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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Manila Calling (Fox Cinema Archives)
Manila Calling (Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // November 3, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted December 21, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Down and dirty B war actioner. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Manila Calling, the 1942 ripped-from-the-headlines war pic from Fox starring Lloyd Nolan, Carole Landis, Cornel Wilde, James Gleason, Martin Kosleck, Ralph Byrd, Charles Tannen, Ted North, Harold Huber, Sen Yung, Lester Matthews, Louis Jean Heydt, and Elisha Cook, Jr.. Set in the Philippines right after the U.S. and Philippine army was (temporarily) defeated by the Japanese, Manila Calling's storyline certainly won't get high marks for originality, but it delivers the hard-punching goods, with snappy dialogue, no-nonsense performances, and a healthy appreciation for the grim realities of sacrificial warfare. No extras for this nice black and white fullscreen transfer.

Mindanao Island, Philippines, summer, 1942. With the American/Filipino Army finally defeated by the Japanese, the remnants of the Philippine American Radio Communications Company--a diverse group of radio engineers left behind on the island--have turned into a guerrilla band, harassing the Japanese forces' propaganda efforts by cutting and destroying the power lines to their radio stations. When the group's leader is killed, however, soft-spoken Jeff Bailey (Cornel Wilde) is officially in charge, even though logic seems to dictate hard-charging Lucky Matthews (scrappy Lloyd Nolan), a veteran fighter of many conflicts, taking command. Matthews believes they should high-tail it to the coast and try to escape the island, while Bailey wants to stay, setting up their own allied radio post to counter the Japanese propaganda that is dampening native resistance. The opportunity for this arises when, forced by a lack of food and water, Lucky convinces Bailey to attack a lightly-guarded plantation, in order to secure supplies and weapons. The attack is a success, but some men die, and soon, the guerrillas realize the plantation's main Japanese force wasn't present during their attack...and they're coming back to re-take their command post. One by one the guerrillas are picked off as Lucky, his best buddy Tim O'Rourke (James Gleason, terrific), and their team try and survive--including visiting sexy chanteuse "Eddie" Fraser (Carole Landis, beautifully hard-bitten), a nightclub singer who's, um...traveling with cowardly plantation owner Wayne Ralston (Lester Matthews). When the Japanese cut off the water supply to the plantation, the situation becomes grim for the guerrillas, as Bailey and Gilman (Elisha Cook, Jr.) work on repairing the radio's generator, and as Santoro (Harold Huber) tries to fix a downed Japanese plane as a means of escape...for three people.

Anyone who's even casually acquainted with WWII movies from this time period won't find any surprises in Herbert I. Leeds' Manila Calling...but that doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile entry in the genre. Written by John Larkin (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Secret Agent of Japan), Manila Calling borrows heavily from John Ford's classic, The Lost Patrol, as well as countless imitations, with the familiar conventions--action versus caution, as personified by Nolan and Wilde, the various weaknesses and strengths of the quirky team members as they endure their pressure-cooker siege, the "buddies-in-arms" relationship of Nolan and Gleason, strained at the moment of death, yet gaining resolution at death--dutifully trotted out. Especially arbitrary is the completely unbelievable inclusion of Landis, which of course triggers Nolan's misogynistic ardor, due to his heavy, heavy romantic secret (what else--men died under him, and all because of some dame...). Newer viewers trained to be merely offended without allowing for deeper contextual understanding will hear another convention of these Pacific theater war outings--the word "monkey" used for the mostly unseen Japanese soldiers--and immediately tune Manila Calling right out...missing, of course, the fact that the allied engineers don't refer to their equally Asian Filipino cohorts that way (that's not an ameliorating excuse for the usage of the then-popular racist way of portraying the Japanese enemy, but rather just a clarification that it comes over here less as an outright ethnic slur, and more as a consciously calloused, hard-bitten term of derision for a hated enemy being fought to the death).

Displaying a gritty, grim "no screwing around" tone that's directly related to its then-urgent historical context (at this time, the Allies were suffering defeats in many theaters of battle), there's an admirable drive to Manila Calling--thanks also to Herbert I. Leeds' trim, energetic direction--that runs right over any minor quibbles one might have with its sometimes cliched elements. While obviously not a history lesson in the fall of the Philippines, its simplified, fictionalized, call-to-arms narrative nonetheless featured recognizable signposts from those days' headlines, giving it a muscular earnestness that passes most acceptably for verisimilitude. Equally divided between tough talk and tougher action, Manila Calling takes its two main undercurrents--"men doing/being a job" that Hawks exploited so well, and the war-dictated "never give up the fight, no matter how badly outnumbered"--and gives them realistic, unexpected solemnity that one doesn't usually get from other rah rah outings from this time period. A good example is the engineers' assault on the plantation. Nolan and Gleason pull an outrageous, unbelievable stunt of walking right into the camp, where they're soon mouthing off to the Japanese C.O. (making Irish jokes), and we groan at the silliness of it all. However, a realistic, violent guerrilla firefight ensues, with the engineers victorious. Nolan, jacked up on the adrenaline he craves from battle, is cocky, congratulating everyone on the win, but he's soon told two of their guys are dead, including the company's C.O., with the reality of the situation immediately dampening his glee. The "victory" is capped with a dour burial, with Nolan saying they were just men, no better or worse than anyone else, doing their job. It's hardly a sequence designed to up enlistment numbers.

A propagandistic call to duty can be found, however, in the final, expertly-designed Japanese assault on the plantation. SPOILER ALERT! As the bombs fall from the Japanese planes, the explosions in the plantation compound coming closer and closer together, the last allied survivors are killed off, one by one, as Nolan finally gets on the radio, rallying anyone listening to never give up the fight against the Japanese. Stirringly written by Larkin (and quite funny, too--when Nolan says MacArthur never made a date he didn't keep, he adds in his best American wise-ass nose-thumbing, "If you don't believe me, ask Mrs. MacArthur! Yeah...ask little Arthur MacArthur, too!"), it ends with Nolan clutching Landis as certain death nears, as he yells into the microphone, "This is a fight between a slave world, and a free world!" before his final, "Manila calling! Manila calling! Manila calling!" Tragically, as our own headlines bear out every day, his frantic, defiant summation is just as valid today.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Manila Calling looks pretty good, with decent-enough blacks, good contrast, a sharp image, and average screen imperfections.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is a bit squelchy, but otherwise strong. No subtitles or close-captions.

The Extras:
No extras for Manila Calling.

Final Thoughts:
Tough WWII actioner. Yes, there are certainly cliched elements in Manila Calling--if you've seen one "small band under siege" war movie, you've probably seen them all. However, Manila Calling maintains a straight face throughout its speedy exposition, while the action scenes are appropriately harsh. I'm recommending Manila Calling.

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.

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