BLU-RAY DISC REVIEW:
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.