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DVD SAVANT

Savant Reviews:

Guadalcanal Diary,
Wing and a Prayer,
Halls of Montezuma,
The Young Lions
& Patton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fox Home video must have had luck with their earlier War releases, because they've come up with a repackaging of their previous hits (Patton, Von Ryan's Express) and added some less well-known, but very welcome, titles. Like other studios, Fox seems very cautious in their catalog releases. There's certainly no flood of great old titles pouring from their gates (it's surprising that sure bets like The Day the Earth Stood Still haven't come out yet) but at least the quality is staying high. This particular string of War pictures shows the strong contrast between productions made during WW2 and Korea, and those made in peacetime. The presentations all include first-class transfers without elaborate presentations or extras, and at excellent low prices.


Guadalcanal Diary
Fox Home Video
1943 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 93m. /
Starring Preston Foster, Lloyd Nolan, William Bendix, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, Richard Jaeckel
Cinematography Charles Clarke
Art Directors James Basevi, Leland Fuller
Film Editor Fred Allen
Original Music David Buttolph
Writing credits Lamar Trotti, Jerome Cady from the book by Richard Tregaskis
Produced by Bryan Foy
Directed by Lewis Seiler

Synopsis:

Captains Cross (Roy Roberts) and Davis (Richard Conte) lead the first detachments of Marines onto the Japanese stronghold of Guadalcanal, braving snipers and bombing raids and holding territory for our invading regular Army.

Based on the popular Tregaskis novel, this saga of the Marines was filmed practically before the fighting had finished on Guadalcanal. It's one of the key combat films of the war, and survives better as a document of the times than as an entertainment. Calculated to indoctrinate civilian audiences to the realities of combat, it's also encumbered with scenes to reassure the folks back home that their boys are in good hands in the military.

The book was a major seller and shocked average Americans with its descriptions of combat warfare in muddy, bloody detail instead of leavened with righteous platitudes or heroics. The movie does its best to stay faithful, but the bits of narration taken from Tregaskis' text that dot the film are overwhelmed by the comedy relief of William Bendix and Lionel Stander. At least 20% of the picture plays like light comedy of the sub-Abbott and Costello school.

It looks as if the WW2 equivalent of political correctness had a big hand in the final scripwriting. The lead character is a medic-chaplain played by Preston Foster, and several scenes are devoted to happy soldiers singing hymns and attending church services like choirboys, so Mom and Pop will know they fought with God in their hearts. One scene seems calculated to encourage civilian mail to the troops, by showing a Marine heartbroken after mail call because there was nothing in the dispatch bag for him.

This is a picture from the first wave of Hollywood striking back at Japan, and like Wake Island or Gung Ho! treats the Japanese as savage vermin to be exterminated. The act of hiding in a tree in ambush, or pressing a strategic advantage, is regarded as a war crime. When the Marines take their losses 'personally' and revenge themselves on the enemy by fighting dirty, we're encouraged to cheer. Young Richard Jaeckel plays possum and then blasts three 'Japs ' in the back, spitting out the line, 'I learned that from Tojo!' Obviously this and other moments were meant to bolster the morale of Americans in the audience, some of whom might be soldiers on their way to fight in the Pacific theater. The spectacle of the Marines driving an enemy regiment into the sea, and massacring them in the surf, is the kind of scene best appreciated by an audience that feels threatened.

Likewise, a Mexican-American character named Jesus 'Soose' Alvarez, played powerfully by a young Anthony Quinn, is included perhaps to stimulate minority recruitment. Naturally, Soose is twice the fighter of any man around and receives letters from several Latin girlfriends.

But the basic truths of the hardships and tensions of real combat remain intact, and there's no exaggerated gallantry or outrageous derring-do in sight; even an episode where the Marines attack some cavebound holdouts, stresses casualties over firepower.

The attitude of wartime audiences can be summed up by a scene that now plays rather mawkishly. Stuck in a pounding bombing raid in a flimsy shelter, Jaeckel quietly cries, Foster admits everyone's scared, and William Bendix (who was already a sentimental audience favorite) makes an awkward speech about praying even when you're not a church guy, and how fate has to be in the hands of 'something bigger than us.' Apparently this scene touched just the right buttons in the wartime psyche, and was cheered in theaters.


