Ice Cold in Alex

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What makes a good war film? At its best, the war movie goes beyond mere action, heroism and patriotism. It provides the opportunity to show real human drama and real human frailty under the most extreme circumstances. The small, everyday, mundane struggles between individuals, and within individuals, play against the backdrop of the larger conflict. There is also the matter of character and how its strength or weakness can shape the course of events and the direction of men’s lives. The British film industry has succeeded in producing some fine war movies, and Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is no exception. This is no epic production; it really only deals with the experiences of four people yet it touches on some very big themes, not the least of which are honour and decency.

It’s 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps are racing across North Africa, and Tobruk is about to be besieged. Captain Anson (John Mills) is a man nearing the end of his tether, both physically and mentally. The unrelenting hardship of the desert war has driven him to drink, and his dependency on the bottle, while superficially steadying his nerves, threatens to undermine his judgment. Having been ordered to take his ambulance out of Tobruk before the siege begins, he finds himself faced with an overland trek to Alexandria accompanied by the phlegmatic Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two nurses (Sylvia Sims & Diane Clare). Along the way they pick up an Afrikaaner, Van Der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who proves to be an asset in a number of situations. It’s Van Der Poel’s ability to speak German which gets them out of a tricky spot when Anson panics and tries to outrun an enemy patrol. However, the incident leads to the death of one of the nurses and Anson’s subsequent pledge to lay off the liquor until they reach Alex, where he’ll buy them all an ice cold beer.

Reaching their destination will be no easy task though. Rommel’s troops are advancing faster than expected and, as town after town falls, they must race to keep one step ahead. From this point on Anson’s war is no longer against an army; he must instead battle the hostile environment, suspicion and his own weakness. With the ambulance damaged, the water supply diminishing and the temperatures rising, he is forced into taking a route across The Depression, a vast desert quagmire, where one false step would spell disaster. Even as the little group pulls together to overcome each challenge nature throws at them, the seeds of suspicion are growing. Is Van Der Poel all that he claims to be?

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Although the fate of the group ultimately depends on the calm resourcefulness of Pugh and the brute strength of Van Der Poel, it is Anson that you find yourself rooting for. It is a tribute to the skill of John Mills that the viewer feels such sympathy for what should be an unsympathetic character. After all, the man’s a drunk and his early recklessness causes the death of one of his charges. Yet, for all that, Mills manages to bring out the finer points of the man. There is a sense of real pain when he sees how his actions have led to tragedy for the unfortunate nurse. Throughout the film he’s all twitches and nerves and doubts and regrets and hopes – in short, a human being. Harry Andrews is all square-jawed grit and resolve; if you found yourself in a tight spot you’d love to have this guy by your side. Anthony Quayle also fits his role perfectly as the ebullient Afrikaaner who relishes every opportunity to show off his physical powers. Yet, all the while, those piggy little eyes dart around and you wonder what’s going on behind them. Sylvia Sims is the epitome of sweetness and practicality as she falls for Mills and, more importantly, believes in him and encourages him to believe in himself. J. Lee Thompson does his usual professional job in the director’s chair and makes good use of the North African locations. He manages to generate real suspense in some set piece scenes such as the navigation of the minefield and the nightmarish struggle in the quicksand. He also gets across the sense of dry, dusty heat and you feel the same relief as the characters do when John Mills sits on the bar stool in Alexandria and eyes that famous glass of Carlsberg.

Ice Cold in Alex is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum as part of their War Collection line. It’s a very nice anamorphic transfer in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. It’s a barebones affair as usual from Optimum but the quality of the film itself is enough to sell it, and it can normally be picked up cheaply. This is no action packed affair, it’s more of a character study and an excellent example of the British war film at its best. It succeeds in delivering a deeply satisfying ending and one that serves to reinforce the basic decency of man. And who better to portray that decency than John Mills.

Dark of the Sun

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There haven’t been too many movies based around the modern mercenary trade – The Wild Geese, The Dogs of War, The Last Grenade and, if you stretch the point, the recent Blood Diamond are the ones that spring to mind. There are, of course, lots of examples of mercenary characters in westerns but that’s not really the same thing. Of those mentioned, The Wild Geese isn’t much more than a Boy’s Own adventure, albeit a fairly enjoyable one. The Dogs of War spends way too much time on behind the scenes machinations and The Last Grenade is just not a very good film. Jack Cardiff’s 1968 production Dark of the Sun is a cut above all these and is arguably the best movie in this small sub-genre.

The story is set during the Simba revolt in the Congo in the mid 60s, when that vast, former Belgian colony was on the point of implosion. A mercenary group, under the command of Curry (Rod Taylor), are engaged to drive a train into the interior and evacuate the European inhabitants of an isolated mining town which is threatened by the advance of the Simba rebels. The reason this particular town is on the fast track for relief is because there happens to be a fortune in uncut diamonds waiting around for whoever arrives first. Curry, and comrade in arms Ruffo (Jim Brown), sets out with his hastily assembled group in the hope of beating the Simbas to the chase. Everything zips along at a good pace, packing in a chainsaw fight, a confrontation with the U.N. forces, and the rescue of a massacre survivor (Yvette Mimieux) before the train arrives at its destination. At this point the tension rises, as the diamonds are in a vault whose time lock won’t open for another three hours, and the rebels are inching ever closer.

