Springfield Rifle (1952) Review

Director: André De Toth

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller, War, Western

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Two years after the popular Winchester ’73 (1950) was released, another rifle-themed western was put in theaters, this one starring Gary Cooper and titled Springfield Rifle. The plot follows Alex “Lex” Kearney (Gary Cooper), an officer in the Union military during the American Civil War who is branded a coward after surrendering a herd of horses to Confederate raiders out West without a fight. The story can be somewhat complicated at times, but I’ll just leave it at that to avoid spoilers (it should be mentioned that the plot description on its IMDb page gives quite a bit away).

Springfield Rifle isn’t the most straightforward film of all time, featuring enough twists and turns to justify its existence. Gary Cooper is at the center of all of this, and the guy’s a real badass. This is perhaps one of his most memorable action and/or adventure movies. The picture contains some material related to Cooper’s character’s relationship with his wife, Erin Kearney (Phyllis Thaxter), but it’s well-integrated into the rest of the flick, not feeling like it was shoehorned in by studio executives. Max Steiner’s musical score is fine.

Fortunately for the film, it’s blessed with some above-average action scenes, whether they be oriented around people punching each other or riding around, shooting at moving targets. There’s a couple of instances of “yowza” stuntwork and an early use of the “Wilhelm scream.” The “smoke-’em-out” action finale would not be approved of by Smokey Bear.

Even if its name is “Springfield Rifle,” Cooper never lets the titular firearm outshine him (although the gun is still pretty cool). Thanks to things like the leading actor’s presence, the beautiful scenery, the thumbs-up-worthy action sequences, and an interesting plot, this war/western/action-adventure movie deserves to be watched. It’s sort of a shame that this feature is largely forgotten about today (maybe because it was sent to theaters the same year as High Noon [1952], another Cooper western that’s even better), because it still satisfies.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) Review

Director: Peter Jackson

Genre(s): Documentary, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

They Shall Not Grow Old is, as of right now, my favorite documentary of all time. It takes a micro-scale look at World War I from the perspectives of British veterans of said conflict, with their testimonies, recorded decades after the conflagration, serving as the only narration. This is not an overview of the entire war from all points-of-view, instead it focuses on the experiences of those serving Great Britain on the Western Front.

The amount of effort that was put into this documentary puts the word “meticulous” to shame. Not only was footage from the 1914-1918 time period colorized (something that could’ve been quite controversial), but sound was added. We’re not just talking sound effects for artillery and boots in the mud here, we’re talking professional lip-readers being brought in to try to figure out what the soldiers are saying in the silent film pieces. The restored footage with the voices of the servicemen who survived the nightmare is a powerful combination.

They Shall Not Grow Old details several aspects of the life of a typical British soldier in World War I, including training, the killing of lice, downtime, and the difficulties with finding employment after the conflict ended. However, the most notable moments come from the descriptions of front-line combat. The centerpiece “battle scene,” which is supposedly a collection of anecdotes from several different engagements, is just as ferocious-feeling as anything found in a narrative movie. Sure, there wasn’t much up-close-and-personal camerawork related to close-quarters combat from this historical event, since the bulky, hand-cranked cameras of the time couldn’t easily enter the war zone, but the first-hand accounts of the horror make things quite clear.

Tightly focused, there is never a dull moment here. It’s an absorbing work of filmmaking that should be seen by as many people as possible. It is rated R, though, thanks to some photographs of the dead and of “trench foot,” which may limit its ability to be played in schools, but this documentary is a must-see to remind people of the heroism of the Lost Generation. If there’s anything wrong with They Shall Not Grow Old, it’s that it’s simply not longer.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Dark of the Sun (1968) Review

Director: Jack Cardiff

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, War

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Congolese Civil War of the 1960s (referred to as the “Congo Crisis” on Wikipedia) had just ended when this mercenary action-adventure picture was released. During that war, a team of soldiers-of-fortune led by Bruce Curry (Rod Taylor) and Ruffo (Jim Brown) are sent on a deadly mission to rescue a trapped town of civilians (and their diamonds) before Simba rebels can close in. It’s a fictional story, but this film has all the intensity of a chainsaw on full-blast.

