Hell Is for Heroes

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/11/23;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, Harry Guardino, James Coburn, Fess Parker, Nick Adams, Bob Newhart.

Perched before your eyes dwells an old dove whose feathers ruffle at the mere thought of war films that end happily. Glamorizing war for the sake of entertainment and/or enlistment purposes is almost as heinous as clubbing baby seals or denying election results. By all rights, great war films should end with not one cast member left standing. It’s the ultimate statement an artist can make on the subject. Alas, there is no such thing as a bad genre, but damn if recruitment films aren’t second in line behind slasher films as the worst cinema has to offer. Even then, Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima is so effectively persuasive that before the final fade you’re halfway out the door in search of the nearest Military Entrance Processing Station. Hell Is For Heroes spends half of its running time straddling comedy and war’s horrors before director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick) takes a relentless, much needed tumble over to the dark side.

There’s a difference between characters laughing under pressure and audience-appeasing shtick, a line that’s easily blurred by screenwriters Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr. From Marx Bros. gag writer to “The Waltons” scribe, Pirosh found steady work as producer, studio scenarist and beyond. His service during World War II formed a basis for Battleground (1949), his smash, awards-all-around combat drama. “Combat!,” Pirosh’s small-screen follow-up to 1962’s Hell Is for Heroes, hit the airwaves just as its predecessor’s theatrical run was winding down. Apart from back-to-back big screen glories — John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues predated Hell Is For Heroes — co-scripter Carr carved his niche on the small screen. The majority of the dialog would have felt at home on “Combat!” It’s only when the characters shut up long enough to allow Siegel to draw us into the action that we begin to feel for them. Bonus points: a stock footage assemblage of cannon fire no doubt inspired by the director’s salad days spent cutting together montages for Warner Bros.

Situated in Montigny, France, a rest area within spitting distance of the Siegfried line, Sgt. Larkin (Harry Guardino) and his men don’t know it, but the army stands poised to set the battalion up for a sanity-rattling letdown. Looking to bolster morale, the combat-fatigued squadron is led to believe a move stateside is imminent, when in fact, the top brass has something in mind other than rest and relaxation. Rather than reassignment, the squad is ordered back to the front line. Bad news: there’s but six men holding the section. Good news: the Germans didn’t know it.

The pacing suffers to no end from the forced, TV-sized comic relief that plagues the film’s first half. Opening scenes alternate uncomfortably between serviceable ’60s service comedy and prelude to a variation on the Bataan Death March. Private Dave Corby (Bobby Darin) is the Ensign Pulver of infantrymen, a walking PX quick with a joke and eager to provide one with anything from libations to ink pens for a price. Of all the characters in the film, Corby is the least developed. Coming close is Homer (Nick Adams), a Polish mascot of sorts, a “displaced person” following the band around like a Grateful Dead groupie looking to hitch a ride back to the States while earning cheap laughs with his fractured English.

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A good portion of the shooting, both in and out of the studio, took place at night, but don’t be quick to label it a war noir. Necessitated by the heatwave that hit Cottonwood and Reading, Calif., in the sweltering summer of 1961, a night shoot was put in place to oblige the actors. Making his big screen debut as PFC James E. Driscoll, Bob Newhart pulls up around the halfway mark in a jeep loaded with typewriters. His picture credit in the trailer was accompanied by a parenthetical (THE BUTTON DOWN MIND), a reference to Newhart’s top-selling comedy album of the same name. According to the comedian’s autobiography, the unexpected success of the LP resulted in sell-out crowds for his nightclub performances. Looking to cash in, Newhart pleaded with Siegel to kill Driscoll off so as to accommodate more time for standup gigs. The director assured him that his character would live to see the end.

Newhart was a prop comic who became famous for working a phone on stage, earning laughs by allowing audiences to eavesdrop on his side of the conversation. The producers reserved a minute or so of the running time for Newhart to ply his act. Knowing full well that the Krauts bugged the makeshift headquarters, Driscoll pretends to be the group entertainment officer calling his C.O. to complain about inflicting repeat viewings of Road to Morocco on the men. (Newhart wrote his own dialogue.) Siegel’s objections to the scene were shot down by studio heads eager to cross-promote. Newhart remained M.I.A. for the majority of the climactic combat but, true to Siegel’s word, he popped up for one last shot before the soldiers commenced to blow up the pillbox.

