Very likely the best of all the WWII movies, The Longest Day is a masterful account of the preparation for and execution of the largest land and sea military action in history: D-Day. Starring practically every available movie star of its day and directed by a crew of directors including an unaccredited Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s a logistical achievement worthy of the momentous day it’s chronicling. All the major elements of Allied invasion are represented with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the roles of the commanders of the front line divisions, the former of the airborne, the latter of the marines. Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Richard Todd also feature but more peripherally, the latter excelling as leader of a British commando unit. The Germans are represented in force too (with Curd Jürgens doing particularly well) as the action constantly switches back and forth between both sides.
Needless to say the acting is first rate with Mitchum especially standing out as the beleaguered general of those who were always going to be the hardest hit as they stormed the beaches. The battle sequences involving him and his men are by far the most thrilling and rightly so given how relevant they were to the entire invasion. That said, there isn’t a single battle sequence in The Longest Day which won’t have you on the edge of your seat and what’s more, they are all entirely different to each other in both logistics and execution. However, during all the back and forth shifting between battle sequences, it still finds the time for moments of quiet reflection and the tone which it sets during these moments is deeply affecting.
The most impressive feature of the film is without a doubt the fact that at all times, The Longest Day never fails to intertwine the role and perspective of the individual soldiers with the broader strategic advancements of their respective units. The later A Bridge Too Far did this too when chronicling Market Garden but not as well as it’s done here. The Longest Day puts us right in the middle of the action so that we feel intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the advance and it’s thrilling stuff. The film is shot magnificently and even though the US, British, and German episodes are all helmed by different directors, there’s a seamless look and feel to the whole thing. Overall, The Longest Day is a captivating piece of cinema which shows great deference to the momentous events of that day. There are some fine movies which focus on the same events but none are as comprehensively great as this.
Richard Burton leads a unit of commandos behind enemy lines to infiltrate the Alpine headquarters of the Wehrmacht located in an inaccessible fortress perched atop of a snow covered mountain. WWII based men-on-a-mission movies are very a different animal to the more mainstream WWII treatments. Emerging in the 1960’s & 70’s as a less cynical tonic to the earnestness (forced or otherwise) of the propaganda films of the 40’s and dramatised retrospectives of the 50’s, they were the first action extravaganzas of the genre – not to be taken too seriously but a pleasant distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And Brian G. Hutton’s 1968 classic is arguably the best of the bunch as Burton and Clint Eastwood sidewind their way through a series of double crosses as labyrinthine as the formidable fortress amid gunfire, TNT, and showers of grenades, and all along to Ron Goodwin’s mighty soundtrack. The brilliant action becomes a cathartic backdrop to the intelligently constructed plot, and mirroring those dual tones are Burton and Eastwood at their most enigmatic. The former’s character with that mellifluously accented English being the very embodiment of intrigue and deception while the latter, Eastwood’s serial Nazi slayer, Lt. Schaffer, being the coolest and baddest assassin to ever grace a war movie. While classics such as The Dirty Dozen and Guns of the Navarone (also penned by this movie’s writer Alistair MacLean) mixed personality with an edge of moral commentary, Where Eagles Dare substituted any such sentiment for immense style and a callous bodycount making the whole thing a treat to the the baser depths of our brains. Given the more carefree vibe of the sub-genre, such stylish entertainment is perhaps its most critical quality and so Hutton’s movie rises to the top of the pot.
