Thursday, July 26, 2007


I'd avoided watching this WWII combat film because of its nearly 2-1/2 hour length, and though it would be a stronger movie if it were about 30 minutes leaner, it's still a must-see for fans of war films. It opens with a crawl which quotes General Stillwell about the humiliation of getting run out of Burma, the "back door" to China, and vowing like MacArthur to return. While Stillwell (Erville Alderson) prepares for this time, Errol Flynn and his paratroopers are dropped into a Burmese jungle in order to destroy a Japanese radar station. It should be a quick in-and-out operation, with the men heading to an abandoned airstrip afterwards to be picked up by American planes, and indeed the sabotage goes as planned, but just as the planes are about to land, the men on the ground discover that the Japanese have followed them and are closing in, so they send the planes away, split up into two groups, and plan to meet at a new pickup point a couple days later. However, all does not go well: one of the groups, led by Flynn's second in command, William Prince, gets tortured and mostly slaughtered, and the pickup points wind up serving as supply drop points as the pilots give the men orders to march further into enemy territory rather than toward camp. Though the men question these orders, Flynn keeps their spirits up as best he can. The climax is played out on a hill where the men wind up digging holes for themselves to hide from the Japanese while they keep an eye to the sky for rescue.

I like Flynn in his jaunty adventure mode (ROBIN HOOD, THE SEA HAWK), but I'm wary of him in his later more serious roles. This was perhaps the first film in which Flynn started to look older than his years, and I wasn't sure I'd like him here, but he's great as an inspiring leader to his men, easygoing but with the necessary gravitas, an officer who comes off as a regular Joe while still commanding respect. The action scenes are top notch, a sequence set at night is uncommonly well done for the era, and newsreel and stock footage are well integrated, especially in the parachuting scenes. Aside from bogging down a bit in the last hour, the film's only real flaw is that most of the supporting characters aren't differentiated enough for the audience to care much about. In addition to Prince, there's George Tobias as a "dumb lug" wisecracker, Warner Anderson as a colonel, and Henry Hull as an older war correspondent who's tagging along--and who gives a vicious speech about wiping the Japanese off the face of the earth after he sees some of the American soldiers who've been tortured and mutilated (we hear one man who is still alive but who begs to be killed, though we don't see him--today, we would see him in lengthy close-up, undoubtedly). The rest of the men don't get enough screen time to stand out, though I did recognize an unbilled Hugh Beaumont as one of the colonel's assistants. A superior WWII film. [DVD]

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