To watch World War II movies, one might get the general impression that all battles were fought and won by small units of appropriately ethnic collections of colorful characters who somehow overcome enormous odds imposed by both the enemy and their own superior officers corps, the former for obvious reasons and the latter who treat their infantry like so many disposable pawns in a chess game that never seems to involve getting their own hands unclean any closer than panoramic binocular views. Certainly the grand nature of the conflict necessarily calls for (unless one is prepared to succumb to a voluminous stream of maps, charts, graphs in an assemblage of flashcard information that might be helpful in a dissertation presentation but would prove deadly in a less academic environment) some measure of expository groundwork which places the events in a lucid context- most especially in a film based upon actual events rather than a strict fabrication -in which both the importance of the geographical setting and chronological timing are somewhat essential for reasons of historical clarity, though some films will not only fictionalize the characters but the important incidents involving critical wartime campaigns. (The first is generally expected as a writer’s tool in giving large events a focal point with which the audience might find intimate points of empathy within such a broad canvas, while the latter is almost shamefully unforgivable given the significance of the events depicted- not to mention the real life sacrifices given in such enterprises -especially in unnecessary emasculation of fact such as “Battle of the Bulge” which actually depicts one of the greatest winter campaigns in history being fought in a desert.)
In “The Bridge at Remagen”, screenwriters Richard Yates (yes, that Richard Yates) and William Roberts have a good deal to say about the ugliness and waste of war from both sides of the conflict and though their narrative plays loose with the specifics of the American Army attempt to capture the at Remagen, the last existing bridge over the Rhine and a key artery for the Allies into the heart of Germany, they have crafted a narrative which flirts dangerously with certain stereotypical character types and story elements to which the genre (and its audience) has become complacently accustomed, yet the film sneakily moves in unexpected directions in which characters revealingly often act against expected behavior, not due to the forced contortions of a writer’s design, but by the logical progression occurring with the violent collision of crisis circumstance and internal character. Certainly an important story, the writers have assembled the usual fictionalization of characters, though have- with a few minor exceptions -used these characters to advance a thematic duality in which similar issues of honor, duty and a surprisingly prominent antiwar sentiment (which is entirely organic to the narrative as opposed to being tacked on for the sake of contemporaneous audience sentiments) are carefully mirrored in the midst of the urgent necessities of behavior brought about by the wholesale slaughter of warfare. The film is pleasingly rich- subtly so – in character development for a film of this kind, using quiet, reactive gestures to the action in revealing interesting layers of humanity under stress, while emphasizing an often uncomfortable mirroring of sentiment from opposing sides that is often capable of blurring empathetic loyalties: if not for the cut of the character’s uniform they might just as well reverse sides.
Exhausted and disgruntled soldiers from the 9th Armored Division led by Lt. Phil Hartman (George Segal)- loosely based on Lt. Karl Timmerman -are given the task of storming the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, forcing the Germans to destroy the span and trap tens of thousands of their soldiers from the 15th Army from an escape path to Germany. However, upon approaching the bridge still intact, Brigadier General Shinner (E.G. Marshall) orders the soldiers to actually take the bridge despite the fact it has rigged with explosives and may be destroyed at any moment. The casual willingness of officers to use their men as disposable cannon fodder has been recognized and portrayed in film before, yet the occasions of direct resistance to such unfair demands of sacrifice (there is a realistically startling incident of the frustrated slapping of an officer that resonates with obvious Hollywood editorial italicizing not dissimilar to the similarly charged scene between Tibbs and Endicott from “In the Heat of the Night”) becomes increasingly strained, mirroring a growing national frustration over the then-contemporaneous Vietnam War, an overshadowing factor which might seem to preclude- to the increasingly disgruntled public -the advancement of such suggestive generational anachronisms as “heroism” and “courage”.
