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The Dogs of War was something of a coup for DVD Savant in 2001, when my review spread the word that MGM's new DVD was a much longer International Cut of the feature never shown in the United States. The studio hadn't even included that fact in its promotional materials. I suggested that someone ought to tell actress JoBeth Williams that she's in a whole new movie she quite possibly had never seen -- most of her performance was cut out of the domestic version. The 1980 film was released in two versions, the 104-minute cut we saw and a 119-minute original cut shown abroad. If you last saw The Dogs of War in the theater or on VHS, it now has a half dozen new scenes restored. If you hate longer extended versions, Twilight Time thoughtfully includes the original U.S. theatrical cut, as well.
Although this action film about ruthless mercenaries in Africa seemed exploitative when new, it now plays like a mini-classic. Adapted from a Frederick Forsythe thriller, it still has vestiges of Brit macho elitism, but it's nothing like today's brain-dead action cinema, in which high-tech slaughter is considered its own 'production value'.
Director John Irvin takes on a macho story, but doesn't overdo the testosterone. Experienced mercenary leader Shannon (Christopher Walken) lives in a crummy NYC hotel room while waiting for his next mission. He entertains thoughts of quitting the trade to settle down with his ex-wife Jessie (JoBeth Williams), but his irresponsible manner once again frightens her off. On behalf of an ambitious platinum syndicate, Shannon visits the tiny African dictatorship of Zangaro to find out if its government can be easily overthrown. He's arrested and mercilessly beaten. A journalistic acquaintance named North (Colin Blakely) sneaks Shannon the pictures he needs as the Zangaronites hustle him out of the country. The shady English businessmen want Shannon to go back to Zangaro, this time with a private army of soldiers-for-hire, to effect a coup de'etat.
The late '70s were banner years for the popularity of mercenaries, those hired guns that fight for a paycheck. Movies have always had a romantic streak for soldiers of fortune. Rick Blane of Casablanca was supposed to be one before Ilsa Lund made him all soft and patriotic. In reality, mercenaries can be broken down into three clearly defined types. Ex-soldiers that can't get combat out of their blood are celebrated in the gory Dark of the Sun (The Mercenaries). A mercenary general-turned thief masterminds the hijacking in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The second kind is the political idealist, the sort that found themselves fighting in the Spanish Civil War. And the third is the civilian adventurer glamorized by books like Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War. This kind has been around since time began; a famous one in American history was the filibuster William Walker, who invaded Nicaragua twice in the years after our Civil War.
The mystique of the Mercenary got to be so prevalent in the late 1970s that there even was a magazine, Soldier of Fortune, that catered to the lifestyle. One would occasionally see on the television news a line of captured mercenaries in some African country or another, sentenced to death for their activities. Whether Soldier of Fortune magazine still exists or not, I don't know. It reportedly got into some trouble in the '80s for running advertisements seeking to hire real killers.
Christopher Walken is excellent as the mercenary leader who keeps a .45 in the fridge. Shannon has been beaten, wounded, infested and diseased so many times, his doctor just throws his arms up in defeat. Around him collects a group of disaffected adventurers with real qualifications and abilities. Unlike the designer-chic cowboy guns of The Magnificent Seven, these guys are a fairly colorless bunch of brutes who are failures in home life but utterly reliable in combat. Besides a muscular, young Tom Berenger, whose character volunteers so as to be absent while his wife is pregnant, the group includes Paul Freeman, fresh from The Long Good Friday and soon to become a stylish villain for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hammer fans may be interested in seeing a hearty-looking Robert Urquhart as a shady sea captain, 23 years after his leading role in The Curse of Frankenstein.
The Dogs of War is an interestingly detailed and credibly mounted tale of a dirty mission to overthrow a fictitious West African dictatorship. It's a little gun-happy, but only to the extent that the mercenaries are themselves. A lot of time and effort are expended explaining how the arms for the mission are rounded up and smuggled to Africa, before the excellent battle scenes at the end. John Irvin's direction does such a nice job of keeping things low-key that even the signature scene of Tom Berenger whooping in delight while firing an exotic multipurpose grenade gun hits just the right note. No Rambo theatrics here.
