Forever intent on finding new ways in which to package old DVDs into something new and swanky, the folks over at Sony Home Entertainment decided to release two separate "WWII 60th Anniversary Collection" box sets. This particular set offers Fred Zinneman's well-admired classic From Here to Eternity (1953), David Lean's astonishingly cool The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and J. Lee Thompson's rousing fictional piece The Guns of Navarone (1961). Both sets also come with a fourth disc on which you'll find a History Channel documentary, as well as a nifty little booklet full of information on the movies, the soldiers, the weapons, and the machinery or WWII.
(The companion set to this release features the solid triple feature of The Caine Mutiny (1954), Anzio (1968), and Das Boot (1981).) Basically, these sets are fantastic for those of us who might not already own some of the wartime classics, but I'll say it loud and clear right here: If you already have the three movies included within this set somewhere in your collection, there's no real reason to upgrade to the box set release. Unless, of course, you have a real soft spot for History Channel documentaries and nifty little promotional booklets.
The Guns of Navarone stars Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, and James Darren as a crew of British and Greek soldiers who are assigned a harrowing task: Invade the isolated Greek island of Navarone and sabotage the pair of massive anti-aircraft guns that the Nazis have installed there. With less than a week to finish the assignment, and with the lives of 2,000 British soldiers hanging in the balance, you can expect a whole lot of heroic derring-do, machine gun melodies, and outrageous explosions.
Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean, Navarone is a fictional war story through and through. This is not a story based on actual events ... but it sure is a lot of fun! Veteran director J. Lee Thompson keeps his adventure story moving at an appreciably brisk clip -- and we're talking about a movie that's three hours long! Master actors Peck, Niven, and Quinn deliver fantastic work here, both individually and as part of the overall squad, and there's more than enough action to keep the battle-fans quite happy indeed. Nominated for seven Oscars (and winner of only one -- for special effects), The Guns of Navarone has long been a big-time favorite of the war-movie aficionados, and the film still holds up resoundingly well today.
When people of my generation think of From Here to Eternity, our first thoughts usually go to the oft-spoofed "makeout on the beach" sequence, but this movie offers a whole lot more than just sea water and salty smooching.
Based on the novel by James Jones, Eternity is a quietly compelling and character-driven war movie, and one that sets its drama against a backdrop of a Pearl Harbor army base ... before the infamous attack by the Japanese. Montgomery Clift stars as Pruitt, newly-arrived private who has three distinct talents: He's a hell of a bugle-blower, he's a devastating pugilist, and he sure knows how to get himself into trouble. Burt Lancaster is a good-natured sergeant who hopes to keep the new guy in line (while having an affair with his officer's wife), and Frank Sinatra is a colorful little troublemaker with a taste for alcohol and a perpetual chip on his shoulder. The central plot thread focuses on Pruitt's reluctance to join the base boxing team, and the subsequent punishments he earns for his willfulness, but From Here to Eternity branches off with a variety of subplots -- all of them interesting, and all of them brought to life with insightful dialogue and superlative performances. (This is some of Sinatra's very best work; Old Blue Eyes won his only Oscar for his performance here.)
Include Deborah Kerr (as Lancaster's forbidden love interest) and Donna Reed as a "lounge girl" with a checkered past, and you're only halfway through the flick's fantastic assortment of actors. There are great supporting turns by folks like Philip Ober, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Warden, too, so if you're a fan of the old-fashioned ensemble piece, From Here to Eternity is absolutely one to remember.
Nominated for 13 Oscars (and winner of 8, including Best Picture of 1953), From Here to Eternity is, in many ways, like a grandfather to Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket: The plot is not much more than a "fly on the wall" observation of how soldiers get along in between battles, and it's always refreshing to see the men of our armed forces depicted as "regular joes." Some of the characters are weak-willed, violent, and craven, while others are quietly noble, generous, and heroic when situations call for it. There's no real "action" to speak of, aside from a few fistfights and the third act bombing attack, but From Here to Eternity sure isn't boring.
So if you think this movie's not much more than Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching on a beach, I say it's time you give From Here to Eternity a re-visit, and soon.
Arguably one of the very best war movies ever made, David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for 8 Oscars, and a winner of of 7, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), and Best Screenplay. The interesting thing about the screenplay award is that both screenwriters were blacklisted at the time, and therefore were not credited for their work. The award was given to novelist Pierre Boulle, a man who never worked on the screenplay -- and didn't even speak English! This shameless oversight was rectified in 1984 when screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman were duly cited for their work on Kwai, and their names have long since been reinstated to the film's opening credits. (Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson was dead by the time his Oscar was awarded, while Mr. Foreman, sadly, died only one day after the correction was made.)