The dichotomy between opening rushes of tanks barreling down rural highways (giving new meaning to the phrase “sweeping across the battlefield”) and later grueling scenes of men fighting and dying for inches is harrowing and brings home the true cost of hard fought soil illustrative of two distinctive views of war: the diminishment of men and machinery as symbolic arrows and markings on a grander battle plan, and the in-the-trenches view of those infantryman reduced to strategically acceptable statistics: it is the difference between command and commanded. This duality also highlights a curious (and unspoken) tradition among many American World War II dramas which directs the combative focus of not merely the combative aggression of national opposites but in the way in which those combatants are most commonly depicted: the Allies (in this case American Army) predominantly represented by enlisted soldiers (or at the very most lower grade officers) whereas the German forces are generally represented by higher levels of command officers (could it have something to do with the more crisply regal cut of the German officer’s uniform which gives attraction to filmmakers having them incongruently dramatized as opposed to the actual German infantry who are generally portrayed as helmets incautiously popping out of machine gun nests); an imbalance of wartime portrayal which suggests that (with slyly propagandistic swagger) the average American G.I. being on an equal competitively antagonistic footing with the Reich’s officer corps. This view is emphasized with both sides forced to acquiesce to an equal level of playing the scapegoat to either callous command dismissal of the probable danger to the men (when Hartman asks if his men may be walking into an ambush, the career motivated Major Barnes [Bradford Dillman] casually answers, “then we’ll know, won’t we Lieutenant?”) or incompetent command dispersal of resources (German Major Kreuger [Robert Vaughn, in an unusually sympathetic performance] is saddled with both insufficiently graded explosives to effectively destroy the bridge as ordered, nor is given the promised Panzer tank support); the meeting of these two desperate forces at the bridge creating an interesting portrait of the behavior of honorable men (strangely, Kreuger and his immediate subordinates are portrayed as so idealistically troubled, it has the effect of making the American officers look morally unclean by comparison) under conditions of unnatural violent collision. The effect is a film rich in the overt advancement of the universal human waste of war while refusing to deny it’s sometimes ugly necessity; underlying thematic principles which make the losses echo more fiercely and the heroics seem all the more admirable.
John Guillermin directs with a refreshingly keen eye to the textures and atmosphere of frontline combat; you feel the director connecting with the characters on a far more intimate level than on his previous war epic “The Blue Max”, which seemed to address the protagonists at arm’s length. The one false note is the scoring of the usually dependable Elmer Bernstein, whose main theme sounds as if it would be more at home over the main titles of a western than of this urgent and satisfying World War II drama.
When a commercial western advances an ambitious thematic agenda within the inevitable genre tropes, it is perhaps an occasion to pay greater attention to the work at hand, while concurrently such increased scrutiny might also lay bare the deficiencies of the initial ambitions themselves. Such is the case with “Posse”. Kirk Douglas directed, co-produced and stars in this surprisingly underdeveloped western which seems to have an immensity of great ideas on its mind, though it fails to seize upon myriad opportunities to explore any potentialities in a significant way.
The set-up is relatively simple- celebrated marshal Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) pursues and captures notorious bank robber Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) with the aid of his super posse, incarcerates him briefly (but long enough to drink of enthusiastic political waters) to then transfer the prisoner by rail to certain punishment -though once the capture is made, the true interests of the story emerge with remarkably unsubtle speed, most particularly in the jaundiced view the film presents of the machinations of ambition in manipulating public admiration to shamelessly advance one’s own personal ambitions, especially if that adoration is born from what should be modestly regarded as public service.
Nightingale’s motivations for the capture of Strawhorn are presented as being entirely mercenary, as a pretext for his campaign in seeking a seat to the United States Senate; an assumption which must be taken at face value since the film offers no contextual background to either the story nor the characters and thus no meaningful way to interpret the thoughts and actions of the marshal except in the limited surface in which we are granted and given that the screenplay by Christopher Knopf and William Roberts and the performance by Douglas make no concessions to the film’s titular “hero” beyond a blatant and shameless hubris, a characteristic that all but the most simpleminded of persons could easily see through (which makes it problematic that the townspeople who are entirely enraptured by the lawman’s empty windage). The lone exceptions to this collective blind fawning are the town’s young newspaper editor Hellman (James Stacy) and hotel hostess Carla Ross (Beth Brickell); the former clearly meant to represent the necessarily cynical public watchdogs of the press (though his undisguised contempt of Nightingale guarantees the lawman will never speak candidly, and the Hellman’s only function seems to be to reset the front page story every half hour), the latter the only truly disinterested rational person in the entire film (aided enormously by Brickell’s charmingly subtle performance) who falls neither for the marshal’s line of blarney nor the smooth charm of Strawhorn, though she is clearly amused at his attempts. However, it is this popular wave of ignorant acceptance that causes the film to drift away from the inherent potency of the film’s eventual direction in showing Nightingale as a short-sighted egotist whose general dismissal of the consequences of his blind ambitions will be the very key in undoing both his political ambitions and the very moral fiber presumed to be instilled in his posse of deputies.
