Seven Angry Men (1955) Review

Director: Charles Marquis Warren

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

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1955 biopic Seven Angry Men was actually the second time that actor Raymond Massey played John Brown on the big screen. The first film was the pro-slavery propaganda piece Santa Fe Trail (1940), where Brown was the villain. Anyway, this historical drama details the life of that famed American abolitionist, as he battles against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and what-is-now West Virginia in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s a very nifty movie that does justice to the legendary figure at its center.

People who have studied the life of John Brown, one of my heroes, will recognize various incidents in the picture inspired by real-life events. Yes, some of these highlights of Brown’s life – like the Sacking of Lawrence and the Battle of Osawatomie – are exaggerated to make them more cinematic, but the flick often sticks surprisingly close to the facts. A few major events are omitted from the feature, like the Battle of Black Jack and the raid into Missouri to rescue several slaves.

This is a morally complex film that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about extralegal violence. Raymond Massey gives a dynamite performance as the central character, although it may be too much to keep track of all of his grown sons, considering how little fleshing-out some of them are given (they make up the other six angry men of the title). The action scenes that show up are serviceable, but not above and beyond the call of duty.

Seven Angry Men is an excellent look back at the history of militant abolitionism in the years prior to the breakout of the American Civil War. However, it should be noted that an unnecessary romantic subplot occasionally brings the movie to a standstill. This, right here, is the proper John Brown motion picture to view, not that Santa Fe Trail stuff. If you enjoy this work, I’d recommend reading the book John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds as a companion piece.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Casablanca (1942) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Made while World War II was still raging and its outcome was still uncertain, 1942’s Casablanca was an essential piece of wartime spirit-raising that went down in history as one of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures. Set in Vichy French-occupied Morocco during the war, American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) faces a moral dilemma when he has to choose between escaping from the region with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the love of his life, or helping smuggle Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) back into the battle against the Nazis. Buckle up, you’re in for a treat.

This timeless masterpiece is typically marketed as a romance film, but it is so much more than that. More important than the lovey, dovey stuff is the story of awakening your inner hero to fight against tyranny. It may not have any battle scenes, but this is actually a badass war flick, through and through. A tale of idealism, heroism, and sacrifice, it reflects the Wilsonian outlook on foreign policy that was crucial to the Allies in the Second World War and its aftermath. Isolationism is treated like the folly that it is.

The cosmopolitan classic Casablanca benefits from one of the snappiest screenplays ever written. It’s just one iconic line after another. The feature also has a stellar musical score from Max Steiner that’s largely built around the 1931 tune “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is classy and dazzling, and the nightclub at the center of the movie sometimes resembles a real-world version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

This accessible and big-hearted piece of cinema is an important allegory for the United States’ role in World War II. It has a hopeful message that international cooperation and selfless heroism can overcome evil and oppression. Powerful stuff. It’s a wonderful gift to the people of the Free World and a reminder that their work in combating the forces of darkness are not over.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Mercenary (1968) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

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

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Man, was director Sergio Corbucci on a roll with those “spaghetti westerns” (Italian-made westerns) between the mid-1960s and early-1970s or what? One of the better known of his flicks from this time period is The Mercenary, also sometimes called “A Professional Gun.” Set during the Mexican Revolution, a Polish gun-for-hire named Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) finds himself at the service of Paco Roman (Tony Musante), a Mexican bandit who’s an aspiring revolutionary. Many people will be blown away and many genres will be blended along the way.

The remarkable musical score from Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is one of the first things the audience notices about the movie, and it leaves a major impression. Jack Palance shows up as “Curly,” the picture’s chilling villain. He’s a quietly sinister threat and Palance’s job holds up as one of the best bad guy performances of the 1960s. The action scenes are frequent and frenetic, with plenty of machine gun mayhem. The standout here is probably the highly stylish showdown in the empty bullfighting arena.

