1917 (2019) Review

Director: Sam Mendes

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hollywood doesn’t seem to make too many World War I films these days, but, once in a while, they crank out one that gets a thumbs-up from me. My favorite movie on the First World War so far is 2019’s 1917. During that horrendous conflict, two British soldiers on the Western Front, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with delivering a message across no-man’s-land to cancel a planned attack on the German lines that’s doomed to fail. It turns out that Blake’s brother, Joseph (Richard Madden), is one of the troopers who’s going to participate in the offensive, adding even more urgency to the proceedings.

1917 was shot in a way that makes it look like one, continuous take. It wasn’t actually one, big shot, but that doesn’t take away how meticul0us and detailed it all feels. So, does the one-take cinematography distract from the storytelling at all? I would say “not really,” even though such a “gimmick” could’ve easily made itself the focus of the picture. To the feature’s credit, the action moves along quite fluidly and the camerawork does not feel limiting. On a related note, the sets the filmmakers dealt with must’ve been absolutely massive.

Characterization here isn’t particularly detailed, but it’s enough to get the job done. It’s not hard to invest yourself emotionally with the situations that the main characters find themselves in on their journey across the wastelands of the Western Front (the only real flaw with 1917 is that landscape isn’t always as Hellish as it should be…there’s often too much grass). This is a film about war-time heroism that generally shies away from over-the-top displays of machismo. Of course, it’s not one-hundred-percent realistic, but it’s grounded enough to work properly.

While there certainly are action scenes and ferocious thrills to be found here, this isn’t quite the combat-heavy Saving Private Ryan (1998)-style treatment of the Great War that many expected. Still, I actually enjoyed it a tad more than that excellent motion picture, as I found 1917 to be tighter and more successful in its dealings with side characters. War movies as great as 1917 don’t come along often, so I highly recommend it. It’s more than just a director showing off his immense talent, it’s a dramatically satisfying and hair-raisingly intense experience. 1917 is simply outstanding.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

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

Runtime: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It seems to me that 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade set out to be the biggest, most exciting, most epic-scale war/action-adventure picture made up to that point in time. It’s about a romantic triangle set amidst the chaos of unrest in British-occupied India and, later, the Crimean War. This was one of nine movies where Errol Flynn (playing Geoffrey Vickers here) and Olivia de Havilland (as Elsa Campbell) played love interests.

First and foremost, it should be pointed out that the dazzling action scenes found here might be the best in movie history up to the point of its initial release (“Here’s your action!” Errol Flynn says as one battle breaks out, almost as if he’s addressing the audience). Well, the hyper-realistic combat scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), released six years earlier, might top it, but The Charge of the Light Brigade puts up one Hell of a fight to outdo it. However, it definitely needs to be said that about twenty-five horses were killed or had to be put down due to the trip-wires used to make them fall over when “shot” (in addition, at least one human stuntman died during filming). It also appears that an actual leopard or two were shot and killed during a hunt sequence set in India. This senseless slaughter led to the Congress of the United States passing laws to protect animals on film sets.

The music in this feature, composed by Mex Steiner, is one of its highlights. The same cannot be said of the romantic triangle that takes up a significant portion of the runtime. It’s pretty mind-numbing stuff, and there are a couple of other dialogue-heavy scenes not related to the love story that slow down the pace a tad. When it comes to historical accuracy, it’s best to just shut your brain off while watching The Charge of the Light Brigade, because this movie strays from the facts innumerable times. This doesn’t bother me as much as the animal killings, though.

It’s hard not to feel a little guilty watching this flick for that reason. The battles are stupendous, but the wanton cruelty to creatures here is impossible to ignore (supposedly, star Errol Flynn almost killed director Michael Curtiz over the treatment of the horses). I would normally call the romance in a war film like this to a subplot, but, here, it almost feels like the A-story. These flaws mean that The Charge of Light Brigade is an overall slightly above average picture. If you can stomach the carnage during the action sequences, it might be worth a watch.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Legionnaire (1998) Review

Director: Peter MacDonald

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

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

It may have the mandatory close-up of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ass, but Legionnaire is not your typical movie to feature the Muscles from Brussels. I sure don’t recall seeing any roundhouse kicks. Anyway, this film is about French boxer Alain Lefevre (Jean-Claude Van Damme) joining the French Foreign Legion in the 1920s to avoid the mob. He, of course, ends up serving in the Rif War in Morocco. It’s not the most original tale, but it’s a well-told story that kept my attention.

