Greetings all and sundry!
Having slowly adjusted to the unannounced and unexpected arrival of Daylight Savings Time and extended afternoons into evenings. While arranging my checklist for new car registration and drivers license in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I’ve had some free time to delve into film genres and focus on a few offerings which excel in the hour to hour. Day by day doldrums of “Numbing boredom. Interrupted by moments of sheer panic!” That defined life for the grunts, sailors and specialized troops of World War Two.
All three made in 1945. And directed by masters, or soon to be masters of the art, Whose goal was to tell a story very well. Entertain the masses. And also offer vehicles to spark participation through the sale of War Bonds.
With that said. Allow me a few moments to reach back, shake loose some cobwebs and expound upon my personal:
Forgotten War Film Triple Play!
The first and top place holder is a John Ford film. Probably to no one’s great surprise. Though one where Mr. Ford had more to do with casting, scouting locations and getting the assistance of the U.S. Navy. Than directing its exceptional combat and action sequences.
They Were Expendable: (1945)
Which begins on a sunny Sunday Manila Bay morning in early December, 1941. As a squadron of Torpedo Boats put on a demonstration of mock formation attacks for visiting Naval brass who don’t seem impressed with or understand the potential of fast seaborne attack. When 14 inch and 16 inch multiple gunned battleships will surely win the war that is soon to come.
Too soon, it seems. With the Torpedo Boat crews led by Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery, quietly superb filling the character of Lt. John Buckley, Godfather of Torpedo Boats Operations in the Pacific theater). And Lt. (jg) “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne. Who also shares the idea that “Bigger is better”. Though an excellent boat commander and Executive Officer). Who duck the evening festivities for the Squadron club and a good-bye party for one of the boats’ Chiefs. A radio broadcast from Pearl Harbor, via San Francisco is turned off in mid sentence. With the word of the attack on Pearl arriving second and third hand as Rusty teats up a transfer request. And the visiting brass is shocked that so many Prides of the Navy had been sunk.
Confusion amongst those with eagles and stars on their collars seems rampant. Though, one thing is certain. The Philippine Islands will soon be under siege by the Japanese. Requests for more of everything needed to fight the war fall on deaf ears at Pearl. As word comes down of President Roosevelt’s “Europe First” strategy.
Relegated to messenger and mail delivery for lack of a specific mission. The squadron makes do until the Japanese navy takes an interest in the island chain. Planes attack. Shacks are bombed, boats damaged. And Rusty catches a deep scratch from shrapnel. Which he ignores until Brickley is briefed that a Japanese cruiser is within range for a mission. Rusty is sent to the hospital as Brick takes his and another boat out. Rusty arrives at the underground bunkered hospital facility and is put under the care of Army 2nd. Lt. Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed. Exceptionally good at giving as well as she gets). Notices Rusty’s fever. Calls the doctor for sound advice as blood is drawn. Tests taken and antibiotics delivered to counter serious blood poisoning.
The cruiser is sunk. With Brick towing in the other boat. The brass starts to take notice. And more missions are given priority in a slow war of attrition and making do with what you have. Days pass, More missions on ships and barges are accomplished. Brick and the crews pick up Rusty as a weekend dance is winding down. And it’s back to the war. Sinking tonnage and warships. At the cost of expended torpedoes, lost or damaged boats and crew members.
Sandy is invited to the Officers’ ward room for a celebratory dinner that cements her and Rusty’s relationship even more. Corregidor is under threat of attack. And the President orders General MacArthur, his wife, son and other VIPs to be evacuated to a midway point between the Philippines and Australia. Brick and Rusty take their and two other boats loaded down with AvGas for their Packard engines, Travel by night and lay up hidden under cover in coves during the day. And deliver their guests unscathed.
Returning to home base. Brick and Rusty busy themselves scavenging whatever they can in preparation of more trade, Touching base with the Harbormaster, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson. Old. Crotchety. Used to having things done his own way) and the General, (Leon Ames.Straight shooting Army Infantry). Who mentions an impressive class of Japanese cruiser in the ares. Needing torpedoes, a visit is made to a submarine in harbor commanded by another Academy grad and classmate of Brick’s. And eight of the sub’s 16 torpedoes are procured through extortion regarding the classmate playing “the leading lady in Tess of the D’Uubervilles in 1932 at the Academy?” As Rusty adds, “And does your crew know?”
