There is no conflict as dirty, socially corrosive and tragic as a civil war. Friends and neighbours, those whose similarities are every bit as pronounced as their differences, suddenly find themselves sworn enemies at one another’s throats. Any story which uses such a conflict as its backdrop automatically has an enormous amount of built-in dramatic potential. Yet despite that, there’s a hazard too – commercial success is by no means guaranteed. Movies based around the American Civil War were traditionally regarded as box office poison, and I don’t think such an aversion is some affectation confined to the United States. There are few nations which haven’t fallen victim to internal bloodletting, and the scars of these events never fully heal in the public consciousness – it’s hard to get past the essential ugliness of a country tearing itself apart from within. However, a movie can still remain compelling, and indeed worthwhile, in the face of these obstacles. The trick is to sidestep the cloying piety that can sink a script and instead focus on the real human effects of a land and people divided. The Raid (1954) is such a film.
The story is based on a real event during the Civil War – one of those peripheral actions that occur in most conflicts. It opens with a small band of Confederate POWs staging a breakout from a Union prison close to the Canadian border. The aim of the fugitives, under the command of Major Benton (Van Heflin), is to cross into neutral territory and reorganise themselves there. Benton has in mind using the neighbouring country as a springboard to attack the North. His plan is to marshal his forces and unexpectedly raid the border towns, both as an act of revenge for Sherman’s pillage of the South and as a means of drawing vital troops away from the front line and thus relieving the pressure on Lee. The target for the first of these incursions is St Albans, Vermont. Benton arrives in town posing as a Canadian businessman looking to invest in local property, but really scouting the lay of the land and paving the way for his comrades to join him. The basic plan is to clean out the banks, providing much needed funds for buying munitions, and then to torch the town and cause as much havoc as possible before beating a hasty retreat back across the border. On paper, this sounds like a viable proposition but complications inevitably arise. There are three troublesome flies in Benton’s jar of ointment: Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft), the young widow running the boarding house where Benton’s lodging; Captain Foster (Richard Boone), the one-armed veteran in charge of St Albans’ small military force; and Lieutenant Keating (Lee Marvin), whose bitter hatred of the North means he’s something of a loose cannon among Benton’s otherwise highly disciplined force. These three people, and Benton, are a perfect illustration of the effects of civil warfare. All of them have been damaged, either physically or emotionally, by the war and all represent different aspects of the mindset it has created – Keating’s volatile sadism, Katy’s dignified struggle against loneliness, Foster’s self-loathing, and Benton’s juggling of professionalism and sentiment. One key scene highlights the moral dilemma faced by a man in Benton’s peculiar and precarious position. Having just saved the townsfolk from mortal danger (and himself too, as it happens), he returns to his lodgings only to be confronted with that which he least expected – the gratitude and acceptance of the local community. A combination of shock, humility, and horror at his own duplicity briefly flit across Benton’s features. In this moment, everything we need to know about how this kind of war divides loyalties, even internally, is deftly expressed. Still, Benton is a man of principle and, despite any moral qualms he may be experiencing, he forges ahead towards his objective. By the time the actual raid occurs the viewers have been granted a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those from both sides of the divide, making the climax all the more tense and charged.
Argentine director Hugo Fregonese came to Hollywood in 1949 and made a number of films that have largely been forgotten outside of film buff circles. There may not be any masterpieces among his credits but he displayed a very strong visual sense and his work remains interesting at the very least. Apache Drums, produced by Val Lewton, is a little neglected gem that’s ripe for rediscovery, while Saddle Tramp and Harry Black and the Tiger have points in their favour too. The Raid is one of his best efforts, looking handsome and maintaining suspense throughout. The reenactment of the titular raid (a bit of research indicates that the real event resulted in considerably less damage) makes for an exciting climax and it’s well staged by Fregonese and his cameraman, Lucien Ballard. Van Heflin does very well as Major Benton, looking tough and authoritative enough to be believable as the commander of the raiders, and also showing the right degree of sensitivity when necessary. He hadn’t the looks to make a career as a romantic lead but his understated performances generally had a very attractive human quality. Once again, Richard Boone seems to get right into the character he’s playing; the gruffness of Foster initially seems to stem from his bitterness over his war injury but, as the story progresses, it’s apparent that his reserved demeanour has a deeper psychological root. Both actors bring quite subtle nuances to their respective characterizations and there’s nothing one-dimensional about either of them. Personally, I found it refreshing that Anne Bancroft’s widow was used as a softening influence on both Boone and Heflin, and wasn’t there merely to provide an excuse for some superfluous romance. Her presence is integral to the development of the plot and the shifting emotions of the two men staying under her roof, but not as a stereotypical Hollywood siren. Heading up an especially strong supporting cast, Lee Marvin turns in another memorable performance as the vengeful and dangerous Keating. His “bull in a china shop” approach acts as a counterweight to Van Heflin’s measured caution and helps to up the tension.
