The Bedford Incident (1965) ****

A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war. Perhaps you could not find a more contemporary theme,

Capt Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer commander hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) – re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships – and Lt. Commander Chester Potter (Martin Balsam),  a ship’s doctor. In effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects to  challenge his operational methods, and, as a narrative device, to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know.  Among the ship’s crew are young ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) and former  German former U-boat commander Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who acts as an advisor.

The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.

The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could at any time just explode; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Dr Potter revealed as a civilian medic returning to the service as a refuge, Munceford as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Schrepke has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss, Ralston one of the few on board finding the pressure hard to handle.  

But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory. 

Sidney Poitier (Duel at Diablo, 1966) is excellent in a more relaxed role, combative only in matters of intelligence, and probably benefitting from not having to carry the picture. James MacArthur (The Truth about Spring, 1964) shows acting maturity is moving away from the easier Disney roles in which he came to prominence.  Character actor Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965) excels as always in this kind of role, a man with hidden weakness. Eric Portman (The Man Who Finally Died, 1963), somewhat typecast as a German officer, is given a deeper role where villainy is not his only ace.  If you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of The Dirty Dozen (1967) alumni Donald Sutherland, as part of the medical crew, and Colin Maitland as a seaman.

The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much as to greenlight a pet project but to keep a place at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961,  Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).   

But the billing oddity from today’s perspective if to find Sidney Poitier – coming off an Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (1963) and later a box office smash in his annus mirabilis of To Sir, With Love (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) – subordinate to Widmark in the credits department.  The Long Ships featured the same billing arrangement.

Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). Screenplay honors go to James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) who adapted the bestseller by Mark Rascovich.

Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.

Operation Mincemeat (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

British espionage team embarking on a scheme to fool Adolf Hitler during the Second World War find they are susceptible to deceit and deception in their own lives. What could have been a plodding step-by-step documentary-style picture is given a huge fillip by examination of the lives of those involved. The twists and turns of this extraordinary tale, both in the professional and personal sense, make for a very enjoyable picture. It is no less thrilling for, like The Day of the Jackal (1973), being aware of the outcome.

Planning to invade Sicily in 1943, the Allies are determined to convince Hitler that they are instead more likely to attack Greece. The British come up with “Operation Mincemeat,” a variation on the Trojan horse with the “gift” this time being secret papers referring to the Greek assault that are contained in a briefcase attached to a corpse which washes up on the shores of Cadiz in Spain. The assumption is that the German high command is predisposed to being hoodwinked after having ignored the papers on a genuine corpse that came their way prior to the invasion of north Africa.

Tasked with devising the operation are the accomplished Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and the gawky Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) into whose orbit comes Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) whose persona is used to provide a romantic background for the corpse. Although the project has been given the green light from the highest authority i.e Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) not everyone is in favour and the team face obstacles, since technically the plan comes under the remit of the Royal Navy, from Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs).

The romantic intrigue that ensues creates sufficient resentment for one member of the team to spy on the other at the behest of the admiral, thus ensuring that those charged with deceiving Hitler through moral means are entering into immoral personal activity.  

But what drives this picture is the detail. Finding the correct type of corpse, ensuring it is preserved and has sufficient water in the lungs to make a convincing drowned man at the same time as creating a suitable legend for the character. Films dependent on the inner workings of espionage science, for want of a better word, do not always work. Enigma (2001), a riveting book, did not translate well onto the screen while The Imitation Game (2014), covering similar territory, did.  Here, the minutiae of minutiae are presented in such detail it is an education, down to the importance of an eyelash, how to extract a letter without breaking the seal on an envelope, and, critically how to judge whether the Germans have examined the material closely enough to ensure they have taken the bait.   

The story has already been told though not in such detail as “The Man Who Never Was” (1956)
but with Hollywood stars Clifton Webb and
Gloria Grahame playing the leads.

And that’s before other twists and turns. The corpse was a down-and-out, abandoned, so it appeared, by all and sundry, until out of the blue his sister arrives to claim the body. The coroner on duty in Cadiz turns out, against all expectations, to be an expert in drowning. The British Attache in Spain must seduce both genders to ensure smooth passage of the secret documents. On the more human side, widows abound, husbands lost in combat. A spy on the British side must be unmasked or rendered harmless. A host of other smaller stories unfold within the larger narrative. Above all lies the tension of the necessity for the operation’s success, failure would mean the deaths of thousands of men on the Sicily beachheads and possibly a thwarted invasion.

Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, 2018-2021) steals the show as the over-sensitive individual with the sense of entitlement that comes from having too big a brain, Oscar-winner Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2014) the imperturbable figure who finds emotion wreaks havoc, Kelly Macdonald  (Goodbye Christopher Robin, 2017) the secretary drawn deeper into a world where genuine emotion has little place.

The cream of British character actors providing sturdy support include Johnny Flynn (Emma, 2020) as spy writer Ian Fleming, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey: A New Era, 2022), Mark Gatiss (The Father, 2020), Alex Jennings (Munich: The Edge of War, 2021), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin, 2017) and Mark Bonnar (Guilt, 2019-2021). ,

Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love,  19980 directs with something approaching verve, never letting the pace drop, zipping from scene to scene, from the war effort into more intimate moments, without any sign of the tension flagging. In her movie debut Michelle Ashford (The Masters of Sex, 2014-2016) does an excellent job of distilling  Ben McIntyre’s bestselling book.

Sure, this is one of those British pictures in a long line of movies that show the country at its best, generally in the thick of war, but the story is so involving that it merits viewing. It is still showing at the time of writing in British cinemas but in the United States and Latin America it will air on Netflix on May 11.

The 7th Dawn (1964) ****

Women are the sacrificial victims here, the collateral damage as men of high principle battle for supremacy, politics held in greater esteem than relationships and family ties, a father willing to endanger his daughter, a lover viewing the potential death of his beloved as  publicity coup. Unusually, for a war picture, this is more about repercussion than heroic success. And it was well ahead of its time in taking a far more thoughtful, not to say probing, approach to the genre. Unusually, too, each of the main characters is driven by mistaken belief. It is very much a film where the surface is merely the patina to draw an audience into something more serious underneath and deserves considerable reappraisal.

Set in 1953 in Malaysia when the ruling British government was getting ready to pass over independence to the natives before they took it for themselves. Major Ferris (William Holden), a successful rubber plantation owner, is asked by incoming British High Commissioner Trumphey (Michael Goodliffe) to reach out to terrorist leader Ng (Tetsuro Tamba), a wartime friend and former rival in love for Dhana (Capucine), now Ferris’s mistress. Ng, wishing to ensure Communist dictatorship rather than western-style democracy, refuses to end the guerrilla war.

On his return, Ferris comes across governor’s daughter Candace (Susannah York) swimming naked close to a road notorious for ambush and murder. Meanwhile, Dhana, a teacher, has organised a demonstration to protest the imposition of a curfew. On hearing her out, Trumphey overturns the ban, only for that evening’s function at the embassy to be interrupted by a grenade. In reprisal the British torch a village where they suspect bombs are hidden, the action justified when several houses suddenly explode.

When Dhana finds Candace and Ferris together, aware of his previous infidelities, and shocked by the destruction of the village, she runs away to join Ng, who still holds a torch for her. When she returns, reconciling with Ferris, she is arrested after grenades are found in her bicycle. She is sentenced to death unless she informs on Ng, which she refuses to do.

Candace, with the conviction of the young, believes she can bring about Dhana’s reprieve by offering herself as a hostage to Ng. The terrorist leader in turn promises to kill Candace on the day Dhana is executed. So Ferris, believing the grenades were planted by the British, treks through the jungle to capture Ng, rescue Candace and return before the “seventh dawn” when Dhana will hang. 

The governor refuses to bow to the terrorist threat while Ng confesses that he framed Dhana on the basis that she is expendable. Cause and principle run side-by-side neither man willing to give in to save a loved one.

Caught in the political crossfire – Dhana, Ferris and Candace.

Nor are the women passive, pawns in the great game, the film opening with Dhana wielding a rifle and closing with Candace firing one. Both are willing to die for their cause, Candace perhaps less willingly since she had not foreseen that potential outcome. So this isn’t quite a picture about impotent women but in the end both are powerless against the greater forces of a vicious struggle.

Lewis Gilbert (Loss of Innocence, 1961) creates a thoughtful, even-handed, picture, getting rid of the British sense of superiority so prevalent in pictures about the Empire, using the American Ferris to question many British attitudes, setting Ng up as a respectable, rather than heinous, terrorist who genuinely fears that his people will be unable to cope with sudden independence and require support from Moscow, and bringing to the fore Dhana who initially appears a makeweight in the tale only to become its central focus. A couple of exceptional close-ups reveal character far more than dialogue, Dhana when her execution draws close and Ferris on discovering who set up his mistress. It’s a tribute to his direction that the fabulous scenery fades into the background when laid down beside the tribulations faced  by the characters, each with so much to lose rather than gain.

