The Hell With Heroes

BLU-RAY DISC REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Rod Taylor, Claudia Cardinale, Harry Guardino, Kevin McCarthy, Pete Duel, William Marshall, Don Knight, Wilhelm von Homburg, Tanya Lemani, Sid Haig.

The mid-’60s saw the last gasp of top-flight Hollywood aviation pictures. Released in a one-year period, Fate is the Hunter (1964), The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Flight of the Phoenix (1965) mounted dynamic, diversely voiced lessons in aerodynamic storytelling. Universal Studios, always a firm believer in the power of the small screen, was the first major studio to produce a movie made entirely for television (See How They Run aired in 1964). It was Universal that unleashed Airport, the grandpappy of modern-day disaster films. Short of boasting a “Special Guest Star” title card, the “shoot now, figure it out later” opening credits of 1968’s The Hell With Heroes suggest network drama. Orange Jell-O tinged flashbacks that appear throughout the picture are intercut with random shots plucked from the finished feature, not designed with a title sequence in mind.

Set in production designer Alexander Golitzen’s sumptuously imagined backlot Africa — the closest the cast and crew got to Oran was Ventura County — our story takes place not long after the armistice and a few short years before decolonization. While not whiling away their days drinking beer and listening to the Mediterranean lap up against a shore peppered with Czech hedgehogs, a pair of WWII combat survivors, Brynie MacKay (Rod Taylor) and Mike Brewer (Peter Duel), turn their skills acquired while in the service of the Army Air Forces to work as president (MacKay) and vice president (Brewer) of North African Air Freight. A single-plane business, the flyboys land just enough work to stay in good with the local barkeep, played with velvet-voiced savoir faire by William Marshall. When in Casablanca, everybody came to Rick’s. When these Heroes assembled, it was in the name of “courage, sex, and corruption!” 

With a decade of television work to his credit, director Joseph Sargent earned his big-screen nod. (Two episodes of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” strung together for theatrical exhibition do not a feature debut make.) Though his television output far outweighed the theatrical offerings, Sergeant earned an honored spot in my Blu-ray vault with the most under-valued action-thriller the ’70s had to offer, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1973). Sargent approaches his unveiling as though he has something to prove. Jump cuts usher in new scenes, while Bud Thackery’s restless camera seldom lites — one can count on two hands the number of static shots.

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Rod Taylor owed the studio a picture and he was forced to work cheap. Hitchcock, Tashlin, Antonioni, Ford and Disney all thought highly enough of his charm and polish to offer choice roles in their pictures. He’s allowed a range of emotion that Hitchcock or Antonioni might otherwise have discouraged. His big breakdown is so touching and intimate you’ll want to give the man his privacy. As internationally reviled black marketeer Lee Harris, Harry Guardino appears to be channeling Telly Savalas at his most piggish, baby. Visit the Rod Taylor website to learn more about Guardino’s shameless on-set behavior. Maybe he wasn’t acting. Rounding out the cast, and essential to the period, was the addition of an internationally renowned sex symbol to make the box office sizzle. As Guardino’s moll-for-hire, Claudia Cardinale gave her fans the Bond girl pf their dreams.

Taylor and the vulnerable, exceedingly likable Duel were a perfectly mismatched pair. After a string of memorable bit roles and the success of ABC’s “Alias Smith and Jones,” Duel’s star was at last on the rise. Within three years of the film’s release, the 31-year-old actor died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Not to end on a bringdown, but unless I’m mistaken, this marks The Hell With Heroes’ introduction to home video. (Pan-and-scan bootlegs by eBay sharks don’t count!) Special features include a spruced up 2K trailer and new audio commentary by filmmaker/historian Steve Mitchell and author Steven Jay Rubin.

 

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.

Goldengirl

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Susan Anton, James Coburn, Curt Jürgens, Robert Culp, Harry Guardino, Michael Lerner, Leslie Caron, John Newcombe.

Goldengirl skipped my radar the week it opened in 1979. If one were to judge a film by its hype, my verdict on the Goldengirl one-sheet was guilty of promising a standard issue Olympian biopic, something along the lines of NBC’s The Wilma Rudolph Story, this time told in toothsome whiteface. A group of seasoned veterans — James Coburn, Curt Jürgens, Robert Culp, Harry Guardino, Michael Lerner, Leslie Caron, and tennis great John Newcombe giving it his near mute best — bolstering Miss America runner-up Susan Anton’s big screen bow held zero appeal. My introduction to Miss Anton would have to wait for her inevitable appearance on a Bob Hope special.

But wait. Preliminary research unearthed this banger synopsis on IMDb: “A neo-Nazi doctor tries to make a superwoman of his daughter who has been specially fed, exercised and conditioned since she was a child in preparation of the Olympics.” Nazis? Olympics? Holy Leni Riefenstahl! Why didn’t somebody tell me there were goose-stepping fascists afoot? Nazis make the best enemies. I’d have been first in line on opening day.

Other than Goldine Serafin (Ms. Anton) clothed in a red warmup suit and the cut-out heads of the five male co-stars (arranged in the shape of the Olympic rings) who form her on-screen consortium of investors, the poster failed to mention a word about the step-daughter of a Nazi who’s been eugenically generated 30 to 40 years ahead of time, to transform an uncanny flair for running in circles into a multi-million-dollar marketing goldmine. Why wasn’t the Nazi angle played up? Goldengirl wasn’t intended as a mere theatrical release. It was a trick-deal with pixels in the mix! According to the Blu-ray’s special features interview with Susan Anton, AVCO Embassy Pictures was in cahoots with NBC. The finished product would run a little over three hours. A shortened version would play theatrically at a truncated running time of 104 minutes with the long version spread out over two nights as a four-hour miniseries. Some things aren’t meant to be.

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It’s hard to believe that the long version wouldn’t have shed more light on the Nazi backstory. In its edited form, what should have been a main plot-motivator is but a throwaway mention. Other than that, the only thing even remotely interesting about this statuesque blonde wearing running suits that are so tight they appear to have been spray-painted on is her Aryan ancestry. By all accounts, the 184-minute cut is lost to the ages. The manner in which Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson’s wackily affectionate audio commentary gets off on the mere thought of unearthing the uncut version you’d think they were on the trail of the missing reels of Greed.

What follows details Goldine’s training for and subsequent winning of (SPOILER ALERT) the three medals. Coburn’s smile outperformed all, and Culp actually gets around to doing some acting. Jürgens had played this type of character so often, he could have done it in his sleep. This would be his farewell performance. Director Joseph Sargent had at least one unqualified masterwork to his credit. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a veritable textbook on how to hijack a New York subway car c.1974 with a curtain line you’ll never forget. Coburn and Culp were pretty much capable of directing themselves. Guardino comes off worst, his performance calling for little more than talking with his mouth full and sexist slobbering. Anton’s beauty is eternal and under-cranking the camera just a little bit gave her runner the illusion of speed. It’s when the test tube athlete took her frustration out on a television tube that the unintentional howls reached their zenith.

The bonus features also boast a lengthy career overview by composer Bill Conti and a few minutes with character actor Nicholas Coster. You may not be familiar with the latter’s name, but you’ll recognize him the instant you see him. Listening to Coster go on about his job, you’d think he was the luckiest guy on the planet. So infectious is he, the segment will end leaving you with a permanent grin that’ll be tough to shake.