Glory (1989) Review

Director: Edward Zwick

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Stories told from the Southern point-of-view tended to dominate movies made about the American Civil War for a long time. Think The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939). However, in 1989, the record was set straight by this unforgettable motion picture. Shortly after the Battle of Antietam, White Union officer Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is tasked with organizing a regiment of African-American soldiers to fight the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This story is rooted in truth, and sticks pretty close to the facts.

Structured like a World War II squad movie, Glory is a powerful film that doesn’t waste a second (it doesn’t feel like two hours). No romantic subplots here, only military matters are covered, making this one a real treat for war movie lovers. In addition to being highly educational, this efficient flick features some moments of heroism that are basically guaranteed to send chills down your spine. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed and are nothing short of hair-raising.

If there’s a weak link here, it’s Matthew Broderick as the lead. He’s not terrible, but it can be hard to take the guy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) as a tough military man. Fortunately, James Horner’s terrific musical score steps in in any questionable moments to do some dramatic heavy-lifting. Some viewers have accused Glory of having a “White savior narrative,” where African-Americans have to be led to everlasting glory by White dudes. I suppose some of these concerns have legitimacy, but, considering that the movie is based on historical fact, I don’t think that they bog down the picture.

Union officer James Montgomery (played by Cliff De Young here) sort of gets the short end of the stick in this production. In real life, he was a sincere, badass abolitionist who even considered launching a raid to rescue John Brown from prison, but, in Glory, he’s an opportunistic bigot. Well, a movie can’t be perfect. Anyway, this American Civil War epic is a must-watch. Characters are very clear, the titanic battles are thunderous, the music is rousing, and it tells an important and true story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hamburger Hill (1987) Review

Director: John Irvin

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Released one year after Platoon (1986) and the same year as Full Metal Jacket (1987), this could be seen as the muddier, bloodier sibling to those Vietnam War films. Set in 1969, a squad of American soldiers fights to survive the torturous Battle of Hamburger Hill (an actual engagement in real life) during the Vietnam War, which involves them trying to take a communist-occupied hill in South Vietnam. It’s not as masterful as Full Metal Jacket, but I’d put this one on roughly equal footing with Platoon.

A significant chunk of this movie is a series of slices-of-life from U.S. troops serving in South Vietnam. They bond, train, occasionally find themselves in combat situations, interact with the locals, and brace themselves for the next big piece of action. The characterizations that the inhabitants of this movie’s universe receive are mixed. Some are well-fleshed-out, but others fall victim to who-is-this-guy-again? syndrome. We get to adequately know the characters before all Hell breaks loose.

The Battle of Hamburger Hill is when the flick really comes into its own. Watching the battlefield transform before our eyes from a dense jungle to a barren, smoky wasteland is the reason to view this picture. The fighting is grueling and gruesome, with one of the more notable assaults on the titular hill taking place in pouring rain, with American soldiers slipping and sliding down the heights as they struggle to climb up them. Not all of the characters are going to make it out of this one alive.

Hamburger Hill isn’t quite one of the very best war pictures of all time – its first half is a bit too typical for the genre for that – but it’s still solid. Its representation of the United States’ fighting men in the Vietnam War is respectful, perhaps even a tad reverent, while just about all American civilians are media vultures, dirty hippies, backstabbing politicians, or people who simply don’t understand the plight of the U.S. military. Being one of the better Vietnam War combat flicks, I recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Platoon (1986) Review

Director: Oliver Stone

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Before he became one of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s useful idiots, director Oliver Stone was a talented filmmaker, and the Vietnam War combat picture Platoon was often cited as his magnum opus. Stone was himself a veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, and he brought a sense of realism to the movie that had seldom been seen previously in the war genre. The feature is about fresh American soldier Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) being assigned to a platoon in the Vietnam War that’s divided between followers of the benevolent Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and disciples of the cruel Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The all-star cast went through a sort of Hell to make this picture, as they endured a boot-camp-style training course in the jungles of the Philippines (where the flick was filmed) to put them inside the heads of soldiers who might have served in that vicious war. The desperation, exhaustion, and fear on the actors’ faces is mostly real. Platoon may not make ideal viewing for, say, Veterans Day, because it does graphically deal with atrocities committed by U.S. troop in South Vietnam. Some Americans come off looking better than others, but innocence is undoubtedly shattered.