Fox's DVD of Guadalcanal Diary is a spotless transfer that looks better than the studio print Savant saw at UCLA thirty years ago. It's so clear that the occasional bit of real combat footage really sticks out. The only extra is a trailer, that uses an alternate take of the air raid shelter scene where Richard Jaeckel freaks out in panic. The DVD box art features a huge closeup of Anthony Quinn, even though he's just a featured player in the picture.



Wing and a Prayer
Fox Home Video
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 97m.
Starring Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Cedric Hardwicke, Kevin O'Shea, Richard Jaeckel, Harry Morgan, Richard Crane
Cinematography Glen MacWilliams
Production design Lewis H. Creber, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor J. Watson Webb Jr.
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Jerome Cady
Produced by William A. Bacher & Walter Morosco
Directed by Henry Hathaway

Synopsis:

Aircraft Carrier "X" (its name changed to protect military 'secrets') is ordered to race across the Pacific and back, to avoid fights and be seen anywhere but near Midway. After convincing the enemy that our ships are scattered and our morale too low to engage in battle, the carrier reports to Midway to help out in a whopping big battle. Running the ship are Captain Waddell (Charles Bickford) and stern flight commander Bingo Harper (Don Ameche). Among the frustrated fliers are Hallam Scott (William Eythe), an Oscar-winning actor who's sometimes unreliable about following orders; Malcolm Brainard (Harry Morgan) a scratched pilot who wants back up in a plane, Cookie Cunningham (Kevin O'Shea), an Ace who thinks he's lost his touch, and Ed Moulton (Dana Andrews), the flight leader who tries to hold them all together. But when they finally cross planes with the Japanese at Midway, all rise to the occasion as fierce warriors.

Obviously pitched as a morale-booster, Wing and a Prayer probably succeeded as light entertainment back home, but if they showed it to sailors and Navy fliers in the Pacific, I can't imagine what the reaction would have been. This is the true-blue kind of patriotic film that's enjoyable both for itself, and to try and determine the propaganda reasoning behind some of its strange plotting.

This has to be the strangest take on the war in the Pacific since Air Force, that rousing show where one B-17 appeared to sink the entire Japanese fleet. Here we have the US Navy portrayed as acting like its own decoy, with aviators ordered not to engage the enemy so as to give the impression that we're cowards, and thus lull the foe into a false sense of security.

The tough-minded leads are given little to do but represent American determination. Dana Andrews simply personifies youthful integrity; this was before anyone found out he could act. Telephone-joke Don Ameche is just fine as the Warner Baxter-style hardass commander. One wonders what kind of career he would have had if not typed as a grinning nothing in so many Fox musicals. In retrospect, he also reminds a bit of John Travolta's humorless officer in The Thin Red Line, if only because of his mustache and his attitude on deck.

Of all the studios, Fox seemed the most anxious to self-promote while entertaining during wartime. Movies are shown on Carrier "X", Betty Grable pictures, of course, and the hotshot pilot played by William Eythe, who has his Oscar stuffed under his pilot's seat, is the envy of his peers because he's kissed so many starlets in the movies.  1

There's plenty of action in Wing and a Prayer that combines real combat stock, with model footage nowhere as adept as Warner's or MGM's work. But you can't slight it for ambition - at one point we're shown a pilot's point of view flying through the flames of a burning enemy ship. One average bomb blows up a whole battleship as if this were a Popeye cartoon, a standard for any studio's movies made during the war. Hollywood scenarists definitely were working without the benefit of technical overseers - a heroic pilot is shown ramming his plane into a torpedo before it can strike the carrier (something I can imagine a Japanese flyer doing, but not one of ours, frankly), and the observing officers react like football coaches watching a well-performed play. There's a balance here between team-playing and showboat flying that isn't strongly stressed, until a nice ending that shows Ameche's character abandoning a lost flyer because the security of the whole carrier comes first.

I don't know if this is the first 'aircraft carrier movie' made (30 Seconds Over Tokyo?) but it's a very interesting morale piece. Actor-spotters will enjoy seeing a baby-faced Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen) as an underage tailgunner. A young Harry Morgan (television's M*A*S*H) makes a good impression too.


The DVD of Wing and a Prayer looks in top shape, but the transfer is a mite compromised by white highlights around dark objects on screen. These ring many images and outline the headlines in newspapers in white light. Overall it's not too distracting, but I'm told this is a result of digital processing done indiscriminately to improve overall contrast and picture punch. I think I'd rather let the 1944 picture look as it should instead. You might not even notice this flaw on your monitor. Otherwise, this is a fine transfer and a solid plainwrap disc, with just the expected trailer for an extra.



