1944, Montigny, France. At a rest area near the Siegfreid Line, Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) is desperately trying to find a pen amongst his small band of men. Everyone is either using theirs, sees no need for one, sells dodgy ones or are in a similar state of searching for a writing implement. This scene, which does a good job of introducing the main characters and their various skills, roles and personalities, is one of very few scenes that sets it apart from essentially every other war film ever made.
There’s Private Corby (Bobby Darin), the guy who knows how to get things, but they won’t necessarily work and will cost you a price, and Corporal Henshaw (James Coburn), the bespectacled guy who can’t help tinkering with anything that moves, even fixing a car that was just sat nearby. Private Cumberly (Bill Mullikin) is an amiable chap, but seeing as he’s devoid of too much of a personality, you can go ahead and consider him German cannon fodder, and the young Homer (Nick Adams), a Polish kid looking to get a ride to America when the troops are shipped home. Add to this bunch Steve McQueen as Private Reese, transferred to the company the day before they’re shipped not home, as they’d been led to believe, but back to the front.
The main story – the small band of American WW2 soldiers are tasked with an almost impossible mission – has since been far-bettered in Saving Private Ryan
. In fact, the main story here is the defending of a post against a German pillbox, which here lasts 90 minutes, but was deftly handled by Spielberg in just one, very memorable, scene that isn’t even the best in that film. However, even without Ryan
this wouldn’t be a very memorable film anyway, as for the most part it’s fairly dull, and none of the roles are given much characterisation other than being good, or bad, at a specific thing. It’s such that when any of the men are slain, the impact is only really felt because there are so few of them in the first place, rather than because we’ve grown to love them.
The action is widely spaced out, and when the big climactic advance takes places, it’s mostly in almost total darkness, until Coburn picks up a flamethrower and sets about with it, but even that’s not for long enough. The mine-sweeping scene is admittedly very tense, but alas the outcome is fairly predictable, and its just a matter of waiting for the inevitable to occur. There’s also a nice early scene in a bar between McQueen and a woman in a bar, but once over it’s forgotten, which is a shame as it’s probably the best scene in the film. The camera following a dying man on a stretcher as it’s bearers strive to reach safety for him was a nice touch too, but sadly was lost amidst a sea of unoriginality.
The main focus of the film was on a relatively interesting subject – a small group of men trying to convince a large unseen foe that there were far more of them than in actuality, and they used some ingenious methods to do it, but other than the actual ideas on display I was far from entertained or engrossed. There are far more, and far greater, war films in existence, and I’m hoping the remaining three on McQueen’s resume are superior (I know The Great Escape is).
Choose life 5/10
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