When action stories are taken seriously, they usually become character studies. What kind of man does work like this. The Dogs of War avoids scenes where people discuss the topic but pretty much decides that the attraction is combat for its own sake coupled with a need for the Howard Hawks-like macho-buddy relationships that form. Anybody so unlucky as to be related to these losers seems to get the sticky end of things. How are the survivors going to cash the life policies Shannon arranges, after the insurance company discovers that 'acts of war' were involved? Shannon himself cannot keep a wife, and he cannot make a friend even when the amiable television reporter played by the great Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) goes out of his way to help. In a nice touch, Shannon deeds his insurance benefits to the sullen black kid (Kelvin Thomas) who is his only friend in New York.
The other given is the double-cross, which in the case of The Dogs of War gets nicely complicated. Shannon openly despises his employers, and has no qualms about torturing and killing the private detectives they send to snoop on him. In trying to guess Shannon's motivations for taking the job we must factor in his desire to revenge himself upon the petty tyrants that tortured him in Zangaro. The wide-eyed, hyper-stimulated rapture on Shannon's face at the peak of his strike finally explains his character. This seems to be the only time he's really alive, in total control of his surroundings, at full power, so to speak. He also looks like a fiend from Hell.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Dogs of War is a much improved transfer that shows off the handiwork of legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff. A pioneer in the old Technicolor system, Cardiff made his career shooting in difficult locations (The African Queen, Legend of the Lost). He goes against his Technicolor style to make the image look as natural as possible. Colors in the jungle are subdued, bu he excels with his night photography, where an entire African township is realistically illuminated without our questioning where all the light is coming from. The lighting effects during the battle are actually quite brilliant, with detail, contrast and focus so controlled in shot after shot that we soon forget about such concerns and soak in the story instead. The cinematography here contrasts with the (differently-styled, true) photography of something like Escape from New York. In that movie the image quality slides all over the map, and we're always painfully aware that the night streets have been artificially lit.
The image looks great, gritty where Cardiff wants it gritty and softer in other sequences, as when Shannon visits his wife. Timing glitches in the old DVD have been eliminated. In one shot of a plane taking off (in the International Version) the sky still blooms with blotches left over from some kind of chemical defect.
The one disc actually contains both the International Cut and the U.S. Theatrical version; if the two are achieved through seamless branching, I detected no switching during playback. The music score by Geoffrey Burgon is showcased in the Isolated Score Track. An original trailer is included.
Julie Kirgo's insert booklet essay lauds Christopher Walken as a magnetic presence, and indeed he's great. I hadn't though that his grace as dancer adds to his 'cool' image as a killer with a non-macho personality. Ms. Kirgo then goes into production stories and other background. I should have paid more attention in school, as the title quote is from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
The restored scenes flesh out the non-action part of the movie, greatly enhancing Shannon's psychology and motivations, as well as those of his pirate crew. Fifteen years later, they're no longer red-hot news, yet they make a surprising contribution to the show. Besides wanting a shorter running time, United Artists probably decided that the overly-complicated actioner didn't need its leading character to have a personal background. The business about Shannon's poor relationship with his ex-wife is filled in nicely with the new footage (which presumably, UK viewers got to see). The fact that Shannon has need for a family is nicely sketched, especially the baptism scene and his offer to the little black kid. When the film came out, poor JoBeth Williams must have flipped to see her already-abbreviated presence reduced from a major plot point to a quick hop in the bed with an old flame. Now she really contributes. Williams was one of a dozen great actresses of the '80s that never got the roles they deserved, and the bits restored here are choice.
Perhaps the cuts just before the voyage gets underway can be justified, but it's nice seeing Walken sweat messy details like making shadowy arms dealers come through on their bargain. The dockside scenes also reinforce the illegality of what's going on. Finally, the drawbridge scene may have seemed slow to the UA cutters, but it's needed just so that there is at least one hitch in Shannon's raid, which otherwise goes smoothly for all but those who get shot, anyway. The Dogs of War probably didn't have a breakout success because it was so realistic -- there are no adventure movie cliches, no big character double-crosses, no hyped melodrama with the heroine taken hostage by the other side, etc. It's a good movie. And if it inspired a psycho gun freak to go get himself killed somewhere else instead of staying home and going postal, well, that's good too.
The restored scenes are fully described in my old review of the 2001 The Dogs of War DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Dogs of War Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.