Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Satire, War Duration: 116 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”
Rating: The Good – 88.5 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 126 mins Director: John Frankenheimer Stars: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh
John Frankenheimer’s magnum opus is a thoroughly captivating story as well as a genuine classic. The plot was of its time but the execution of that plot way ahead of it. Old “Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra plays the army major who returns from the Korean War with strange recurrent nightmares and an inexplicable liking for one of his subordinates who he always found decidedly dislikeable. Lawrence Harvey is that soldier, Raymond Shaw, who hails from a wealthy family dominated by his ruthless mother who will stop at nothing to install her puppet husband as vice president of the country.
Sinatra is every bit the star of the show and his natural charisma ties you to the film. Harvey is excellent as the ill-tempered yet vulnerable Shaw and Angela Lansbury is terrific as his dangerous mother. Janet Leigh is unusually inserted into the story from a fascinating angle which remains quite bluntly unexplained (it’s hinted that she may have a previous history with Sinatra’s character either professional, personal, or other). However, this lack of resolution doesn’t hurt the film in any way and if anything, it adds to the overall strangeness which the movie feeds off.
The Manchurian Candidate (based on Richard Condon’s novel) says much about the then recent McCarthy hearings and it’s all especially insightful. The conditioning aspect to the film is reasonably well rooted in the science but naturally has to take some giant leaps into hugely improbable territory. Frankenheimer’s direction comes into its own during the conditioning scenes as he uses long dream-like pan shots and off-camera dialogue to expertly convey the conceptual sterility of the dastardly Dr. Yen Lo’s (played with relish by Khigh Dhiegh) methodical manipulations. This gives the sequences a cruel soullessness which facilitates some of the creepiest and downright shocking moments we’ve seen on film. And on top of all that there’s one of the earliest American movie ‘kung-fu’ fights which builds wonderfully on Spencer Tracy’s explosive introduction in Bad Day at Black Rock. Unmissable.
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 102mins Director: Mark Robson Stars: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March
“Where do we get men like that?” A superb account of the crew of a US aircraft carrier as they built up to their most important and dangerous mission in the Korean War. William Holden stars as an embittered veteran pilot who was called out of retirement despite being an inactive family man with a law practice at home. Grace Kelly stars as his beleaguered wife who pulls some strings to visit her husband while he’s on leave in Japan. Frederic March is the caring Rear Admirable who takes Holden and his wife under his wing for personal reasons.
The personal drama takes centre stage here as the various characters wrestle with their fear, doubt, and confusion and the three actors mentioned above do an able job. In truth, director Mark Robson could have handled the pace to these sequences better as the tension diffuses at important times and causes the film to lag when it shouldn’t. However, the main theme of sacrifice is handled quite deftly thanks to the calibre of the actors and Robson’s decision to give them all the breathing room they needed.
But it’s not the emotional drama which makes The Bridges at Toko-Ri so captivating. Instead, it’s the technical and logistical aspects to the film which define it. Receiving what seems to be mammoth amounts of assistance from the US Navy, this film is a triumph of technical authenticity. Robson too comes into his own during these sequences giving them the same space he gave the drama which of course allows the former to blend quite seamlessly with the latter. They also provide us with a fascinating insight into nautical/naval knowledge, skills, and procedures while resisting all temptation to dumb it down. There isn’t another war film from any period marked by a greater sense of technical realism and it nearly goes as far as justifying the somewhat detached approach Robson took in the more emotional scenes by becoming almost a fly-on-the-wall account of life on board that aircraft carrier.
It’s not all serious though and Mickey Rooney is on hand to lighten the mood from the very first scene. Ultimately however, The Bridges at Toko-Ri is an engaging true-to-life reflection on not only on the technical world of the navy during the Korean War but of the emotional turmoil as well. In the end, it all works to serve the central message running through the movie which surfaces most poignantly at the close of the film and stays with you long after.