More than once does the sketchiness of character hamper the film putting critical plot points into unnecessary question. For instance, when Strawhorn is imprisoned on board the marshal private, the criminal manages to execute an ingenious escape, but it is unclear whether or not Wesley (Bo Hopkins), the deputy on duty, is overpowered due to negligence or egotistical inattention, an important factor in understanding the professional mindset of the deputies considering the inconsistencies of credibility which occur in the film’s final twists, as the deputies are seen to be of unexplained inconsistent character throughout the film. (During Nightingale’s celebratory night in town, several of the deputies flagrantly bed down several girls as well as the wife of a prominent businessman which later leads to a fatal scene which is almost thrown away by the lack of cohesive character development, draining an important moral turning point of all impact. There is also the problem of Strawhorn’s unlikely insight into the collective psychology of the posse as a critically key scene between Nightingale and his suddenly disgruntled deputies, who finally air their concerns about their own futures, occurs in the absence of the bank robber thus divorcing his last minute gambit from any logical presumptive assurance of success, unless among all of his other unlawful skills he is also blessed with clairvoyance.
Kirk Douglas plays Nightingale with all of the theatrical self-satisfaction and bravura we expect from the actor (though even a private moment of self-doubt might have made the character far less of an intolerable horse’s ass), and Bruce Dern truly shines as the wily Strawhorn who seems perfectly in his element demonstrating (with an admirable lack of braggadocio) the advantages of logical thought and understanding of human nature over strategic firepower. The undercurrent of political editorial is both heavy-handed and simpleminded in its substance, with the result that Nightingale appears foolish from the start, draining the clever finale of the intended depth of satiric irony. An interesting minor effort but a major wasted opportunity.
Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets”, the critic-cum-director’s first full original feature (if one discounts the cobbled efforts in his apprenticeship through the Roger Corman meat grinder) plays less as a thriller or a drama than as a thesis paper on violence in society, though whether this is meant as an editorial on gun control or merely a commentary on the unexplained randomness of such deadly eruptions is unclear though the universality of the themes are all the more relevant today and so it is more critical that the subject be treated with an intelligence that resists the regressive backslide into exploitation of the very elements the film is purportedly condemning. That the film has something on its mind is clear, but Bogdanovich has failed in very meaningful ways to clarify just what those intentions are. Much of this is born of the director’s own background and personal enthusiasms which in many ways help to create an insoluble conflict of the director’s temperament between obsessed, star-struck cultural chronicler and emerging individual artistic voice; a conflict which eventually leads to an unfortunate implosion of the film’s initial formal visual patterns- which are inseparable from the depiction of the vacancy of the film’s sniper and the barren environment which is meant to have percolated the homicidal instincts laying dormant (much of this due to the efforts of talented productions designer Polly Platt, who makes tract house comfort seem like purgatorial austerity) -depicting the killer’s clean cut Life Magazine existence as an existential vacuum, and diverts the film into the informality of a mad-killer-on-the-loose story at which Bogdanovich shows little aptitude in the skills of using those same formal disciplines to build the tension of a scene and to adequately direct the viewer about the proper spatial design in which the action takes place; far too often we are reminded, during the climatic drive-in sniper attack, that the killer is situated at a precarious elevation within the movie screen structure yet his rifle is always leveled as if shooting straight ahead, nor is there an attempt to mark the placement of the victims to understand the contrary reaction within the attendant cars, many seeming to be oblivious of what is going on while Bogdanovich intercuts shots of a panicked exodus which seems to go nowhere except to give a pale imitation of frenzied action that fails to correspond with much of his footage. This degeneration from La Nouvelle Vague chic (In its initially vacant, emotionally sterile formality, the film is stylistically reminiscent of Truffaut’s “La peau douce”.) to drive-in trashiness might have led to an interesting and intelligent osmosis breaching the boundaries of the serious and the exploitative had there been a more compelling point to the collision except to awkwardly engineer a culminating meeting of the two protagonists from his two mismatched plot lines: their eventual fusion- horrendously staged -leading to a clumsy and abbreviated climax reminiscent of the proverbial square peg in the round hole. In many ways, the cost cutting, anything for an exposed frame resourcefulness of the Corman school of filmmaking reveals itself to compromise (at least in thinking as artistically limited as Bogdanovich’s) creative clarity.
