Ain't War a Gas?
Anybody who might have had a thought that the Second World War’s European Theater was anything but an occasionally dangerous lark clearly hasn’t been witness to one of the more recent entries in the TCM Greatest Films Collection series, World War II - Battlefront Europe. Of the quartet of films included herein—The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, and Battleground—only one makes a stab at actually trying to present the war as something quite awful. For the rest, fun viewing though they may be (and all most likely heavily researched by Tarantino as he was making the upcoming Inglorious Basterds), truth-telling is not really their bag.
A rather naked ploy by Warner Home Video to squeeze more lucre out of the dwindling revenue reservoir that is the MGM film library, the series as a whole makes perfect financial sense, both for the company and consumer. For about $28 (less at some websites), consumers can get four films that can make a reasonable claim at being basic components of any red-blooded American’s film library. At the same time, the studio can get a few more dollars out of a rapidly collapsing DVD market (according to the May 9th Wall Street Journal, DVD sales are expected to drop eight percent this year after falling nine percent in 2008), eyeing sales to see which backlist titles next deserve the Blu-Ray re-release treatment.
Perhaps because of how the repackaging drive overwhelms most other concerns (including presenting the best prints of these films, some here, like Where Eagles Dare, look particularly grimy), some entries in the series make for odd couplings; almost nowhere is this more evident than World War II - Battlefront Europe. What you have in essence is a trio of films that make perfectly good sense together, and one outlier (Battleground) that deserves more recognition of its solo merits. Made between 1967 and 1970, the other three share a similarly jokey outlook and brawny anti-establishment stance that allows them to use the war’s Western Front as a convenient setting for their boys-with-toys adventure stories.
These films may be many things, but war films they are not.
Furthest removed from the battleground is Brian G. Hutton’s Where Eagles Dare (1968). A lugubriously-paced spy thriller written by Alistair MacLean, it follows his m.o. of sending a team of Allied commandoes behind enemy lines where they’re outnumbered by the Nazis hundreds to one and also have traitors in their rapidly thinning ranks (see Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone).
Here, the commandoes are a mostly faceless bunch led by the two guys whose granite-handsome mugs are on screen most of the time: Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. After parachuting into the snowy Bavarian mountains, the team heads for a seemingly impregnable castle, which besides being German intelligence headquarters, also houses an Allied officer whom they have to rescue before he blurts out the secrets of the upcoming D-Day invasion. Inside the castle are many twisting, narrow hallways just made for mowing down whole squads of Nazi soldiers; in short, it’s the kind of fantasy mission that launched a thousand video games and most likely inspired the castle-set part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
At a ridiculously padded 158-minutes, the film plods along in the snow seemingly forever (Eastwood’s performance, wooden even by his standards at that time) before finally unveiling its centerpiece. An Agatha Christie-like expository scene where Burton (smooth as silk) holds a table of German officers at gunpoint while spinning out a dizzying web of double- and triple-crosses finally achieves the kind of spy caper zip that the film seemed to have been aiming for all along. Unfortunately the film then squanders that momentum by dragging out the final escape (in which the Wehrmacht’s bad marksmanship, dreadful in most war films, sinks to new lows) for a seeming eternity.
Hutton’s next film, 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes, is a step up from Where Eagles Dare in just about every sense. Also a good two-plus hours long, it at least has the sense to pack in as much incident and as many incidental stars trying to outmug the other, as any film could bear. Also, instead of MacLean’s dry, plot-by-numbers writing, it features a cool and calculated con of a script about some enterprising G.I.‘s who dash behind German lines to steal a fortune in gold bars, by Troy Kennedy-Martin, who written the previous year’s popular caper, The Italian Job. Eastwood shows up as well for some more anti-acting, but here he’s playing straight man to all the vaudeville loonies around him, so it works.
The cunning sensibility here is Joseph Heller-lite, trying to appease all parties at a time during the Vietnam War when the American public was hitting rock bottom. The silent majority lovers of all things square-jawed and militarily muscular can content themselves with the film’s impressive shoot-em-up factor and sky-high Nazi body count; it’s a rare five minutes that goes by without small arms fire or an artillery barrage.
Your Woodstock types could feel reassured by the soldiers’ contempt towards the brass (idiots, the lot of them), as well as Donald Sutherland’s Oddball (yes, that’s his name), a dizzied proto-hippie Sherman tank commander whose dialogue is littered with ‘60s anachronisms like “negative waves” and “righteous”. Those in the know can appreciate the mock-Morricone music that plays in one Western showdown-like scene with Eastwood. And everyone can of course enjoy the overdone shtick ladled out by Don Rickles, Caroll O’Connor, and Telly Savalas—the fact that not one of them looks at home in G.I. olive-drab could be read as a comment on the democratic effect of World War II’s draft, but more likely it was the result of vacuum-sweep casting.
For all its exuberance and combat highs, Kelly’s Heroes has a queasily calculating element to it that’s hard to shake. There’s a welcome dash of black comedy throughout, the soldiers using a Michelin Guide to find a French village with good hotels to bunk down in and Oddball’s tribe of hippie tankers with their blaring loudspeakers and shells filled with psychedelic paints. The understandably cynical backdrop to these soldiers’ dangerous grab for Nazi loot is nicely made (“It’s the same risk we’re already taking, but for only fifty bucks a month”), but as the bodies stack up, the laughs feel more and more strained, the plays for antiwar sentiment increasingly forced. This is a film that wants to have it both ways, and judging by its success, the public (looking for distractions from the realities of that annoyingly real war, Vietnam) was clearly okay with that.
Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) never tries to be anything but a bloody-minded, mean cuss of a movie, but that just makes it a realistic movie about people, not necessarily war. The premise is so well-worn that it hardly seems worth repeating now (it would be recycled later for shoddy sequels and even a short-lived TV series), but here it is. At an American military prison in England, 1944, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) rounds up a band of convicts headed for long terms or death row and gives them a last chance: follow me on a suicide mission behind German lines and maybe you’ll get a shot at parole. They train in secret before parachuting into France and getting down to the business of killing Nazis.
What Aldrich has going for him in this relatively rote mission plot is his antisocial, modernistic edge. Watch the editing in the hanging sequence that opens the film—blunt and cleaver-like, it has an electricity to it that is utterly missing from the winded and baggy style that characterizes Hutton’s work. Aldrich does a good job also in upending the cliché of the squad-as-American-melting-pot microcosm. In his version, the most upstanding (and probably innocent) one in the Dozen is probably African American (Jim Brown in only his second film role) and the most villainous ones are those who normally be played as salt-of-the-earth-types: the streetwise big-city punk (John Cassavetes, unhinged) and a southern farmboy (Telly Savalas, giggling through his role as a psychotic Bible-thumping serial rapist).
Another ace in Aldrich’s deck is a lean and vulpine Marvin, who looks here like he subsists solely by slugging whiskey and chewing nails. With that raspy crack of a voice and a mile-long fatalistic streak, he’s both a natural leader and as much of a dead-ender as the Dozen—his insubordination heads straight upstairs to the idiots who planned the mission, just as theirs does to him. Aldrich takes his time with the team, spending the balance of the film just following their training, only sending them into combat after you’ve become good and familiar with each of them.
The mission itself is something of an anti-climax after all of this. For all the acutely observed tough-guy bonding and barracks-hall humor that the film’s first two-thirds revel in, the final battle is far more fantastical and harder to become engaged in even as the body count rises.
The Dirty Dozen is brutality, delivered with a wink. Whereas the outlier title in this set, William A. Wellman’s Battleground (1949) , is also a lesson in brutality, but delivered with an honesty and knowingness that should put the other films to shame. The only actual war film in a set ostensibly filled with them, Battleground is also shockingly the sole film of the quartet to even address why the war was fought. That it is able to come up with a good defense for the fighting, even after all the trauma it so viscerally illustrates, and doesn’t come off like propaganda, is all the more impressive.
Being that Battleground is the only real war film here, not surprisingly, it’s pretty much a straight bummer. Robert Pirosh’s script follows a squad of the 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge, as they first wander into the German surprise offensive and then get trapped battling to hold the key town of Bastogne. Director Wellman not only dedicated the film to “The original Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne”, “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne”, but cast many actual veterans of that unit as extras. He also threw together a rough-and-ready cast primarily made up of men who served in the war that had just concluded four years before this film came out.
Witty and profane, Battleground plays everything close to the vest, sticking with the increasingly dirty and wearied grunts who slog down endless snowy paths and dig foxholes to freeze in when they’re not getting shot at. Wellman keeps the film’s head down, like a soldier under fire, so that you’re as in the dark as they are about what’s going on in the broader war. One soldier, a journalist back in the world, ruefully snarks about not getting any news about the climactic battle raging all around them: “I guarantee you my wife knows what’s going on in Bastogne. All I know is what’s going on in the 2nd squad of the 3rd platoon of I company.”
The soldiers here are a pissy and agitated bunch, the cinematic version of Bill Mauldin’s grizzled ur-grunts Willie and Joe, grumbling about generals who don’t know anything and an army that doesn’t care. It only becomes clear how serious things when they find out how stringent the medics are being: “They won’t take frozen feet unless they’re changing color.” They’ll defend their line and follow orders but nobody’s volunteering. Their mantras: “Nobody cares” and the sarcastic, “I’ve found a home in the army!” The important things are staying alive and remaining human: one nice running gag follows Holley’s (Van Johnson) efforts to keep intact a rare egg he swiped from a French farmhouse; it isn’t long before the fragile object seems worth its weight in gold. An offhandedly glorious moment has a fresh-faced Hispanic kid from Los Angeles (beautifully played by a very young Ricardo Montalban) wondering at the snow, the first he’s ever seen.
By stacking his film with vets and using a script written by an infantryman, Wellman (himself a vet of World War I) did his level best to keep even a shred of false glory or sentimentality out of his story—two decades on, the war could seem like a good old time, but here it was too fresh in the memory to falsify. There’s no vindication in the erratic and short firefights, just a desire for the men to get the hell out of there. And Wellman does such a good job at establishing the well-worn hard-bitten camaraderie between the men that when any one of them becomes a casualty, it stings.
Given all that, it’s astounding that the one scene which comes closest to being preachy plays as well as it does. Near the end, a chaplain conducts an ad-hoc, interdenominational service, during which he says a few words about the war, how it came unbidden and unwanted:
My answer to the sixty-four dollar question is yes, this trip was necessary. As the years go by, a lot of people are going to forget. But you won’t. And don’t ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism.
After that, it’s hard to look at escapist romps like The Dirty Dozen as anything but irresponsible. The truth is rarely that enjoyable.