Rating: The Good – 71.1 Genre: War Duration: 117 mins Director: Mark Robson Stars: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Raffaella Carrà
“Padre, you’re priceless.” Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard pair up for this jaunty WWII actioner as senior Allied officers imprisoned in an Italian POW camp on the eve of the country’s liberation from Nazi rule. One being an improvisational US Air Corps Colonel, the other being a stoic by-the-book British Major, the two inevitably butt heads in how exactly they’re going to safeguard the entire prison camp across Italy after their camp wardens flee. It never really got the credit it deserves but Von Ryan’s Express is loaded to the hilt with fine action set pieces and defined by a cast with personality to burn. From the earlier scenes of the soldiers toiling in the prison camps to the frantic rail pursuit of the last two acts, the movie swings easily between explosions and wisecracks. That said, there are more pensive moments to be had here and there and a few dark tracks are crossed along the way. Sinatra is in cruise control but he seems to be enjoying every bit of it while Howard hams it up for all he’s worth. It’s not the most delicate turn from the great English actor but, like the movie itself, it’s bags of fun.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Thriller, Mystery, War Duration: 148 mins Director: Anatole Litvak Stars: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Christopher Plummer
A rather unique war drama that focuses primarily on a German military police officer’s attempts to identify a murderer of women at the height of the Second World War. As the story follows the main suspects, three untouchable Generals of the Wehrmacht and the SS, from Warsaw to occupied Paris, the investigation is interleaved with a military plot to kill Hitler and a romance between the daughter of one of the Generals and a lowly corporal. Though a little unorthodox in its set up, the strength to this film is, firstly, the several characters it devotes almost equal time to and, secondly, the manner in which it sets them against a most interesting historical backdrop. Peter O’Toole is the fanatical SS General whose cruelty is matched only by his manic obsessiveness. Donald Pleasence’s more genial General is more interested in military politics while Charles Gray is the self serving philanderer. Omar Sharif is the Colonel on their trail whose only interest is in seeing justice being done but who, nonetheless, gets a curious kick from taking on his higher ups.
O’Toole plays it very close to the edge but his twitchy psychopath makes for compelling viewing. Pleasence offers his usual steady presence infused with just enough duplicity to carry the intrigue of his subplots while Sharif is about as close as we come to a central protagonist even though he has a tad less screen time than the others. Enough however to raise the charm of the overall film. Director Anatole Litvak is to be largely commended for bridging the different plots into a smoothly progressing film. Though much varied in their pace and tone, he manages not to let the tension spill and, in those moments when O’Toole is ratcheting up the crazy, he sets a chilling tone just quirky enough to complement the unique aspects of the project. With figures like Field Marshal Rommel (played by Christopher Plummer) popping up during key scenes and depictions of the Valkeryie assassination attempt not to mention the decision to tell the story in retrospect from the point of view of a 1960’s Interpol investigation into the original murder, one will find The Night of the Generals difficult to predict and even categorise but ultimately that becomes as compelling a strength as the characters and its wider setting. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 89.4 Genre: Western Duration: 110 mins Director: George Roy Hill Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
George Roy Hill’s iconic western is an inspired piece of film-making that takes a very different approach to the archetypal western. Adopting a humorous and light-hearted approach for much of the film, it gives the genre the time to breathe that it normally doesn’t receive and in focusing on one of the eras most legendary friendships it romanticises the old west in a manner more touching too. This was the first joint outing for Paul Newman and Robert Redford and they form an irresistible duo that easily goes down as the best on-screen partnership the medium has offered up. The two play off each other seamlessly and deliver two fascinating and novel characterisations. Newman is hysterical as the every-man Butch, the leader of the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall gang, while Redford is pitch perfect as the lightning fast gunslinger.
The action only kicks in about half way through when in the midst of all the gang’s usual shenanigans, a breakneck chase suddenly erupts which sees Butch and Sundance being pursued across mountain and desert by a ruthless posse of specialists. Hill’s decision to never show the faces of the posse was inspired and it gives the near half-hour long pursuit a real edge. In fact, there’s arguably not another chase sequence that is as electric or effectively shot as this one. Katherine Ross comes to the fore more in the final act as the woman in the middle but never in between and adds a nice counterpoint to the pair.
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is really a perfect film which plays by its own rules. The level of ingenuity and innovation that Hill brings to the shooting of it from the fleeting use of monochrome to the integration of Burt Bacharach’s counter-intuitive yet seminal soundtrack, ensures that there’s not a frame in it where you don’t notice something special. It’s also a genuinely funny and at times hysterical film thanks chiefly to the telepathic understanding shared between the leads but also William Goldman’s sublime script. With a movie that boasts such perfection it is, therefore, quite fitting that Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid signs off with one of the great cinematic salutes and in doing so immortalises its two heroes in splendid fashion. Cinema magic.