Rod Taylor gives one of his best performances as the hard as nails soldier of fortune and there’s none of the phony posing so prevalent in more modern action heroes. Taylor seems genuinely tough and the climax, where he gives full rein to his outraged fury at the fate of his best friend, is powerful stuff indeed. Jim Brown was no great shakes as an actor but his calm, reasonable Ruffo provides an acceptable counterweight to the simmering Curry. Peter Carsten makes for a great villain as an unapologetic ex-Nazi, and there’s good support from the seasoned Kenneth More and Andre Morell. This is pretty much a man’s movie so there’s not a lot for Yvette Mimieux to do, but she does look sexy and appealing and that’s good enough for me.

If you’ve ever seen a movie photographed by Jack Cardiff you will know how effortlessly good everything looks. Although he is the director here, the movie remains visually pleasing and is only occasionally spoiled by some poor rear projection. The score by Jacques Loussier (I don’t believe I’ve heard anything else by him) is another major plus; it’s a jazzy, downbeat effort that enhances the mood of the picture perfectly. The source material was a novel of the same name by Wilbur Smith. Smith knocked out some good, tight action thrillers early in his career before sliding into the (probably more lucrative) field of the bloated, historical soap opera. I don’t know who provided the inspiration for Smith’s characters but I suspect he may have been thinking of Mike Hoare. Either way, I believe the film’s makers had one of Dublin’s less celebrated figures in mind – if you can get your hands on a copy of ‘Mad’ Mike’s own memoirs, Congo Mercenary, you ought to notice some parallels.

As far as I know, Dark of the Sun remains unavailable on DVD anywhere but there was some talk of Warner giving it a release in R1. It has turned up on TCM in the past but I would love to see it get a proper release – it’s a very good movie whose stock should rise if only it were more readily available.

EDIT January 2012 – The movie has now been given two official releases. The first is the Warner Archive MOD from the USA which I haven’t seen. It’s also been issued in Spain by Suevia, a company whose output is variable in quality. However, I’m pleased to say the Spanish disc is more than acceptable. It’s been transferred progressively in anamorphic scope and looks generally sharp. The colours are rich and there’s no problem with subs – the disc offers the option of French, Spanish or no subtitles on the English track. Extras are limited to the trailer. All in all, it’s a very satisfactory release.

 

Where Eagles Dare

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There are some films that seem to have the ability to transport us back in time, and Where Eagles Dare is one of those; I only have to watch the first few minutes for it to work its magic. The alpine landscape appears, the blood red credits roll, Ron Goodwin’s pounding score swells up, and I’m once again that wide-eyed little boy sitting on my parents’ rug – spellbound. Back then, I felt sure that this was the greatest war film ever made – and I was becoming something of a connoisseur of the genre at the time. Now, as the years wear on, I know that Where Eagles Dare is not the greatest war film ever, but its ability to carry me back thirty years or more is a priceless quality that no amount of critical snobbery can ever diminish. 

Following on the success of The Guns of Navarone, the books of Alistair MacLean were seen as a source of cinematic gold just waiting to be mined. There wasn’t a lot of character development in these stories, but the twisty plots and non-stop action made up for that. Where Eagles Dare is about an Allied mission (headed up by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood) behind enemy lines to rescue a captured American general from the Nazis before they can force him to reveal the details of the D-Day invasion. The difficulty for our heroes lies in the fact that the general is being held in the Schloss Adler, an almost impenetrable castle perched on a mountain top, and accessible only by cable car. As if this were not enough, it looks as though there is a traitor lurking among our intrepid group. To go deeper into the plot would require some massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that here. Suffice to say that the film treats us to double cross piled onto double cross, lots of big spectacular explosions, huge numbers of Nazis mowed down by Burton and Eastwood, and a fantastic fight with an ice pick atop a moving cable car. By the end everything has been resolved satisfactorily and two and a half hours of escapist bliss have whizzed by.  

Clint Eastwood asking the whole German army if they feel lucky. 

There’s a great cast for this movie, even if they’re all playing roles which are basically caricatures. Richard Burton’s Major Smith seems capable of planning and talking his way out of even the most hopeless situations. Clint’s Lieutenant Schaffer is cool, ruthless and laconic; a WWII version of The Man With No Name. Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt look good while helping out the heroes and, crucially, they do not indulge in any girly histrionics – something which should never happen in a proper Boy’s Own adventure anyway. The support cast is also well stocked with Ferdy Mayne and Anton Diffring playing German officers (what else?). Derren Nesbitt is ideal as the suspicious Gestapo major, although his German accent wouldn’t stand up to too much analysis.

