Rating: The Good – 83.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 95mins Director: John Flynn Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.
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 – 73.7 Genre: War Duration: 119mins Director: Lewis Milestone Stars: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston
Errol Flynn stars as a fisherman in Nazi occupied Norway who rallies his village against the vicious soldiers amid traitors, devout pacifists, and quiet folk just afraid for their lives. Director Lewis Milestone gives Edge of Darkness all the trappings of classic Hollywood movies. It’s paced beautifully and there’s drama bursting from all angles as a number of interesting subplots are played out, some of which are quite dark. The cast could’ve done more to give their characters a sense of authenticity as the abundance of thinly veiled American accents slightly detracts from the premise as the film progresses. However, that aside, the acting is generally competent and the large ensemble cast work well together with Flynn and Ann Sheridan bringing most presence to their roles. It all builds up to an exciting conclusion, wherein each of the subplots are tied off neatly and to much satisfaction. Edge of Darkness is classic propaganda fodder given the time it was made and the message it sent out. However, given the value of that message, it’s no bad thing and it certainly doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.
Rating: The Good – 86.1 Genre: Drama, War Duration: 182 mins Director: Michael Cimino Stars: Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken
The opening hour to Michael Cimino’s masterpiece is as real as life gets. Six young steelworkers from a small industrial town living it up for one last weekend of drunken mayhem and their ritual hunting before three of them head off to the Vietnam war. In this hour, we see both Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken giving searing performances that lay the groundwork for what is to come and the way in which Cimino switches to that darker war torn world almost in the blink of an eye is surely one of the most profound and punctuating of cinematic statements. Cimino’s craft in this film is all about pacing and trust in his actors and, with a cast that includes De Niro, Walken, John Cazale, and Meryl Streep the pay off was enormous. De Niro is as captivating as it gets and the film hangs on his shoulders. But none of the actors operating underneath him miss a step. The war scenes are few but so visceral and powerful are they that they will be with you forever. And just when you think it can’t get any better, The Deer Hunter ties everything together with one of the most poignant film endings.
Rating: The Good – 80.9 Genre: War Duration: 172 mins Director: John Sturges Stars: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough
You know the story even if you haven’t seen it. A group of American and British POW’s particularly adept at escaping are sent to a high security prison camp in an effort to keep all the Nazi’s “rotten eggs in one basket”. Richard Attenborough plays the arch orchestrator of a plan to spring all 200 of the camps’ prisoners and is helped by various types of escape specialists including Steve McQueen (the Cooler King), Donald Pleasance (the Forger), Charles Bronson (the Tunnel King), and James Garner (the Scrounger). All do their part in making this as enjoyable a movie experience as you’ll find in the WWII genre but the most fun comes from the clever methods which the camp’s residents devise to execute their various escape plans. The Great Escape has long since ascended into the rarefied air of “classic cinema” and in truth it epitomises that term more than most.
Rating: The Good – 93.1 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 88 mins Director: Stanley Kubrick Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, George Macready
“If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!” A truly astounding piece of cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s most poignant anti-war statement was like no other war film before it and is perhaps the most visceral cinematic critique of the mindless trench warfare employed on the battlefields of WWI. The movie opens as George Macready’s grotesque General Mireau professes an unwavering dedication to his troops only to agree to turn them into cannon fodder just moments later as his superior waves a promotion under his nose. As he proceeds to take a tour of the trenches to deliver the news that his troops will attempt to take an impregnable German position, we are given an ever closer insight into the man’s hypocritical and egotistical nature. With the inevitable failure of the assault, the humiliated general is left fuming and orders three of his troops to be randomly selected for court-martial under penalty of execution. However, much to his chagrin, his regiment commander, Colonel Dax, refuses to let these men suffer a straw trial and takes it upon himself to defend his men in court.
Paths of Glory is a deeply touching film, which places you right inside the frustrated and desperate mind of Col. Dax played marvelously by Kirk Douglas. It’s also one of the most visually engaging war movies as Kubrick constantly contrasts the opulent mansions the officers and generals inhabit with the near squalor of the trenches, prisons, and barracks occupied by the soldiers. The former are in particular framed with Kubrick’s usual perfection as his wide shots are defined by the symmetry of the palatial rooms. Conversely, Kubrick’s close claustrophobic tracking shots from inside the trenches do wonders in setting the completely opposite tone but with the same precision symmetry as before. Remarkably, for a war movie which is chiefly remembered for its drama, the most powerful and magnificent scene comes as Col. Dax leads his troops over the trenches and onto the killing fields. This phenomenal sequence shows us the very best of Kubrick: the perfect balancing of his sweeping camera with his near overbearing yet subtly hypnotic use of sound. As the shells rain down to form an unforgettable auditory pattern, the immaculately staged advance of the troops is caught in all its terrible horror. Douglas’ Col. Dax is the focal point of this advance and Kubrick uses him perfectly as such.