William Holden (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) is in his element, playing one of those characters that seem to come to easily to him, a man of questionable morals, happily profiteering from the misery of his fellow plantation owners, exploiting the wartime friendship with Ng that has saved him from ambush, forcing Dhana to cope with his infidelity, and yet with an upright core that spurs him into an action he deems stupid.

Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) is the surprise package, with some superb subtle acting as she faces up to the prospect of dying for a crime she did not commit. Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) is perhaps too innocent, setting out to snare a disreputable man, and she could have done with two extra scenes – one explaining her thought processes in offering herself as hostage and another a confrontation with the father who abandoned her. Tetsuro Tamba (You Only Live Twice, 1967) delivers a thoughtful performance as the man torn between friendship and love and carrying the weight of a nation’s expectation.

Oscar-nominated Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Durian Tree by Michael Keon.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) ***

Cynical and opportunistic Swedish oil executive Eric Erickson (William Holden) blackmailed into World War Two espionage finds redemption after witnessing first-hand the horrors of Nazi Germany. Two extraordinary scenes lift this out of the mainstream biopic league, the first Erickson witnessing an execution, the second a betrayal. While some participants in the espionage game pay a terrible price, others like spy chief Collins (Hugh Griffiths) manage to maintain a champagne lifestyle.

Structurally, this is something of a curiosity. The first section, with over-emphasis on voice-over, concerns Holden’s recruitment and initial attempts at spying on German oil installations on the pretext of building a refinery in Sweden. Although resenting the manner in which he was recruited, Erickson has no qualms about resorting to blackmail himself to enlarge his espionage ring.

But it’s only when Marianne Mollendorf (Lili Palmer) enters the frame as his contact in Germany that the movie picks up dramatic heft. As cover for frequent meetings, they pretend to be lovers, that charade soon deepening into the real thing. While abhorring Hitler, she suffers a crisis of conscience after realising that the information she is passing on to the Allies results in innocent deaths. The final segment involves Erickson’s thrilling escape back home.

The picture is at its best when contrasting the unscrupulous Erickson with the principled Marianne. Virtually every character is trying to hold on to a way of life endangered by the war or created by the conflict and there are some interesting observations on the way Erickson manages to harness foreign dignitaries while being held to hostage in his home country. Loyalties are sparing and even families come under internal threat.

Sweden was neutral during the Second World War so in assisting the Allied cause Erickson was effectively betraying his country and once, in order to keep proposed German investors sweet, he begins to spout Nazi propaganda at home finds himself deserted by friends and, eventually, wife.  

In some respects, Holden (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) plays one his typical flawed personalities, easy on the charm, fluid with convention, but once he learns the true cost of his espionage a much deeper character emerges. The actor’s insistence, for tax reasons, on working abroad – this was filmed on location in Europe – would hamper his box office credibility and although not all his movie choices proved sound this was a welcome diversion. Whether American audiences were that interested in what a Swede did in the war was a moot point, as poor box office testified. And the title might have proved too sophisticated for some audiences, given there was no counterfeiting of money involved.

Lili Palmer (Sebastian, 1968) is excellent as the manipulative Marianne, betraying her country in order to save it from the depredations of Hitler, not above using her body to win favour, but paralyzed by consequence. Hugh Griffith (Exodus, 1960) provides another larger-than-life portrayal, disguising his venal core. Werner Peters (Istanbul Express, 1968) puts in an appearance and Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) has a bit part.

Double Oscar-winner George Seaton (Airport, 1970) makes a bold attempt to embrace a wider coverage of the war than the film requires and could have done with concentrating more on the central Erickson-Mollendorf drama, especially the German woman’s dilemma, but, made before James Bond reinvented the idea of espionage, this remains a more realistic examination of duplicity in wartime.

CATCH-UP: William Holden pictures reviewed in the Blog are Alvarez Kelly (1966) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968); Lili Palmer movies reviewed are Operation Crossbow (1965), Sebastian (1968) and Hard Contract (1969).