Steve McQueen’s Reese is a consummate Siegel loner, a man of few words who goes out of his way not to make friends. His life is one series of broken promises after another. What’s the best way to keep Reese from going into town for a few snorts? Tell him the tavern is strictly off limits. He ignores the shot glass provided by the barkeep, opting to drink straight from the bottle. Soldiers are trained to take orders. Reese is a Dirty Harry-style vigilante, a professional living for combat and refusing to crack up until the pressure is off.

No sooner does the final bomb gut the pillbox than the film grinds to a grainy halt. Some have interpreted the abrupt ending as a nihilistic middle finger to the militaristic control of a malevolent government. When asked, Newhart told an interviewer the film had gone so wildly over budget that Paramount refused to provide any more film stock.

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Toward the end of his life, my father and I began bonding over war movies. He would bring me up to speed on military jargon while I pointed out the fluid long takes and mise-en-scene in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way. My father would have loved the audio commentary shared by filmmakers and historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin.

Steve McQueen Actioner ‘Hell Is for Heroes’ Arrives on Blu-ray Disc on April 11

Kino Lorber on April 11 will release the 1962 Steve McQueen actioner Hell Is for Heroes on Blu-ray Disc at a suggested retail price of $29.95.

Directed by Don Siegel, the film co-stars James Coburn, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker and Bob Newhart.

McQueen plays a defiant loner whose skills as a soldier make him invaluable to his struggling platoon. In the heat of battle during World War II, McQueen and his fellow soldiers find themselves severely outnumbered as they hold off a Nazi advance along the Siegfried Line in France. Using only their ingenuity and bravery, they must bluff the Germans in order to buy some time — and save their lives.

Hell Is for Heroes arrives on Blu-ray Disc from a brand-new HD master made from a 4K scan of the original the 35mm camera negative. The release includes a new audio commentary by filmmaker/historian Steve Mitchell and Jay Rubin, author of the book Combat Films: American Realism. The package also includes the original theatrical trailer, newly mastered in 4K.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Sci-Fi;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates.

Whether viewed as the sci-fi/horror classic it justifiably is, or as an example of inept studio suits sabotaging their own picture, or as an early example of a theatrical underachiever subsequently “made” by television showings, or even as a stepping stone project for producer Walter Wanger after he served time for shooting his wife’s lover in a parking lot (pant, pant) … the original 1956 screen version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has provided lots of fodder for yarn-spinning over the years. And this “Signature” Blu-ray from Olive Films is worth getting despite at best a marginal visual upgrade from that distributor’s 2012 predecessor because nearly of them all get discussed in depth on this bonus-heavy new package.

Originally released in non-anamorphic SuperScope (akin to today’s Super 35) but shown on TV for generations in 1.33:1, cult filmmaker Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s Collier’s magazine serial — intelligently adapted by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring — was either anti-communist or anti-Red Scare, according to whichever political faction was speaking after both eventually took the picture under their allegorical wings. Male lead Kevin McCarthy says here that he can recall no political discussion of any kind over an unbelievable 19-day shooting schedule (some say 24, but so what?) — but he does note that Siegel often referred to Allied Artists executives as “pods.” He was, of course, referring to the celestial seeds that, per the movie, co-opted and replicated the sleeping physical bodies of our parents, teachers and probably even Orval Faubus to produce alternative versions of themselves that lacked genuine feelings, emotions and, to be sure, imaginations.

At first, the studio seemed to have high hopes for the project because after his short prison term for shooting agent Jennings Lang over an illicit affair with actress-wife Joan Bennett, Wanger had begun his comeback with the Siegel-directed Riot in Cell Block 11, a sleeper “glorified-B” that had delivered on box office and prestige reviews in 1954. (Lang survived to produce a couple good films and a slew of howlers like Swashbuckler, Earthquake, The Sting II and three Airport sequels — though let it be said that without him, George Kennedy and Bibi Andersson would never have worked together). But Allied Artists was after more easily exploitable shlock — hence, the schlocky title they wanted affixed (Finney’s book was simply The Body Snatchers) against the wishes of Siegel, who liked McCarthy’s excellent suggestion: Sleep No More.

The studio also demanded a more hopeful and much belatedly filmed “frame” around the story that all kinds of people knock, though I was happy to hear the spear-headers of separate commentaries here — one by historian Richard Harland Smith, another by director Joe Dante with McCarthy and co-lead Dana Wynter — giving this part of the movie a little love, as I have always liked it myself. (The climactic look on Whit Bissell’s face when he learns that some guy has been dug out of a truckload of pods is worth the price of admission just by itself.) Dante also speaks up for Carmen Dragon’s score, which, to my surprise, Smith says has been criticized as well — though I love its insistent brass enough to have included the opening credits music in the March-April 1956 playlist of my audio archives history project — along with Elvis’s “Tutti Frutti” and Perry Como doing “Hot Diggity” (these were cerebral times).

