Hell Is For Heroes

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

The Magnificent Seven

A small farming community is being terrorised by a band of thieves and murderers, led by the charismatic but ruthless Calvera (Eli Wallach, previously only known to my girlfriend as the elderly neighbour in The Holiday). He and his gang steal almost everything worth taking from the villagers, leaving them just enough to carry on farming for another year, at which point Calvera will return and repeat the process over again. Sick of this injustice, three villagers head to the nearest saloon and recruit someone to either train or protect them, finding Yul Brynner’s Chris as the perfect fit for the role after he volunteers for something that could get him killed, and offers no reward – a situation very similar to that of defending the village. Chris then goes about assembling a team – you can probably guess how many – of similarly minded men based on Chris’ previous dealings with them or their reputations. 

The line-up has since become a member of the great pantheon of Pub Quiz Questions – I can never remember Brad Dexter or Horst Buchholz, but I’ve won a DVD by naming James Coburn before. The remaining members are Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and, of course, Steve McQueen, who all have various reasons for signing up, be it running from the law, spotting a money-making opportunity or just plain boredom.

This is one of those films that I remembered through a rose-tinted haze as being a far greater film than it turned out to be. It’s not a bad film, not at all, it’s just not the stone-cold classic I had remembered. My main problem was in the amount of time it took for the Seven to assemble, and the attempts to shed doubt on whether certain members will join or not. It’s clear from the very title of the film that there will be a group of seven defending the village, but the group isn’t together until about halfway through the film! Also, I felt that for the most part enough screentime was given to each of the seven, except for Buchholz’s Chico being given far too much time as the young rookie looking to prove himself, and Coburn’s stoic knife-throwing Britt barely getting a look in after receiving the best introduction of the guys. I’m especially sore about Coburn because he’s my favourite character (and accent) in The Great Escape (coming soon), and he voiced Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. Most of the seven are given some kind of arc of character trait, but Britt’s appears to be just falling asleep under any available tree, and being completely unable to hide behind cover whilst shooting.

Based on The Seven Samurai, I had hoped to watch Akira Kurosawa’s classic epic before seeing The Magnificent Seven again, but alas my Steve McQueen adventures and requests from my weekly movie night made this impossible, but hopefully I’ll get to it soon. What I hadn’t realised is that this film was also remade (not as Battle Beyond The Stars, I haven’t seen that yet), but as A Bug’s Life. Granted, the plots aren’t identical, but there are some startling similarities. I’m not entirely sure how happy Charles Bronson would be to know he’d been recast as a ladybird.

There are some gloriously over the top death sequences, and the finale is a great shoot out, though it doesn’t compare to some other classic ones. It’s a very enjoyable film, but alas it’s not the one I remembered. Still the best Steve McQueen film I’ve seen so far on this journey.


Choose film 7/10

The Muppet Movie

There are some days when I hate the list. The recent Luis Bunuel marathon? Whenever an Eisenstein film drops through my door? The 9-hour holocaust documentary? Those are all such days, none involving good times. But some days I get to watch a film where most of the characters are made of felt and have a hand shoved inside them somewhat further than recommended by most professional actors.

My only muppet experience to date has involved crossovers with Sesame Street, festive viewings of the Muppet Christmas Carol and the recent deluge of trailers for the muppets films currently in the cinemas, watch out on Monday for a new regular feature in which it will take centre stage. Yet though my involvement has been limited, I still adore them for reasons I cannot really explain, and this film details approximately how the team was formed.
Beginning with the muppets watching their own movie, the in-jokes and meta-humour grows throughout, with at one point characters finding one another because they read it in the script. Cameos come thick and fast, with each barely given a line, with the likes of James Coburn, Elliot Gould, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Telly Savalas and even Orson Welles showing up to join in the fun. I could have done with more time spent on the supporting characters – the Swedish Chef, Rizzo, Sam the Eagle, Statler and Waldorf and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, and a lot less time spent on Fozzie and Miss Piggy as I’ve always found them to be a tad annoying, but I suppose that’s just a personal preference.
Choose film 8/10