The two films that comprise Columbia TriStar's The Steve McQueen Box Set -- The War Lover (1962) and Baby The Rain Must Fall (1965) -- aren't bad, but they're neither representative of McQueen's persona nor are they especially memorable. You have to feel sorry for the poor dumb schlub at the video store eyeing the great portrait of McQueen on the box. "Hey, I loved him in The Great Escape and Bullitt!" he might say. "I'll bet these are just as good!" Unfortunately, packaging The War Lover and Baby The Rain Must Fall together and calling it The Steve McQueen Box Set would be like Warner Home Video putting The Return of Dr. X and The Oklahoma Kid together and calling it a "Humphrey Bogart Collection." Technically true, but misleading.
Both movies have been out on DVD before, and these are apparently identical transfers. In The War Lover, McQueen stars as Capt. "Buzz" Rickson, a World War II bomber pilot flying missions out of a U.S. Air Force base in 1943 England. His unflinchingly loyal crew both respects and admires Rickson despite his loose cannon reputation, for his uncanny oneness with their plane, The Body, has safely brought them home no matter how perilous the mission. Rickson's superiors are frustrated by his hotshot unruliness and concerned about his perverse attraction to danger, but they also need his undeniable skill.
Rickson's friend and co-pilot, 1st Lt. Ed Bolland (Robert Wagner), falls in love with an English girl, Daphne (Shirley Anne Field) while Rickson's behavior grows increasingly arrogant. He takes greater and unnecessary risks (e.g., he ignores an order to abort a bombing raid, flying through heavy cloud cover, obsessed with dropping his payload), and transfers a cynical navigator (Gary Cockrell) who looks upon Rickson as something less than a god.
Adapted by Howard Koch from John Hersey's novel, The War Lover is over-written and obvious, but if one can get past the heavy-handed dialog, the characterizations are realistic, and the film's depiction of base life and the tension-filled bombing runs have verisimilitude.
Rickson is basically a heel, an immature man acting out a lifetime of repressed self-loathing in an environment that encourages and actually needs fearless and amoral thugs like Rickson more than sensitive souls like Bolland. If not for the war Rickson quickly would have wound up dead or in prison in no time flat, but in war he can (figuratively) get away with murder and still earn medals and enjoy the admiration of his crew. As the world seems to be crumbling around him, Rickson is all smiles. "I'm having the time of my life," he says. "I like my work." The impact of this work just isn't a consideration, nor is he bound by military regulations or basic moral standards - he just does whatever he wants. McQueen, whose apparently unhappy childhood and early adult life mirrors Rickson's in many respects (also an important component of Baby The Rain Must Fall), seems to identify with Rickson's self-loathing, and he gives an unsettlingly real performance let down only by all the artificial dialogue.
The War Lover was essentially a British film, despite McQueen and Wagner in the leading roles, and even a few British actors, such as Michael Crawford (his screen debut), turn up playing American soldiers. The movie works best in its flying scenes and those in the barracks, during briefing sessions and whatnot, and these recall the realistic RAF movies the British made during and immediately after the war. The first 25 minutes of the 105-minute film follow The Body on a single mission, and both the look of the planes (with names like Erector, Chug Pug, and Alabama Whammer) and the feeling of claustrophobia inside them feels right, and the jargon the crews use authentic.
The picture mixes a lot of traveling matte work with well-integrated wartime stock footage. There are a few terrible miniatures; one scene in particular, a soldier with his parachute on fire as he falls from the sky, is intended to shock but the effect only looks phony.
Baby The Rain Must Fall was something of a follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), with director Robert Mulligan, producer Alan J. Pakula, screenwriter Horton Foote and various cast and crew members returning from that project. McQueen had been directed by Mulligan in Love with a Proper Stranger (1963), made in between the two, and the film has a southern gothic aspect similar to that regarding mysterious neighbor Boo Radley in Mockingbird. Once again, the result is a sincere effort, a character study of a practically-strangers married couple: downtrodden rockabilly singer Henry Thomas (McQueen), newly paroled after a long stint in prison, and his just-barely hopeful wife, Georgette (Lee Remick), their kindergarten-age daughter in tow.
The film is exceptionally well-made in most respects. The acting and direction is sensitive and thoughtful, Ernest Laszlo's black and white cinematography is beautiful, as is Elmer Bernstein's lovely score and Vance Jonson's Saul Bass-esque title design. The film strains to create an honest portrait of a struggling family in a poor Texas town, who live in a tiny house that looks like something out of a '30s newsreel about the dust bowl. The film seems to be after the same sort of bleak character study so superbly achieved by director Peter Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show (1971).
But as well done as it all is Foote's adaptation of his play (The Traveling Lady) is still somehow artificial. As over-written as the dialogue is in The War Lover, the emotions always seem real. Here, the look of the film is just right, but the acting of the leads is very visible. Maybe it's the distractingly phony Texas accents McQueen and especially Remick would have been better without. And as dynamic as McQueen is onscreen, as a rockabilly singer he's never convincing: the King of Cool's moves are mechanical (he closes his eyes and stares at the ceiling a lot), and his voice is obviously dubbed by a sub-Elvis type.
Video & Audio
The War Lover is offered both 16:9 enhanced widescreen (1.85:1) and full frame, with both transfers on the same side of the disc. The image has a lot of speckling early on, but the black and white film generally looks quite good, as is the mono sound. Optional subtitles in English, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Portuguese is offered. (A once-threatened colorized version, previewed here, is nowhere to be found.
Baby The Rain Must Fall is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen only, with a similarly crisp black and white image with good blacks and less speckling. The mono sound is likewise fine: optional subtitles in English, Japanese, and Spanish are available to those that want them.
The single extra is a 16:9 trailer, complete with narration and text, for The War Lover. The usual batch of trailers for other Columbia TriStar titles are included also.
The Steve McQueen Box Set is for McQueen completists only. Both films are interesting and sincere efforts, but seen once you'll likely never feel the need to watch them again. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.