Where Eagles Dare has been out on DVD from Warner for ages. The anamorphic scope transfer is good enough and there’s a ‘Making of’ featurette on the disc. I don’t see this getting an upgrade any time soon since it’s probably seen as too lowbrow for the SE treatment. For me, it will always remain one of those links to an increasingly distant past – an innocent and adventurous world where Richard Burton will forever intone “Broadsword calling Danny Boy…..Broadsword calling Danny Boy” 

Attack

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Robert Aldrich made one of many people’s favorite war movies in The Dirty Dozen. In fact he made all kinds of great movies encompassing almost every genre. By 1956 he had turned out a handful of fine pictures, including Kiss Me Deadly and Vera Cruz. That year he turned his hand to the war movie and came up with the superior and intense Attack. This came at a time when the war film was transitioning from the flag-waving efforts of the forties to more bitter and realistic portrayals of combat.

The story focuses on the strains within a WWII company of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The company is under the command of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), a privileged man who joined the army to satisfy the wishes of his father. However, Cooney is an undisguised coward whose position only remains tenable due to his friendship with Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander. The situation in the company has reached crisis point after Cooney’s inaction has caused the death of a squad of Lt. Costa’s (Jack Palance) men. When orders come through that a small town must be taken and held, Costa delivers an ultimatum to his superior – if he fouls up again then Costa will kill him.

Jack Palance reaches the breaking point

The film was adapted from a stage play and, as is often the case, is a real actor’s movie. Both Palance and Albert hold centre stage and the focus is on the duel between these two. Palance’s performance is raw and painful to watch as his endurance is fully tested. The latter part of the movie, when betrayal and the pointless slaughter drive him to the edge of reason, is something to behold. Eddie Albert gives him a good run for his money, forcing the viewer to both pity and despise Capt. Cooney. Lee Marvin’s colonel is at once cunning, ambitious, cynical, and the absolute epitome of cool machismo. Of the support cast, Buddy Ebson, Robert Strauss and Richard Jaeckel all give entertaining turns.

This is one of the finest war movies of the fifties and bears comparison to the best of Sam Fuller. It is probably one of Aldrich’s least known films but deserves a much wider recognition. It is on DVD in R1 and R2 from MGM and the full screen image looks very good. Being an MGM release the only supplement is a trailer. However, a movie as good as this should have a place in any self-respecting war collection.

The Steel Helmet

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If you look at that small subgenre that is the Korean War movie, the efforts of Sam Fuller stand head and shoulders above the others. That’s not intended to disparage those other films which deal with that largely forgotten conflict such as Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill or Anthony Mann’s Men in War. However, Fuller’s Korean movies have that gritty believability that really set them apart. Both The Steel Helmet and the later Fixed Bayonets! deal with small groups of grunts caught up in desperate battles against overwhelming odds. Fuller’s presentation of war is a bleak one where there are no false heroics; just a bunch of regular guys doing what they have to in order to stay alive.

The Steel Helmet opens with Gene Evans’ Sgt. Zack, bound hand and foot, dragging himself along the ground amid the bodies of his massacred comrades. He’s just had the luckiest of lucky escapes – an execution squad bullet having entered his helmet and rattling round inside before exiting harmlessly. From here on the story follows Zack and the rag-tag bunch of stragglers he picks up as they make their way to an abandoned Buddhist temple to set up a forward observation post. Fuller never relents and the intensity of the story builds satisfyingly to the climactic assault on the temple by the communist forces.

Along the way the members of the group are revealed to us, and through this we get a glimpse of post-WWII American society. Among this odd group there’s a black medic and a Japanese-American veteran who serve to point up the racial prejudice prevalent at the time. There are also the quirky characters of the young soldier who lost all his hair through scarlet fever, and the silent G.I. whose only dialogue comes, poignantly, at the point of death. The locals are presented through the contrasting figures of “Short Round”, the South Korean boy who befriends Zack, and the malevolent, rat-like North Korean major. It is the sneering and callous reference to the boy’s fate by the red major that provokes Zack into an uncharacteristic, yet very understandable, reaction.

Which brings me to Gene Evans. His portrayal of Zack is the lynch-pin that holds the whole thing together. He is the consummate professional soldier – weary and cynical but dedicated to getting the job done and undeniably human. Evans would give a similar performance in Fuller’s next Korean drama Fixed Bayonets! and you have to wonder why his career never really took off from here. He plays the kind of three dimensional man’s man that is sadly absent in today’s cinema – well, that’s progress for you.

I’m not sure if anyone has seen any parallels between Fuller’s work and that of Howard Hawks. To me, both directors were attracted to the concept of the small group under siege and the emphasis on professionalism. However, while Hawks would use a lightness of touch, Fuller’s direction is like a pile-driver battering your senses.

Released by Criterion last year as part of their Eclipse series, The Steel Helmet comes in a set with I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona. While the film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration, it looks just fine and is worth the price of the set on it’s own.