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.

This Gun for Hire (1942) Review

Director: Frank Tuttle

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

Runtime: 81 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1942 film noir This Gun for Hire was the breakout movie for tough guy actor Alan Ladd. Here, Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), a moody, cat-loving American hitman, becomes caught up in a scheme to sell national secrets to the Axis Powers during World War II. This is a surprisingly good flick, which is high praise coming from me, since I usually don’t fancy straight film noir.

The first of four pictures to feature both Alan Ladd and actress Veronica Lake, this crime-thriller greatly benefits from a relatively short runtime (eighty-one minutes) and a decent amount of action. Despite being in black-and-white, it’s rather colorful, and it also has a plot just about anybody could follow. The pacing slows down a tad as the Alan Ladd character finds himself hunted down in an industrial park, but that’s only a very minor complaint.

It’s interesting to note that this film noir could also be considered something of a war movie, since its villains intend on dealing with the Axis Powers of World War II. This level of intrigue makes the work more fun to watch. This Gun for Hire also feels somewhat daring for a flick released during the days of the Production Code. I mean, how many other American motion pictures from this time period have a hitman as their hero?

A focused crime-drama, this movie is an enjoyable watch. Alan Ladd really sells it in the role that made him a star. Even if you’re not typically a fan of noir, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. Now it’s time for some trivia. Footage from this picture was edited into the Steve Martin noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), and it was later remade as the mediocre Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only film ever directed by iconic actor James Cagney.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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.