The intense battle sequences in Platoon are stirring and tend to avoid John Rambo-style heroics. The violence here is unforgiving, yet never gratuitous (this is no splatterfest, despite how grisly things get). The outdoor elements are just as brutal to deal with as bullets fired by the communists. Despite the hair-raising nature of the movie, I do feel like the storytelling lacks that extra “oomph” necessary to push it into masterpiece territory. It’s not that the film is episodic, it just needed to be a bit more propulsive at times.

While not one of the very best war pictures that I’ve seen, Platoon‘s lofty reputation still makes it a must-watch for fans of the genre. It played a role in upping the levels of realism in combat films, and it seems to be some sort of therapeutic exercise for director Oliver Stone, as he brings his traumatic experiences in Indochina to the big screen. While Full Metal Jacket (1987), released one year later, is currently my favorite Vietnam War flick, this one still gives the viewer plenty to think over.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Drum Beat (1954) Review

Director: Delmer Daves

Genre(s): War, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Alan Ladd and Charles Bronson in a war-western together? What could possibly go wrong? During the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, an experienced fighter of Native Americans named Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) is dispatched to the Wild West to bring peace between White settlers and Modoc Native Americans led by “Captain Jack” (Charles Bronson). This movie may have helped Bronson establish himself as an actor, but it’s still rubbish.

When film historians talk about old western flicks that were racist against Native Americans, Drum Beat is probably one of the pictures that they’re referring to. According to this production, “good” natives went to their shitty reservations with big smiles on their faces, while the “bad” natives challenged the Whites’ attempts to steal their lands. The work’s prejudice is pretty blatant, some of the worst I’ve seen in the genre.

To add insult to injury, Drum Beat is just plain boring. The action scenes aren’t terrible (there is a big battle or two), but Alan Ladd doesn’t find himself in the middle of the mayhem as much as he should. The movie seems to have had a respectable budget, but it’s all wasted. The picture should’ve run only about ninety minutes, but, in an effort to make it more epic, it drags on for a little over 110 minutes. President Ulysses S. Grant (played by Hayden Rorke) appears on a couple of occasions, but nothing memorable comes from this.

So, that’s two major strikes against Drum Beat: racism and tedium. Normally, I’d try to come up with a third strike to complete the baseball analogy, but this movie isn’t worth the time. You’re out! The film is more likely to make you want to go to sleep than it is to excite you. Nope, this one is not recommended. If you need a flick to watch that touches on the Indian Wars, check out something like Winchester ’73 (1950) or Ulzana’s Raid (1972), instead of this turkey.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Thunder in the East (1952) Review

Director: Charles Vidor

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

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Here’s an adventure-drama that tries to cash in on the violence that took place on the Indian subcontinent following its independence from Great Britain. Shortly after India gains its freedom, American arms dealer Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) tries to sell some weapons to the maharajah (Charles Lung) of a remote Indian state, but gets involved in local intrigue involving a warlord, Newah Khan (Philip Bourneuf), who may be plotting an attack on the maharajah’s palace. Boy, did Alan Ladd corner the market on these mercenary-who-secretly-has-a-heart-of-gold roles or what?

Thunder in the East has a great idea for a story, but the slow-burn execution doesn’t do it any favors. Instead of ratcheting up the tension related to the warlord who wants the maharajah dead, the film spends a great deal of time juggling a romantic triangle. Alan Ladd is the star of the show, but Charles Boyer gets the opportunity to play an interesting supporting character: Prime Minister Singh. He’s the real power behind the local leader and is a very strict pacifist, doing his best to keep weapons off of his property. Yes, it’s a White guy playing an Indian, but it’s nice to see a strong Indian character with a real moral backbone.

The action’s fairly limited in Thunder in the East, despite its pulpy, sensationalistic title. A punch is thrown here, a pot-shot is taken at the maharajah’s palace there. It really isn’t until the last few seconds of the runtime that we get some carnage with a respectable body count. I won’t give away the details for spoiler reasons, but let’s just say that this finale is somewhat preposterous, but still satisfying and it ties everything up with a nice bow.