The film follows two parallel narratives featuring two characters whose paths will intersect only in the final minutes of the story: Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), a veteran actor patterned precisely on Karloff himself, who is immersed in the world’s most geriatric mid-life crisis in which he feels that his kind of movies are out of touch and “old-fashioned” (The representative clips from the uncredited “The Terror” do little to disagree with that assessment, though was there ever a time in history when that particular film would have seemed fresh?). This feature long temper tantrum will eventually merge with the story of Bobby Thompson, a seemingly All-American married man, living with his parents, who one day unleashes a city-wide killing spree, starting with his family, then moving on to shoot at random cars on the freeway and later at a drive-in theater where Orlok is making a personal appearance. Bobby preemptively confesses to his wife “I don’t know what’s happening to me” and that lately he’s been getting “funny ideas“, which we might assume includes almost blowing a hole through his father at a shooting range or arranging a militant arsenal of weaponry in the trunk of his car; this nugget of self-evaluation being the only hint of an explanatory subtext to the film’s later violent occurrences. These incidents of violence are detailed in painstakingly detailed preparation (the needlessly extended scenes of Bobby approaching, climbing and laying out his weaponry on the gas tank almost ensures that a certain loginess will set in no matter how visceral are the intention of the sniper POV shots to follow; neither sequence boosted by the particularly ridiculous- almost comic -difficulty Thompson has in approaching and climbing the tank with a clearly visible bagful of guns far too heavy for him to move efficiently) and aftermath (as we follow the ponderous, unedited process of Bobby’s dragging and carrying the bodies of his wife, mother and an unlucky grocery delivery boy to bed or an adjoining hallway, plus the covering of stains- however homicidal his actions he displays immaculate command in keeping a tidy house -on the carpet or cleaning the floor tiles, it must occur to the viewer that all of this obsessive attention to detail must be for a greater conclusive purpose), and display a grinding fascination with the minutest detail that borders on the sadistic when it is later revealed that none of this matters at all and is seemingly included to bring an otherwise disgracefully thin scenario to feature length. The padding in the film is truly insulting. The greater bulk of the Orlok narrative is taken with an extended take of room service delivering a dinner, or worse yet, a visit to the same hotel suite by director-writer Sammy Michaels (played by none other than director-writer Peter Bogdanovich who decides to replicate the ‘Hitchcock‘ cameo, though apparently there was no one present to order the camera to stop shooting) which serves no function to the film whatsoever except for Michaels/Bogdanovich to stop the film dead in its tracks with a lengthy scene of the director watching an equally lengthy scene from “The Criminal Code” on the television, and actually silencing Orlok (who might wish to keep the actual movie rolling, as Karloff was only contracted for a limited time) while he watches enraptured and then begins to extoll the virtues of Howard Hawks (a Bogdanovich favorite) as a director- as if the entire film were now subject to the young director’s fan club enthusiasm which could not be inhibited long enough to get through his own professional efforts, or at least he might be giving advance notice on the latest of his hero worshipping Auteurist monographs.
