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DVD SAVANT

A Surprise Restoration:

The Dogs of War


The Dogs of War
MGM Home Entertainment
1980 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 119 min. / Street Date November 20, 2001 / 19.95
Starring Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely, Hugh Millais, Paul Freeman, Jean-Francois Stévenin, JoBeth Williams, Robert Urquhart
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Art Direction Michael Collins, Bert Davey, John Siddall
Film Editors Antony Gibbs, Peter Mullins
Original Music Geoffrey Burgon
Writing credits Gary DeVore, John Malko from the novel by Frederick Forsyth
Produced by Larry DeWaay, Norman Jewison, Patrick J. Palmer
Directed by John Irvin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Someone tell JoBeth Williams to fire up her DVD player because she's in a whole new movie she quite possibly has never seen. 1980's The Dogs of War was released in two versions, the 104-minute cut we saw here in the United States, and a 119-minute original cut which was only seen in UK countries. For 21 years, all video versions have been the short version only. Without so much as a blurb on the package jacket, this quality action film now has a half dozen new scenes restored!

Synopsis:

Shannon (Christopher Walken) is a successful mercenary leader who lives in a crummy NYC hotel room while waiting for his next mission. He entertains thoughts of quitting the trade to settle down with his ex-wife Jessie (JoBeth Williams), but his irresponsible manner once again frightens her off. On behalf of an ambitious platinum syndicate, Shannon visits the tiny African dictatorship of Zangara to find out if the country is on the brink of collapse or if its government can be easily overthrown. He's arrested and mercilessly beaten, but North, a journalist acquaintance (Colin Blakely) sneaks him the pictures he needs as the Zangarans hustle him out of the country. Now the shady English businessmen want Shannon to go back to Zangara, this time with a private army of soldiers-for-hire, to effect a coup de'etat.

The late 70s were banner years for the popularity of mercenaries, those hired guns who fight for money. Movies have always had a romantic streak for them; even Rick Blane of Casablanca was supposed to be one before Ilsa Lund made him all soft and patriotic. In reality, mercenaries break down into three clearly defined types. Ex-soldiers who just can't get combat out of their blood are celebrated in the gory Dark of the Sun (The Mercenaries). A mercenary general-turned thief masterminds the hijacking in The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. The second kind is the political idealist, the sort that found themselves fighting in the Spanish Civil War. And the third is the civilian adventurer that books like Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War made seem so attractive. This kind has been around since time began; a famous one in American history was the filibuster William Walker, who invaded Nicaragua twice in the years after our Civil War.

The mystique of the Mercenary got to be so prevalent in the late 1970s that there even was a magazine, Soldier of Fortune, that catered to the lifestyle.  1 Nothing made Savant laugh louder than the occasional sight of a line of stupid Americans on the television news, shown as prisoners in some African country or another, sentenced to death for mercenary activities. Whether Soldier of Fortune magazine still exists or not, I don't know. They got into some trouble in the 80s over running advertisements seeking to hire real killers.

Christopher Walken is excellent as the mercenary leader who keeps a .45 in the fridge and has been beaten, wounded, infested and diseased so many times, his doctor just throws his arms up in defeat. Around him he gathers a group of disaffected adventurers with real qualifications and abilities. Unlike the designer-chic cowboy guns of The Magnificent Seven, these guys are a fairly colorless bunch of brutes who are failures in home life but utterly reliable in combat. Besides a muscular, young Tom Berenger, whose character volunteers so as to be absent while his wife is pregnant, the group includes Paul Freeman, fresh from The Long Good Friday and soon to become a wonderful villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hammer fans may be interested in seeing a hearty-looking Robert Urquhart as a shady sea captain 23 years after his role in The Curse of Frankenstein.