Dark of the Sun showcases several very good action scenes, as the characters battle their way in and out of the heart of the Congo. Supposedly, a great deal of content was deleted from the movie before and after being sent to censors, but the sequences where stuff may have been removed don’t feel particularly choppy. Quentin Tarantino was apparently so pleased with this movie’s musical score, done by Jacques Loussier, that he included several snippets of it in his flick Inglourious Basterds (2009).

The characters here are occasionally colorful, with those played Rod Taylor and Jim Brown being appropriately badass, but different enough to be distinguishable from each other. To complicate the expedition that our heroes (or anti-heroes) are on, the doctor, Wreid (Kenneth More), is an alcoholic and the man providing the local Congolese troops, Henlein (Peter Carsten), is a former member of the Nazi war machine. There is a fairly prominent female character, Claire (Yvette Mimieux), but there isn’t a substantial romantic subplot. This is a guy movie, through and through.

Dark of the Sun is up there with Walker (1987) and The Wild Geese (1978) as one of the best mercenary-oriented war flicks of all time. It’s not quite as bloody as those movies, possibly thanks to some cut footage (which I hope isn’t lost forever). It’s probably not the easiest action-adventure feature to hunt down, but it’s more-than-worth a watch if you can find it. It’s tough as nails.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Made in the middle of World War II, ‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders is a rough-and-tumble war actioner designed to raise the spirits of the American populace and remind them what they’re fighting for. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an elite team of American Marines is assembled for a secret mission during World War II. Their objective: raid the Japanese-occupied outpost of Makin Island, killing all enemy soldiers and leveling the place. Based on a true story, this a swell piece of propaganda.

Humorous at times, Gung Ho! does an able job of the building up to the final action sequences on Makin Island. The training scenes are cool and the part where the raiders are packed into submarines like sardines elicits a greater sense of claustrophobia than anything in Das Boot (1981). The battle scenes in the third act are very good, packed with gunfire, stabbings, and big explosions.

What holds Gung Ho! back from being one of the greats is that many of its characters are, more or less, interchangeable. Just about the only folks in the picture to make an impression are Colonel Thorwald (Randolph Scott) and “Pig-Iron” (Robert Mitchum), and that’s because they’re played by famous actors. There’s also some minor romance towards the beginning of the runtime that doesn’t have a significant payoff. Gung Ho! is sometimes derided as it’s a piece of war-time propaganda partially made to whip up hatred of the Japanese. I don’t really hold this against the film, though.

Gung Ho! is, in my opinion, one of the better combat movies to be released during World War II. As bloodthirsty as it occasionally is, its heart is in the right place. It’s not as slick as some of the other flicks from this time period and many of its characters get lost in the shuffle, but this is still a piece of cinema that begs to be watched by war film addicts.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ten Tall Men (1951) Review

Director: Willis Goldbeck

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

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Burt-Lancaster-joins-the-French-Foreign-Legion is the “hook” of this 1951 war/action-adventure film. During the Rif War in Morocco, a trouble-making sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, Mike Kincaid (Burt Lancaster), assembles a group of fellow Legionnaires (all of whom are rotting in prison) to launch a preemptive raid on desert rebels before the aforementioned insurgents can launch an assault on an undermanned French-occupied town. This flick has an interesting proto-The Dirty Dozen (1967) story, but it’s much more light-hearted than that hard-boiled World War II film.

Ten Tall Men starts off awfully comedic and retains a jokey tone for much of its runtime. The humor here doesn’t really land most of the time. The romance isn’t really effective, either, and many of the supporting characters aren’t as well-defined as they should’ve been for a men-on-a-mission film. The action-adventure elements are what saves this movie from the trash bin. Sure, it’s apparent that they didn’t have a large budget to work with, but the combat scenes are fair.

The story that eventually became Ten Tall Men was actually originally a western. However, the sort of western/war film that the filmmakers were aiming for was considered old hat by the time of this picture’s production, so the action shifted across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s easy to see how the U.S. cavalry were substituted by the French Foreign Legion and the Native Americans by the Moroccan guerrillas.