This disparity of narrative purpose brings attention back to the film’s initial potentially complex set-up with Bobby and to what the purpose of this virtual instructional film for homegrown psychopaths is supposed to be? The scenario is schizophrenic, not in its profile of the killer, but in the untempered disparity between the almost academic introduction of its primary narrative line (assuming the Orlok plot to be trivial and one of contractual convenience, which it was) and its sudden shift into sordid sensationalism, though, in this, the uncredited participation of screenwriter Samuel Fuller might yield a valuable clue, for although a spirited and energetic film director, his famously tabloid level screenwriting- eschewing subtlety for the sensational -might have had a greater hand in the direction of the film’s climax and its sad abandonment of its initial promise, but then what is left of Bogdanovich’s contribution: mere Hollywood star gazing, a fawning over Hawks and the films of yesteryear? Such an important subject as violence in America demands more from a film- regardless of the creator’s level of experience -which pretends to have more on its menu than cheap sensation, though the end result is a sadly missed opportunity in which the fingerprints of visual grammar are clearly in evidence as directorial exercises in visual storytelling (there are some impressively effective tracking shots early in the film, others a bit obviously showy for their own sake) by a professional observer getting his participatory feet wet, but the fuzziness of concept is startling, almost unforgivable, for a writer, especially one whose supposed expertise are the intricacies of cinematic narrative storytelling; for in telling his story with a clear editorial purpose attached, Bogdanovich cheats on the most fundamental elements of the (non-experimental) narrative film: the why? In the aftermath of real-life shooting tragedies, the search for a motive is always regarded as one of prominent concern- offering no comfort to the victim nor to survivors who might justifiably see such investigative priorities as tantamount to rational explanation of an entirely irrational action (and thus dangerously in concert with excuse making), useful only to craven media appetites which feed on the continuance of sensationalism or self-interested social/political activism who use the tragedy of others for their own self-interested agendas. However, art is not real-life and is fueled by inspiration, ideas, a purpose. With serious artistic efforts, such attention to motivation- however subtextual, speculative or even controversial -is the coalescing of an artistic point-of-view, the absence of which can only lead to base exploitation. However, in”Targets”, evil seems only to appear as a convenience to Bogdanovich’s preposterously strained set-up. The final moments are truly telling: literally slapped down by Orlok, Bobby curls into a whimpering fetal position, the veteran actor now wondering: “this is what I was afraid of?”; a line that mind have had more resonance had the issue of real versus imagined violence been more potently developed beyond the hoary reference to a screaming newspaper headline (shades of the director’s beloved 1930’s movies!). But this does little to explain the horror of Bobby Thompson, to which Bogdanovich, in the last line of the film, adds fuel to the proverbial fire: as Bobby is handcuffed, the immediately gregariously sober, former slobbering fetus quips “Hardly ever missed did I?”, a line written and delivered as if replicating the post-action jokiness of a James Bond movie. From the mouth of a character who has not displayed the slightest impulse of wit in the entire film, this line is a slap in the face from a director going for the big closing moment, regardless of the fact that it completely betrays an already fractured film drawn from his own dishonest imagination.
The acting is almost universally stiff, unconvincing and amateurish. It is possible claim that this was Bogdanovich’s intention with the character of Bobby Thompson (in which case Tim O’Kelly’s vapid presence doesn’t disappoint), though this would not explain away the stilted, almost artificial line readings by the entire cast. (To assume this emotional vacancy might push Bobby over the edge would then fail to explain why the entire house isn’t full of brazen psychopaths?) The only exceptions to this poverty of performance are Boris Karloff and (surprisingly) Bogdanovich himself, who both might be immeasurably aided by the fact that neither actually delivers a performance, but are basically appearing as themselves. The most honest moment in the film comes with the utterance of the line “all the good movies have already been made.” While not universally truthful enough to act as an axiom, in this case it’s certainly a worthy nugget of self-reproach.
“Evel Knievel” (1971)
Marvin J. Chomsky’s film”Evel Knievel” is a supposed biography of the famous motorcycle daredevil, though any relationship to persons living or dead are surely coincidental. This biographical film starring George Hamilton (no stranger to cinematic impersonation, portraying Moss Hart in “Act One” and Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) contains nary a single moment in which genuine human experience is expressed; rather the characters are revealed through a prism manufactured wholly of Road Runner cartoons: the film is an extended folksy tall-tale, relayed as a series of not-so-reliable remembrances by the title character while awaiting the performance of his latest death defying stunt, jumping his motorcycle over nineteen cars. If the film is filled with the braggadocio of an unrepentant self-promoting egoist, it is also laced with a lunatic charm that escalates the characters and expository situations into a delicate territory constantly tiptoeing, but not quite crossing, the boundary into caricature.
The film unfolds in seemingly random episodic vignettes which, one might presume, would each reveal a small nugget of information about the film’s subject personality, but it evident after a very short time that, as depicted, Evel Knievel is to be defined as a persona of limited depth, as he to be perceived solely through the parameters of his public iconic image, a detail later passively acknowledged when Hamilton/Knievel makes a not inappropriate self-realized comparison with himself to the likes of Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. In the film’s view, Knievel’s career path and eventual fame is determined at an early age by a decision to live outside what he perceives as societal rules which he feels impedes his capacity to test himself (he admits to relishing victory over “terror”), whether this testing is a measurement of sheer masculine posturing or an ingrained recklessness is never really explained, but the reckless bravado of his chosen persona, an image choice which he then lived as an adopted lifestyle- a true sympathetic brotherhood with Sinatra and Wayne. In the context of this film, Knievel is the embodiment of the American culture’s attraction to artificiality as national iconography. Rather than a product of post-modern cinema, this type of character has its model in a more traditional romantic comedy: closely observed, the film’s Evel Knievel is Professor Harold Hill in a white jumpsuit.
If there’s such a thing as subtlety in Marvin J. Chomsky’s directorial arsenal, it is not in evidence here, each moment of significance is heavily italicized, emphasizing the often crudely broad strokes of the script by Alan Caillou and John Milius (the almost militant machismo expressed by Knievel is vintage Milius), yet these characteristics which have sunk many a lesser (or better) film are insignificant, as the film works by itself taking on a recklessness commiserate with its subject daredevil; it has a drive-in j.d. vibe transformed into something endearingly Capraesque (though without his signature uncomfortable fascist undercurrent) ably assisted by a sneaky sense of humor which fixes the story with a rarity in post-studio era American cinema: a depiction of rural life (the Butte, Montana locations are used to great advantage) that baldy pokes fun at a more unsophisticated (read: uncomplicated) way of life, while freely embracing the innocent warmth of the depicted naivete. In essence, the film manages to incarnate the modern antihero as equal parts mythic image and shameless huckster, a figure who may cynically wave away a traditionally structured existence based (as he sees it) in the values of square-toed Americana while simultaneously attracted to the foundations of patriotism and an old-fashioned belief in (in essence) folk heroes. It’s a paradox of character particularly American and one that the film effortlessly captures.
The breeziness of the film only falters at the climactic jump, which is disastrously staged (many of the others use actual footage including the ill-fated jump at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas) and effectively gives the film no payoff with the weakly depicted moment of triumph (the scarcity of extras is evident) unshared with the audience as the sequence breaks the jump into suddenly indiscriminate trickery with unnecessary slow motion and slovenly editing choices that destroy any fluidity, suspense or view of the heavily anticipated stunt. This is especially disappointing as. throughout the film. Knievel talks repeatedly about his philosophy as to the audience’s attraction to what he does, yet when the viewer finally expects a dramatization of those expressions, they are left in the dark.
George Hamilton, a self-styled Hollywood playboy, initially seems an odd choice to portray Knievel (the actor’s producing of the film may have given him a slight advantage in the casting process) but this surprisingly inventive actor extends his natural charm to glaze over even the more problematic aspects of his character. The entire film is on his shoulders, dependent on his ability to bring an insensitive, antisocial braggart to startling appealing life and Hamilton delivers admirably. Unfortunately, not as rewarding a performer, playing Knievel’s romantic interest and eventual wife, the mature Lolita, Sue Lyon, seems to be the only member of the cast not in on the joke (a repetition of her failure in the Kubrick film) and among the film’s happy torchbearers of the traditions of Thespis, is the only visible fly in the ointment.
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970)
The computer running amok in SF film is a natural extension of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel in which the creator is challenged by what is in essence a mirror image of himself (explicitly depicted as such in the initial cinematic outing, J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 “Frankenstein”, but significantly absent ever since), with circuits and semiconductors a contemporary replacement for the patchwork of stolen body parts, though a central thematic undercurrent of the eternal struggle of father and child (carried to superhuman proportions as the creature regards himself to creator Victor Frankenstein as “the Adam of your labors”) is retained from both Shelley’s novel and that of D.F. Jones, whose own 1967 work Colossus provides the source for Joseph Sargent’s problematic but interesting 1970 filmization, “Colossus: The Forbin Project”.
The film is a simultaneous rejection of the problems of the source novel (the first of a trilogy, to be followed by “Colossus and the Crab” and “The Fall of Colossus”), cleaning up the unsavory portraits of squalid political histrionics (one central Presidential assistant actually dies of fright) and softens the rather sterile nature of the Colossus development team, with the glaring exception of one scientist who literally goes insane who screenwriter James Bridges wisely omits, though this process also homogenizes the supporting characters into an indistinguishable bland mass that excludes such important details as a Soviet informer amid the Colossus development team whose leaking of information leads directly to the conflict of the story; hinted at in the film and then forgotten. Still, when a film is about a battle between Man and Machine, it’s certainly profits the story to not minimize the humanness of the former, while the infinite calculative capabilities of the latter proffers infinitesimal opportunities for retaliative action by the subjugated humans. One of the most noticeable aspects of the story is the central flaw of the concept: that despite the advanced intellect displayed by the Colossus team, there are precious few, if any, contemplative moments suggesting the project was a monstrously reckless folly from the inception and that the few strategic stabs they attempt against the machine are doomed to fail due to the incalculable superiority of Colossus’ faculties, which are exponentially increasing at a rate unimagined by its creators and leading into another aspect of the film which is briefly explored and seemingly abruptly dropped: the possibility of breaching Colossus’ impenetrable defenses and shutting the machine down, an insurmountable problem created by the scientists themselves in their zeal to create an unapproachable, tamper-proof system which, ironically but predictably, turns and bites them on the hand.
The film is essentially a grand chess match and part of the enjoyment is seeing the superior minds of science suddenly regarded as something akin to one of their own lab rats. The novel is brimming with Forbin’s condescension toward the lesser minds of politicians but never bothers to raise the possibility in his mind, prior to activation, that Colossus might overstep its intended functions. Naturally, in science fiction, it’s expected that occasional bending of credibility might be necessary to entertain the imaginatively reconfigured parameters of invented societies, either based on reality or completely the conception of the writer, but to ignore a fundamental caveat that any responsible scientist would consider at the very beginning of a project inclusive of turning over the entire nuclear capability to a machine is simply sloppy, inconsistent thinking which allows for the existing story to proceed but mires the very idea s within the film to be stuck uncomfortably in the realm of the dubious. It’s unthinkable that a nation would surrender its entire defensive arsenal without a fail-safe which might override any malfunctions in the machine’s performance, yet this is a rather axiomatic blunder, not easily swept away except as convenient narrative set-up. If a story is to have its basis in the advanced sciences, the road to dramatic credibility is not paved by constructing the narrative entirely around such a glaring gap in logic. To offset this fundamental wrinkle in the core of the story, it would help immensely if the film were filtered through a directorial sensibility that created a momentum that takes advantage of the novel’s central themes while achieving a harmonious equilibrium with the expected conventions of the filmed thriller. Luckily, this is a film of action, but action of the mind, depicting a battle where the ultimate rewards may be measured in stimulating abstractions, and even though fatal repercussions are measured in retaliatory megatons, the results are equally depicted as statistical abstractions- occurring off screen -without the visceral charge of visualizations of massive destruction, but merely a radio announcement issuing an official cover story of a meteorite decimating a Siberian town rather than a calculated missile strike; a simultaneously chilling and satiric depiction of modern mass murder made neat and tidy from the comfort of antiseptic filtering through the media, no more excitedly reported than the next day’s weather report.
Despite some intelligent adaptation, the problems with the film are matters of injudicious exclusions of important material in the source novel, most prominently in an early incident in which (in the book) the very wording of a warning from Colossus sends Forbin’s suspicions that something may be amiss into a later justified paranoiac overdrive. The deletion of such a nuanced but critical incident create a choppiness in both the narrative and the depiction of Forbin as a man who would truly know the intended capabilities of his creation. Somehow the decision was made to jettison these moments in the story, to be replaced by useless celebratory gamboling over a televised link that gives Braeden nothing to do in the scene except to grin like a ninny while his staff reenacts a pallid shell of the orgy scene from “La Dolce Vita”. Too often there are sudden shifts in attitude toward the early events; possible crises that are summarily dismissed with a cutaway shot to a Colossus team member (none of whom we, by the end of the film, could identify by name, so little attention is given to them as individuals) giving a casual shrug of the shoulders. In fact, it is with the Colossus team that the underdevelopment of the human characters comes into sharpest focus: the script using each character as a prop to fill the sets, but with no discernible importance to the plot, as if at the end of their work shift they’d breezily retire to their homes and watch a ball game, oblivious to the events of the movie. It’s as if Colossus itself had a hand in the writing of the script.