But enough background trivia; The Bridge on the River Kwai is epic storytelling at its most vibrant and satisfying. Sir Alec Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, the commander of a brigade imprisoned deep within the Ceylon (Sri Lanka) jungle. At the mercy of an intense Japanese colonel called Saito, Nicholson's men are assigned with a rather difficult engineering task: They must build a railroad bridge over a mild river (called Kwai, obviously), which will allow Japanese forces to travel from Bangkok to Rangoon. But Nicholson refuses to allow his imprisoned officers to assist in the construction effort, an attitude that leads to all sorts of complications. And then there's the matter of an American prisoner (as played by William Holden) who (barely) manages to escape the camp before begin enlisted for a mission to ... destroy the very bridge that Nicholson's men are building.
The most enjoyable side of Kwai is that of its wartime irony. These soldiers have no interest in helping the Japanese forces to build their (rather important) bridge, but when you're a P.O.W. unit, there's not really much you can do but hope to stay alive for the next day of backbreaking labor. But then Nicholson becomes more than a little confused, allowing his intense sense of British honor to cloud his judgment. Before too long the lines between captor and captive are hopelessly blurred, and with the saboteurs on the way, we're in for one hell of an intense finale.
Video: All three films are presented in their appropriate aspect ratios: Navarone in an anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) format, Eternity in 1.33:1 full frame, and Kwai in an expansive 2.55:1 widescreen. The films all look pretty darn good, although you'll find plenty of minor source-glitchery in Eternity.
Audio: Navarone offers Dolby Digital or 2.0 English, or mono tracks in French or Spanish; Eternity delivers mono tracks in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese; Kwai offers 5.1 or 2.0 English, as well as mono tracks in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. All three movies come with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, Thai, and Chinese.
Each of the movie platters contain the supplements found in previous releases:
The Guns of Navarone packs some solid extras onto its platter: an audio commentary with director J. Lee Thompson, a x-minute featurette entitled Memories of Navarone (29:31), which offers interview segments with Thompson, Peck, Quinn, and Darren, an antiquated Message from Carl Foreman, which sees the writer/producer welcoming viewers to Navarone's Australian premiere, some theatrical trailers for The Guns of Navarone and Behold a Pale Horse, and some selected filmographies. Also worthwhile to armchair historians will be the collection of four original featurettes, each of which are 4.5 minutes in length and titled Great Guns, No Visitors, Honeymoon on Rhodes, and Two Girls on the Town. True, these aren't much more than old-school promo pieces, but at least they're interesting old-school promo pieces.
From Here to Eternity comes with a very skimpy featurette called The Making of From Here to Eternity, which doesn't even run three minutes in length, a 9-minute collection of on-set footage and interviews culled from a documentary entitled Fred Zinneman: As I See It, the original theatrical trailers for From Here to Eternity, The Guns of Navarone, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and some selected filmographies. The best piece of supplemental material comes in the form of an audio commentary with Tim Zinneman (the son of the director) and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who didn't write Eternity but did have a small acting role.
The Kwai platter offers only a few talent files and the theatrical trailers for The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, Fail-Safe, and Lawrence of Arabia.
The icing on the double-dip cake are a pair of war-oriented extras: On a separate disc you'll find a rock-solid 45-minute documentary from The History Channel called Weapons at War: The Fighting Leathernecks of WWII, which focuses on the numerous WWII battles fought (and won) by our Marines as they hopped from one tiny Pacific island to another. Also slipped into the box set is a 26-page scrapbook that delivers production notes, filmmaker quotes, cast filmographies, poster galleries, and lots of slick photos. A nice little touch, to be sure.
Here we have three war movies, two of which are Best Picture winners and one of which is a fictional tale of high-flying wartime adventure. If you're a war-movie buff who already owns these three films, then you might not need to make the upgrade just to get a little booklet and a History Channel special ... but, then again, if you're a hardcore war-movie buff, those two extra goodies might just be enough to earn the double-dip, anyway!
Either way, three solid war films, a few cool toys, and a damn fine price point. That's how this box set (and its companion piece) earns our Highly Recommended rating. If you're in the market for only one of these sets, I say stick with this one. Anzio is included in the other set, and it's (easily) the weakest of all six war flicks.