When it’s all said and done, Ten Tall Men is an adequate war movie that goes somewhat heavy on the comic relief. You should also be warned that a romantic subplot breaks out. The final action scene is hardly the strongest one in the feature, but this film clips along at a decent pace, so it doesn’t dwell on any of its faults for too long. It’s okay, but there are better French Foreign Legion flicks out there, like Legionnaire (1998), Beau Geste (1939), and March or Die (1977).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Apocalypse Now (1979) Review

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 147 minutes (theatrical cut), 183 minutes (Final Cut), 196 minutes (Redux)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This is a review of the 147-minute theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now, the famous, dark, and psychedelic war film that is sometimes regarded as the best of its genre. In the midst of the Vietnam War, an American serviceman, Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), is assigned to travel by patrol boat to Cambodia to assassinate U.S. officer Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who’s reportedly gone rogue…and insane. This is a spectacularly well-made movie, but I can’t help but feel that the third act is the weakest component of the feature. To me, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

More abstract than, say, Platoon (1986), Apocalypse Now is about descent into madness, as just about any film critic will tell you. It’s a slightly surreal journey, accompanied by dark comedy (especially in the first half) and impressive, large-scale visuals. The choices for music are dynamite. It’s not an action flick, but the helicopter attack sequence has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. It lives up to the hype, being one of the best battle scenes to grace movie theater screens.

Apocalypse Now borders on the episodic, but, for the most part, it manages to keep things together. Unfortunately, the film comes close to hitting a brick wall when it arrives as Marlon Brando’s character’s compound. These scenes look amazing, but what seems like almost endless monologues from Brando hurt the picture’s momentum. The somewhat meandering third act is a problem. Also, this one probably won’t be played on television for Veterans Day any time soon, as most Americans in it, including both members of the military and civilians, are characterized as spaced-out, excessively rowdy, nutty about surfing, or psychotically violent. There’s also a scene of violence against a water buffalo, so animal lovers may want to sit this one out.

Crazy, eccentric, and colorful, this psychological war epic is too “artsy-fartsy” for many viewers, but, with its atmosphere of insanity, it’s still worth watching. Be warned that the final moments are slower than the scenes that preceded them. Still, it’s ambitious as Hell and is often a feast for the senses. All of this being said, when it comes to surreal, dream-like war movies, I actually prefer Castle Keep (1969) and Walker (1987).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

Genre(s): Adventure, War, Western

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Ulzana’s Raid is an interesting hybrid of the war and western genres that takes a long, hard look at guerrilla warfare. It’s not exactly a pretty movie, but it’s tough and thoughtful, earning a reputation as an underrated member of the two genres listed earlier. A crafty, sadistic Apache named Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) has escaped from his reservation and, with a small war party, is bearing down on white settlers in the area. A troop of American government cavalry led by the naive Lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and aided by the seasoned tracker McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) is deployed to stop the renegade Native Americans.

This is not a horror film, but it gives off some of the same vibes as one. Instead of a knife-wielding Michael Myers, we have a band of ruthless, seemingly unstoppable Apaches stalking victims in the Arizona desert. The random acts of violence committed by the rebels, which are quite graphic for a 1972 picture (and they still retain some shock value today), result in what is not exactly the most flattering depiction of Native Americans to hit the big screen. They definitely aren’t “proto-hippies” here!

The action scenes here are adequate, although it should be noted that they contain what appear to be trip-wire-driven horse-falls, so horse lovers might want to skip this one. The whole cat-and-mouse game isn’t always as clearly set up as I wish it was, and the flick is occasionally on the talky side. The build-up to the final battle isn’t as exciting as it could’ve been, but the payoff is satisfactory.

It’s not quite one of my favorites, but Ulzana’s Raid is still a movie that fans of the war and western genres should seek out. Many people have come to the conclusion that the film is a bit of an allegory for the Vietnam War still taking place at the time of its release. If so, it’s a relatively subtle one. Overall, it’s probably one of the better cavalry-versus-“Indians” pictures out there, thanks to its suspense and thought-provoking handling of the conflict between the Native Americans and white Americans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.