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.

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) Review

Directors: Stuart Walker and Mitchell Leisen

Genre(s): Drama, War

Runtime: 73 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Made in the same vein as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this film does to the air war what that movie did to the fighting on the ground. During World War I, two squabbling Allied airmen – Jerry Young (Fredric March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) – find themselves serving in the same aircraft, with the former slowly losing his sanity amidst the costly nature of war. It may star Cary Grant, but this is no lightweight comedy.

The Eagle and the Hawk is a military aviation picture that tries to be just as bleak, if not bleaker, than the aforementioned All Quiet on the Western Front, which has certainly gone down in history as the more famous feature. It was made during the Great Depression, when anti-war and isolationist sentiment was at an all-time high, and this movie reflects that. This is a flick devoid of romance, both of the idealized-representation-of-the-past type and the lovey-dovey type (although Fredric March’s character does briefly romance a character played by Carole Lombard who’s simply referred to as “The Beautiful Lady” in the credits).

When it comes to combat, this work does an adequate job showing the stressful, intense nature of aerial warfare. The special effects are fine, although there is no fighting on the ground. Fredric March is being driven mad by constantly having to take other lives to stay alive, while Cary Grant shows off more of his killer side than some might expect. One scene has him gunning down a parachuting German balloon observer trying to escape from some stock footage from Wings (1927).

The Eagle and the Hawk was released during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, prior to the enforcement of the Production Code, and this film doesn’t have many “goodies” associated with movies from that time period, other than its unusually grim tone and ending. I wouldn’t describe it as a “fun movie,” but it’s still an engaging, never-boring flick with a bitter disposition. Those interested in World War I cinema should watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mockery (1927) Review

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1927 drama Mockery isn’t actor Lon Chaney’s best film, but it is a fairly watchable one. Set during the Russian Civil War, a slow-witted peasant named Sergei (Lon Chaney) must escort a woman – Tatiana Alexandrova (Barbara Bedford) – across the Siberian wastelands to safety, with a love triangle just waiting to break out. This is a silent movie, but it’s told well enough that the lack of sound isn’t an issue.

This picture is mostly concerned with the class relations between the workers/peasants of Russia and the aristocracy desperately clinging to power in the face of revolution. Unfortunately, while the contrasts between the two sides take up a notable amount of screentime, the feature, in the end, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter. This is a melodrama, first and foremost, so displays of naked emotion are valued more than political/economic analysis.

The middle act of Mockery is perhaps the weakest part, but things get back on the rails for the finale. There is some action here, with plenty of soldiers running through the streets and Lon Chaney’s character – Sergei – duking it out with some goons. On the down side, Sergei does a thing or two to cause him to lose the sympathies of the audience during the third act.

As usual, Chaney’s performance cannot be faulted here. It’s just that the film surrounding him isn’t really that compelling. It’s only seventy-five minutes long, so it is manageable, but not that memorable. However, I don’t think that there’s been many easy-to-access flicks made about the Russian Civil War, despite that conflict’s horrendous bloodiness, so Mockery might scratch an itch in that regard.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Outpost (2019) Review

Director: Rod Lurie

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 123 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The war film The Outpost (which premiered in 2019, but saw its main release in 2020) does the world a great favor by shedding some light on a ferocious, yet little-known battle of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan. In 2009, at the Battle of Kamdesh, a small base of American (and a couple of Latvian) troops located at the bottom of a mountainous valley is besieged by hordes of Taliban insurgents. Think of it as the twenty-first century’s version of Zulu (1964).

Some of the most memorable parts of this film are the vicious combat scenes. They feel mighty realistic, with little room for over-the-top, John Rambo-esque antics. The sound effects seal the deal. There’s a spontaneity to the action, with firefights having the potential to break out at any second. It’s surprising how close the combatants get to each other on one or two occasions. Every American casualty makes the viewer cringe.

If The Outpost has any downside, it’s that most of the characters don’t feel properly fleshed-out by the time the centerpiece battle sequence comes around. Yes, the movie is rightfully reverent and there are plenty of humorous moments, but very few of the characters stuck with me after the end credits rolled. This is a real shame, considering the superhuman heroism of the U.S. (and Latvian) soldiers in the actual events.

The Outpost shows some interesting glimpses of life in the armed forces, and some of the best non-action scenes have to do with military-civilian relations. Dealing with the local Afghan population must be a stressful tightrope walk, as the coalition forces in the country have to win over their “hearts and minds,” while avoiding pushing them in the direction of the Taliban. So, this picture pays tribute to some real-life heroes quite admirably, but I do wish the screenplay did a better job giving them the onscreen personalities they deserve.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

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

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “GiĆ¹ la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 outta 10.