Loaded for bear and with three serviceable boats. The fourth is picked up in dry dock for what may easily be a final mission. A hasty phone call to Sandy gets little past “Hello” as lines are damaged throughout Bataan, The boats go out. The cruiser is engaged. Sunk with multiple hits. And it’s every boat and crew for themselves afterwards.Brick and his are nowhere in sight, come the dawn. Rusty’s boat is damaged and making way back to friendly soil. Only to be strafed by a low flying plane. Beached and set ablaze as the crew rig a makeshift stretcher for a dead crewman. A service of sorts is held at a nearby church. Rusty finds Brick turning the squadron’s last remaining boat over to the Army. As the remaining crew members are seconded into the Infantry with orders to work with the local guerilla forces. To hit, run and survive. While Brick has order for himself, Rusty and Ens. “Snake” Gardner (Marshall Thompson. The perpetual “kid” who grows up quick!) to be at a nearby dispersal point. And on one of the last planes out…
One of the most structurally sound films (War or otherwise) of the 1940s. With Mr. Ford’s expected attention to detail. Navy inventoried Elco Torpedo Boats and culturally diverse cast and extra. Courtesy of his exceptional stable (Ward Bond, Leon Ames, Donald Curtis, Harry Tenbrook, Murray Alper, Cameron Mitchell) whose person or type has been a standard in previous films. Getting many of the ancillary and plot moving scenes right. While leaving the action sequences and their choreography to previous PT boat skipper, Robert Montgomery.
High marks to Art Directors Malcolm Brown and Cedric Gibbons for scouting and using parts of Key Biscayne, Florida for the tropical locales. And the Navy’s PT Boat Training School at Melville, Rhode Island for the film’s opening scenes and huge extended harbor. Kudos, also to A. Arnold Gilllespiie and his use of pyrotechnics and exceptional model work in depicting Japanese ship targets.
B&W Cinematography by Joseph A, August,Lt. Cmdr. USNR is more than adequate in capturing mood and “Against All Odds’ action and attitude. Script by William L. White and Frank “Spig” Wead, From Mr. White’s tome of the same name is everything one would expect for a tale clocking in at just under two hours. Maintaining uncertainty and underlying tension as the war progresses up north. Far from sight and sound.
Musical Score by Herbert Stothart is patriotic and certainly of that time. Which is part and parcel for one of Mr. Ford’s best, though criminally neglected efforts!
Note: Available on You Tube. Though fairly screams for a re-mastering package from Criterion. Earned two Academy Award nominations for Best Sound Recording and Best Visual Effects by Douglas Shearer.
Which brings us to the middle slot. An offering by Raoul Walsh. Riding herd on a very well executed tale not based on a novel. But cranked out from the thoughts and imaginations of Alvah Bessie, Ranald MacDougal, Lester Cole and Mr. Walsh. Shot surprisingly well in and about the L.A. Arboretum, Providencia Ranch in the Hollywood Hills, Multiple bare bones sound stages and back lots of the Warner Studios filling in for the sweltering jungles, streams, mountains and hills of Southeast Asia as operations move west in…
Objective, Burma! (1945)
A new mission awaits Army Captain Nelson (Erroll Flynn. Minus the “Robin Hood” pomp and circumstance and exceptionally human!). An architect before the war. Now a well-trained and steeled paratrooper and jungle specialist. In charge of a platoon of equally proficient lieutenants, NCOs and enlisted troops. Men who have worked and fought hard together. Aware of each others strengths and weaknesses. Using them to best advantage. Though, not really content about having and being responsible for last-minute, add-on correspondent, Mark Williams (Henry Hull. Able to keep up with the Captain and his men and ask the right questions) along for the upcoming mission.