The Battle at Lake Changjin II / Water Gate Bridge (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A raw visceral cinematic experience. After defeating superior American forces at Lake Changjin at the start of the Korean War, Chinese soldiers must prevent their retreat – and the arrival of reinforcements – by blowing up the Watergate Bridge in a blizzard. The bitter winter conditions, making it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead as the troops cross a mountain, freeze their weapons, compass and radio batteries. The assault is uphill over exposed ground.

This is non-stop battle told from the perspective of the grunts. Exposition regarding characters is minimal. That first hour or so in most Hollywood war movies where little happens except to build tension between participants and explore romantic elements is eliminated here. It’s all battle, beginning, middle and end, with no respite, brutal, bloody, horrific. The Americans have tanks, flamethrowers  and airpower, the Chinese don’t, so they are strafed, burned and blown up.

Setting aside politics and propaganda, and the questions of historical accuracy that haunt all war pictures, this is the most extraordinary on-the-ground combat as the Chinese seek to employ various strategies against another superior force, knowing U.S. reinforcements are on their way, and the defending Americans seek to suck them into a trap.  The fighting is intense, sacrifice the order of the day.

Best performances are delivered by brothers Wu Qiangli (Wu Jing), commander of the seventh company, and the undisciplined Wu Wanli (Jackson Lee) who grows up during battle. While emotions are necessarily reined in, no time for showboating here, intensity of feelings are still revealed, several wordless scenes between disparate characters show everything with just the eyes. As with all war pictures, comradeship under fire is all that matters, the connections between the band of brothers no less applicable here than when  William Shakespeare invented the phrase.

Like the best war films, strategy is vital. Here, the Chinese employ a variety of diversionary tactics while attempting to destroy key American positions, the HQ, the pump room. There are some brilliant battlefield observations. The Chinese work out the Americans have positioned their forces twenty meters apart because in between are their military supplies, so these are also targeted via mortar rounds. But basically it is scrapping for position inch by inch.

And this is not a film devoid of irony. Using captured American weapons, the Chinese, unable to read English, fire an ineffective piece of artillery against a tank. Seizing the HQ, the Chinese, unable to speak English, ask for the commanding office while the Americans, unable to speak Chinese and intent on surrender, respond they are unarmed, the matter resolved by an explosion. A flamethrower burning to death a wounded soldier melts the ice sufficiently for his companion to slide downhill to safety. And there are rare bursts of humour, one soldier preferring to chew “plastic” – captured chewing gum – in preference to beans so frozen they could chip your teeth.

This is as much a picture about the effect of war, and special effects show the impact of not just the destructive power but the energy imparted by exploding bombs, the part played in dismembering soldiers by the metal and stone of the defences, the flamethrowers that turn men from walking one minute to charred skeletons the next.

There are occasional cuts to the American high command, General Douglas Macarthur (James Filbird) attempts to persuade President Truman (Ben Z. Orenstein) to use the atom bomb. The Americans are not shown as idiots and there’s no upbraiding of their society and there is, among the carnage, at least one American hero in Bradley Bixler (Rudy van Gelderen). And there’s none of the bombastic or poetic influence of Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Thin Red Line (1998), no attempt to glamorize war, except of course that for the victors victory is always unforgettable. But the cost here is easily measured, the mortality rate enormous, at least two-thirds of the attackers died in the assault and in one company, out of 137 men involved, only one man was left standing.

I never saw the first film so I’ve no idea how this compares, but generally that movie got poor reviews, I guess as much to do with political stances as anything else. I suspect this picture will get as derisory a stack of reviews and, without taking sides, that would be unfair from a cinematic perspective because this is a wholly immersive encounter, with some brilliant action direction and stunning visuals in the main by Tsui Hark (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, 2104) with some assistance from the uncredited Kaige Chen (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) and Dante Lam (The Stool Pigeon, 2010).   

This is what comes of being an inveterate moviegoer and on those weeks when you have seen virtually everything else worthwhile on offer and still want to go to a movie, you end up seeing anything. Usually, this turns out to be some bedraggled horror picture or a lame rom-com like Marry Me (2022) but occasionally it means that you stumble across something exceptional.

The Ugly American (1963) ***

Terrific performance from Marlon Brando saves this prescient but preachy meditation on Vietnam. Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) is the new ambassador, whose political credentials are questioned by many,  parachuted into the fictional South-East Asia country of Sarkhan, knee-deep in civil war, communist north versus westernized south. The battleground is the American construction of a “Freedom Road” north to China which dissenters fear will be a conduit for the military. MacWhite owes his appointment to his friendship with Deong (Eeji Okada), a charismatic leader.