Halls of Montezuma
Fox Home Video
1950 / color / 1:37 flat / 113m. /
Starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Reginald Gardiner, Robert Wagner, Karl Malden, Richard Hylton, Richard Boone, Skip Homeier, Don Hicks, Jack Webb, Bert Freed, Neville Brand, Martin Milner, Philip Ahn
Cinematography Winton C. Hoch, Harry Jackson
Art directors Albert Hogsett, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music Sol Kaplan
Writing credits Michael Blankfort
Produced by Robert Bassler
Directed by Lewis Milestone

Synopsis:

High-strung Lieutenant Carl Anderson (Richard Widmark) has to take constantly pop painkillers given him by soulful medic 'Doc' Jones (Karl Malden) to keep on going. His Marines, trapped on a post-Guadalcanal, post-Tarawa island, are pinned down by Japanese rockets and must go on a hazardous patrol to learn their location. His colorful squad consists of Sgt. Randolph Johnson (Reginald Gardiner), an interpreter, the cheerful Pvt. Coffman (Robert Wagner), sometimes jittery Corporal Conroy (Richard Hylton), psychotic Pvt. 'Pretty Boy' Riley (Skip Homeier), journalist Dickerson (Jack Webb), busted Pvt. Slattery (Bert Freed), tough guy Sgt. Zelenko (Neville Brand), green recruit Private Whitney (Martin Milner), and nice-guy Pidgeon Lane (Walter 'Jack' Palance).

Released in 1950, this Marine combat film doubtlessly was produced before the outbreak of the Korean conflict, and doesn't have the confused attitudes of the few War dramas made concurrent with that war. It attempts to be as true as possible to the fighting experience, and does a fairly good job of it, even if the gloss of Technicolor candy-colors everything in sight.

With some high production values and the obvious active participation of the military, The Halls of Montezuma shows an island landing a la The Thin Red Line with some very good archival color footage and some large-scale recreations. Lewis Milestone's battle techniques from his famous All Quiet on the Western Front are here used for a very un-pacifistic hymn to the Marine Corps, and the sparse score consists solely of patriotic standards. The theme is the high price paid to win a battle, with most of the interesting cast (practically every available Fox actor on the payroll) getting shot up or at least wounded. It's an ensemble piece where low-billed Jack Webb gets more screen time and more to do than top dog Walter 'Jack' Palance. Everybody's most-hated kid Skip Homeier (he who shot Gregory Peck in the back in The Gunfighter) is practically a nutcase, and the show inadvertently gives the impression that the Marine Corps can use guys like that. Agonized teacher-turned-soldier Richard Widmark is shown to suffer from migranes and is constantly drugging himself, a detail that now seems loaded with '50s cultural significance but probably has plenty of truth behind it. You'd certainly have to get me hopped up on something, to go into battles like these.

The story is told straight, but with three or four flashbacks showing the soldiers at earlier times. This effective device was really abused later in the '50s, to inject females and romance into pictures like Away All Boats!, The Caine Mutiny, and especially Battle Cry. Women moviegoers were considered to have veto rights on what films the family saw. The posters for these pictures always had prominent insets with the female costars, peeking out from images of ships clashing or men in combat.

The freedom to 'get real' about the War experience shown in titles like Twelve O'Clock High is shown in the dialogue, where the enemy are called Japs and Nips even more stridently than during the war. The Japanese are first shown as a series of sinister expressionless faces. When captured, the enlisted men turn out to be whimpering cowards, and their officers death-obsessed fanatics. The general attitude toward them is shown when long-distance flamethrowers are used to incinerate an entire line of pillboxes, to the delight of our movie star Marine heroes. An actual color combat shot of burning soldier is intercut. There's nothing dishonest about this aspect of the movie, but it is a bit uncomfortable. I doubt The Halls of Montezuma opened big in Tokyo.

Big and colorful and with lots of good stars-to-be in the cast (boy, does Karl Malden look out of place!), The Halls of Montezuma is a way-above-average combat picture, made just before Hollywood began a revisionist backlash against the whole genre.


The DVD of The Halls of Montezuma simply looks great. It's obviously not mastered from original Technicolor elements but whatever they did use is in very good shape, with strong colors. The trailer included looks like a Marine Corps recruiting film, and has none of the silly text lines 'quoted' in the loudspeaker camp announcement scene in M*A*S*H.