This movie is a little disappointing, but that doesn’t make it bad. Alan Ladd’s very much in his wheelhouse here and the ending’s memorable. It’s a fair-enough take on the last-stand war picture, so if you like flicks like The Alamo (1960), 55 Days at Peking (1963), Zulu (1964), and Khartoum (1966), you should consider looking into Thunder in the East. Of course, it’s not as good as those films, but it’s still a watchable, relatively low-budget alternative.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

First to Fight (1967) Review

Director: Christian Nyby

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Loosely based on the real-life story of American Marine John Basilone, who became a U.S. war hero, First to Fight is a solid, if somewhat unremarkable, entry into the war genre. World War II is raging, and U.S. trooper Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is sent back to the United States to drum up support for buying war bonds after becoming a hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater. There are some similarities with other war flicks that have been made throughout the decades, but it still manages to be watchable.

The grenade-chucking battle scenes stick out in memory. The opening, nighttime firefight is especially fearsome. The battles have some careful choreography and are fairly violent for a 1960s movie. A few blood squibs are briefly visible during the hectic action sequences. The war zone takes up a great deal of the runtime in the first and third acts, with an okay romantic subplot occupying the middle act.

When the main character is on the home front, he spends most of his time romancing Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin). These scenes are not intolerable, but I think that most viewers would rather see what’s going on on the front lines. The movie masterpiece Casablanca (1942) ends up getting referenced quite a bit during this section of the picture. Hell, the characters even watch it in the theater. However, all of this just makes you want to view that film instead.

All in all, First to Fight is reasonable entertainment. I’m actually a bit surprised that it’s not remembered more fondly. The action scenes alone should’ve prevented this one from being almost completely forgotten. There’s one element to the work that I haven’t commented on yet, and that’s the presence of Gene Hackman as Tweed in one of his earliest roles. This flick was released the same year as his breakout film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and it shows his potential to be a great movie star.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970) Review

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, War

Runtime: 144 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1970 World War II comedy Kelly’s Heroes could easily be thought of as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World Goes to War. During the Second World War, clever American soldier Kelly (Clint Eastwood) convinces a U.S. platoon to go on an unauthorized raid behind Nazi lines in France to rob a bank holding a fortune in gold bars. Despite its rampant silliness, this is probably one of the better war films out there.

Yeah, Kelly’s Heroes is a comedy, but it was armed with a massive budget that makes it feel like a true war epic. It seems like no expense was spared. It should be noted that this is a highly cynical movie, with Allied troops having to do some serious looting during World War II to get anything out of that conflict. Maybe they’ll even cut the vicious Nazis in on the deal? Its unglamorous look at the 1939-to-1945 war is tempered by its upbeat nature. An upbeat anti-war flick? Yes, it exists, and its name is “Kelly’s Heroes.”

The combat sequences here are excellent, like everything else about this picture. Despite being a comedy, the action scenes are mostly played straight (although the tank assault on the trainyard has plenty of dark humor), giving the production a tough edge. Lalo Schifrin’s musical score is fantastic as well, and the film greatly benefits from the inclusion of the not-so-1940s song “Burning Bridges,” performed by the Mike Curb Congregation. The all-star cast is top-drawer, featuring the aforementioned Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas (as Big Joe), Don Rickles (playing Crapgame), Donald Sutherland (bringing Oddball to life), Carroll O’Connor (he’s General Colt), Gavin MacLeod (in the role of Moriarty), Perry Lopez (as Petuko), Harry Dean Stanton (portraying Willard), and Karl-Otto Alberty (playing a Nazi tank commander).

Kelly’s Heroes is a rootin’, tootin’, lootin’, shootin’ good time. Packed with familiar faces, intense battles, and big laughs, this movie just about has it all. It’s not meant to be a literal recreation of World War II, even though the inclusion of a 1960s-style hippie tank commander, Oddball (Donald Sutherland), has thrown many viewers for a loop. Please don’t take this one too seriously. Go with the flow, and you’ll be rewarded with one Hell of a war picture.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Vera Cruz (1954) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

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

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the Franco-Mexican War, American gunslingers Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) are hired by the French-dominated Mexican government to escort Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) across rebel-held territory in Mexico. One of the better movies that either Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster appeared in, this action-adventure-western is not just highly engaging, it was also very influential on the western genre. Wikipedia currently claims that The Magnificent Seven (1960), the westerns directed by Sergio Leone, The Professionals (1966), and The Wild Bunch (1969) all owe a little something to Vera Cruz.

