The Buccaneer (1958) Review

Director: Anthony Quinn

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

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the War of 1812, pirate leader Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) has to choose sides from between the United States and Great Britain in fighting near New Orleans. Anthony Quinn is best known as an actor, but this work finds him in the director’s chair. This is actually a remake of The Buccaneer (1938). Unfortunately, neither film is any good.

This is loosely based on a true story (Jean Lafitte was an actual high-seas brigand who became involved in the War of 1812), and Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) makes several appearances. There’s not really much worth reporting on the action front, as it’s pretty mediocre throughout. The movie contains a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, but don’t get your hopes up. It feels limited in scale and low in intensity. There are some nice pyrotechnics involving British rocket artillery, though.

The Buccaneer never feels all that authentic, with the whole production looking stagebound. A forgettable and undercooked romantic subplot turns out to be pretty important to the picture, with this melodramatic element dragging out the flick’s runtime, even after the Battle of New Orleans is over. The overall feature also feels a little too cutesy to be considered a hard-boiled war film.

So what goes right? Well, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is quite good. It’s probably the best part of the whole thing. Sorry, Anthony Quinn, this one’s a dud. I’ve seen worse, but I still can’t recommend it. Sure, it reunited Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner after The Ten Commandments (1956), but that’s not enough for me to enjoy it. If you do happen to watch this misfire, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Woody Strode, playing pirate Toro.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

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

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Danger Close (2019) Review

Director: Kriv Stenders

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Danger Close is a recreation of one of the most dramatic military engagements to involve Australian and New Zealander troops during the Vietnam War. In 1966, a patrol of soldiers from those nations is ambushed by communist forces in the middle of the South Vietnamese jungle, prompting a desperate relief attempt (the clash is known as the Battle of Long Tan). This reverent war picture is one I want to love, but merely end up liking and respecting.

Part of the reason that Danger Close stumbles a bit is because of how hard it is to keep track of many of its characters. A few stand out, but this combat-heavy movie doesn’t give enough time to flesh out most of them. It tries to keep the audience informed on the strategic situation in the battle with the use of a map or two, but this is soon drowned out by numerous scenes of up-close-and-personal warfare. To be honest, I found the movie somewhat confusing at times, regarding the placement of the various characters on the battlefield.

There’s plenty of action to go around in this flick, as I’ve alluded to. It definitely prevents the overall feature from becoming unengaging, although the battle sequences are above-average at best. It’s mostly just Australian and New Zealander troops lying on their bellies, mowing down waves of charging communists, with an occasional commie being sent flying into a tree by an exploding artillery shell. A scene detailing, in slow-motion, the trajectory of an artillery shell flying through the air struck me as a bit melodramatic, like something Michael Bay would do.

This movie could be seen as the Down Under version of The Outpost (2019), which premiered the same year. Danger Close is a respectful combat picture that lists all of the Australian and New Zealander fatalities from the Battle of Long Tan at the end, complete with their ages. This hits as hard as anything in the film proper. It’s a solid war-action feature, but I am disappointed in the way that it played the “who’s-who?” game with the characters it depicts.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Sergeant York (1941) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 134 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Sergeant York is one of the greatest pieces of Americana to ever grace the silver screen. Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) is a Tennessean hillbilly with a pacifistic interpretation of the Bible who is hesitant to be drafted into the American military during World War I. This is a true story, and, according to legend, the real York insisted that Gary Cooper be cast as him, although I couldn’t tell you if this aspect of the production is factual or not.

Despite being a famous war picture, it should be noted that this film is not all battlefield antics. The first half (or so) is actually a peek inside the life of the rural, backwoods United States in the early 1900s. Be prepared for lots of hick accents. However, the sequences on the front line of the Western Front in Europe are spellbinding. With the exception of some arched-back deaths, the combat is realistic and intense. The action scenes, like a bar fistfight at the Tennessee-Kentucky border and a depiction of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, are excellently rendered.