The Young Lions
Fox Home Video
1958 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 167m.
Starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Hope Lange, Barbara Rush, May Britt, Maximilian Schell, Dora Doll, Lee Van Cleef
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Art Directors Addison Hehr, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Writing credits Edward Anhalt from the novel by Irwin Shaw
Produced by Al Lichtman
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Synopsis:

Sensitive German Army Lieutenant Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando) doesn't understand the harsh attitudes of his peers and superiors, and undergoes a slow demoralization as the war proceeds in North Africa. Meanwhile, Singer Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) is drafted, and makes friends with Jewish-American Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift), who falls in love with whitebread New England girl Hope Plowman (Hope Lange) before shipping off to Europe. The soldiers on opposite sides suffer through their predicaments until their fates eventually cross paths at a concentration camp in Western Germany, near the very end of the conflict.

When a movie is described as anti-war, the joke now is that nobody can name a pro-war movie. In reality, all war movies are pro-war when it comes to being good advertising for the promised action, adventure, danger and camaraderie that filmed combat makes look so exciting. The real distinction in war movies is between conservative pictures like The Halls of Montezuma that are basically recruiting ads for the armed services, and liberal shows that purport to deliver the message that War is cruel and pointless and dehumanizing. Combat soldiers know this already, and movie fans nod thoughtfully while enjoying the dehumanizing action and violence. Taking the cue from war-memoir writers like James Jones, America spent twenty years interpreting the war in print. Attack! used gore and outrage and raised some eyebrows, and other films like From Here to Eternity and The Caine Mutiny had their rougher edges dulled by official pressure. Eventually the genre subsided into pure escapism based more on action themes than literary strength (Von Ryan's Express, The Dirty Dozen). Pretty much in the middle of the liberal movement came The Young Lions. Considered the Apocalypse Now of its day, this method-acting fest now seems just an overgrown curiosity, thanks mainly to Edward Dmytryk's bad direction.

Already responsible for ruining Raintree County, Dmytryk has the knack of shooting every scene so flatly that The Young Lions plays like a procession of dislocated closeups and unconvincing sets. The actors do well under the circumstances, and of course Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando are fascinating to watch, but the movie suffers.

The script is the real culprit, as it's really just one stock situation after another, lifting liberally from James Jones. Clift's ordeal by combat against his own anti-Semitic soldiers, followed by the Army's reprimanding of the officer who allowed it to happen, wastes half an hour by making you feel you're watching a dull remake of the Zinnemann film. The mildly 'sympathetic' German of earlier war films (oh, The Desert Fox for one) emerges full-blown here as a misunderstood Rebel Without a Swastika. We find out that our tortured German officer is really a nice guy who'd rather be skiing with his life-loving pals. I'd think that anyone in the German officer corps with Christian Diestl's ethical makeup would either have been give the iron boot, or would have learned to strongly suppress his tendencies, long before reaching the rank of Lieutenant.

In love with its own ironies, The Young Lions touches on big issues but doesn't tackle any of them. Clift's touching romance with Hope Lange spends an entire scene setting up an anti-semitic conflict that then evaporates. In the end, the show tries to grapple with the issues of the extermination camps. Our decent German hero is sickened to discover what's going on there, a revelation that sends him into the final stages of mental confusion. We get the required downbeat ending, and a nice commercial coda with Clift returning to his new family in NYC.

The Young Lions also represents two major career moves. It's Maximillian Schell's first American film, and he made an impression as an intellectual that started him off on a slow but steady rise to stardom. This is Dean Martin's first serious role after the Jerry Lewis breakup, and he represents a nice contrast with the method stars, being more of an unforced acting personality like Robert Mitchum than a trained talent. He isn't as in control here as he is in the same year's Some Came Running, but he's not at all bad, except in his drunk London scene. As for the women in the movie, Barbara Rush is both attractive and intelligent in her role, having successfully graduated from science fiction movies like It Came from Outer Space and When Worlds Collide. May Britt also does well as the promiscuous wife of Schell who seduces Brando. As Brando's French girlfriend, Lillianne Montevecchi seems to have tagged along with Dino from one of his last comedies.

