Ten Tall Men (1951) Review

Director: Willis Goldbeck

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

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Burt-Lancaster-joins-the-French-Foreign-Legion is the “hook” of this 1951 war/action-adventure film. During the Rif War in Morocco, a trouble-making sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, Mike Kincaid (Burt Lancaster), assembles a group of fellow Legionnaires (all of whom are rotting in prison) to launch a preemptive raid on desert rebels before the aforementioned insurgents can launch an assault on an undermanned French-occupied town. This flick has an interesting proto-The Dirty Dozen (1967) story, but it’s much more light-hearted than that hard-boiled World War II film.

Ten Tall Men starts off awfully comedic and retains a jokey tone for much of its runtime. The humor here doesn’t really land most of the time. The romance isn’t really effective, either, and many of the supporting characters aren’t as well-defined as they should’ve been for a men-on-a-mission film. The action-adventure elements are what saves this movie from the trash bin. Sure, it’s apparent that they didn’t have a large budget to work with, but the combat scenes are fair.

The story that eventually became Ten Tall Men was actually originally a western. However, the sort of western/war film that the filmmakers were aiming for was considered old hat by the time of this picture’s production, so the action shifted across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s easy to see how the U.S. cavalry were substituted by the French Foreign Legion and the Native Americans by the Moroccan guerrillas.

When it’s all said and done, Ten Tall Men is an adequate war movie that goes somewhat heavy on the comic relief. You should also be warned that a romantic subplot breaks out. The final action scene is hardly the strongest one in the feature, but this film clips along at a decent pace, so it doesn’t dwell on any of its faults for too long. It’s okay, but there are better French Foreign Legion flicks out there, like Legionnaire (1998), Beau Geste (1939), and March or Die (1977).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Apocalypse Now (1979) Review

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 147 minutes (theatrical cut), 183 minutes (Final Cut), 196 minutes (Redux)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

This is a review of the 147-minute theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now, the famous, dark, and psychedelic war film that is sometimes regarded as the best of its genre. In the midst of the Vietnam War, an American serviceman, Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), is assigned to travel by patrol boat to Cambodia to assassinate U.S. officer Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who’s reportedly gone rogue…and insane. This is a spectacularly well-made movie, but I can’t help but feel that the third act is the weakest component of the feature. To me, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

More abstract than, say, Platoon (1986), Apocalypse Now is about descent into madness, as just about any film critic will tell you. It’s a slightly surreal journey, accompanied by dark comedy (especially in the first half) and impressive, large-scale visuals. The choices for music are dynamite. It’s not an action flick, but the helicopter attack sequence has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. It lives up to the hype, being one of the best battle scenes to grace movie theater screens.

Apocalypse Now borders on the episodic, but, for the most part, it manages to keep things together. Unfortunately, the film comes close to hitting a brick wall when it arrives as Marlon Brando’s character’s compound. These scenes look amazing, but what seems like almost endless monologues from Brando hurt the picture’s momentum. The somewhat meandering third act is a problem. Also, this one probably won’t be played on television for Veterans Day any time soon, as most Americans in it, including both members of the military and civilians, are characterized as spaced-out, excessively rowdy, nutty about surfing, or psychotically violent. There’s also a scene of violence against a water buffalo, so animal lovers may want to sit this one out.

Crazy, eccentric, and colorful, this psychological war epic is too “artsy-fartsy” for many viewers, but, with its atmosphere of insanity, it’s still worth watching. Be warned that the final moments are slower than the scenes that preceded them. Still, it’s ambitious as Hell and is often a feast for the senses. All of this being said, when it comes to surreal, dream-like war movies, I actually prefer Castle Keep (1969) and Walker (1987).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

Genre(s): Adventure, War, Western

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Ulzana’s Raid is an interesting hybrid of the war and western genres that takes a long, hard look at guerrilla warfare. It’s not exactly a pretty movie, but it’s tough and thoughtful, earning a reputation as an underrated member of the two genres listed earlier. A crafty, sadistic Apache named Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) has escaped from his reservation and, with a small war party, is bearing down on white settlers in the area. A troop of American government cavalry led by the naive Lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and aided by the seasoned tracker McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) is deployed to stop the renegade Native Americans.