While primarily a war/action-adventure flick, Legionnaire features a satisfactory dramatic core. Jean-Claude Van Damme has an underappreciated knack for picking projects with nifty, simple, yet effective, emotional hooks. The characters here are mostly clear and easy to root for. The musical score by John Altman works well, and there’s only a minimum of romance.

All of those components are fine and dandy…but how’s the action? If you’re just here for the combat, then you probably won’t leave disappointed. The film’s action sequences, mainly battles between the French Foreign Legion and Moroccan rebels, are truly excellent. This picture was directed by Peter MacDonald, who also helmed Rambo III (1988), and his scenes of physicality here are almost as impressive as the ones in that Rambo flick. Van Damme is definitely in action hero mode here, but he’s not really an obnoxiously unrealistic one-man army.

On the flip side, Legionnaire is home to some of the most clich├ęd dialogue in movie history. If an original script is one of the primary things you look for in a film, please skip this one. However, if all you’re looking for is a war picture with reasonable drama and spectacular action set-pieces, Legionnaire is more-than-worth looking into. It’s much more epic in scope than your average JCVD feature and feels more grounded in reality. I like it quite a bit.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Real Glory (1939) Review

Director: Henry Hathaway

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, War

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of my favorite movies of Gary Cooper’s career is this now-largely-forgotten film set during the Moro Rebellion in the early 1900s. In 1906, a team of American soldiers, including Bill Canavan (Gary Cooper), Terence McCool (David Niven), and “Swede” Larsen (Broderick Crawford), is deployed to a remote Filipino village to train the locals to defend themselves from Moro marauders (the Philippines were a U.S. colony at the time). Don’t let this picture’s obscure status dissuade you…it’s thoroughly satisfying.

The Real Glory has well-defined characters and, at times, has a palpable sense of desperation as the protagonists find themselves on the ropes against their foes lurking in the Filipino jungle. Yes, there is some silly romance that reduces our heroes to children, but it’s not as distracting it is in some other films. This movie embodies the Wilsonian spirit of the United States using its might to democratize the nations of the globe and empower the downtrodden.

On the action front, most of the fireworks are saved for the grand finale, but there are some bits of action here and there prior to it. The final battle gets pretty over-the-top at times (you won’t believe what the bad guys do with the bending palm trees!), but it’s all part of the fun. People checking this flick out just for the heroic stuff probably won’t leave disappointed. The feature is also a bit more violent than your typical 1939 movie.

The hidden gem The Real Glory was rereleased in theaters after the United States entered World War II (retitled “A Yank in the Philippines“), but the War Department recommended that the film be withdrawn, since the Moros were now U.S. allies in the ongoing conflict against the Japanese. Keep your eyes peeled for Vladimir Sokoloff (who played the “Old Man” of the village in The Magnificent Seven [1960]) as the Datu, the representative to the American armed forces of the Moro community in the besieged town. So, you may not have heard of this action-adventure/war tale before, but I certainly give it a hearty recommendation.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978) Review

Director: Guy Hamilton

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

Runtime: 118 minutes (standard version), 126 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Seventeen years after the release of the World War II action-adventure masterwork The Guns of Navarone (1961), a sequel to it was sent to theaters. Don’t get your hopes up too much, though, as it’s nothing to write home about. Shortly after the special forces mission in the first film, Mallory (Robert Shaw, played by Gregory Peck in the original) and Miller (Edward Fox, played by David Niven in the original) are assigned to a new Allied commando team to go on a raid into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War. It’s not terrible, but should it have been made in the first place?

Let’s start with the positives, shall we? The musical score by Ron Goodwin is pretty good, and the cast is pretty starry. I mean, in addition to the aforementioned Robert Shaw and Edward Fox, we’ve got Harrison Ford (as Barnsby), Carl Weathers (as Weaver), Franco Nero (as Lescovar), Barbara Bach (as Maritza), Richard Kiel (as Drazak), and Michael Byrne (as Schroeder). There’s plenty of action scenes, although none of them rise to the level of outstanding.