Gary Cooper rightfully won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, one of the best in cinema history. The struggles his character faces are relatable, as he wrestles with his conscience, sense of patriotism, and interpretation of his holy book over how to best serve his country. To be honest, the morals of the movie are pretty simple, but it’s important to remember that this is a piece of propaganda intended to brace Americans for their seemingly inevitable entry into World War II. Sergeant York was sent to theaters in the United States several months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Aided by a good musical score from Max Steiner, this flick is dripping in sentimentality, which, along with its hillbilly accents, might turn off some modern viewers. I do admit that it’s a little corny, but it’s still one of the most engaging motion pictures to ever be released. Not only is it one of the very best features about the First World War, it’s one of the very best war films of all time. Regardless of your religious or political persuasions, you’re bound to enjoy Sergeant York.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Emperor (2020) Review

Director: Mark Amin

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

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2020 biopic Emperor fumbles with the historical facts, but still manages to be an entertaining work about an often-overlooked period of U.S. history. In 1859, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, escaped slave Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi), nicknamed “Emperor,” joins militant abolitionist John Brown’s (James Cromwell) raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with the goal of inciting a slave revolt. As historically inaccurate as it may be, I still found myself engaged to the events taking place on the screen.

Emperor takes an action-movie-ish approach to the life of Shields Green. I mean, this picture even has a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-esque wagon chase, for Heaven’s sake! The action is almost laughably explosive at times, but I suppose that that’s just the price of making a historical film that gets seen by the masses. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s all part of the fun.

This movie shouldn’t be looked to as an accurate representation of the events of 1859. The horrors of human slavery are kept safely in the bounds of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. The Harpers Ferry raid looks like a full-scale battle (complete with a cannon or two!), and the fate of Shields Green is completely fictionalized. It may be a little awkward for history buffs to sit through for these reasons, but these alterations to historical fact make the finished product more commercial.

It may play fast and loose with the truth, but Emperor is still a film that I enjoy. John Brown is my hero, so it’s cool seeing him in cinematic form (even if the flick isn’t as good as Seven Angry Men [1955]). The critical reception of this feature was mixed, but I can largely forgive its crimes against history because of how easily one can become emotionally invested in it. Just make sure to quickly look over Shield Green’s Wikipedia page after viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Espionage Agent (1939) Review

Director: Lloyd Bacon

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

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Espionage Agent was among the first American movies to warn the U.S. populace of the dangers posed by the Nazi regime in Germany. In fact, it was released in September 1939, the same month that World War II broke out. The plot’s about an American diplomat in Morocco – Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea) – who falls in love with a Nazi spy – Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) – in the days leading up to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, this film doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement. The most engaging part of the feature is the presumably somewhat fictionalized opening montage of foreign sabotage in the United States prior to that nation’s entry into World War I (the 1916 Black Tom explosion is mentioned). Yup, the best sequence is the one at the beginning of the flick. After that, we get a car wreck and a pistol-whipping, but the action is severely lacking.

Espionage Agent was made to brace the United States against the wave of infiltration of the country by agents of totalitarian governments (like the Nazi and Soviet ones) that was going to take place. It’s an intriguingly political movie, even if it avoids pointing fingers too blatantly (the swastikas on the Nazi troops’ armbands are covered up). Its warnings seem to come from a place of encouraging isolationism, rather than international cooperation, though.

Sometimes this picture feels like a recruitment ad for the U.S. State Department, but that’s okay. The real problems here are its anticlimactic ending and leisurely pacing. It means well, but the budget just isn’t there. It would be interesting to see a remake related to the information war being waged on free nations by the dictatorships of the world currently being waged.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Last Outpost (1935) Review

Directors: Charles Barton and Louis J. Gasnier

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

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Outside of Gunga Din (1939) and North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant isn’t really known as an adventure hero, but he certainly fits that role in The Last Outpost, from relatively early in his career. The film concerns itself with the exploits of British officer Michael Andrews (Cary Grant) in the Middle East and North Africa during World War I. It’s not top-of-the-line, but it still makes for reasonably rousing escapism.

