A confession: I've never been much for war films. Most war films fall into two categories: the nobility of war, or the horrors of war, neither of which holds much appeal for me. Still, when I was a kid, I didn't care much for westerns or old movies, either, so every once in awhile I've got to jump at the opportunity to broaden my horizons. Invasion Europe is one of Warner's two military-themed box sets, gathering Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, The Dirty Dozen, and Where Eagles Dare, plus a DVD bonus disc of George Stevens "D-Day to Berlin." Unfortunately, this set doesn't do much to change my established opinion: one decent adventure film, one tonal mishmash, and a compromised version of a classic, not to mention the questionable logic of putting these three films together.
Going last to first, Where Eagles Dare starts the set out on a decidedly old-fashioned tone. The movie, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as British and American military spies infiltrating a Nazi castle as part of an elaborate rescue mission, feels like an Old Hollywood kind of production, with massive sets, high drama, and a heaping helping of rear projection. Burton is Major Smith and Eastwood is Lieutenant Schaffer, two men placed on a handpicked team to rescue Army General George Carnaby from the Schloss Adler. Right from the start, there's something fishy about their mission when one of their fellow team members is killed on the way in. To the layperson, the man's death looks like a parachuting accident in which he broke his neck, but Smith and Schaffer both have their suspicions that the fatal blow came from the butt of a rifle.
The film is a bit slow to get going, taking its sweet time setting up the scenario, but when it finally does kick into high gear (beginning with a lengthy sequence where Burton is allowed to indulge himself dramatically, walking around a table spinning lies and uncovering secrets), it's reasonably thrilling, the highlight being a spectacular fight sequence atop a cable car. The duo's actual undercover work is surprisingly lacking in suspense (they're so good at their jobs, there's little sense they're in danger of being found out, even as the rest of the team is picked off one by one), but the eventual gear-switch from espionage to escape solves the film's problem. Spectacular stuntwork and pyrotechnics sequences executed with skill by director Brian G. Hutton add to the excitement, and as an unexpected bonus, the picture is surprisingly gender-balanced, with Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt playing two female undercover operatives who are essential participants in the mission. At two and a half hours, Eagles feels overlong, but those with patience will be rewarded with enough thrills to make the overall experience worthwhile.
The other two films in the box present more of a philosophical conflict: The Dirty Dozen and The Big Red One, both starring Lee Marvin. Marvin famously dismissed The Dirty Dozen as "crap": he admitted it was an entertaining movie, but he felt it was a bit of an insult to the actual experience of serving. It's certainly rowdy: for the first hour and a half, Dozen is less like a war picture and more like Animal House in basic training. That's not to say it's a comedy -- it's not M*A*S*H -- but it's more interested in its rambunctious ensemble than combat. Marvin plays Major Reisman, forcibly assigned to take twelve soldiers facing death row or life imprisonment and rehabilitate them into a unit for some of the Army's least-desirable missions. Despite their disrespect for authority, the assembled men (including Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and Donald Sutherland) eventually shape up surprisingly well, much to the satisfaction of Reisman's supervising officer, General Worden (Ernest Borgnine).
In defense of The Dirty Dozen, it's not the film's raucous camaraderie that hurts it at all. In fact, the highlight of the movie is an extended sequence in which Reisman pits the Dozen against the seething Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan), whose skin clearly crawls just looking at Reisman's men and their unshaven, unclean faces. Their goofy tactics are a few evolutions short of baseball comedies where the team wins with a trick play, but it's all in great fun, especially with George Kennedy's character Major Armbruster roaring with laughter at Breed's frustration. What doesn't work so well is the jarring tonal shift between the first half of the film and the second, when the Dozen go on their real mission infiltrating and destroying a high-class chateau where high-ranking German officials take a night off. The ensuing battle is reasonably thrilling, but there's a sense of the film overreaching for sincerity or profundity -- the contradiction Marvin was getting at with his comments. The Dirty Dozen feels like two different movies grafted onto one another in a misguided hunt for meaning, and the first one, the fun one, is probably the better of the two, especially considering how many war films there are that do what the second film attempts, but better.
Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One gained a great number of fans when it was restored in 2004 under the subtitle "The Reconstruction", for which film critic and historian Richard Schickel carefully reinstated nearly 50 minutes of excised scenes based on Fuller's extensive notes. Unfortunately (for suspicious reasons, covered in the "extras" section of this review), Warner Bros. has only seen fit to include the two hour theatrical cut on their new Blu-Ray. Marvin is Sergeant Possum, leading the 1st Infantry Division for two years during World War II. Four surviving soldiers make up the film's primary characters: Private Griff (Mark Hamill), who is reluctant to become a "murderer"; Private Vinci (Bobby DiCicco), who dreams of helping his father open a donut shop in Italy; Private Johnson (Kelly Ward), never seen without his hemorrhoid donut; and Private Zab (Robert Carradine), an author who narrates the film with recollections and insights into the men and their experiences.