This is not a horror film, but it gives off some of the same vibes as one. Instead of a knife-wielding Michael Myers, we have a band of ruthless, seemingly unstoppable Apaches stalking victims in the Arizona desert. The random acts of violence committed by the rebels, which are quite graphic for a 1972 picture (and they still retain some shock value today), result in what is not exactly the most flattering depiction of Native Americans to hit the big screen. They definitely aren’t “proto-hippies” here!

The action scenes here are adequate, although it should be noted that they contain what appear to be trip-wire-driven horse-falls, so horse lovers might want to skip this one. The whole cat-and-mouse game isn’t always as clearly set up as I wish it was, and the flick is occasionally on the talky side. The build-up to the final battle isn’t as exciting as it could’ve been, but the payoff is satisfactory.

It’s not quite one of my favorites, but Ulzana’s Raid is still a movie that fans of the war and western genres should seek out. Many people have come to the conclusion that the film is a bit of an allegory for the Vietnam War still taking place at the time of its release. If so, it’s a relatively subtle one. Overall, it’s probably one of the better cavalry-versus-“Indians” pictures out there, thanks to its suspense and thought-provoking handling of the conflict between the Native Americans and white Americans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Days of Glory (1944) Review

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

What was it like for democracies, like the United States, to be allied with a totalitarian state, the Soviet Union, during World War II? Days of Glory, made during that war, shows what the Free World’s propagandists had to work with. On the Eastern Front of World War II, a band of Soviet partisans wage guerrilla warfare against the invading Nazis. This melodrama is satisfactory entertainment, but works best as a window into the nature of the Western Allies’ relationship with the Soviet Union during those desperate days.

To put it bluntly, Days of Glory is pro-Soviet propaganda, albeit a piece of propaganda from a time when that communist country was perhaps the world’s best hope for taking down Nazi Germany. The opening narration even goes as far as to describe the millions suffering under Stalinist rule as a “free people.” Okay, this isn’t exactly a realistic movie, with its singing Soviets and whatnot, but I can forgive this, considering its wartime origins.

Although it’s a war film, this picture goes pretty light on the action. If you’re thinking of watching this flick just to see some Eastern Front partisan-related carnage, I’d recommend you look elsewhere. However, on the basic level of investing the audience in its characters, Days of Glory works fine enough. It’s romance-heavy, but the story is interesting enough to keep viewers engaged. Much time is spent in the guerrillas’ underground bunker, occasionally giving the movie a stagey feel.

Days of Glory is notable to two things. The first is that it’s the film debut of Gregory Peck, who plays the leader of the Soviet partisan cell. He would, of course, go on to become of one the silver screen’s greatest actors. The second is that it’s one of the few American productions to cast an explicitly positive light on the vile Soviet Union. To be fair, the common foot soldier of that communist empire deserves a lot of the credit for rolling back and defeating fascism during World War II. All in all, this is a watchable drama picture with some very badly dated politics that make it intriguing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Castle Keep (1969) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Although it’s directed by Sydney Pollack, I like to describe Castle Keep as what a collaboration between John Milius and Luis Buñuel might look like it. During World War II, a squad of American soldiers have to hole themselves up in a medieval Belgian castle to stave off a Nazi offensive. This film is a rare animal, an arthouse picture with balls and badassery.

Castle Keep is a highly surreal and dreamlike movie that could’ve easily been titled “Un Chien Andalou Goes to War.” The dialogue is deliberate, yet full of non-sequiturs, and would come across as ludicrously pretentious if the flick wasn’t so bizarre and oneiric. It’s perhaps not an outright comedy, but it’s often oddly funny, just as good surrealism often is. This psychedelic film defies interpretation and is best enjoyed as a surprising piece of nonsense.

