Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Devil's Brigade (1968)

The Devil's Brigade (1968), made by veteran television director Victor McLaglen (he helmed seven episodes of Perry Mason, six episodes of Rawhide and a whopping ninety-nine episodes of Have Gun--Will Travel), is a sturdy, workmanlike and unremarkably solid World War II film about a special commando unit comprised of American and Canadian soldiers utilized by Allied generals in Italy.

William Holden stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick, a terse, tightly-wound and tough guy responsible for folding the American soldiers under his command into a powerful fighting force with Canadian soldiers. Cliff Robertson plays Irish-Canadian Major Alan Crown, Frederick's counterpart. As usual in films about two heroically sketched characters summoning their men in a mutual cause, there's practically no tension whatsoever between these two. There is only one scene in the film that depicts them as anything other than friendly. In that scene Crown cautions Frederick about the misfortunes of war after being told point blank by the rugged American colonel that he's uninterested in molding the unit the way Canadians would because they lost at Dunkirk. (If you didn't know Dunkirk was ultimately a very successful British evacuation going in, you wouldn't learn it from the film.) It's the strongest scene in the film even if it's not terribly fresh on its own.

The Devil's Brigade has been knocked as an inferior rip-off of 1967's Robert Aldrich film, The Dirty Dozen. That film, with its story of a group of misfit prisoners becoming heroes under the command of the incomparatively sedulous Lee Marvin was pure fantastical fiction. Vastly more colorful than The Devil's Brigade, The Dirty Dozen is eminently more enjoyable. The cast makes a difference. In one film you have Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes in a pressure cooker. The Devil's Brigade's supporting players include Vince Edwards as a cruelly underdeveloped irresponsible American Major (he smokes a lot and acts gruff and roughly antiheroic, a cliched American staple of the Good War that could and should have become more), Andrew Prine as a fairly nondescript American private, Jeremy Slate as a crafty and suave Irish-Canadian close-combat expert and trainer, Claude Akins as a big, beefy and briefly unsympathetic American lug and Jack Watson as a Canadian corporal who's the object of Akins' blind dislike of Canadians early on--naturally, before the film is over, they become achingly good buddies.

The Devil's Brigade is proof positive that historical accuracy is just fine and dandy, but when you make a film that wants to be a blood and guts war movie with bombastic, time-honored scenes detailing the ins and outs of a barroom brawl, you really should go all the way with it and flesh out the eccentric characters. Brigade feels stuck between a vague, but perhaps honorable, attempt to bridge some welcome verisimilitude to the standard Hollywood war picture and the old-fashioned wartime melodrama boasting an array of wildly idiosyncratic characterizations that might have been made in the '30s and '40s starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and others.

The film most bluntly comes to life during its extended sequences of battle, which are given just enough punch to compel the viewer into continuing the viewing, hoping that they will service the drama of the story more than just being almost the sole source of it. Ultimately, the Holden and Robertson characters are almost cyphers. They each have, in reality, engrossing backstories and fascinating backgrounds--the film touches upon these in analyzing their chief difference, being that Frederick has never been in combat and is called on it a couple of different times whereas Crown is seen as something of a near-failure because of his experience in the inferno of wartime hell--but the film never allows those elements to properly blossom, and it's a shame.


sartre said...

Congratulations on a well written and argued first review Alexander. Is this a new DVD release? I'm curious as to why you chose the film.

Alexander Coleman said...

I merely chose it because I just saw it from TCM. Looking over at Amazon, apparently it has been on DVD since 2002. Thank you for the kind words.

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