In any event, the studio slapped on the trashy moniker and relegated Snatchers to second billing under lesser titles (even, madre de Dios!, Lon Chaney’s The Indestructible Man) — pretty well icing it, along with a New York-area premiere engagement in Brooklyn, that the Times’s now famously numb-nutsy senior film critic Bosley Crowther wouldn’t touch it for reviewing purposes. And it was fairly obscure; I, who began charting and making notes on film releases starting in early elementary school, never even heard about the picture until 1959 — when the best-looking girl in all of seventh grade unexpectedly told me about it while sitting across from me in art class (one of only a couple really substantive discussions we ever had because I spent years looking at the floor out of self-consciousness when taking to her). I finally saw it on local TV in about 1961 — on a bright Sunday afternoon at that — launching a lifetime of pod-ish enjoyment. (I also love Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake, which I saw first-run in theaters maybe 90 minutes before Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes — who lived a block over from where I grew up — famously slugged that Clemson player on national TV, thus ensuring an evening where I satisfied all the pop culture food groups.)

So as Dante reiterates, Snatchers owes its following (or at least its germination) to TV, where I don’t think the 1.33:1 framing ever bothered anyone at the time. This said, the famed bit in McCarthy’s greenhouse — a perfect movie scene if there ever was one — is so masterfully composed for a wider screen that we must have all been myopic in terms of what we were missing (has there ever been more dramatic use of close-ups?). Later, of course, the picture became a staple of rep houses that was also easy to double-bill because a) it runs only 80 minutes; and b) is also applicable to all kinds of programmable series concepts (say, did anyone ever do “Whit Bissell”?; it would run two years even if you included only half of his output).

As mentioned, the bonus extras rock. The Smith and Dante commentaries are appealingly complementary, though both dwell a lot on the outdoor locations that dominated the shooting schedule and exhausted McCarthy because he spend most days constantly running across them in pursuit by marauding pod people. Smith practically knows every supporting actor’s dental records — which is important here because the cast is packed with not quite peggable familiar faces (Sam Peckinpah plays a gas man who, like nearly everyone here, is up to no good). And Dante has terrific chemistry with the since deceased McCarthy and Wynter, something this humor-heavy duo further displays during their own interactions. McCarthy ended up making several films for the much younger director, while Wynter (who also shows up visually with her co-star in a look-back featurette) remained gorgeous as a senior.

Siegel’s real-life son with Viveca Lindfords (actor Kristoffer Tabori) reads from Siegel’s autobiography, which I’ve had in hardback for years but have not yet read (Dante calls it “remarkably uninformative” — or close). The passage is mostly about the troubles he had with Allied studio execs, whose one shining light must have been Walter Mirisch, a future Midas whose career trajectory spanned Bomba jungle epics to West Side Story and beyond. And don’t knock Bomba, who was played by Johnny Sheffield, who had previously been “Boy” in the Tarzan series; how would you like to spend your entire career heaving a spear and pounding your leopard loin cloth on a rock?

So what else? Other filmmakers (Mick Harris, Stuart Gordon, the always funny John Landis) chime in about what the movie has meant to them; there’s another McCarthy interview that is, again, remarkably personable; assorted documents; and a really fun then-and-now look at the locations, which scrambled Los Angeles geography yet still impress for their breadth-on-a-low-budget. Very informative and off the beaten track is a featurette with Mathew Bernstein, author of another possessed hardback I’ve long wanted to read but haven’t — his bio on producer Wanger.

Pre-gunplay, the latter’s credits included the cinematic wack job Gabriel Over the White House but also Stagecoach and Foreign Correspondent before sinking himself with the bank-breaking Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc. A decade later, there was a major post-Snatchers comeback with I Want To Live! (Oscar for Susan Hayward) before Wanger took on Fox’s Cleopatra, which did for his career what Vietnam did for LBJ’s. From surrounding bookshelf appearances, interviewed Bernstein is a fellow subscriber to the Library of America (good to see), and he knows enough about his subject to report that Lang was up and playing tennis before very long despite rumors (noted on one of the other bonuses) that Wanger had shot him right … there. Whew: The lob shot also rises — or apparently did, which is something pod people presumably didn’t have to worry about all that much.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Art School Confidential’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’