Douglas for his part was rarely better and he as much as Kubrick is responsible for the way in which the military aristocracy’s despicable and hypocritical cowardice is shoved back down their throats. Douglas revels in some of his lines and the resulting precision delivery echoes the internal primal scream of the viewer. And as if all this was not good enough, Paths of Glory closes in a profoundly contemplative manner as Kubrick’s future wife melts the hardened exterior of troops and viewers alike.
Rating: The Good – 86.7 Genre: War Duration: 161mins Director: David Lean Stars: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
The fog of war has more often been examined in movies in the more frenzied sense. Where perspective and judgment are clouded by fear and adrenaline in the heat of battle. The Bridge on the River Kwai looks at it from a more subtle and broader perspective where training, orders, and duty are distorted by the complexity of war’s logistics and wider strategies as well as the personalities of those individuals involved. Alec Guinness stars as Colonel Nicholson, the commanding officer of British POW’s who must initially cross swords with the stern commander of his Japanese prison camp when the latter refuses to abide by the Geneva conventions concerning treatment of officers. Through the long ordeal in which Nicholson is tortured and punished intensively, the two men’s positions of authority begin to shift but with unexpected consequences. Once past this threshold, the Japanese commander finds Nicholson more than willing to stop his men’s purposeful shoddy work on a strategically important bridge and begin constructing it in earnest and to the impeccable standard of the British army. When his doctor questions Nicholson’s decision to seemingly aid the enemy, he promptly asks the doctor if he would allow a Japanese prisoner to die on his table and follows it up with questions as to the doctor’s sanity.
Guinness brings a unique complexity to his stiff and by the book Colonel Nicholson. In his mind, his clear understanding of the rules and of his duty impel him to build that bridge and so unwavering and articulate is his belief, from time to time, he causes his doctor and audience alike to question the certainty of their position. This is the real achievement of director David Lean and Alec Guinness. To create an atmosphere and context which explains this seemingly outrageous course of action. Based on Pierre Boulle’s semi-autobiographical novel and written by then blacklisted (and so unaccredited) Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, there’s a rich texture to the characters, dialogue, and plot. In addition to Nicholson, the story also focuses strongly on a US prisoner named Shears (William Holden in a fine performance), who after escaping that same prison camp, is convinced to return with British commandos to blow up the bridge. The scene is set for a powerfully nuanced finale and through Lean’s masterfully paced direction, that is exactly what the audience is treated to. Lean’s direction in general is tempered and supremely balanced. He captures all the oppression of the jungle camp so that the sense of heat and stickiness seems an incidental burden. The sound of the jungle in particular is used to telling effect during both Shears’ escape sequence and the dawn time preparations of the climactic scene.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is the type of picture that is extraordinarily difficult to make correctly. There are multiple strands each rooted in strong complex characters which all need to pull in the same direction. The drama is almost entirely psychological and subtly so. Added to this are the logistics of making the film in the rough jungle terrain of Ceylon. The fact that Lean pulls it off with such apparent ease is testament to his masterful craft but also those working under him. Guinness’ and Holden’s complementary turns should not be underestimated for they add as much depth as the director’s contribution.
Rating: The Good – 85.8 Genre: War, Comedy Duration: 120mins Director: Billy Wilder Stars: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger
It’s not easy to combine comedy with drama, especially drama tinted with dark themes but with films like The Apartment and Stalag 17, Billy Wilder did it with ease. Stalag 17 focuses on the American POW’s of a German WWII prison camp, as they attempt to make the best of their squalor in between escape attempts. William Holden’s Sgt Sefton is the black sheep of the bunch, a man whose shrewd and self-motivated trading has allowed him to live in relative luxury only to garner the envy of the other men and even suspicion of being an informer.
Wilder and co-writer Edwin Bloom find much humour in the tribulations of the men with the excellently realised buffoonery of Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck’s double act being their primary source. Stalag 17 progresses as a series of loosely connected but amusing episodes until retribution against Sefton’s perceived treachery sets him on a road to revenge. Holden gets his enigmatic character just right and in doing so becomes Wilder’s reflective surface for some well weighted commentary. It’s through Sefton that Wilder reveals his interesting take on the hero construct within the context of restrictions typical to the scenario. While the other prisoners both poke and have fun with their German captors and while the latter are portrayed as a bunch of near genial but harsh taskmasters, it’s Sefton’s cold cynicism which laterally reminds us of the darker tones to WWII. This is subtle and by no means the main thematic thrust to a movie that is more interested in the camaraderie of men at war. Instead, Wilder frames this classic around the touching and peaceful acceptance of life in harsh circumstances but thanks to its confidently handled humour and Holden’s crucible, it’s never smothered by those more positive observations. The result is a multi-layered comedy drama that steels the soul as much as tends to it.