China (1943) Review

Director: John Farrow

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

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released during World War II, China serves as an interesting and entertaining piece of American propaganda designed to educate the U.S. populace on the struggles faced by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion of their homeland. Cynical, tough oil salesman David Jones (Alan Ladd) wants nothing to do with the conflict, despite living in China. He’s content to go about selling his product to the highest bidder, which is frequently the raping, burning, murdering Japanese. With his partner, Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix), he finds himself driving a truck full of displaced Chinese and a teacher of American descent, Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), across the countryside in an effort to outrun the war.

China works best as a war-based action-adventure picture. The film begins with an ambitious long take that immediately throws the audience into the story and action is relatively frequent after that. Gunfire and explosions are the name of the game here, although the finale isn’t quite as exciting as the sequence where our heroes acquire the explosives used for said ending. Ladd is a convincing action star, and Bendix is excellent as the sidekick.

On the down side, there’s a lot of romance to yawn at. The movie tends to get bogged down in it, with Bendix reminiscing about his old hayrides back in the U.S. and whatnot, when the picture could be focused on the Japanese getting their just desserts. There’s even the threat of a romantic triangle breaking out at one point, but this potential disaster doesn’t fully materialize. Another flaw with the flick is that the Japanese threat doesn’t really feel quite immediate enough at times during the first act. However, it becomes very real after that.

Romance aside, this is probably one of the more effective and cool World War II flag-wavers made during the war. The fascinating, if fictional, plot is enough to absorb the viewer, and the action gets a thumbs-up. The film’s Wilsonian idealism shines through all the carnage and romance to stir the audience into making the world a better place when the war concludes. War and action-adventure movie aficionados will find enough here to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Verdun: Looking at History (1928) Review

Director: Léon Poirier

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 151 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the most underrated silent films ever made, Verdun: Looking at History (its original title in French being “Verdun, Visions d’Histoire“) is a powerful look at World War I’s critical Battle of Verdun, one of the greatest (and longest) battles ever fought. Told from both the French and German perspectives, this is the story of the 1916 German offensive that intended to capture the fortified French city of Verdun and crush French morale to continue the fight.

Often difficult to take your eyes off of, this cinematic epic usually looks realistic enough to be actual war footage. In fact, it’s often hard to tell what’s stock footage and what was filmed specifically for the movie. Very detailed and authentic-feeling, Verdun: Looking at History transports the viewer to the lunar landscapes outside of Verdun to witness the titanic struggle that lasted most of 1916. There’s plenty of combat, and the explosions are jarringly well-executed, frequently looking like they’re putting the cast in danger. Being silent, there’s numerous stylized touches to make the storytelling more visual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its docudrama-like style, the weakest part of the motion picture is its characters. To give the movie a universal quality, the fictional ones aren’t even given names, simply their description. Most of them are soon lost in the shuffle, sometimes making it difficult to tell who’s who. However, that’s not really the focus of the flick, so it’s not a crippling concern. The film’s very brief celebration of Henri Philippe Pétain, one of the major French officers during the Battle of Verdun, hasn’t aged well, considering that he would later become leader of the Vichy France (the French puppet government that collaborated with Nazi Germany) during World War II. Of course, no one could’ve known that in 1928 (the year of this movie’s release), but it still leaves an odd taste in the audience’s mouth.

Verdun: Looking at History deserves to be remembered with the best of the silent films. Few movies have managed to bring the Western Front of World War I to theaters as believably and vividly as here. Human, educational, and idealistic, this is a true docudrama, combining documentary and fictional elements in roughly equal parts. If you’re interested in the First World War, I’d highly recommend this picture, as well as an actual visit to the Verdun battlefield in France (I’ve been there, it’s unforgettable).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 169 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Rewriting the rules on how battle scenes are filmed, this reverent World War II movie follows a squad of American soldiers, led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who are deployed to enemy-infested territory after the D-Day landings at Normandy in order to find and safely return a fellow U.S. trooper, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), whose brothers were all recently killed in action. Free of romantic subplots and equipped with a moving musical score from John Williams, Saving Private Ryan is easily one of the most important entries into the war genre.

This picture is at its best when the bullets are flying. The two major, lengthy, gory combat sequences, one at the beginning (the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day) and the one at the end, are so intense they make you want to take cover under your couch…well, if one could take their eyes off them, that is. The sound effects are ferocious and the special effects couldn’t have been better integrated. These action scenes (which have some nice, little touches) are expertly directed, although the realism of the first one is significantly greater than that of the final one. The camerawork here revolves around handheld stuff, but the cinematography never devolves into what-am-I-even-looking-at? shaky-cam.

Unfortunately, Saving Private Ryan isn’t quite as stunning when people aren’t under fire. Most of the characters are ill-defined, which is unacceptable for a men-on-a-mission movie that lasts nearly three hours. Even on repeated viewings it can be impossible to tell who’s who for some of the members of the squad. The sometimes-questionable script (written by Robert Rodat…who also wrote The Patriot [2000]) occasionally has the film wobbling just a tiny bit during the character-driven moments. Still, it manages to pack a punch in the drama department.

In the end, this is an emotionally exhausting war epic with impeccable directing from Steven Spielberg. The supporting characters often aren’t fleshed out enough, but the whole thing is viciously on-point during the battle sequences. Despite its grisly realism, it’s a mistake to expect an anti-war screed from it. Instead, it’s a respectful ode to the Greatest Generation. If you’re going to watch it, watch it for that.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Longest Day (1962) Review

Directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswalt (uncredited), and Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 178 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Featuring innumerable big-name stars in its cast, The Longest Day is a true cinematic epic. In this three-hour colossus, the story of the D-Day landings at Normandy during World War II are told from the American, British, French, and Nazi German points-of-view. According to IMDb, this film had five directors (two of whom were apparently uncredited), which shows what a logistical nightmare making the movie must’ve been.

The Longest Day is a reverent motion picture (frequently reminding the audience of the importance of the invasion, often through speechy dialogue), but it has a fair amount of humor, too. Fleshing out the film’s countless characters is not this flick’s strong point. One doesn’t really get to know these guys (and gals) too well. Characters just come and go (how long does it take for Henry Fonda’s character, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., to be introduced anyway?). For this reason, I can’t really describe this movie as a drama, though it still delivers a satisfactory emotional payoff.

The real focus of The Longest Day is on its exquisite battle and combat scenes, and, boy, are there a lot of them. They’re all so well-choreographed that it’s difficult to choose one that works best. It should be noted that one of the action sequences features a highly spectacular long take that really shows off the picture’s budget. The battles are pretty bloodless, though, not being nearly as gruesome as those shown in Saving Private Ryan (1998), which covers some similar ground. There are some anti-war touches, but the tone is generally more heroic.

Bolstered by grand cinematography and a good musical score from Maurice Jarre, The Longest Day is a more-than-worthy depiction of the events that went down on the Western Front of World War II on June 6, 1944. For a three-hour movie, it’s very well-paced (and certainly never boring) and features a ton of action. In fact, the first time I watched this flick, I thought it had too much combat at the expense of character growth. I’ve changed my mind a bit since then, considering it’s really not that kind of movie. It’s all about spectacle.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Free State of Jones (2016) Review

Director: Gary Ross

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Perhaps trying to cover too much ground for one film, Free State of Jones tells the true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate deserter during the American Civil War who led a local insurrection against the Southern government. It has good intentions and an undeniably intriguing plot, but this probably would’ve been better as a mini-series or two separate movies.

I’m not sure that I would describe the flick’s pacing as slow, but the storytelling lacks energy much of the time. Lots of stuff takes place, but things never get kicked into overdrive. The action scenes are reasonable, although there are a few unconvincing bullet impacts on people (probably achieved using computer effects, rather than traditional squibs). It should be noted that this isn’t an action picture, so don’t expect battles galore.

Free State of Jones accurately shows who won the American Civil War…and who won its peace. The film’s politics interestingly parallel the populist insurgency taking place in the U.S. at the time of its release. It will probably please people on both sides of the aisle, with gun rights and Bibles for the right and class consciousness and racial justice for the left.

Overall, the motion picture serves as an important history lesson, shedding some light on a subject that may not get enough coverage. It won’t blow you away, but it’s watchable. It’s sincere, which counts for a lot, but I wish it was more consistently engaging.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Little Big Man (1970) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

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

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Sort of a comedy version of Dances with Wolves (1990), Little Big Man is about Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white boy raised by Native Americans during the Wild West period. It is commendably reverent towards indigenous Americans (although I couldn’t tell you how accurate it is, as it sometimes portrays them as “proto-hippies”), but the episodic plot threatens to sink the film. There’s simply too much back-and-forth in this movie, as it runs in circles.

It’s fun at first, being a series of colorful anecdotes about life in the Old West, but it soon becomes unclear as to what the entire picture is building up to. The sociopolitical content is often heavy-handed, and the frequent narration during the first half or so may turn off some. This tragicomic flick also contains some jarring tonal shifts, blending comedy and drama in ways that aren’t always completely successful.