This war-time western has a mean, tough demeanor that would help inspire the tones of various western works to come. Its casual violence, amoral personalities, and stylized gunplay would all be noted by upcoming filmmakers. Vera Cruz feels ahead-of-its-time, more like a 1964 flick, than a 1954 one. The cast is also stacked, featuring the aforementioned Cooper and Lancaster, as well as Cesar Romero (as Marquis Henri de Labordere), Charles Bronson (playing Pittsburgh), Ernest Borgnine (showing up as Donnegan), and Jack Elam (as Tex).

This heightened war/western feature has tremendous action…and lots of it. The big, final battle is a highlight. Gary Cooper really gets the opportunity to show off his inner John Rambo. The runtime is only a little over an hour-and-a-half, so Vera Cruz crams plenty of action scenes and an innumerable quantity of double-crosses into its package. This is nothing if not entertaining.

Vera Cruz is essential viewing for fans of the cast and the genres. The only element that really ages the work is some “Lost Cause”-style reminiscing about the American South (due to the fact that Cooper’s character was a plantation owner). However, this is offset somewhat by the presence of the badass Ballard (played by Archie Savage), a Black gunman who used to serve in the Union military during the American Civil War.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The McConnell Story (1955) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being released only two years after the end of the Korean War, The McConnell Story lacks the immediacy that it should have. The based-on-a-true-story plot is about American airman Joseph C. McConnell (Alan Ladd), who, after serving in World War II, becomes a jet fighter ace in the Korean War. It’s a promising idea for a movie, but it simply doesn’t live up to its potential.

This film has the squeaky-clean, white-bread aesthetics of your stereotypical 1950s Hollywood production. I wish I was joking about how the picture spends more time on the various abodes that McConnell and his wife, Pearl “Butch” Brown McConnell (June Allyson), venture through than on aerial warfare, but I’m not. Speaking of June Allyson, the already-married Alan Ladd reportedly fell in love with her during the filming of this work.

I would not recommend this flick if you’re just in it for the action. The World War II scene is reliant on stock footage, although the dogfights in the skies above Korea fare better. They’re extremely limited in number, but they don’t appear to use much, if any, pre-existing footage. A glance at Wikipedia reveals that actual aircraft were used for these sequences, which helps with the authenticity.

The McConnell Story isn’t bad when it’s airborne, but it spends so much time grounded that I can’t say “watch it.” It turns out to be just another one of those generic ’50s war films that do little to stand out from the crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, this one will become melded with The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) in my memory.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Duel of Champions (1961) Review

Directors: Ferdinando Baldi and Terence Young

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Duel of Champions is one of those 1960s Italian action movies that features an American movie star (in this case, Alan Ladd) for box office appeal. Set in ancient times, the warring cities of Rome and Alba decide to have the conflict between them settled by a three-on-three warrior duel. As you might expect, Ladd is one of the soldiers chosen to square off in the high-stakes fight. Do not expect greatness, and you might get through the coming motion picture.

This is definitely not your typical Alan Ladd film, and he looks uncomfortable in ancient Roman attire. Seeing an actor who specializes in westerns and film noir in such a setting is sort of surreal, and may or may not add to one’s enjoyment of the picture. Yes, Ladd is a convincing tough guy, but seeing him running around pre-Christian Rome is almost odd enough to inspire laughter. The English-language cut of the flick was directed by Terence Young, who would later direct three of the Sean Connery James Bond features.

Fortunately, Duel of Champions has lots of action to make up for some of its faults. Some of it is clunky, but it’s competent at other times. Hell, some of the bigger battles don’t even look like something filmed specifically for this movie. They could be footage from a different production centered around Ancient Rome for all I know. Alan Ladd goes into action hero mode towards the end of the picture, which will please fans of his.

Curiously, the plot synopsis of the cut of the movie available on Amazon Prime currently claims that the flick contains a parallel subplot involving two friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the American Civil War (!). Almost needless to say, this is not in the version watchable on that site, if it exists in any form. Anyway, Duel of Champions is a little goofy, but it’s not terrible. Ladd fanatics probably won’t regret watching it, but, be warned, this is not a typical role for him. It’s alright.

My rating is 6 outta 10.