A Japanese radar station atop a hill and tracking U.S. and other Allied aircraft flying into China. Ans located right in the middle of nowhere, Occupying a decent sized chunk of land in Japanese occupied northwest Burma. That will require the aid of Australian, ANZAC, Gurkha and local Chindit fighters to guide them in. An important mission on face value. Though the true value of the mission will not be revealed until much later on.
Scale models and sand tables are laid out and copious notes taken through the platoon briefings. Nelson and his men have been given a pretty straight forward task. Take out the site Then deploy to a bare base. airstrip a half day’s march away for extraction.
C-47s arrive. Gear is donned. Equipment, rifles, radios and parachutes checked. Though Mr. Williams has never jumped from a perfectly good airplane. Capt. Nelson assures him that if his ‘chute doesn’t open. He’ll be the first one on the ground. The jump goes well in an open clearing. The route march to the objective moves smoothly for the terrain involved. Scouts well forward and noise discipline well enforced.
The radar site is camouflaged and guarded, but accessible with the advancing evening. Men are sent out to place and wire charges. While other find vantage points for rifles and machine guns.
The hour arrives. Guards are quietly dispatched. Rifle and machine guns open up. Magnets are driven home and explosions rack the enemy compound. Long enough for Nelson and a squad to clean up, raid barracks, buildings. Find whatever documents they can. And pull up stakes!
The trip to the extraction airstrip is even more tense and cautious. With every man aware that Japanese soldiers are looking for some payback. As well as saving face, The unit arrives and is immediately ambushed. Men fall. Explosions tear up jungle as Nelson and his men break contact and retreat. The squad leaders assemble and a plan is hatched to divide into three groups. Each going a different direction. To join together at a village a mountain range away.
Equipment is quickly checked, cleaned. Rations, canteens, iodine tablets and ammunition distributed on the move. As a bad situation become worse with a shot up, intermittent radio and Walkie Talkies only good for line of sight. Wounds are patched and bound as distance and a change in course are made. Nelson and his men arrive late and find the stream bordered village smoldering. The men and officers of the other squads have been tortured, mutilated or killed flat-out. One remains. Lt. Jacobs (William Prince). Who tells Nelson of their plight before dying.
Nelson orders his men back after a runner returns with word of the Japanese returning. The machine gun teams head out first to cover the withdrawal back across the stream. Nelson goes from group to group ordering them back. Making sure everyone is on the move before taking shots at the enemy to buy even more time. And joining his men as cover fire pins the stream’s low pier and keep the Japanese heads down.
A break is made, but not a clean one. Slowed by wounded, low food and water and men pushed hard and close to their limits. Nelson takes his men even deeper behind the lines before a perimeter is set, Then messaging his location, situation and the need for a replenishment air drop. The desire to move is strong, but the need to rest, reassess, bind wounds plan primary and secondary strategies is greater.
The first airdrop goes off well at first light. With the supplies recovered and the usual griping about the bill of fare associated with its “9 in One” K-Ration packs.The wear and tear is also staring to show on Mr. Williams. Though he hides it well. As Nelson reads abbreviated orders to move even deeper into enemy country, A hilltop several days march away. This is where the training shows. As each man is given the chance to swing a machete, break trail and gripe as soldiers do. About the even longer route Nelson has chosen to get where they need to go. Which will quietly claim the life of Mark Williams.
Days pass and signal mirrors are broken out for low flying Piper Cubs and larger U.S. planes. A second airdrop is far less successful. With the Japanese staking out the zone and picking off two G.I.s who couldn’t wait. Purification tablets are low. And water is becoming more scarce as the platoon breaks through and see the hilltop. Which is approached slowly and scaled even more cautiously. With fox holes and defensive positions being dug and camouflaged quickly as Nelson hears the sound of a lone, high C-47. Nelson signals, though is unsure his message was received. Leaving him to ponder the importance of this hill as the sun drops into the jungles beyond.
The night is sure to deliver an attack by the Japanese. Masters of using terrain and whatever is handy to cover their tracks and camouflage themselves. Crawling slowly to listening posts and two-man foxholes. Nelson’s men are equally quiet and attentive.Waiting for the first sounds of battle and release of pent-up fear, tension and anxiety. It’s slow going with Allies and Japanese silently dispatched. Until a shot rings out in the darkness.