The main complaint with the show is that it looks so cheap and flat, the same quality Dmytryk was somehow able to impart to the very expensive Raintree County. All of the money must have gone into the actors, because it's not in the production. Half of a scene in North Africa is stolen from (I think) The Immortal Sergeant, an older Fox film. Stock shots don't mix with the new CinemaScope lensing very well, especially those that have just been cut in flat and allowed to squash out horizontally. Germans drive around in US Army jeeps. Big parts of many exteriors play against rear projections and blank walls. The trailer makes special note of producer Al Lichtman's great career as a 'pioneer of cinema' ... but a look at his one feature credit in the IMDB and you realize that he must have pioneered the secret of keeping the production budget for himself.


Fox's DVD of The Young Lions looks clean and neat, and spreads out nice 'n wide in black & white. This points up all of those production deficiencies but gives you a front row seat at all the good acting in view. The only extra is the trailer; like the rest of the titles in the series, the package artwork is first-rate.



Patton
Fox Home Video
1970 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 170m. /
Starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Bates, Ed Binns, Stephen Young, Lawrence Dobkin, John Doucette, James Edwards
Cinematography Fred Koenekamp
Art Direction Urie McCleary, Gil Parrondo
Film Editor Hugh Fowler
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Writing credits Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola
Produced by Frank McCarthy
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Synopsis:

General George S Patton (George C Scott) manages to distinguish himself with a tank corps in North Africa, but is given a secondary position during the invasion of Sicily. Demoted and censured after an incident of slapping a possible malingerer, he spends half a year on the bench while other commanders get prize positions for D-Day. His old ally General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) finally gives him another tank-spearheaded army, with which he tear-asses across France in record time, and then drives to Bastogne to rescue the GI's trapped in the Battle of the Bulge.

Patton exists pretty much outside the tradition of the Hollywood war movie, being more of a roadshow epic that nevertheless has a very non-roadshow concentration on documentary fact over fiction. Cinerama's The Battle of the Bulge had been such a fabrication that military celebrities refused to endorse it, but here, right in the middle of the Vietnam war, came a movie about a war hawk that played to the predjudices of audiences left and right, simply by using the contradictions already present in the quixotic Patton figure.

Having died very shortly after the war, Patton never had the chance to generate a postwar image of himself, or to become an unassailable father figure like Eisenhower. His love of classical warfare and his prima donna vanity do not at first seem to be compatible with his rough-edged character and his ruthless tactics. Writers Coppola and North eventually endorse him simply because his willingness to sacrifice all for victory is so compatible with the spirit of warfare itself. Patton makes no distinction whatsoever between his personal goals and that of the war he's fighting; he's fascinating because he seems to personify the very concept of War. By keeping the conflict of the story at that level (Patton against everyone else, and himself too), Patton avoided being dragged into the current Vietnam mire, a clearheaded stance that unfortunately found a ready identifier in Richard Nixon, who screened the film at the White House directly before invading Cambodia.  2

Patton lets some full battles near the beginning color the rest of the film, and relies on montages of very well-staged fighting later on, to avoid being a repetitive, boom-boom action epic. Shot on credible locales, with only the lack of original Sherman tanks to keep things realistic, it plays faster than a newsreel even at three hours in length. The political battles between Patton and peer Omar Bradley (Karl Malden, even better than George C. Scott) are funny and involving. Patton's feud with Field Marshall Montgomery completely trounces the idea that the US and England were allies with uniformly common goals. Eisenhower is for some reason kept out of the picture entirely, remaining an unseen and uncriticized presence. With its semi-abstract opening, featuring the General lecturing us on how Americans relate to battle, and its low-key conclusion, with the same man prattling useless and inflammatory remarks against the Soviets, Patton is a thinking picture, probably the most thoughtful film on the politics of War ever made.


This is a non-special edition of the first disc of the two disc Patton set of a couple of years' back, and the feature has an identical high quality transfer. The image is just as true and sharp as the Dimension-150 theatrical prints, as can be seen by the perfect lines of the giant American flag in the first scene. At this low price it's an amazing bargain.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Guadalcanal Diary rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 28, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wing and a Prayer rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good, with slight reservations
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 28, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Halls of Montezuma rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 28, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Young Lions rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 28, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Patton rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, audio essay on the Historical Patton
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 28, 2001


Footnotes:

1. Eythe's character seems to have been an inspiration for Wild Bill Kelso in 1941; he checks the Oscar hidden under his seat like Kelso checks his squeeze-toy doll, and sings along to 'Deep in the Heart of Texas' while firing his wing-cannon to the beat.
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2. A connection which may have been simple coincidence but has by now snowballed into American History.
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