The biggest problem with The Mercenary is that it’s pretty episodic at times. The characters played by Franco Nero and Tony Musante are constantly fussin’ and fightin’ as they move from town to town, with Jack Palance’s “Curly” hot on their trail. A stronger central plot might be necessary. It’s interesting to note that this movie has some moral ambiguity for being a “Zapata western” (a politically-conscious western typically set during a time of revolution or rebellion in Mexico), with neither of the leads exactly being terrific role models.

With its effortless tough guy swagger and effective premise, The Mercenary is a must-watch for spaghetti western fans. Its plot may ramble a bit, but it’s fast-paced enough for this to not be a serious concern. For a winning mixture of action-adventure, spaghetti western, war film, and even comedy, check this one out!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Mission (1986) Review

Director: Roland Joffé

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Mission is a sweeping, yet somewhat problematic, historical epic that just might be too big for its britches. Set in mid-1700s South America, a group of Jesuit missionaries, including former slave-trader Mendoza (Robert De Niro), dedicate themselves to protecting a remote jungle mission from encroaching Europeans who wish to enslave or massacre the natives. It’s not the most satisfying drama I’ve ever seen, but it has an interesting story that carries the movie.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of The Mission is its wonderful Ennio Morricone musical score, which is one of the finest ever for an adventure/historical film. It’s not an action picture, but there is a somewhat lengthy battle sequence towards the end to spice things up. In his review of this piece of cinema, critic Roger Ebert describes the combat as “badly choreographed.” I don’t really agree, but it’s hardly the best action scene I’ve ever witnessed.

The Mission will probably appeal most to audience members who were largely unaware of the atrocities that accompanied European colonization of the New World. For them, it will be an eye-opener. The flick does seem a little too concerned with trying to absolve the Church of its role in these brutalities in the Americas. The picture is also a little too slow at times, but it’s not necessarily overlong.

Buoyed by its musical score and one-of-a-kind plot, The Mission goes by with a passing grade. Some viewers really dig this film, but I merely like it. It’s certainly a beautiful-looking and sounding work, but some of the more important elements feel half-baked. The Mission is notable for having an early role for Liam Neeson (as Fielding, one of the missionaries).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hell’s Angels (1930) Review

Directors: Howard Hughes, Edmund Goulding, and James Whale

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Director Howard Hughes tried to top Wings (1927) with 1930’s Hell’s Angels. Both are fairly similar World War I aviation pictures with plenty of romance, so which one would be victorious in a dogfight? Hell’s Angels deals with British brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall) who’re romancing the same woman, Helen (Jean Harlow), and later join the military to serve as pilots after the First World War breaks out. Even though this one has sound, I think it pales in comparison to the silent Wings.

The action scenes are the clear audience draw for Hell’s Angels. The aerial warfare sequences are magnificent, although there’s very little ground combat. This flick has quite the body count…literally. Three stunt pilots were killed filming the large-scale dogfights. Howard Hughes even got in on the action and suffered a skull fracture doing some flying for the picture.

It’s the somewhat uninteresting plot that keeps Hell’s Angels from true greatness. The brothers’ troubles over Jean Harlow’s character don’t add up to much when everything’s said and done. As I said earlier, it’s really the war-related stuff that people want to see and remember. The romantic aspects of the movie are just filler.

Hell’s Angels was released during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, prior to the enforcement of the Production Code, and has a few mild swear words as a result, something that was pretty rare at the time (even for a Pre-Code film). While primarily black-and-white, there is a color sequence during a ball and some scenes are tinted. Overall, Hell’s Angels can’t out-shoot Wings, but it still manages to be a watchable war feature.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Wings (1927) Review

Directors: William A. Wellman and Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

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

Runtime: 144 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1927 war-time aviation epic Wings was the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (then called “Outstanding Picture”). It’s not my favorite film of 1927 (that would be Metropolis [1927]), but this is unquestionably a solid choice for that honor. During World War I, two American pilots – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – are in love with the same woman, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), and have to put aside their differences to be effective servicemen. The resulting feature is one of the best of the silent era.