On arrival, the ambassadorial car is engulfed in a riot, car rocked, windscreens smashed. MacWhite shakes up a complacent embassy and though articulate and scholarly believes he holds the solution to the tricky situation while unwilling to accept that national self-determination does not necessarily mean complete hatred of the Americans. There is duplicity on both sides, rebels blaming U.S. truck drivers for deaths they caused, the Americans so used to getting their way they don’t stop to think if it is the right way.

Anxious not to be seen as a lapdog for Communism, MacWhite’s actions inflame the situation, while Deong falls victim to internal forces. Construction boss Homer Atkins (Pat Hingle) promotes the clever use of building hospitals along the road, thus encouraging locals to back it, but nobody falls for such honest skull-duggery masquerading as well-meaning intent.

Friends turning into enemies is a decent premise for any movie but this is over-burdened with debate that while interesting and providing a reflection of the times is basically a mixture of virtue-signalling and apportioning blame and, most heinous of failings, doesn’t really advance the story.

First-time director George Englund handles the action sequences well and captures the essence of a country about to explode against a background of growing tension and political machination. Use of Thailand as a location added authenticity.

The movie was based on a controversial novel by political scientist Eugene Burdick (who also wrote a more straightforward cold War thriller Fail Safe) and William Lederer, navy veteran and CIA officer, so it carried the stamp of authority in terms of putting forth the arguments for both sides. However, while the film bore only a “passing resemblance” to the book, according to co-author Burdick, he deemed it a superior achievement on the basis of its more dramatic treatment. Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) was the screenwriter who received blame and praise in equal measure.

Marlon Brando (Bedtime Story, 1964) exudes authority, broad shoulders packed into a suit, and brilliantly captures the anguish of a man led into disaster by arrogance. Coming off back-to-back flops One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), this was a considerable change of pace for the actor, the first of several excursions into political territory. Eeji Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1958) proves a worth opponent. Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968), Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1965) and Jocelyn Brando (The Chase, 1966) provide sterling support.

The movie did not just predict what would happen if the U.S. lost the battle for hearts and minds but a similar situation confronting the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in 1965 whose appointment was unwelcome in that country.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Castle Keep (1969) ****

A bit more directorial bombast and this could have matched Apocalypse Now (1979) in the surrealist war stakes. Never mind the odd incidents surrounding a small unit of G.I.s  taking over a magnificent Belgian castle towards the end of World War II prior to what turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge, this has on occasion such a dreamlike quality you wonder if it is all a figment of the imagination of one of the characters, wannabe writer Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.). Throw in a stunning image, for the beleaguered soldiers at the start, of a horsewoman charging by in a yellow cloak, so out of place that it carries as much visual impact as the unicorn in Blade Runner (1982), and we are in definite cult territory.

One of the unusual elements is that, in this unexpected respite from battle, the soldiers are defined by character traits rather than dialogue or bravery as would be the norm. This ranges from baker Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) taking over the village boulangerie and bedding the baker’s wife (Olga Bisera), mechanic Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) diving into a lake to rescue a Volkswagen he has adopted and the troops receiving a lecture on art history from Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal).

Commander Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) is not only brilliant in the art of war, but calmly  mentors Beckman through a firefight with an enemy airplane, teaches local sex workers how to make Molotov cocktails and, evoking ancient aristocratic tradition, enjoys conjugal relations with the conquered countess (Astrid Heeren), whose impotent husband (Jean-Pierre Aumont) encourages the relationship since the castle needs an heir.   

There is wistful revelation, Beckman clearly hankering after his turn with the countess, a trainee minister who wishes he had the courage to join the boys in the brothel, the young soldiers there being treated as children rather than customers. And there are juvenile pranks – moustaches are painted on statues, wine bottles used for ten-pin bowling practice.

But the surreal moments keep mounting up. The Volkwagen, though riddled with bullets, refuses to sink in the lake, a hidden German reveals himself by playing the same tune on a flute as one of the enemy, the countess often appearing as an ethereal vision.