The Big Red One is one of the rare films that doesn't actually fall into one of the two categories I mentioned above. Fuller's portrait of the war effort doesn't offer a view on the morality of war or the nobility of soldiers, instead, it's mostly a document of what it was really like to be there, on the ground. Fuller's interest is in the tension, the adjustment, the trickle of information from the outside world, and the arbitrary nature of our enemies (not in a despairing sense, just observational). Although there are horrors (mainly the deaths of the Infantry's anonymous other members), there are also moments of strange joy, such as when Zab discovers his book has been published while he's been away, by coming across a fellow soldier reading a copy of it, or when the gang rescues a bunch of women at an Italian villa that's being used to hide a tank, and receive a wonderful meal as thanks. It's a strange and surreal movie, anchored by strong and varied performances by each of the men, including Marvin, whose complex reaction to the sights and sounds of each new battle capture the same complexity that Fuller is looking for. His story is meant to parallel that of a German commander, Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), but his appearances in the film are erratic, as a result of the theatrical editing.
In addition to the quibbles about the films themselves, Invasion Europe makes for a curious combination. There's almost nothing tying these films together other than the Germans being the villains; tonally, philosophically, stylistically, all three are different, going after a fairly different portrait of World War II. For some, this kind of diversity may be celebrated, but it's an uneven viewing experience, one which seems like it was probably better on paper at Warner ("World War II" sounds like an easy compilation) than it is in execution. The key to a great multi-feature set is in how gathering the films may reveal common themes and ideas that were not otherwise obvious. Invasion Europe's only connective tissue is kind of ironic: an idea of military teamwork that fails to express itself in the combination of movies.
The Big Red One [Theatrical Cut]: ***1/2
The Dirty Dozen: **1/2
Where Eagles Dare: ***
Warner Home Video has attempted to make some nice packaging for Invasion Europe. Unfortunately, the results are classier technically and conceptually as opposed to execution. The four-disc set arrives in a book-style package with pages that the discs slide into the ends of, with each two-page spread offering an image from the movie in question. The entire thing slides into a thick, sturdy matte slipcover with glossy highlights. It's kind of nice, except the design is not only poorly aligned to begin with, it's also too reliant on the printer to get things right. the image is supposed to go up to the left and right edge of the cover, but mine was spilling over onto the spine, which looks a bit ugly. Similarly, the book design (which features the same imagery as the front) makes room for the fringe of the spine, making the book appear lopsided. The interior of the book is all right, but it'd be nice if each page also listed the supplements on each of these discs, which are not detailed on the packaging. Finally, the "sleeve" design is generally fine for Blu-Rays but a mistake for the bonus DVD -- hubs (not necessarily trays, but hubs) would've been preferable.
The Video and Audio
All discs in this set are identical to their stand-alone counterpoints. Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen could probably both stand a fresh master, with some ugly analog edge haloes and poor contrast weakening both presentations, although they are generally decent.
The one new presentation, although it not exclusive to this disc, is The Big Red One's 1.85:1 1080p AVC picture and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. Both, sadly, are less than the standard usually set by Warner. The transfer is inconsistent: the black-and-white prologue looks fuzzy and overly grainy and the nighttime confrontation between French and American soldiers is murky and flat, as if a nearly monochromatic blue filter has been draped over it. Then, the morning after and other daytime beach scenes that follow leap off the screen with the expected high definition pop of color and detail. Some of this can undoubtedly be chalked up to the original photography, but there's a sense that more finesse from the technicians at Warner could've produced a much more consistent and impressive Blu-Ray transfer. The sound fares even worse: all of the dialogue, especially Robert Carradine's voice-over, is muddled, fuzzy, and flat. Some of the war action fares a bit better, but it too has a hint of tinniness to it that betrays its age. At its best, it sounds okay, with minimal surround or depth, and at worst, it's as if it's being heard off of an old cassette player rather than from a high-def Blu-Ray disc. Standard-def French and Spanish Mono tracks are also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles.
The Big Red One [Theatrical Cut] - V: ***1/2 | A: **1/2
The Dirty Dozen - V: ***1/2 | A: ***1/2
Where Eagles Dare - V: *** | A: ***
All of the discs in the set come with their original lineup of extras, including a commentary, four lengthy documentaries, an introduction, and the entire first "Dirty Dozen" TV movie sequel on The Dirty Dozen, a featurette on Where Eagles Dare, and a commentary, documentary, two featurettes, and alternate scenes on The Big Red One. The set's fourth disc, featuring George Stevens Jr.'s 1994 TV program "D-Day to Berlin" (46:01) is an extra itself. This look at Stevens Sr.'s Kodachrome diaries from Europe during the war is a fine companion piece to the materials in the set, but it too has been released separately -- another non-exclusive extra.
The one supplement of note added to The Big Red One, although, again, available on the separate release of the Blu-Ray, is "The Reconstruction" in standard definition. The inclusion of this as a bonus doesn't really take the sting off of its absence in high definition. Before the disc was released, the WBShop facebook page said that "The Reconstruction" was completed in standard-definition and could not be presented in HD, but 35mm film prints of that version were struck, calling that story into question. Paired with the deeply uninspiring appearance of the theatrical cut, and the entire Blu-Ray release seems like a bit of a bust.
As someone who owns a large number of Blu-Rays, I'm all for space-saving sets, and I enjoy a classy book package. The three features presented here don't make for a particularly good triple header, but then again, the price point is fairly low. There must be some general WWII cinema enthusiasts who will be happy for an "added value" option for getting the new Big Red One Blu-Ray, and there aren't any better Blu-Ray versions of the three discs available (Where Eagles Dare is only otherwise available as part of a double feature with Kelly's Heroes, although the disc in that 2-pack is the same as this one). Recommended for those who do happen to find the selection of films and price point attractive.
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