Flares are launched and machine guns and grenades start cutting down the base bound second wave. As close quarters and hand to hand combat busies those in scattered holes. The Japanese have far greater numbers, but an uphill assault is the least enviable of all choices. As small, intimate skirmishes and battle fill the night. Until the Japanese retreat over open terrain and few make it to the protective jungle.
A Pyrrhic victory at best as Nelson’s men gather themselves as the sun rises. And await the counter attack. Only to hear the sound of one. Then many C-47s fill the air. About half, towing Waco CG-4 Gliders. slipping from and below the clouds as paratroopers float down from the sky. Announcing the arrival of a Second Front. Courtesy of Master Tacticians, British General, Orde Wingate and Army General. Joseph Stillwell!
Still one of the best War films of its type. Clocking in at just under two hours. With thumbnail sketched characters introduced within its opening minutes. And allowing time for those sketches to be expanded on and filled in nicely. A dangerous calling. Though those involved are professional, confident and rarely cavalier about their trade. Which adds to the cohesion of talent of its cast. Most notably Errol Flynn. Who eschews acrobatics and swashed buckles and delivers an officer most would confidently follow!
Cinematography by James Wong Howe is inspired and well within his area of B&W expertise. Using shadows and slashes of light to heighten tension. While the final battle swathed in darkness excels in unseen radio drama ways. Reveling bits and pieces under flickering flare light on either side seeks an upper hand.
Music by Franz Waxman is sometimes violin, brass and percussion heavy. And there to reinforce emotions and occasional unease. Editing by George Amy is deft and economical.Allowing just enough of one scene to lead into the next while trimming away any excess. Huge props to Set and Art Directors, Ted Smith and Jack McConaghy for making places so close to home look, sound and feel like humidly sweltering places so far away!
My final selection ranks up with two other classics regarding the much maligned “Walking Tour of Italy and France” from 1943-1945. Ernie Pyle’s The Story of G.I. Joe and Bill Mauldin’s Up Front. By telling the tale of a rifle squad arriving before dawn by Higgins Boat onto one of the many beaches of Salerno. With their objective being a German occupied farm house miles inshore.
A Walk In The Sun: (1945)
The landing does not go well. With the platoon’s lieutenant being seriously wounded by enemy shellfire. The chain of command is further diminished as the “take charge” Sergent, Captain and several others do not see the sun rise. Leaving Sgt.Bill Tyne (Dana Andrews). Who had been mentally writing a letter to his wife before the ramp of the Higgins Boat dropped. Is in charge and trying to find some direction and sense of order. Sadly, the mission hasn’t changed. Find the farm house and take it. And Tyne’s in charge.
Mistakes come with the territory. And Tyne leads his men in file down an open road. Only to be strafed by what may be an enemy or friendly fighter. The Media, McWilliams (Gangly, high-pitched, Stanley Holloway) is killed outright trying to find cover. Tyne leads his platoon into the woods. Moving from tree to landmark by Lensatic Compass and maps. While the rear of the cast introduces themselves through quiet banter. Privates Rivera (Smart mouthed street kid, Richard Conte) and Jake Friedman (George Tyne). Machine gunner and tripod carrying “A-Gunner”, PFC ‘Windy” Craven (Always reliable John Ireland). Pvt Archimbeau (Norman Lloyd. Believes he’s far too smart to be where he is ant at his rank). Pvt. Carroway (Huntz Hall. Secondary comic relief). Sgt. Ward (Indispensable Lloyd Bridges, A farmer. And a good one!). Sgt Eddie Porter (Wired too tightly, Herbert Rudley). Who is next in line to take command, but isn’t up to the challenge.
There are far too many middle management officers and NCO wounded or dead. Too many familiar lower ranks looking for somethings to do. The present reality and responsibility is showing to be too much for Sgt, Porter. Already showing signs of cracking. Sgt. Hoskins takes Tyne aside to let him know that he and other NCOs have decided to keep an eye on Porter, should the strain prove too much. And that the mission hasn’t changed.