Certainly not everything goes wrong here. The action scenes are adequate and some good stuntwork is on display. The humor is mostly effective, and, even as it meanders, the plot is almost always in motion. There’s all sorts of western film tropes on display here, as the movie leaps from one “sketch” or scenario to another.

Little Big Man is clearly a product of its time (the early 1970s). It’s very well-regarded by the critics, but I’m more cool towards it. If you’re looking for a fantastic movie directed by Arthur Penn, I’d point you in the direction of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That’s not to say Little Big Man is bad. It just feels a bit unfocused.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Great Escape (1963) Review

Director: John Sturges

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

Runtime: 172 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Director John Sturges’ second masterpiece (the first being The Magnificent Seven [1960]), this World War II epic tells the true story of Allied prisoners-of-war (P.O.W.s) planning a mass breakout from Stalag Luft III, the Nazi prison-camp they’re being held in. Along with Casablanca (1942), a picture of this film can be seen in the dictionary when you look up “classic film” (well, not really). It’s timeless, and perhaps the definitive P.O.W. picture.

Everything about this movie works. The all-star cast is a delight to watch, and Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is masterful. There’s a great deal of successful comic relief, and the cinematography does a swell job capturing the landscapes that surround the Allied P.O.W.s, making the film seem even more epic. The excellent sets also deserve a mention. However, The Great Escape perhaps works best when focusing on suspense. It can be a real nail-biter.

In a flick that’s nearly three hours long, pacing is crucial, and The Great Escape pulls it off. Fortunately, there’s no romance to bog things down, and all roles work in harmony towards the goal of crafting a stellar motion picture (just as each character has a job in the breakout plot; each one being a cog in the escape machine).

Thanks to tough guy heroics and the change of seasons from snowy (the time of the actual prison-break in real life) to glorious summer (the season of the breakout in the film), the movie almost (almost) makes war look fun. There’s plenty of macho bonding and the picture does an exceptional job capturing a sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. It’s not an action movie, but what action is in it really matters. The motorcycle pursuit sequence is the stuff legends are made of.

The highly efficient The Great Escape is all about the triumph of the human spirit. These men are seemingly uncageable. To sum things up, let’s leave with a quote from the movie: “You get ten out of ten for this, old boy!”

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) Review

Director: John Milius

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

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Very, very, very, very loosely based on a true story, The Wind and the Lion tells the tale of an American woman, Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen), and her two children, William (Simon Harrison) and Jennifer (Polly Gottesman), being kidnapped by a group of desert Berber rebels led by Mulay el-Raisuli (Sean Connery) in 1904 Morocco. The real incident saw a man named Ion Perdicaris being captured and released with no bloodshed. What kind of film would that make? Writer/director John Milius thought he could tell the story better (read: more death and destruction), and the result is The Wind and the Lion.

Armed with the best musical score by Jerry Goldsmith that I’m familiar with and an all-star cast, this is an old-fashioned, swashbuckling action-adventure epic with a witty script. The interesting characters couldn’t have been drawn better. The action scenes are grade-A+, but there appears to be use of oft-deadly trip wires to accomplish the horse-falls. The film’s stunt sequence supervisor, Terry Leonard, claims that no horses were harmed during the making of the movie, according to IMDb’s Trivia page for the movie, but the horse-falls look pretty suspect to me.

The tone is playful, despite plentiful carnage, as the motion picture romanticizes the irrational behavior of olden times. It’s full of jingoistic clap-trap that somehow works in the context of the film. The Wind and the Lion‘s politics seem to be intentionally schizophrenic, celebrating displays of militarism, while simultaneously showing innocent bystanders being aggressively shoved around by said militants. This contradictory nature only adds to the flick’s already-very-funny comedy level.

When people aren’t dying, the film portrays the backroom dealings surrounding the hostage crisis. However, it’s not boring at all, with the geopolitics of the situation being depicted in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Keith), though, is probably written to be more saber-rattling than he actually was as commander-in-chief. There is some Stockholm Syndrome- style romance in The Wind and the Lion, but don’t let this turn you off. Action junkies will find more than enough for them here.

Full of daring-do and machismo, this masterpiece from John Milius is a fascinating, if almost entirely fictional, look at the United States’ early years as a Great Power. It works best, though, as a first-rate action-adventure picture, full of sweeping desert vistas, larger-than-life characters, ridiculous heroism, and marvelous action sequences.

My rating is 10 outta 10.