To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD release of The Raid is the Spanish edition from Impulso/Fox. Generally, whilst apparently unrestored, the disc is one of their reasonable efforts. The film may have been 1.66:1 originally, but this transfer presents it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) – if it’s open-matte it may be slightly zoomed as the framing looks a little tight to my eyes on occasion. However, I wouldn’t say it was seriously compromised. The colour and detail levels are quite strong, and it’s pleasing to look at. The extras are the usual gallery and text items, and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. The film approaches its subject matter intelligently and avoids forcing judgements on the viewer. The combination of a strong, capable cast, a tight script and professional direction adds up to a pacy and entertaining look at an intriguing episode from the Civil War. Recommended.
20 thoughts on “The Raid”
Sounds fascinating – another title I have yet to catch up with though I suspect i have a VHS somewhere with a recording of it. Didn’t know about the Spanish release, so that’s a real bonus – I’m a big fan of APACHE DRUMS and Sidney Boehm was one of the best screenwriters of his day so I shall definitely get a hold of this. If that still of Marvin is from your DVD then the image looks really good!
Yes, that screenshot is taken from the DVD. I have some doubts about what the correct aspect ratio is, but the image itself is strong for the most part. While there are occasional cue blips and the like that show there was no work done, the print used was obviously in pretty good shape.
I found it a highly enjoyable movie that is structured and plays out like a suspense thriller. As you say, Boehm was an excellent writer and the script reflects that. I also think the fact the cast doesn’t feature any huge star names is a plus in this instance – the leads are well chosen to balance each other out and so do not manipulate the viewer’s sympathies unduly in either direction.
Even though it was shot right at the beginning of 1954, that probably would have been Academy I think. If it had been a full-blown Fox production it would have been in Scope presumably – apparently shot at the RKO studio (in fact they were originally going to make it before it got sold to Fox as a potential vehicle for Richard Widmark to be directed by Joseph Newman).
Thanks for that. That’s a useful bit of background info you managed to dig up. Widmark would have been interseting in – I assume – the Van Heflin role. Still, despite being a big fan of Widmark, I’m happy with the characterization and performance that we ended up with.
The most recent broadcast showing was Academy; looked fine.
IMDB – which is far from infallible of course – claims the movie ought to be 1.66:1, and I guess I had that in mind when I watched it. I did find some shots looked ever so slightly cramped but that may just be a false impression on my part.
As I said in the main body, the DVD isn’t one I could complain about much and it looks just fine overall.
I saw it when it came out–that’s so long ago that I’m not sure if was shown Academy or 1.66 but looked great. Panoramic productions, a company of Leonard Goldstein (deceased by the time this came out) and Robert L. Jacks released through Fox for most of the their films (not the last ones) but as they weren’t actual Fox films were not given ‘Scope.
It’s worth pointing out that Sidney Boehm and Fregonese plainly worked well together–the writer collaborated with Fregonese again on BLACK TUESDAY (1955) and later HARRY BLACK AND THE TIGER (1958), which is indeed a beauty (much to recommend in both of those).
Colin, that’s a very eloquent piece, and one I’ll keep in mind as I hope to write my own essay on somewhere one of these days, and will owe you for your thoughtful consideration and especially your very fine and acute observations of those four characters. And I must add I don’t think that casting could be better. And by the way, a very trivial footnote: the movie has in its cast four actors from the four best Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Ranown movies–Richard Boone (THE TALL T),
Lee Marvin (7 MEN FROM NOW), James Best (RIDE LONESOME), Claude Akins, whose career was just starting (COMANCHE STATION).
Now here’s my question. Although you express appreciation for Fregonese and acknowledge a numbe of his fetching films (I’d add MARK OF THE RENEGADE and BLOWING WILD especially to the ones you named, all of which I love), why do you hestitate in allowing him a masterpiece? Because I believe THE RAID is a masterpiece. And I think your own piece supports that. It’s hands down the best Civil War film for exactly the things you intimate about its tone, nuance, maturity, and beautifully filmed (in the fullness of time Lucien Ballard now seems one of the the all-time great cinematographers I believe).
Yes, it’s a modest production, not seeking prestige or awards, just something for the double bills, nor has its director ever been raised into any auteurist pantheon although I know he has many admirers now, and more the more people see his work.. Little has been written about it for all the serious fans I know it does have (one reason it’s exciting you wrote this piece). But there are many films like that. I’ve seen it many times, and it’s always rewarding. Surely, it is everything a great film needs to be.