So, it’s back to moving close to the treeline and parallel to the inviting, highly bermed road. As distance is made and the men find two lost Italian soldiers looking to surrender. The soldiers are questioned. And the location of the farm house is verified. One of the NCO steps into the sidecar of a recently impressed motorcycle used as a scout vehicle. And the men retreat back into the woods. Rations are opened as the soldiers enjoy a break awaiting the return of the forward scouts.
Heads start to turn to the he sound of grinding gears and clanking metal treads turns heads as men get into position as a German half-track approaches from the rear. Grenades fly. Rifles fire and machine guns chatter as the vehicle slows, bursts into flames and stops. Signalling a cue for the soldiers to make tracks fast. In case there is a patrol drawing near. Porter has lost it and has taken himself out of the chain of command. Informing Ward and other sergeants that Tyne is now in charge.
So, it’s up to Tyne to take his men on what will probably be a frontal assault on the farm house.Not the best of plans. Since it will involve low crawling across about 200 yards of open terrain before getting close enough to do serious damage. Their assigned bazooka is out of rockets. There are no mortars. A diversion or distraction is needed. In the destruction of a sheltered wooden bridge. Ward and a half-dozen men are assigned that task as Rivera sets up his Browning .30 caliber machine gun in a neat little loophole along the low stone and concrete wall protecting the path.
Plans are made and refined. Smoke grenades are brought forward. Packs are dropped. Some bayonets are fixed as a time is set. The bridge blowing will signal for smoke Tyne and the rest of the platoon to move. As Ward and his men come in from the east in a flanking maneuver. Not the greatest of plans. But one the soldiers have trained with many times.
Ward and his men move out. Tyne goes down the line checking his men. Leaving no questions or doubt as he starts fixating on his watch and its slow sweep hand. The bridge blows with high volume. Tyne blows his whistle. Slips over the wall with his men close behind. Crawling along as smoke billows. Rivera’s machine gun chatters. And the Germans respond!
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake..
Yes, the film may seem a bit to patriotic, Jingoistic and even corny at times. But for supplying a well-defined cross-section of men who either volunteered or waited to be drafted into service. Few films are better. This film is also notable for its farm house supplying minutes of footage, stock, through binoculars and otherwise. Which would be used in many films and television series of the 1960s. Most often, ABC’s The Gallant Men and later, Garrison’s Guerillas for the series’ “Mission for the Week”.
Based and well executed from a serialized novel by Harry Brown in “Yank” magazine. The film excels in highlighting the initiative of the middle ranks when the lower tier officers are taken from the picture. The guys with three or more stripes and rockers on their arm who understand that the mission, though insignificant from one point of view. Has extreme significance the day it’s accomplished and every day afterwards.
The screenplay and dialogues supplied by Mr. Brown and polished by Robert Rossen sings in this arena. While B&W Cinematography by Russell Harlan captures the vastness of the battlefield and the paths taken to get there. As well as framing walking discussions and more intimate and quieter talks amongst those making the heavy decisions. Enhanced by Editing by Duncan Mansfield is more than up to the task. All overseen by ever efficient Lewis Milestone adding another notch to his Director’s belt.
Art Direction by Max Bertisch around Fox’s Aguora Ranch is rustic and sometimes sumptuous. When placed opposite the wide open, too hot, dusty, dirty spaces and shadowy woods of Fox’s Calabasas Ranch before the objective. Giving the soldiers plenty to gripe about (An absolute truth regarding grunts and their two topics, dirt and mud!) before the action starts. Music supplied by Freddie Rich, Elmer Raguse and Kenneth Spenser rarely leans towards the whimsical. Preferring martial brassy arrangements to heighten suspense, underlying dread and darker emotions that work quite well within the film’s 117 minutes.
Note: These selections are film that I grew up with as a kid in the 1960s. Of a specific time, genre, point of view and purpose. And have stuck with me. And hopefully others for years. Flak is to be expected. Even welcome: