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.

Book into Film – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Not unexpectedly, director John Sturges shifted the action of the Alistair MacLean Doomsday-scenario thriller from Britain to the United States and the locale of the secret chemical facility from lush English countryside to desert and from above ground to underground. Not unusually, either, wholesale changes were made to the names of all the characters. The MacLean chief investigator was called Pierre Cavell, but Sturges altered that to Lee Barrett (George Maharis), chief scientist Dr Gregori becomes Dr Hoffman (Richard Basehart), General Cliveden turns into General Williams (Dana Andrews), his daughter Mary becomes Ann (Anne Francis). MacLean’s Cavell was far from the handsome Hollywood hero, walking with a limp and face scarred. Mary is his wife and not, as in the Sturges version, an ex-flame.

More surprisingly, Sturges inserted a 15-minute prologue. The initial scenes taking place at the research facility are pure invention on the part of screenwriters James Clavell (633 Squadron, 1964) and double Oscar-winner Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964), although drawing on material dealt with as backstory in the original novel. In typical Alistair MacLean fashion, the novel went straight into the action with the attempt to recruit Cavell/Barrett for nefarious purposes, allowing the reader/viewer the chance to learn about his past.  

There are other considerable differences between book and film. In the first place Sturges widened out the action, so that the idea of mankind in complete peril is more obviously cinematically achieved. (In the book a small village is wiped out after a nerve gas attack with London the main objective for the Satan Bug).  In addition, the General plays a greater on-screen role and in some respects controls the manhunt.

But the narrative thrust of film and book go their separate ways. Barrett,a Korean war veteran, operates in standard espionage territory while Cavell is more of an old-fashioned detective, interviewing suspects. While Barrett, with the help of the General, closes in on the suspect responsible for the panic, Cavell had to investigate myriad possibilities before fixing on the culprit.

Perhaps the most important differences are that MacLean’s hero solves the mystery primarily through his own skill while Barrett is less self-reliant. Cavell often informs his mystified superiors that he knows exactly what is going on.  A further departure from the film is that Cavell spots the real reason for the theft of the Satan Bug, realizing it is merely a front for a bigger plot. With the author’s usual audacity this supposes that the villain’s blackmail scheme is simply a method of clearing out central London in order to carry out a series of heists on bank vaults while the city is deserted of all personnel and police.  

However, the heist to end all heists had already being adequately covered in terms of grand larceny in Goldfinger the previous year and Sturges could clearly see the cinematic benefits of an audience fearing the impact of wholesale slaughter rather than worrying whether a James Bond-type hero would survive. Sturges correctly calculated that audiences would respond more to the paranoia pervasive at the time than individual derring-do. In some respects, Sturges created a template for future bug movies that threatened to leave swathes of the population dead such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Outbreak (1985). Silent destruction – rather than the devastating fire rained down by invading aliens – also touched on implicit human fears of unknown powers at work and of course is now decidedly contemporary.

The screenwriters did lift complete sections from the book – the initial interrogation of Cavell/Barrett, how the dogs were silenced at the facility, the nerve gas attack on the imprisoned pursuers (in an abandoned gas station in the film, a farm in the book), and Barrett’s insistence that the bad guys take away Ann immediately prior to this attack.

But most of the Sturges film veers so far from the Alistair Maclean blueprint that it relies heavily on the invention of the screenwriters. But it would be interesting to know why they deprived Barrett – perhaps determined to establish him as a loner – of more personal ties for in the novel it is the wife who is endangered not an old girlfriend and the investigator’s best friend is among the casualties at the facility.

The book itself is highly recommended, not just tautly- but well-written. The author’s later books were often a parody of his earlier excellence but this novel, published in 1962, is one of his best and well worth a read.

The Satan Bug (1965) ***

Director John Sturges blows apart all the conventions of the genre and boy does he enjoy playing with the audience in this Alistair Maclean pandemic thriller. Hero Barrett (George Maharis) takes fifteen minutes to arrive and the second main character General Williamson (Dana Andrews) another thirty minutes. We shift from docu-drama to pure detection to a manhunt that is way ahead of its time. General Williamson marshals an air-sea-land operation that pulls a dragnet so tight it seems the villains cannot escape – but that is just another device to throw the audience off track.

Most spy/thrillers take place in glorious color or in noir night, but here we are either in broad desert daylight, with vistas so wide and dirty brown nothing can escape the camera, or in murky twilight where anyone could get away, so that when we reach Los Angeles civilization is like a lush new world.  In the arid desert water is like an oasis of blue.

Barrett is a pretty good investigator so it’s quite wordy in places but discovery drives forward the narrative. By now quite a lot of the bad guys in this kind of thriller (e.g. James Bond) were narcissists, delighted to step into the spotlight and take on the good guys, but once again Sturges lets us nibble on this juicy bone before yanking it away.  The bad guy may be well known but has left no trace on the public records of the day.

There are a few standout scenes: Barrett entering the bug vault in full Hazchem outfit with every squeak of his accompanying hamster setting the viewer on edge; newsreel footage of roads littered with corpses; a roadblock played for laughs. And some neat twists – a phone ringing inside a locked house is easily answered because everyone also has a phone beside the pool, and in the noir tradition ex-flame Ann turns up too often for coincidence. That kind of playing on expectation goes, too, for Ed Asner (The Venetian Affair, 1966) who tones down his usual belligerence to a whispers.

Barrett is always behind the eight ball, never getting the drop on the opposition, and unlike James Bond, who always makes time for a dalliance of two, he’s a more down-to-earth hero and you can see why Sturges steered clear of the more obvious likes of Steve McQueen who would have demanded more action scenes to preserve his screen persona.

There’s a bit overmuch exposition at the start and especially once the picture picks up pace but that said the tension remains taut.

Maharis is excellent as the smart detective but former Hollywood superstar Dana Andrews (Laura, 1944) steals the show as the tight-lipped general. Anne Francis (Girl of the Night, 1960) proves a spunky girlfriend while Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series, 1964-1968) has a plum as the chief scientist.

James Clavell (The Great Escape, 1963) and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) devised the screenplay from the Alistair Maclean thriller – written under his pseudonym Ian Stuart.