Firstly Blake, I want to say thanks for once again handing me such gracious compliments.
Now to your qustion, and it’s a tough one to try answering. The term masterpiece gets tossed about a lot, or at least a lot more often than I’d feel comfortable doing, and I’m reluctant to use it too freely. I quite agree that The Raid is the best Civil War movie, or the best of those I’ve seen anyway, and much of that comes down to the scripting; I’ll come back to that presently.
I also feel the film is the best of Fregonese’s output. However, to me, the use of masterpiece indicates a work that impacts on cinema as a whole – or on a particular genre at least. That may be a narrow definition, but it’s the one that works best for me. In the case of The Raid, and despite my great admiration for it and its director, I just don’t feel the film meets those criteria. It works pretty much perfectly on every level, yet it’s not a movie that has been influential. Of course I’ll grant that may be partly the result of the caution and suspicion with which Civil War pictures were and are viewed in Hollywood.
As I mentioned above, this must rate as the finest Civil War movie largely thanks to the script. Most films centred around this period seem to have a particular ideological point to push, and sometimes (maybe even a lot of the time) they appear bent on drawing some analogy with the period in which they were made. As far as I can see, The Raid has no such intentions; we’re not asked to root for either side based on the political sympathies of the writer or director, only for individuals whose characters have been presented dispassionately. What is more, the flat, detached tone that such an approach can all too easily cause is avoided. The Raid remains involving and absorbing because the characters are written and presented in such a way that the viewer is compelled to care about them as human beings, and not as players in a political game.
OK, you answered well, and with more good comments on the film too. I believe we would agree that the film does do everything it sets out to do.
Colin, I want to stress I don’t throw the word masterpiece around lightly either. I may not define it exactly the way you do–I’m not sure exactly how I would and it’s a good question to think about. Some masterpieces may have considerable flaws (THE SEARCHERS is an example–and I usually cite it as my favorite film) but their reach and all the things they do succeed in completely overwhelm those flaws. Other films seem diamond cut, if less expansive in their ambition (a Ranown movie might be like this, because it’s spare, even if we must not overlook all the depth and richness that is there). There are many movies that are kind of on the line–one loves them and treasures what beauties and brilliances and profundities and pleasures they do have but somehow it would seem to burden them to call them a masterpiece, and for me now I try not to call them a masterpiece and will more willing to err on the side of reserve.
Maybe an example of this last is Fregonese’s own SADDLE TRAMP (I know there are other people that read you that love this one). One wouldn’t want to take someone to see this and say going in “It’s a great film.” It just would’t be fair–it would set up an expectation of something different than the film is. Yet when the film ends in its final minutes, one suddenly is pierced as by few other films and somehow, with seeming effortlessness, Fregonese has realized as profound a vision of the wandering/settling ambivalence that is a pervading theme in American cinema as one will ever see.
Much as I love at least half a dozen Fregoneses and like most of them (I’ve now seen all but one of this 50s movies–I GIROVAGHI–and have hopes for the others), THE RAID is the only one I would say is a masterpiece. I should qualify what I said earlier about it being “a modest production.” That’s true in a way–they redressed Fox’s Western town to be a Vermont town and it certainly isn’t filmed as some epic–but it’s always handsome and beautifully detailed. On the other hand, unlike SADDLE TRAMP, I have no hesitation to tell people it’s a great film when I recommend it. Its real ambition in understanding war and especially Civil War and the sensitivity brought to this far outstrips more prestigious films that transparently claim an important statement on the subject. Instead, it just really gets it–and when the destruction sets in, one feels the destruction and the effects on the people, effects that may never be spoken but are so eloquent in the faces of the principals. And it’s also complex enough to allow the complex truth that even in destruction, not everything that happens is terrible–I’m thinking of what the event winds up meaning for Foster.
Whether a film needs to be influential to be great is a question everyone will have their own answer to, but I would point out that THE RAID seems to have influenced THE HORSE SOLDIERS (it is almost the same action in reverse, north to south, and with some similar relationships), directed by John Ford no less and a beautiful film in its own right; that Ford could actually make a film less than Fregonese’s even though it has Fordian sequences no other director could even begin to do (the little boy soldiers marching out especially) is a good indication of what an achievement THE RAID is.
Just will conclude by saying I agree the scripting is great–Boehm is a superb writer. But one reason I noted their other films together was to emphasize that he and Fregonese plainly appreciated each other’s talents. But the direction is just as great. It’s hard to pull those things apart when a film is so much of a piece. I’d say Fregonese is inspired to his best direction by Boehm’s writing much as Budd Boetticher was by Burt Kennedy. But a fully realized work of art has to have the mise en scene most of all, and all that involves, to hit the heights.