The mission that the commandos are sent on here is a bit less clear for a notable portion of the movie than it is in The Guns of Navarone. In that picture, the objective was simple to describe: blow up the Nazi cannons. Here, I feel like I can’t really go into detail without delving into spoiler territory. Also, the initial special forces team seems a bit large, with some of them not even being given names (the end credits have four dudes listed simply as “Force Ten Team”). This is a far cry from the original, where all the heroes were given ample screentime to flesh out their characters. Force 10 from Navarone also sheds much of the moral complexity of the original in favor of standard war flick “thrills.”

It’s not a trainwreck, but this sequel can’t live up to the original. The truth is that it’s just not that exciting or dramatically involving. It had some potential (just think of the cast listed above in one movie together!), but, at the end of the day, it’s a pretty typical entry into the men-on-a-mission subgenre. It’s watchable as a stand-alone action-thriller…just don’t compare it to the immortal The Guns of Navarone.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

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

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Guns of Navarone sets out to add a new legend to the long list of myths set in Greece. However, this one isn’t set in ancient times…it takes places during World War II. During that conflict, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Greek island of Navarone (which doesn’t exist in real life) to sabotage two massive Nazi cannons there. A convoy of British warships is planning on sailing past Navarone to rescue some Allied soldiers about to be blitzkrieged by the German war machine, and the two guns at Navarone put them in severe danger.

Along with the previous year’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), this is one of those crucial action-adventure pictures that laid the groundwork for the modern incarnation of the genre. Now-common elements of those types of movies that can be found in The Guns of Navarone include: the impossible mission with a ticking clock, the hastily assembled team of quarreling professionals, bromance, bad guys being mowed down with relative ease, the stealing and wearing of enemy uniforms to blend in, girls with guns, reliance on special effects, the impenetrable fortress, the badass theme music, the traitor in the ranks, etc. This film was among the first to combine tropes like these all under one, impeccably-made roof.

So, this is a landmark feature…does it still hold up as superb entertainment today? I’d enthusiastically say “yes.” The aforementioned musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin is brilliant, the characters – played by a macho, all-star cast – are incredibly well-drawn (I’d pay good money to see a movie about them sitting down at dinner, talking over their respective days), and the action sequences are excellent (although the very best one is the one that takes place earliest in the runtime). The impressive screenplay provides several moral dilemmas for the characters to face, greatly deepening the picture.

The Guns of Navarone is a war/action-adventure flick with brains and balls. It helped write the rulebook for derring-do-flavored films (in fact, two of its actors – David Niven [who plays John Miller here] and Stanley Baker [who plays “Butcher” Brown] – were initially considered for the role of James Bond before it went to Sean Connery), and still holds up as one of the all-time great movies. Despite all of the gunfire and explosions, it’s best to think of it as a character-oriented piece to get maximum mileage out of it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) Review

Director: Brian G. Hutton

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

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

There are video games that are more accurate and realistic than this World War II-based action-adventure picture. I really don’t think that’s a hyperbolic statement. Here, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Nazi-occupied Alps to rescue Carnaby (Robert Beatty), an American officer who knows of the Normandy invasion plans and has been captured by the Germans. He’s being held in an impenetrable castle and our heroes, particularly Smith (Richard Burton) and Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), have to storm it. People who have a hard time suspending their disbelief should avoid this movie like the plague.

I, on the other hand, love this crazy stuff, and find Where Eagles Dare to be a real treat. Once things start to pick up, this film is almost non-stop gunfire, explosions, scuffles, and escapes. The legendary Yakima Canutt is the second unit director here, and his action sequences are dynamite. They’re video-gamey as all get-out, but I don’t have a problem with this. Ron Goodwin provides a pulse-pounding musical score.

Listen, this is one unrealistic movie, with bad guys being knocked down like bowling pins, Nazis speaking English instead of German (except when they don’t, of course), and hand grenades tossed at our protagonists taking approximately ten hours to explode. It’s totally preposterous, and the plot quickly becomes insanely convoluted. Good luck trying to wrap your head around it. The beginning is quite slow-moving, and most people in the feature get next-to-no characterization.

I’m not going to lie. The first time I saw Where Eagles Dare, I hated it immensely. How could one movie make Medal of Honor: Allied Assault look like documentary footage and have such a ludicrously over-complicated story? Also, what’s up with the lethargic pacing? However, I’ve definitely reevaluated it, and now I think that it’s the bomb. Most of my complaints still stand, but I’ve learned not to care. Also, don’t forget to listen to the Iron Maiden song “Where Eagles Dare” afterwards!

My rating is 8 outta 10.