Rating: The Good – 86.8 Genre: Jidaigeki Duration: 128 mins Director: Masaki Kobayashi Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa, Gô Katô
Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion is a lesser known feature from the jidaigeki genre but one of its most impressive examples. Set in the 1700’s, it tells the story of a dutiful vassal Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune) who has spent his life obeying both his objectionable wife as well as his clan’s elders for the sake of peace and quiet. As the most accomplished swordsman in his lord’s fief, he gets his small pleasures in life from discussing martial arts with his friend and closely matched rival played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Things change when his son is ordered to marry one of his lord’s former ladies, Ichi. Although, reluctant at first, things go well as his son and new daughter-in-law develop a proper bond and give him his first grandchild. However, when the lord demands the return of his daughter-in-law, he decides he and his family have taken enough and refuses to send her back. Things inevitably come to a head and a mighty showdown ensues between his clan and the lord’s men.
The story is a remarkable one and even more remarkable is how seldom we have seen it anywhere before or since given its obviously compelling and universal themes. It brings the best out in all the actors and truthfully, this is one of Mifune’s best performances, even if it is less explosive than some of his more famous roles. It’s also a slow burner as the first 90 minutes are spent building the pretext for the action that is to come. However, when it does come, we are not disappointed as Samurai Rebellion offers up some extraordinary action choreography and direction. Equally impressive are the cinematography and lighting which really come to the fore during the dramatic scenes and combat sequences (two scenes in particular to look out for are the moment when Ichi is grilled by the clan’s elders and the final showdown as Isaburo hunts down the musketeers in a breezy meadow).
In many ways, Samurai Rebellion is a spellbinding film. The actors are perfectly in sync with the directors’ immaculate pacing and as good as Mifune and Nakadai are, they are well matched by Gô Katô as Isaburo’s son and Yôko Tsukasa as Ichi. Above all, it is the heart-rendering story of love, family, strength, and courage which we remember best as this is one film that can be appreciated by fans of any genre and by people of any nation.
Rating: The Good – 85.3 Genre: Western Duration: 123 mins Director: John Ford Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).
The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.
As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.
Rating: The Good – 78.5 Genre: Drama Duration: 146 mins Director: Richard Brooks Stars: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy
“Tell me. How is it so many people can only find hate in the bible?” Richard Brooks’ highly complex tale of the emergence of revivalism during the prohibition era bible belt is a stunningly mature and impartial examination of manipulation, faith, truth, and redemption. Burt Lancaster is magnetic as the eponymous silver tongued charlatan who finds he has a knack for rousing people into religious fervour through guilt and moralistic soundbite. Jean Simmons matches him as the self-proclaimed “Sister Sharon”, leader of a travelling roadshow who preaches damnation and forgiveness through the embracing of Jesus and her message.
Brooks’ adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel is superb and whether it be the top of the voice preaching, the more veiled rhetoric, or the quiet and more honest interactions of the principals, it captures the power of that discourse with amazing precision. Through his direction, he brings an easy flow to the movie and he adapts the tone seamlessly as the film repeatedly transitions between big prayer meetings and the smaller more intimate one-on-ones. However, it’s the clarity of focus and motivation which defines the movie so well and it’s astonishing to note how relevant Elmer Gantry is to modern day as it was to the 1960’s when it was made and the 1920’s when it was set. It takes no sides and in doing so, through all the smoke and mirrors, it zeros in on the essential point like few other investigations into the subject have.