Fregonese’s talent may have exceeded his body of work–he was one of those people that never really found a home and could not nurture his career the way might have wanted to over a long period of time. I believe he has similar gifts to Jacques Tourneur, who was also long underrated–a more subtle, reflective visual style, though capable of putting over considerable action and drama, than most directors. Maybe my temperament just leans this way because I know I like this kind of style and tend to like what I see as overly aggressive stylists much less, so I may rate these two directors higher than a lot of people would.
A great discussion….and the question of “masterpiece” is interesting to me….within my own writing and teaching it is not a term that I use much if at all. The reason I don’t is that I feel it “locks down” a work and creates an expected relationship between the viewer and the film – i.e. “I’ve been told it’s a masterpiece….I guess I’m supposed to like it.” 😉
All films are imperfect and for my usage, I simply prefer the term “work of art” for those of note. I find that term is enough to differentiate a film of high quality and thought from the run-of-the-mill commercial fare. I can understand why others use the term – and respect their choice – it’s just my approach not to do so.
I remain convinced that Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) is such a work of art. It is a meditative and rich film that both sustains and necessitates repeated viewing. Will it be viewed as “masterpiece”…perhaps…but for me, to cite it as a work of art is enough….and gets the students wondering. 🙂
Here is the trailer for those interested…and it has its own echoes of the Civil War in both the historical figure of Jesse James and the storyline:
Thanks for contributing Chad.
Using the term “work of art” isn’t a bad compromise – although I’m sure some might argue that most any film could have the term applied to it. 😉
I guess if no film is flawless, and I think you’re right there, then the language we use in describing them must necessarily be flawed too.
I’d also agree with you in calling Dominik’s movie a work of art. I was very impressed with it when I first saw it; only time will tell how highly regarded it will come to be though.
You know, I think it’s fine not to use the word “masterpiece.” Even though I do consider some films as masterpieces–and have already said enough about this for now–it is more important to try to address what is there with as much understanding as possible, and if writing about it, to express that. I chimed in on this point originally simply because Colin’s piece contained the statement “there may not be any masterpieces among his credits…” and in the case of THE RAID I think there is. But the truth also seems to be as I read Colin’s piece that he actually has the same high regard for the film as I do and for similar reasons–in that context, arguing whether it is a “masterpiece” or not is not so important. It is much less important than defining the film’s qualities.
Chad, I must say I agree more with Colin on the “work of art” phrase, even if the phrase itself is meaningful to me when I think of the movies that I go back to and want to go back to. As a teacher, you know film history and you know that for many years, most genre films were a priori dismissed as movies that could not be “works of art” and could never be thought of that way. It’s fortunate that this is no longer the common view because in certain cinemas–and they have been in the long run the best cinemas (American cinema, Japanese cinema…), almost all great films and those we recognize as “works of art” are genre films and it’s understood that it is an art to negotiate the familiar elements within those genres and create something individual that is also within a tradition. What was once felt to be a limitation has turned out to be a strength.
I want to add this about movies I call masterpieces. I will never say this of anything I’ve only seen once (I used to but long ago stopped doing this). Almost all the films I take up for as masterpieces have been around for many years, have stood the test of time, and I myself have seen them many times over the years so feel that for myself at least I have some authority on the point.
Blake, I think we certainly agree on the merits and quality of The Raid. Also, I too don’t believe it’s all that important what labels or terms we use in doing so; what matters more is recognising the strengths of a movie.
Regarding the point about genre films, it’s refreshing that views have changed over the years. Having said that, I think a degree of critical snobbery still remains, especially when it comes to certain genres, and some movies continue to miss out on what is due. Working within any genre naturally imposes some restrictions on filmmakers (period, location, conventions) but it’s often those very limitations that stimulate creativity. A movie like The Raid manages this by concentrating on a relatively obscure event within a very specific context yet still expresses what I reckon is something universal about conflict.
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Hugo Fregonese’s “The Raid” has also been released in France on dvd (I own it). Calysta/Sidonis being the editor. I had never seen this movie prior to this quite recent dvd release (2011) and I must say that I’ve been happily surprised by its qualities. Though it’s not on a par with “Apache Drums” (to be found on dvd as well, in the same collection), it actually deserves attention. As usual with Fregonese, the directing is very fine. So is the acting. Colin sums it up very well.
Thanks Samuel. The Raid is quite a different movie to Apache Drums, although both rely heavily on strong characterization. Personally, I get a lot of pleasure from the two films.
I did a piece on Apache Drums here.
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Saw it many moons ago and liked it, but I really need to give it a re-watch. If it has Marvin in it, then I’m up for it.
It’s a really well made film, Gord, and Marvin is as good as you’d expect.
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