The Dogs of War is an interestingly detailed and credibly mounted tale of a dirty mission to overthrow a fictitious West African dictatorship. It's a little gun-happy, but only to the extent that the mercenaries are themselves. A lot of time and effort are expended explaining how the arms for the mission are rounded up and smuggled to Africa, before the excellent battle scenes at the end. John Irvin's direction does such a nice job of keeping things low-key that even the signature scene of Tom Berenger whooping in delight while firing an exotic multipurpose grenade gun hits just the right note. No Rambo theatrics here.

When action stories are taken seriously, they usually become character studies that try to fathom what kind of man would do work like this. The Dogs of War avoids scenes where people discuss the topic but pretty much decides that the attraction is combat for its own sake coupled with a need for the Howard Hawks-like macho-buddy relationships that form. Anybody related to these losers seems to get the sticky end of things. How are the survivors going to cash the life policies Shannon arranges, after the insurance company discovers that 'acts of war' were involved? Shannon himself cannot keep a wife, and he cannot make a friend even when the amiable television reporter played by the great Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) goes out of his way to help. In a nice touch, Shannon deeds his insurance benefits to the sullen black kid (Kelvin Thomas) who is his only friend in New York.

The other given is the double-cross, which in the case of The Dogs of War gets nicely complicated. Shannon openly despises his employers, and has no trouble torturing and killing the private detectives they send to snoop on him. In trying to guess Shannon's motivations for taking the job we have to factor in his desire to revenge himself upon the petty tyrants who tortured him in Zangara. The wide-eyed, hyper-stimulated rapture in Shannon's face at the peak of his strike finally explains his character. This seems to be the only time he's really alive, in total control of his surroundings, at full power, so to speak.


MGM's DVD of The Dogs of War is a far better looking show than the previous dull VHS and laser versions. Legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff made a career out of shooting in difficult locations (The African Queen, Legend of the Lost, Dark of the Sun) and goes against his Technicolor style to make the image look as natural as possible, with subdued colors in the jungle. He excels with his night photography, where the entire African township is realistically illuminated without our questioning where all the light is coming from. The lighting effects during the battle are actually quite brilliant, with detail, contrast and focus so controlled in shot after shot that we soon forget about such concerns and soak in the story instead. Contrast this with the (differently-styled, true) photography of something like Escape from New York, where the image quality goes all over the map, for better or worse, and we're always painfully aware that the night streets have been artificially lit.

The DVD includes just a trailer for an extra. The only negative appears to be in the DVD mastering. The image looks fine most of the time, but certain detailed shots break up, as if the bit rate were set at some barely-adequate setting and the final product not re-processed to address problem spots. A recurring flaw (noticed 5 or six times) is a glitch just a split second after a cut to a new shot, as if the digitizing computer were overwhelmed by the new information coming in, and had to recover. I think this all might be evidence of an attempt to assign a one-bit-rate-fits-all standard to streamline production by eliminating careful scene-by-scene adjustments.

The restored scenes:

Savant has been curious about the long English cut of this film ever since readers brought it to his attention five years ago. MGM's Technical Services division, which conscientiously strives to maintain the longest and most original version of its movies, apparently did the right thing and located the original version. So why isn't there at least a mention of the fact that the show has been lengthened by 15 minutes? The Dogs of War probably doesn't register as a major title on the sales charts, so perhaps touting the longer cut wouldn't have been that big a deal, especially when there are no new scenes of marketable bloodshed or mayhem. What we do get are interesting details, 15 minutes' worth spread throughout the first 2/3 of the film. That, and the rescue of JoBeth Williams' role, which was reduced to almost nothing in the first US cut.

1) (begin Chapter 2) Right off the top: after the airplane escapes amid a shower of explosions (a shot that's unaccountably blotched-up in this longer negative) we cut to Shannon attending the baptism of a fellow mercenary's child. Shannon encouraged the father to desert in Vietnam; he's the baby's Godfather but the mother tells him not to come around any more.

2) (Chapter 2, 10:36) Shannon picks up a bird photographer's camera from a buddy, and strikes up contact again with the little black kid (Kelvin Thomas), saying, 'You got a Godfather?'

3) (begin chapter 9) Back from Zangara, Shannon makes an abortive attempt to call his ex-wife Jessie (JoBeth WIlliams).