Rating: The Good – 95.7 Genre: Western Duration: 175 mins Director: Sergio Leone Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
Sergio Leone’s meta-western was the first true revisionist western. The man with no name is not Clint but Bronson and he’s not as much a man as he is the embodiment of a dying breed of men and the western genre itself. The plot is inconsequential as it is merely a vehicle for Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Sergio Donati to anthologise and meta-analyse the genre, celebrate its glory, and lament what they saw as its inevitable demise. But what a vehicle it is. From the beginning of the first reel, Leone is reaching into our psyches, tantalising us with familiar shots and references to half-remembered images from the westerns of yesteryear. He scales the story both wide and narrow, subverting our expectations (“that was Henry Fonda right?”), deconstructing mythology, and employing the most audacious yet subtly appropriate use of metaphor in the history of the medium (he got up!). And all this ticks along to Ennio Morrincone’s spell-binding score, themed perfectly to the four main characters played memorably by Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, and Claudia Cardinale.
Rating: The Good – 94 Genre: Horror Duration: 96 mins Director: George A. Romero Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
George A. Romero’s B-budget horror piece was revolutionary at its time and that still shows today. Beginning in a patient yet sinister fashion and maintaining a controlled pace to the end this film seems to creep into our psyche. A group of strangers accosted by ravenous undead humans board themselves up in an isolated house. The internal squabbling which erupts between the group slowly takes on the air of inevitability in much the same way as the relentless pursuit of the creatures outside does. This is where it all began and there’s a fresh sense of terror which any number of subsequent zombie movies has failed to replicate. Duane Jones became a folk hero most notably because he was one of the first black men to lead a cast of white people. Romero cleverly reserved any commentary on racial issues until the ending which is utterly unforgettable and all the more potent because of the wait.
On the technical front, Romero redefined the genre (and medium) with his economic use of lighting and set-design. Everything is lean and Romero uses that to augment the atmosphere. The gore is introduced sparingly making it all the more disturbing and the scenarios he creates (brother/sister, parents/child) were for the time (and still to this day) core-shocking and rooted in cultural discourse. Night of the Living Dead is a monument to horror direction and independent movie making alike. There are few films that have been more important to the medium and on top of all that, it’s one hell of an enjoyable 90 mins too.
Rating: The Good – 85.5 Genre: Western Duration: 145 mins Director: Sam Peckinpah Stars: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
Sam Peckinpah chipped in with his own meta-analysis of the Western in this uniquely poignant tale of an ageing group of outlaws and the extinction they face at the hands of politicians, modern war-mongers, and their mechanisms of change. Like Leone did in Once Upon a Time in the West, Peckinpah breaks the “rules” of film making to telling effect by beginning the film in a manner more suited to the end of the more traditional westerns. Picking up where most leave off, he then proceeds to fold back the genre with a majestic grace so that from early on in The Wild Bunch, there is a clear sense that the outlaws are wandering into a changed world which has no place for them. There is a brutal beauty as well as sadness to this and Peckinpah catches both superbly. It seems fitting too that the sterling cast gave their most memorable performances in a film of this stature. William Holden is supreme as he gives us one of the most iconic western anti-heroes, Pike Bishop, and he is matched every step of the way by Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom. Robert Ryan is also excellent as the ambiguously placed Deke Thornton. The violence and action have been much talked about but whatever your take is, there is no disputing the artistry in the choreography of the first and last scenes in particular. And like everything else in The Wild Bunch, the violence tells its own part of the story too.
Rating: The Good – 82.9 Genre: Drama Duration: 134 mins Director: Robert Rossen Stars: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie
Paul Newman gives a tour de force performance in this darkly affecting drama about a pool hall hustler determined to prove that he’s the best regardless of all costs. The Hustler has many strengths, but the dialogue and the acting deserve the most credit. Newman is in fine form as Fast Eddie Felson and even his pool work looks up to the pace. Jackie Gleeson is stylish and effortlessly charismatic as Minnesota Fats, Piper Laurie is outstanding as Felson’s depressed girlfriend, and George C. Scott is perfectly sinister as Felson’s ruthless manager. The pool scenes give this otherwise dark drama a real electricity and watching the two titans glide around the table locked in a combat of artistry and wit is a real treat.