Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When a Fritz Lang movie is released I feel honor bound to review it. The Auteur Theory may have its limitations but Fritz certainly fits into the mold; his movies are truly distinctive. The folk that knock this particular title complain that it has no place in the 'Langian' worldview. Lang himself dismisses the film as an assignment done just to stay busy and maintain solvency. It's 'just a war movie,' without the dense moral jeopardy we associate with Lang.
Other moviemakers should make such dull movies. Unlike most war pictures of the period, the story of a stranded Navy officer on Cebu is a straightforward account of the kind of adventures undertaken by Americans that didn't want to surrender without putting up a fight. So few were able to make that choice. Tregaskis' true account Guadalcanal Diary became a popular wartime movie, but the war was over before Navy Ensign Rich Richardson's story, told to writer Ira Wolfert, could be filmed. American Guerrilla in the Philippines had to wait five years to be made. By that time, a near- documentary approach was commercially acceptable.
In April '42 Ensign Chuck Palmer (Tyrone Power) has his torpedo boat shot out from under him. His crew splits up to avoid capture, and with sailor Jim Mitchell (Tom Ewell) Chuck makes it to Colonel Benson in Leyte. Unfortunately, Benson (Robert Patten) has been ordered to surrender. Chuck gets permission to buy a large canoe, with the idea of sailing it all the way to Australia. When that plan fails, he and Jim fall in with resistance guerrillas led by local fighter Miguel (Tommy Cook). They eventually help build a fighting network to harass the Japanese, until MacArthur returns.
Filmed on location in Technicolor, American Guerrilla is quite a production, handled brilliantly by Lang. Just moving the camera and lighting with Technicolor is so unwieldy that many shows appear to be simplified just so they can be filmed in a reasonable time: Losey's The Boy with Green Hair, Lang's own Rancho Notorious. As the realistic picture has a limited number of action scenes, Lang gives us some sequences neatly blocked with only an angle or two; yet we never have the feeling that shots are hanging on too long. The film lacks the kind of unique concept we expect from a Fritz Lang film. Yet he tells a special story without compromising or trivializing the truth.
The picture functions as sort of a follow-up to the end of They Were Expendable, that rare Ford war picture that puts unpleasant duty ahead of flashy heroics. As with the Robert Montgomery / John Wayne movie, the losing effort to resist the Japanese in the middle of a retreat is not much fun. Palmer's big idea of sailing to glory fizzles out in three days. I think I know why viewers don't celebrate American Guerrilla. Its hero is willing and optimistic, but he doesn't have all the answers. The local Filipinos know better how to fight and survive. The wife of a local planter, Jeanne Martinez (Mischeline Presle) warns him against the foolhardy voyage to Australia, and she turns out to be right. Even the pig they take has sense enough to jump ship.
The fighters under Chuck and Miguel do indeed ambush a Japanese patrol or two, but several episodes run shockingly counter to the 'noble warrior' rule book. Chuck's first big plan almost results in drowning the stranded AAC fliers that elect to come along with him. The Japanese kill many locals, but the resistance fighters still don't give up. Unlike the Czech rebels in Lang's earlier, ferocious Hangmen Also Die!, these Filipino fighters don't play around with 'possible' informers. Miguel kills one potential traitor as soon as the man falls under suspicion. At one point an important character is gashed in the belly, and is said to 'have his intestines hanging out.' With no doctor available, Chuck steps forward to perform an amateur, hail Mary operation. The outcome reminds us not of noble deeds in war movies, but the grim reality of what it's like to be in a real war zone, away from civilized help, and SOOL.
Finally, Chuck runs into a small group of rogue American survivors that have 'left the program' altogether, neither surrendering nor fighting. After their leader (Jack Elam!) makes a patriotic speech claiming to represent a non-existent resistance group, the group takes the money and food they're given back into the hills. The movie doesn't condemn these conmen. Considering how many Americans trapped in the Philippines were imprisoned in death camps or just plain murdered, what the beggars are doing sounds altogether reasonable. 1
I can't report on the tone of the original book. Veteran writer Lamar Trotti gives the characters personality without hamming things up. Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch) plays things too straight to serve as standard comic relief; he's just more lighthearted than Power's rather Boy Scout-ish leading man. Ewell's strongest scene sees his swabbie hiding behind a rotted log while Japanese soldiers poke their bayonets through the weeds in his direction. Dozens of ants are crawling on his bare feet, biting him, and he can't move or make a sound. I can see Luis Buñuel sitting through this picture twice, to enjoy that scene a second time.
The show has a serviceable but equally underplayed romance. Tyrone Power's dreamboat Ensign indeed meets a ravishing local planter's wife, complete with a ripe French accent. Although they obviously like each other, they mind their manners. Unfortunately for her husband the Japanese intervene, allowing the relationship between Chuck and Jeanne to progress a level or two. 2
A more memorable finish might have made American Guerrilla into a bigger hit. The Japanese have trapped our heroes in a church when an 11th-hour relief force arrives, a development that breaks the film's near complete avoidance of standard outcomes to generic situations. And there's no discussion afterwards, no plan for Chuck and Jeanne to find a preacher or anything. The survivors of the resistance just stand in the road and wave at General MacArthur as he drives through. It's as if the producer was told to just, 'wrap it up.'
Author Ira Wolfert later adapted his acid-tinged novel Tucker's People into the fiercely anti-capitalist noir Force of Evil. But only the American scavengers in American Guerrilla in the Philippines hints at anything off-kilter. What we remember is the fluid way Lang departs from his usual studio-built reality and adapts to shooting on location. Nothing in the movie tries to be decorative, although there are attractive scenes, such as a local bamboo dance at a party. Nothing tries to be spectacular, yet we always believe that what we're seeing is the way it was.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of American Guerrilla in the Philippines is a good rendering of this colorful war film, that Darryl Zanuck purposely rushed into release before the Korean Police Action began. The source is clearly an Eastman composite element made from the Technicolor original, so contrast and colors are not quite accurate to what an original IB Tech print might be (we saw one projected at UCLA just over forty years ago). But the image is clean, attractive and sharp, and I saw no instances of mis-registered color fringing. The sound is mostly good, after an opening that on my speakers was a tad distorted. I too would like to live in a world where all Technicolor movies are digitally re-composited and fully restored. This will have to do for now.
Fox provides no extras. The disc may be bought separately (it's been out for two years in that form) or in a newly-issued triple pack with the Tyrone Power movies Diplomatic Courier (a rather good pre-Bond spy adventure) and Love is News. Each show is on a separate disc.
Except for a couple of lost silent films, I've now seen everything Lang directed, and thanks to releases like this, have most everything on disc as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Guerrilla in the Philippines rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 3, 2015
1. My father came close to being in the same boat as the fliers in this movie. In 1941 he was a Tech Sergeant with the Army Air Corps at Hamilton Field. But a truck accident put his arm in a cast for two months, which caused him to be left behind when his entire group was relocated to the Philippines. Almost all of them were forced to surrender to the Japanese, and many were sent on the Bataan Death March.
2. I haven't seen beautiful Micheline Presle in many movies. I want to see her in William Dieterle's late-career German films Die Herrin der welt teil1 and Die Herrin der welt teil 2, a two-part science fiction international spy chase story that sounds similar to Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World. I haven't many heard good things about it so far ... is anyone out there familiar with it? The English title is Mistress of the World, but I'm not sure it was ever released here.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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