"If we see Japs, we hide. If they see us...we run."
The Platitude Platoon! 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Blood and Steel, the 1959 World War II programmer from Gene Corman's Associated Producers, Inc. (released by Fox). Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski and starring John Lupton, James Edwards, Brett Halsey, John Brinkley, Allen Jung, Ziva Rodann, and James Hong, Blood and Steel tries to be both jungle warfare actioner and sober, cynical anti-war polemic--with some nods towards race relations, as well--in its short 62 minutes...and it fails miserably on all counts. As always with these Cinema Archives releases, movie collectors want to know first and last if a post-1953 title like Blood and Steel, originally shot in Fox's CinemaScope widescreen process (re-labeled RegalScope for Fox's cheapie black and white productions at the time) has been correctly transferred here. Well, it has, in a fashion: its 2.35:1 frame ratio is correct, so you can enjoy those Floyd Crosby visuals intact...but it's letterboxed here, not enhanced anamorphic. No extras.
1943, Gizo Island in the Southwest Pacific. Arriving by inflatable dinghy, four U.S. Seabees--Lieutenant Dave Jenson (John Lupton), George (James Edwards), Jim (Brett Halsey), and Cip (John Brinkley)--have a mission: reconnoiter the island and see if the Japanese can build an airstrip on it. They have 17 hours before their pick-up, so there's no time for jawing...except there appears to be a lot of time for yakking about what makes a hero, the Depression, the WPA (okay...), those "poor slobs" the Japanese, and so on. Almost immediately, the foursome is involved in a skirmish with a Japanese patrol, with George seriously wounded in the legs. He's left behind and told to crawl to the dinghy as best he can: the mission comes first and last for the Lieutenant...regardless of George's skin color which nobody wants to talk about directly, anyway. While Lt. Jenson, Jim, and Cip make their way towards the island's center, George spies a native island girl (Ziva Rodann), who is being forced to cater to the Japanese soldiers, including a map-maker (James Hong)--the Japanese patrol is on the island for the exact same reason as the Seabees. The girl risks her life to feed George, while the Lt. discovers the island can't sustain a runway: mission pointless. Now it's time to fight their way back to the dinghy, and save George.
Written by one-and-done screenwriter Joseph C. Gillette (I couldn't find any info on Gillette, other than this solo credit...unless that's a pseudonym for someone involved in the movie), and directed by TV veteran Bernard L. Kowalski (everything from Corman's Night of the Blood Beast and Attack of the Giant Leeches, to tons of episodic TV, to his minor B horror classic, Sssssss), Blood and Steel is a pretentious piece of claptrap that makes the fatal error of being a boring actioner. In a B combat war movie, I really don't care about restricted budgets, or padded-out dialogue scenes, or dumbbell philosophical naval-gazing, as long as the action scenes deliver, and in Blood and Steel, they simply don't. Never mind the always inherent (and laughable) contradiction in any war movie that pretends to make noises about the futility and moral repugnancy of war...while giving us plenty of thrilling, exciting scenes of stuff blowing up real good (gargantuan shoot-'em-up Where Eagles Dare, which just wants to wow you, is more intellectually and morally honest than Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai or Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan). If you want to justify in your own head enjoying all those explosions and wish-fulfillment machine gun sprays by listening to a few phony, cliched sermons, fine--just as long as the goods are on display. Blood and Steel, however, fails to supply even this most rudimentary requirement. There's an interminable number of scenes showing the patrols traipsing around the well-defined jungle paths, with occasional spurts of gunfire interrupting, but those action sequences are decidedly flat and uninvolving--an old, static Sgt. Rock comic panel is more exciting.
And so that leaves us with the talking in Blood and Steel, and it's a hoot (although not quite as amusing as bland Lupton's sorry approximation of gritty war killer, or Halsey's too-pretty-for-words moral seeker, or Edwards' humorously over-emphatic emoting. Only Brinkley seems right as a cocky little sh*t). Alternately cynical and...seriously scrambled, Blood and Steel's points about man and war are either embarrassingly cliched or downright goofy. When the Seabees first hit the beach and start cracking wise about courage in battle ("Finally a chance to be a hero!" "Leave the heroics to Sergeant York!"), with the Lieutenant even going so far to defend and laud Jim's conscientious objector brother, we get where Blood and Steel is going (when the Lt. angry proclaims they won't stand and fight the enemy, we're made to think this Seabee engineer is more interested in the mission, than in killing the inconvenient enemy). However, the metaphysical waters quickly get muddy when Jim and the Lieutenant further explore the morality of war, with Jim wishing his stateside C.O. brother could see him in action ("He should see us now, and realize you can't sit at home and shout for peace!"...which sounds more like 1959 Cold War than WWII), before the Lieutenant helpfully offers that action is indeed needed...like the WPA that ended the Depression (okay...). And yet, when the Lieutenant says war will never end, Jim flips and passionately declares that it needs to...because his brother says so (I dare you to diagram the intellectual threads running through that brief, quietly insane scene. You better pack a lunch).
Soon, logically garbled, half-assed ruminations on everything from race to American colonialism to the universality of war are either barely hinted at, or proclaimed with elephantine subtlety. Jim asks the Lt. if he would have left one of the other guys behind like he left George, with the implication that maybe he left George because he's black. The movie of course doesn't have the guts to even verbalize this as simply as I did; it's timidity is nauseating not so much because of lack of conviction, but because the movie is so smug about its own perceived strengths in being about something "important"...without really saying anything at all (as for criticism I've read about Blood and Steel featuring an integrated combat team: yes, the Navy Seabees did have some integrated units towards the end of the war in 1945, building airstrips and depots...but no, I've never read anything that indicates African-American Seabees were deployed on armed reconnaissance missions). Jim and Cip discuss killing men in war (Cip says he's just hitting uniforms: nothing personal), before George ironically informs the native girl her island is innocently caught between two imperious juggernauts, of which she's powerless to resist ("We're fighting on your island! You don't mind, do you? Of course not. Anyway...it's none of your business!"). Cip out of the blue laments the "poor slobs" who occupy the uniforms he shot...before one rises from the dead for a sneak attack (how many times have you seen that?), while the Lieutenant, for god knows what reason, all of the sudden decides he's had enough of being a pussy and decides to take out an enemy stronghold ("I'll be damned if we pass up that target. We've been pushed around long enough!" he snarls as we wonder what K-ration brought that on...). No facile, affected war movie would be complete without someone realizing the enemy is just the same as us (Cip, bayoneted by a Japanese soldier, wonders aloud like it's Christmas for his conscience: "All I could see was his face...hey! You know something?! He was scared, too!!" Jesus...), before the all-too-trite existential, meaningless ending is thrown away in a remarkably inept, superficial fashion. When that last, arbitrary, faux-tragic killing goes down, and we finally discover the mission was all for naught (and by "finally," I actually mean within the first ten minutes of the movie), we're very clear on only one thing: watching Blood and Steel was for naught.
Even though it's letterboxed and not anamorphically enhanced, the black and white 2.35:1 image is quite sharp and clear; it looked fine "blown up" to fill my large monitor. That increases the grain and noise, of course, but still--not bad at all.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track was strong and clean. No subtitles or closed captions, though.
The Bromide Brigade! They only have 62 minutes to do it, but within that short runtime, the self-satisfied, self-righteous, smug makers of Blood and Steel screw up everything: the talk is either cliched or head-scratchingly obtuse; the action pitiful, and the performances weak. Unless you have to see every WWII movie ever made, skip Blood and Steel.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.