The first third of this flick deals with Grant’s character in Ottoman-held territory in the Middle East, while the middle act is more romance-heavy, as he wines and dines nurse Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael) while in Egypt. The last third is the most action-packed, as Grant’s character is deployed to Sudan to help put down a rebellion there that’s sympathetic to the Central Powers. Each act has a personality of its own, but the film still manages to feel coherent.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Last Outpost is how stock-footage-intensive it is. There’s plenty of scenes borrowed from the documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and the battle sequences in the third act are augmented by footage from The Four Feathers (1929) (according to the IMDb Trivia page for the movie). These scenes tend to stick out like a sore thumb and make the picture’s budget seem smaller than what it probably was.

Running only seventy-six minutes, this is an enjoyable war-time action-adventure story that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Cary Grant finds himself in some interesting predicaments, both on and off the battlefield, and the final third has enough combat to satisfy those looking for thrills. The plot synopsis on IMDb contains some spoilerish details, so, if you’re dead-set on watching this feature, I’d avoid reading it. It’s interesting to note that co-director Louis J. Gasnier’s next project would be Reefer Madness (1936).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Red Beret (1953) Review

Director: Terence Young

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Red Beret, retitled “Paratrooper” when released in the United States, is a now-obscure World War II movie that actually holds up quite well. Its director, Terence Young (a former paratrooper himself), would go on to helm three of the James Bond movies (Dr. No [1962], From Russia with Love [1963], and Thunderball [1965]). The film itself is about Allied paratroopers undergoing training during the Second World War so they can perform missions behind Nazi lines.

The clear star of the show is Alan Ladd, playing Steve “Canada” McKendrick. He plays his usual tough guy here, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. He gets a romantic subplot with Susan Stephen (playing Penny Gardner), but it’s not consequential to the main plot or memorable. Stanley Baker shows up in an early role as Breton, who’s helping train the potential paratroopers. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this feature, Baker’s voice was dubbed.

The best parts of The Red Beret are definitely the moments of action. The scenes back in Great Britain, like the training sequences and the barroom brawl, are exciting enough, but when the paratroop characters are in the heat of combat, the picture is clearly in its element. The two missions depicted are one to sabotage a Nazi radar station in northern France and one to secure a Nazi-held airfield in North Africa.

Alan Ladd was in three movies released in 1953 – Desert Legion (1953), Shane (1953), and this one. It would be the gunslinger-oriented western Shane that would become his iconic role, but The Red Beret is still worth watching. It’s directed by someone who actually served with the paras in World War II and stars Ladd, one of the great action stars of the time period. It’s not as big and brutal as, say, Saving Private Ryan (1998), but you’ll probably enjoy it if you set your expectations properly.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tell It to the Marines (1926) Review

Director: George W. Hill

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

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

While he’s probably more well-known these days for his more grotesque roles, Lon Chaney actually had his biggest box office hit with 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. In this military service comedy, a tougher-than-nails American Marine sergeant, O’Hara (Lon Chaney), promises to whip undisciplined recruit “Skeet” Burns (William Haines) into shape, as both pursue Navy nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman). This still-entertaining silent film has a little something for most cinemagoers.

As mentioned earlier, a significant portion of the picture revolves around a romantic triangle, as was common in Lon Chaney movies. Both Chaney and William Haines’ characters are yearning for Eleanor Boardman, but things get complicated when Haines gets in a brawl on a Pacific island over native girl Zaya (Carmel Myers). The whole flick’s a bit of a rom-com, and the humorous elements work effectively enough.

Tell It to the Marines really kicks it into gear during the last act, though, when the Marines are dispatched to China to rescue some nurses from marauding bandits. Big-budget spectacle takes over, and we get a nice action scene involving Chaney and Haines holding a bridge over a cliff against the Chinese warlord’s (Warner Oland) forces. The third act is easily the most memorable part of the film, with its derring-do and fireworks.

Tell It to the Marines was, according to the IMDb Trivia page for the feature, Lon Chaney’s favorite role. It’s not hard to see why. Acting without his usual make-up, Chaney really shines as a tough guy with a heart of gold. His performance led to him becoming the first movie star to become an honorary U.S. Marine. That’s high praise indeed! So, if you’re a Chaney fan, this one is required viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.