4) (9:51:46) After Jessie's alcoholic dad asks Jessie for more ice, he follows her to the kitchen and they argue about the wisdom of seeing Shannon again, spilling the ice tray on the floor.

5) (9:52:57) Before the restaurant scene) Shannon greets Jessie at his motel room, and it's revealed she's been crying. They kiss.

6) (9:55:10) Instead of cutting directly to Jessie leaving, there's a major scene in Shannon's motel room, with Jessie in bed. Shannon tries to talk Jessie into leaving her father, to start anew out West, but Jessie clashes with him over the mercenary issue. She resents him showing up after two years asking her to leap up and follow him. The bitterness isn't resolved, even though they make love.

7) (1:16:04) A bit of business in the middle of the night with Michel (Jean-Francois Stévenin) sealing up those oil drums full of small arms, while his dog whines.

8) (1 24:51) A big section. Shannon visits Captain Lockhart (Robert Urquhart) and worries about what seems to be a drinking problem. He then visits Hackett, the arms salesman (Terence Rigby) in a hotel and has to pressure him to deliver the shipment to Valencia. On the docks the next morning, Spanish officials give both Shannon and the strange cargo a suspicious going-over, but the crisis is averted beautifully by Lockhart. Underway at last, Shannon compliments Lockart for doing exactly what was needed to snow the local cops.

9) (1:39:50) Shannon's pirate raiding party is stopped halfway to their goal because a drawbridge is unexpectedly closed. Some of his men swim across and manually open it, but precious time is lost.


All of the above lasts 15 minutes. Besides wanting a shorter running time, United Artists probably decided that The Dogs of War was an overly-complicated actioner that didn't need its leading character to have a personal background. The business about Shannon's poor relationship with his ex-wife is filled in nicely with the new footage (which presumably, UK viewers got to see). Without a lot of fuss, the fact that Shannon has need for a family is nicely sketched, especially the baptism scene and his offer to the little black kid. When the film came out, poor JoBeth Williams must have flipped to see her already-abbreviated presence reduced from a major plot point to a quick hop in the bed with an old flame. Now it really contributes. Williams was one of a dozen great actresses of the 80s who never got the roles they deserved, and the bits restored here are choice.

Perhaps the cuts just before the voyage gets underway can be justified, but it's nice seeing Walken sweat the messy details like making shadowy arms dealers come through on their bargain. The dockside scenes also reinforce the illegality of what's going on. Finally, the drawbridge scene may have seemed slow to the UA cutters, but it's needed just so that there is at least one hitch in Shannon's raid, which otherwise goes smoothly, for all but those who get shot, anyway. The Dogs of War probably didn't have a breakout success because it was so realistic - there were no adventure movie cliches, no big character double-crosses, no hyped melodrama with the heroine taken hostage by the other side, etc. It's a good movie. And if it inspired a psycho gun freaks to go get himself killed somewhere else instead of staying home and going postal here, well, good.


Once again, the way studios husband their libraries has resulted in MGM DVD giving us a much-desired restoration, apparently without even knowing they're doing so. If you do care about this sort of thing, write MGM and tell them how happy you are to get this DVD.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Dogs of War rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, and inadvertently, the uncut feature, never seen before in the US.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 20, 2001


Footnote:

1. Kind of a biker magazine for guys whose fantasy was to carry guns and blow people away for money, Soldier of Fortune took the attitude of the old shirt design that showed a hunter holding up a dead baby by its foot, and read: 'Visit beautiful foreign countries, meet interesting people, and KILL THEM.' Savant stopped taking his kids to air shows when they became overrun with weapons-happy morons wearing stuff like this. Their grandfather flew airplanes, and the only reason he was allowed to enlist in the Army Air Corps at 17 was that he threatened to run away and join Lee Chennault's mercenary Chinese air force, the Flying Tigers. In 1938, flying was the fantasy ... now it's shooting people, as glorified in movies.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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