting is awe-inspiring. It’s quick and fast-paced, featuring some well-drawn characters. Of course, it’s Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau who steals the show. He’s deliciously evil here, making for a truly vile and repulsive villain. The grand finale builds up to a fury that could be described as unintentionally antinatalistic, and the whole thing has some fascinating philosophical and even religious implications.

Made during the “Pre-Code” era of Hollywood in the early 1930s, before the Production Code was being enforced, this film is full of the unnatural and perverse. It was even banned in Great Britain until 1958, according to its IMDb Trivia page. Island of Lost Souls would also prove to be a major inspiration for the prominent New Wave band Devo, among others (even rock titans Van Halen wrote a song, “House of Pain,” allegedly based on the picture).

To sum things up, this one is extremely underrated, and deserves to be remembered with the very best of the horror genre. Sick and slick, it never overstays its welcome and packs quite a punch. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it can’t be twisted.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Little Big Man (1970) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

Genre(s): Adventure, Comedy, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Sort of a comedy version of Dances with Wolves (1990), Little Big Man is about Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white boy raised by Native Americans during the Wild West period. It is commendably reverent towards indigenous Americans (although I couldn’t tell you how accurate it is, as it sometimes portrays them as “proto-hippies”), but the episodic plot threatens to sink the film. There’s simply too much back-and-forth in this movie, as it runs in circles.

It’s fun at first, being a series of colorful anecdotes about life in the Old West, but it soon becomes unclear as to what the entire picture is building up to. The sociopolitical content is often heavy-handed, and the frequent narration during the first half or so may turn off some. This tragicomic flick also contains some jarring tonal shifts, blending comedy and drama in ways that aren’t always completely successful.

Certainly not everything goes wrong here. The action scenes are adequate and some good stuntwork is on display. The humor is mostly effective, and, even as it meanders, the plot is almost always in motion. There’s all sorts of western film tropes on display here, as the movie leaps from one “sketch” or scenario to another.

Little Big Man is clearly a product of its time (the early 1970s). It’s very well-regarded by the critics, but I’m more cool towards it. If you’re looking for a fantastic movie directed by Arthur Penn, I’d point you in the direction of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That’s not to say Little Big Man is bad. It just feels a bit unfocused.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Great Escape (1963) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 172 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Director John Sturges’ second masterpiece (the first being The Magnificent Seven [1960]), this World War II epic tells the true story of Allied prisoners-of-war (P.O.W.s) planning a mass breakout from Stalag Luft III, the Nazi prison-camp they’re being held in. Along with Casablanca (1942), a picture of this film can be seen in the dictionary when you look up “classic film” (well, not really). It’s timeless, and perhaps the definitive P.O.W. picture.

Everything about this movie works. The all-star cast is a delight to watch, and Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is masterful. There’s a great deal of successful comic relief, and the cinematography does a swell job capturing the landscapes that surround the Allied P.O.W.s, making the film seem even more epic. The excellent sets also deserve a mention. However, The Great Escape perhaps works best when focusing on suspense. It can be a real nail-biter.

In a flick that’s nearly three hours long, pacing is crucial, and The Great Escape pulls it off. Fortunately, there’s no romance to bog things down, and all roles work in harmony towards the goal of crafting a stellar motion picture (just as each character has a job in the breakout plot; each one being a cog in the escape machine).

Thanks to tough guy heroics and the change of seasons from snowy (the time of the actual prison-break in real life) to glorious summer (the season of the breakout in the film), the movie almost (almost) makes war look fun. There’s plenty of macho bonding and the picture does an exceptional job capturing a sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. It’s not an action movie, but what action is in it really matters. The motorcycle pursuit sequence is the stuff legends are made of.

The highly efficient The Great Escape is all about the triumph of the human spirit. These men are seemingly uncageable. To sum things up, let’s leave with a quote from the movie: “You get ten out of ten for this, old boy!”

My rating is 10 outta 10.