Contrasting with the dream logic are the movie’s joltingly realistic combat sequences. With the exception of the dialogue during these scenes, they feel like something out of a wannabe-authentic docudrama. The impressive pyrotechnics are worthy of note. The star of the show, Burt Lancaster as Major Abraham Falconer, keeps everything together in perfectly macho fashion, blasting away at Nazis with a fifty-caliber machine gun from atop the titular castle.

If I had to find any faults with Castle Keep, I might say that some of the supporting characters aren’t distinct enough and that the scene in the rosebushes goes on for a tad too long. Despite how otherworldly the whole thing feels, the conflicts in it feel strangely immediate. It’s definitely not for all tastes…it’s just too damn weird for that. However, if you like your surrealism fast-paced, comical, and tough-as-nails, this is one motion picture you won’t want to miss.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Rambo (2008) Review

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 92 minutes (standard version), 99 minutes (extended version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

After taking twenty years off, the Rambo series returned with a vengeance in 2008. Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is living the peaceful life in Thailand when he’s called upon by a group of American missionaries to escort them into civil war-torn Myanmar (Burma). The results are ultra-gory, with people being liquefied and shredded by fifty-caliber ammo and genocidal atrocities being commonplace.

As one would expect for a movie in the Rambo franchise, the action scenes are astounding, as well as more ferocious than ever, thanks to the upped level of violence. The pure-evil baddies give the audience plenty of people to hiss at and John Rambo is just as heroic as he’s ever been. This is the first Rambo picture where the musical score wasn’t done by Jerry Goldsmith. Instead, Brian Tyler steps up to the plate and delivers music that references the past, as well as forging its own path.

Rambo is initially a reluctant hero, but this is a bleeding heart shoot-’em-up, so he comes around to the idea of mass-killing people eventually. The film represents a militant style of Wilsonianism, where human rights grow out of the barrel of a fifty-caliber machine gun. It’s pretty similar to Rambo III (1988) in this regard, where underdog freedom fighters struggle against the forces of unrestrained totalitarianism.

As serious as Rambo is, there are some kitschier moments that may provoke an unintended chuckle or two. Overall, the flick isn’t quite as good as the original trilogy, but it’s still a riotously over-the-top actioner that will satisfy most fans of the genre. It stays true to the Rambo style and, regarding its politics, it has its heart in the right place. If you can handle the gruesome carnage, it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Rambo III (1988) Review

Director: Peter MacDonald

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Despite being almost universally considered the worst film in the Rambo series, Rambo III is actually my favorite of the franchise. Packed to the brim with incessant action, this one has Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) traveling to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to rescue his former commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who was captured by the communists there. As edge-of-your-seat thrilling as the whole original Rambo trilogy is, this romance-free installment takes the cake.

Rambo III‘s action sequences are beyond incredible, tossing countless explosions, fired blanks, blood squibs, collapsing extras, and totaled vehicles at the viewer. The choreography and editing is exquisite. It’s all completely over-the-top, yet just barely (I repeat: barely) plausible enough for the audience to accept. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is a scene-stealer that greatly heightens the action.

This picture sees Rambo assume the role of Wilsonian action hero, fighting for human rights in a far-off land. It’s a welcome twist for the Rambo character that gives the flick some unrecognized depth. Sylvester Stallone’s role is a bit different here from the rest of the series, being less internally-tortured and more of a one-liner machine, but I think the transformation is okay. Many people claim Rambo III‘s politics have aged poorly, with the Soviet-Afghan War-era Mujaheddin being shown in a positive light, with some viewers saying that Rambo helped found the Taliban. This is a bit of an exaggeration, as the anti-Soviet fighter Masoud (Spyros Fokas) in the film is actually based on Ahmad Shah Massoud, an actual person who fought against both the Soviet Union and the Taliban (as a leader of the Northern Alliance when battling against the latter).

Yes, this is probably the kitschiest of the Rambo franchise, but that doesn’t bother me at all. It has the best (and perhaps most) action of the series, and its story is an inspiration to freedom fighters across the globe. A lot of people can’t handle kitsch, but, if you can and you love action, Rambo III is a must-watch. It’s got the massive explosions, the heart, the pacing, and the heroism that makes for great cinema.

My rating is 9 outta 10.