Extraordinarily, two of the leads, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, had to learn how to fly aircraft so that it would be the actual actors in the cockpits of the fighter planes during the flying sequences. The film’s credited director, William A. Wellman, flew an airplane for the French Foreign Legion during World War I (scoring three confirmed “kills”), so this guy knows what he’s doing (IMDb also claims that Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast was an uncredited co-director for the project). The action scenes, both on the ground and in the air, are astounding. They’re huge in scale and feature insane stuntwork.

The flaws with Wings are few. There is a fairly lengthy scene dealing with Rogers’ character’s adventures in Paris while he’s drunk off his ass that slow the movie down. The flick also goes on for a tad too long after the war ends. However, these are just about the only things that I can think that go wrong with this action-filled picture.

This is a truly massive production with an energetic musical score by J.S. Zamecnik. It may be silent, but some of its heart-pounding spectacle still hasn’t been topped in the age of computer-generated imagery. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a very early appearance by Gary Cooper (as Cadet White) as a pilot who greets the main characters at flight training. He even has a Hershey’s chocolate bar, in an early piece of product placement. Don’t miss this one!

My rating is 8 outta 10.

FDR: American Badass! (2012) Review

Director: Garrett Brawith

Genre(s): Comedy, War

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Warning: If you have any dignity, taste, reverence, self-respect, integrity, class, culture, or decency, turn off your DVD/Blu Ray player right now and avoid this film like the plague. However, if you lack those traits, you’ll probably enjoy this ultra-low-brow comedy about U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Barry Bostwick) preventing Axis werewolves from taking over the world. Yes, there will be polio jokes.

The humor in FDR: American Badass! ranges from Airplane! (1980)-esque silliness to randy, raunchy punchlines, including a couple revolving around taking a dump in a flower vase. This comedy certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but there is a great deal of joy to be had from the anachronistic swearing and dialogue. The hammy acting and the horrible, low-budget special effects only add to the “funny factor.”

Yeah, a couple of the “sketches” that make up the movie may last a little too long, and not every joke lands (of course, there’s so many that some duds are expected). The introductory sequence is pretty cringe-inducing, but, if all you want are cheap laughs and obscenities aplenty, it’s smooth sailing after that. It’s not an action picture, despite some claims, so don’t expect the titular character’s tricked-out wheelchair to be used as much as you might hope.

FDR: American Badass! is perhaps the first film that pops into my head when I hear the phrase “dumb comedy.” It’s pretty undemanding and “politically incorrect,” and will probably end up a personal classic for those who watch it and don’t expect anything more than gags about polio, promiscuity, pot, and poop. I laugh a lot at it, despite its trashy aesthetic, so I’m going to give it a thumbs-up for certain audiences.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Farewell to the King (1989) Review

Director: John Milius

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

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

One of John Milius’ more underappreciated directorial efforts is the 1989 war-time action-adventure flick Farewell to the King. During World War II, an American soldier named Learoyd (Nick Nolte) goes A.W.O.L. to become the leader of a tribe of natives deep in the jungles of Borneo. This macho, yet sensitive, war-drama is a real treat if you can get your hands on it.

Farewell to the King, of course, has very good action sequences, but the real reason to watch this obscure movie is for its human drama. Several moments, including the tearjerker ending, are bound to get an emotional reaction out of the audience. The impact of these scenes is heightened by Basil Poledouris’ musical score, which simply has to be one of the best in cinema history. There is also some grand cinematography to be found here, as the camera captures great jungle landscapes and skies.

Yeah, this motion picture might overly romanticize “underdeveloped” societies, but, hey, it’s just a movie. Being a heroic depiction of a king that doesn’t appear to have any constitutional restraints is a tad troubling, making it feel like it has monarchist sympathies. The feature also veers from bloodthirstiness to pacifism with little predictability, but, well, it’s a John Milius movie. You get what you pay for.

Farewell to the King is an underrated action-adventure gem waiting to be discovered. It works if you’re looking for high adventure with World War II as its backdrop or if you’re looking for a character-centered drama with an epic musical score to prop it up. I can’t say it’s a realistic, or even plausible, film, but it’s just too damn entertaining to miss.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

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.