Through it all is rank realism. Falconer knows a German previously shared the countess’s bed. The count will do anything to safeguard his castle and maintain the family line, even to the extent of incest, since his wife is actually his niece. But above all, while his troops believe the war is at an end and enjoy the pleasures at hand, Major Falconer prepares for rearguard action by the Germans, filling the moat with gasoline, planning to pull up the drawbridge and control the high ground. The battle, when it comes, is vivid and brutal, the initial skirmish hand-to-hand in the village before the Germans advance to the castle.

Burt Lancaster (The Swimmer, 1968) is superb, far removed from his normal aggressive or athletic persona, slipping with pragmatic ease from the countess’s bed to battle stations. War films in the 1960s were full of great individual conflicts often won on a twist of ingenious strategy but seldom have we encountered a soldier like Falconer who knows every detail of war, from where and how the enemy will approach, to the details of the range of weaponry, and knows that shooting dead four soldiers from a German scouting mission still leaves one man unaccounted for.

Patrick O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) also leaves behind his usual steely-eyed screen persona, here essaying a somewhat timid and thoughtful character. Peter Falk’s (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) baker is a beauty, a man who abandons war, if only temporarily, for a second “home,” baking bread, adopting a wife and child. In a rare major Hollywood outing French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont (Five Miles to Midnight, 1962) carries off a difficult role as a count willing to accept the humiliation of being cuckolded if it improves his chances of an heir. In one of only four screen appearances German actress Astrid Heeren (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) makes the transition from a woman going to bed with whoever offers the greatest chance of saving the beloved castle to one gently falling in love.

There is an excellent supporting cast. Bruce Dern (Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969) makes the most of a standout role as a conscientious objector.  You will also find Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, 1967), Al Freeman Jr. (The Detective, 1968), future director Tony Bill (Ice Station Zebra, 1968) and Michael Conrad (Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang, 1968).

Two top-name writers converted William Eastlake’s novel into a screenplay – Oscar-winning Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, 1966) and newcomer David Rayfiel who would work with Lancaster again on Valdez Is Coming (1971) and with Pollack on Three Days of the Condor (1973) and Havana (1990)

Sydney Pollack (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), who had teamed up with Lancaster on western The Scalphunters, 1968), does a terrific job of marshalling the material, casting an hypnotic spell in pulling this tantalising picture together, giving characters space and producing some wonderful images, but more especially for having the courage to leave it all hanging between fantasy and reality.

Expressions like  “we have been here before,” “once upon a time,” “the supernatural” and “a thousand years old” take solid root as the narrative develops and will likely keep spinning in your mind as you try to work out what it’s all about.

The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968) ***

Except for an ingenious escape attempt and Paul Newman spoofing his Cool Hand Luke  persona, this World War Two POW number falls into the “sounded like a good idea at the time” category. Harry Frigg (Newman), the American army’s most notorious escapee (though from British military prisons), is promoted from buck private to two-star general and parachuted into northern Italy to organize a breakout of five one-star generals.

The premise that the war effort is hampered by embarrassment at the generals being captured seems far-fetched as is the notion that the quintet are hopelessly incompetent when it comes to doing anything that sounds like proper army stuff. Adding another offbeat element is that they are being held in effectively a deluxe POW camp, an ancient castle run by Colonel Ferrucci (Vito Scotti), a former Ritz hotel manager with a lapdog attitude to the rich and powerful.

Almost immediately Frigg discovers an escape route through a secret door but is disinclined to go any further since it leads into the boudoir of the countess (Sylva Koscina). New Jersey inhabitant Frigg feels out of the place with the high-falutin’ generals and proceeds to get himself a cultural education. Meanwhile, the countess, obtaining her position through marriage rather than birth, trying to bolster his confidence naturally triggers his romantic impulses.

The humor is of the gentlest kind – Frigg taking advantage of his superiority, Italians speaking tortured English – and not much in the way of bellylaffs either. Director Jack Smight, who collaborated so well with Newman in Harper (1966) and manages to achieve a tricky balance in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), loses his way here, not least structurally, as the movie pingpongs between the generals, the commandant and Frigg and, thematically, issues of power. Crucially, he fails to rein in Newman.

The generals, squabbling among themselves for power, would be caricatures except that their characters are rounded out by the players, the pick being Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) as Cox-Roberts and Tom Bosley (Divorce American Style, 1967) as Pennypacker. The other generals are played by Andrew Duggan (Seven Days in May, 1964), John Williams (Harlow, 1965) and Jacques Roux (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963). Representing the American top brass in England are James Gregory ( a repeat role in the Matt Helm series) and Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

After her excellent turn as a mischievous and vengeful villain in Deadlier than the Male (1967), Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina comes down to earth with a less rewarding role as charming leading lady with a sly sense of humor rather than the femme fatale of A Lovely Way to Die (1968). Werner Peters (The Corrupt Ones, 1968) makes a late appearance as a Nazi and you might spot screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate) in a bit part.

