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Too Late the Hero

Too Late the Hero
MGM Home Entertainment
1970 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 134 min. / Street Date May 25, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Michael Caine, Cliff Robertson, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews, Ronald Fraser, Denholm Elliott, Henry Fonda, Ken Takakura
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Production Designer James Dowell Vance
Art Direction James Dowell Vance
Film Editor Joseph Harrison, Michael Luciano
Original Music Gerald Fried
Screenplay Lukas Heller story by Robert Aldrich, Robert Sherman
Produced and Directed by Robert Aldrich

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Too Late the Hero was touted as a followup to Robert Aldrich's smash hit The Dirty Dozen, but it made little impression on 1970 audiences. Although the acting is fine the script is little more than a hyped "lost patrol" story that hinges on a particularly unbelievable gimmick.


Japanese interpreter Lt. Sam Lawson (Cliff Robertson) is loaned out to the British to accompany a foray through Japanese territory on a jointly-held island. His patrol leader Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott) isn't respected, while Pvt. Tosh Hearne (Michael Caine) heads a sullen group of Brit "volunteers" who are less than happy with what they perceive is a suicide mission.

It sounded great: Another Robert Aldrich tough-guy war film. But Too Late the Hero has mostly mutiny on its mind, and in Lukas Heller's script there's no room for non-cynical attitudes. Cliff Robertson's lieutenant is incensed that he has to go anywhere near a battle front, and behaves like a snooty athletic star in front of a captain played by Henry Fonda. Since Fonda carries himself like an admiral, this scene never seems quite right. The British are a kind of sub - Bridge on the River Kwai cross-section of types. Harry Andrews is the tough Colonel, Denholm Elliott the "jolly good," over-polite Captain, and Caine and company a borderline-mutinous bunch of layabouts. Ronald Fraser and Ian Bannen, both from Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix are excellent, but we can tell that most of the others are there to be picked off one by one in various skirmishes with the Japanese.

As lost patrol movies go the bulk of Too Late the Hero isn't bad, although its complete negativity couldn't have been reassuring to 1970 audiences with relatives in Vietnam. An ambush on a trail results in Hornsby's men shooting each other. Most of the soldiers are thinking of ways to abort the mission before they're all killed. One even asks if the mission will have to be cancelled, should the Yank Japanese expert meet with an accident.

The movie bogs down with good scenes we expect (various ambushes) and awkward scenes we don't expect. Japanese guest star Ken Takakura (The Yakuza) broadcasts surrender offers to the Brits over a system of wired loudspeakers that seem to cover twenty miles of jungle trail. The Japanese never see fit to simply cut the Allied patrol off, even when they're separated by only a few hundred yards. There's always time for an argument or other dialogue scene before the action restarts. When Takakura is revealed as a reasonably civilized foe, we don't have any particular reaction.

Likewise, the important "big mission" turns out to be the last thing our heroic soldiers are thinking about, as all they want to do is survive. The actual literal meaning of the film's title is a blur. It's obviously trying to be ironic but it escapes me just the same. We know what kind of picture we're watching when the title sequence shows American, Japanese and British flags decomposing into rags across a series of lap dissolves.

Too Late the Hero suffers terribly from an unconvincing basic setup. The Japanese hold the entire island except for an English base at the southern tip. To leave this base, any patrol must pass through a large open field, running a gaunlet of Japanese mortars and sniper fire. The British mention a "safe line" that their soldiers must stay behind to be safe, but we never believe any of it. Why the Japanese aren't lobbing their mortar shells into the enemy camp isn't clear, and why they just don't rub the whole thing out isn't clear either. This silly gauntlet idea seems to have been the motivation behind the whole movie, as if Aldrich dreamed it up after the enthusiastic audience response to Jim Brown's "broken-field run" in The Dirty Dozen. It didn't work on 1970 audiences and still seems like a foolish miscalculation. 1

MGM's DVD of Too Late the Hero is one of their releases of an ABC holding through Buena Vista (No explanation has surfaced for the arrangement). The pleasingly enhanced 1:85 image looks good but not great throughout. The IMDB says that there were 70mm stereophonic prints made of the film but the track here appears to be mono.

The only extra is a loud trailer that stresses the film's action.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Too Late the Hero rates:
Movie: Good ---
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2004


1. Too Late the Hero makes me want to see a scarce English film by Val Guest from 1958 called Yesterday's Enemy. The late critic Raymond Durgnat praised its rebuttal to the typical "we won, rah rah" combat film of the time. In it, a British patrol in S.E. Asia soon drops any pretense of following military rules or even human decency in order to survive: torturing and shooting prisoners, etc. I'd like to see if it's really as good as it sounds; Val Guest's other contribution to war movies was the exploitative Camp on Blood Island.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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