The screenplay by Peter Stone (Arabesque, 1966) and Oscar-winner Frank Tarloff (Father Goose, 1968) is an odd mixture of occasional sharp dialogue and labored story. The set-up takes too long and you keep on wondering when it is going to get to the pay-off.

No doubt looking for some light relief after a quartet of heavier dramatic roles – Harper (1966), Torn Curtain (1966), Hombre (1967) and Harper (1967) – Newman acts like he has escaped the straitjacket of a considered performance and instead indulges in mugging and hamming it up, his body freeing up a barrage of mannerisms previously held in check.

Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

The Devil’s Brigade (1968) ***

I couldn’t get my head around the idea of the U.S. Army recruiting a bunch of undisciplined misfits, many with jail time, in order to link them up with a crack Canadian outfit. Turns out this part of the film was fictional, the Americans in reality responding to advertisements at Army posts which prioritized men previously employed as forest rangers, game wardens, lumberjacks and the like which made sense since the original mission was mountainous Norway.  I should also point out the red beret the soldiers wear is also fictional and while depicted on the poster sporting a moustache commanding officer Lt. Col. Frederick (William Holden) is minus facial hair in the film.

But, basically, it follows a similar formula to The Dirty Dozen (1967), training and internal conflict followed by a dangerous mission. The conflict comes from a clash of cultures between spit-and-polish Canucks and disorderly/juvenile Yanks though, as with the Robert Aldrich epic, the leader taking some of the brunt of the discontent.  Collapsible bunk beds, snakes under the sheets and a tendency to fisticuffs are the extent of the antipathy between the units, which is all resolved, as with The Dirty Dozen, when they have to take on people they jointly hate, in this case local bar-room brawlers in Utah.

The movie picks up once they are sent to Italy. Initially employed on reconnaissance, Frederick challenges Major-General Hunter (Carroll O’Connor) who wants to do things by the book and sets out to take an Italian position by trekking two miles up a riverbed, creeping into town by stealth and capturing the location without firing a shot. 

Next up is the impregnable Monte la Difensa. Taking a leaf out of the Lawrence of Arabia playbook, in a brilliant tactical move, the Americans attack the mountainous stronghold from the rear by way of a mile-high cliff.  But that’s the easy part. The rest is trench-by-trench, pillbox-by-pillbox, brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

The battle scenes are excellent and the training section would be perfectly acceptable except for the high bar set by The Dirty Dozen. That said, there is enough going on with the various shenanigans to keep up the interest, but we don’t get to know the characters as intimately as in The Dirty Dozen and there is certainly nobody in the supporting cast to match the likes of Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes. That also said, the men do bond sufficiently for some emotional moments during the final battle.

At this point William Holden’s career was in disarray, just one leading role (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) and a cameo (Casino Royale, 1967) in four years, and although his screen persona was more charming maverick than disciplined leader he carries off the role well, especially solid when confronting superiors, exhibiting the world-weariness that would a year later in The Wild Bunch put him back on top. Ironically, Cliff Robertson was coming to a peak and would follow his role as the strict disciplinarian Major Crown, the Canadian chief, with an Oscar-winning turn as Charly (1968). Vince Edwards (Hammerhead, 1968) as cigar-chomping hustler Major Bricker makes an ill-advised attempt to steal scenes.

This was the kind of film where the supporting cast were jockeying for a breakout role that would rocket them up the Hollywood food chain – as it did with The Dirty Dozen. Jack Watson (Tobruk, 1967) is the pick among the supporting cast, but he has plenty of competition from Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Claude Akins (Waterhole 3, 1967), Jeremy Slate (The Born Losers, 1967), Andrew Prine (Texas Across the River, 1966), Tom Stern (Angels from Hell, 1968) and Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). Veterans in tow include Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965) and Michael Rennie (Hotel, 1966).

William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) adapted the bestselling book by Robert H. Ableman and George Walton. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (Shenandoah, 1965) was more at home with the western and although there are some fine sequences and the battle scenes are well done this lacks the instinctive touch of some of his other films.

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