If the American SF film shares a commonality with every other American film genre, it is the dearth of movies which actually embraces and celebrates intellect. Certainly the Sf film is postulate with scientific characters- the nature of the genre relies on this -but most are functionaries of the plot, simply to arrive on the scene, act concerned and then immediately leap decades ahead in known technology to immediately manufacture the death ray which will conquer the rubber suited giants or flying saucers (actually interchangeable as far as 1950’s science-fiction is concerned) that threaten civilization. However, a serious cinematic consideration of the intellectual mind has proven either an intractable puzzlement to Hollywood or a subject unworthy of an industry too immersed in the vaporous charms of boom-boom-bang-and-crunch. The appeal of later films such as “Apollo 13” and the miserably retitled “October Sky” are thrilling true-life stories that defy impossible odds with the purest of human resources: intelligence and reason. What to think of an Art Form which denies exploration of that which most separates Man from the lower species is a mystery, though science (except as a convenient backdrop for mindless action and fantasy) has always been the black sheep of the cinema litter. For example, MGM’s “Madame Curie“, despite its expected concessions to florid 1940’s melodramatic Hollywood excesses, was more about the screen chemistry of Garson and Pidgeon than about what made the Polish scientist significant: she could have invented the coffee filter for all it would have mattered to either the studio or the audience, the latter more interested in studio-lit romance than science.
Fortunately for all concerned, there is Eric Braeden as Dr. Charles Forbin, who is able to transmit that most seemingly difficult of traits by an actor- that of expressing extreme intelligence without an excess of phoney brow furrowing. Braeden is able to convincingly portray a man to whom arcane concepts are matter-of-fact and thus he is able to effectively convey a very personal antagonism between creator and creation, by far the most human interaction of the film, eclipsing the faux romantic interludes between Forbin and his associate Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark), who pretends to be his mistress in order to pass on information to Forbin after Colossus insists on around the clock surveillance of its creator. The playacted romantic interludes, which later develop as something more genuine (though it is never made clear if this is actual developing passion or simply a reaction to Forbin’s enforced isolation) are charming but result out of strategic necessity and simply don’t suggest the gravitas of the increasingly contentious bickering between Forbin and Colossus, at first sounding as if they themselves were a testy couple and later into a tense parody of a patient adult setting disciplinary boundaries for an unruly child; an evolving line of behavior which eventually leads to the suggestion of Colossus combining his limitless intellect with the Soviet sibling Guardian while actually penetrating the mirroring of the human mind itself by suggesting an understanding of emotion, in that he plies Forbin’s cooperation by reasoning that soon Forbin will “love” the machine: a suggestion that Forbin meets with repeated denial, though the sudden, open ending (taken verbatim from the novel) hints at a possible ambiguity that might lead the scientist from contemptuous denial to possible acquiescence. Earlier in the film, Colossus reasons to the citizens of the world that living under his rule would be easy if only humans surrendered their sense of “pride”, a prescient bit of reasoning that the finale hints may be the only possible outcome.
Despite its myriad problems in both writing and in the generally journeyman direction of Joseph Sargent (John Frankenheimer might have performed wonders with the same material) which unfortunately retains a television film vibe- unfortunate for a film which attempts a story of such thematically epic possibilities -the central conflict between Eric Braeden’s Forbin and the successfully realized Colossus is an entertaining piece of cinema hocus pocus that manages to have the effect to which all good science fiction should aspire: it stimulates the imagination.
“There Was a Crooked Man…” (1970)
If there were ever a film which demonstrates the confusion of veteran Hollywood studio directors in adapting to the then-newly found freedom afforded filmmakers with the abolition of the Production Code, it’s Joesph L. Mankiewicz’ 1970 serio-comic western, “There Was a Crooked Man…”. With the Code’s erasure, director and writers were finally given an opportunity (outside of the selected conformity imposed on certain individuals by the cinematically ignorant thus skittish studio gobbling corporate hierarchies) for a fuller expression of human behavior- not simply an available increase in graphic violence and nudity -in which morality in not always observed, nor the law always triumphant.
“There Was a Crooked Man…” is the first and only foray into Western territory for the director though due to its subject matter, Mankiewicz is unable to reveal whether or not his considerable talent for adapting into the demands of a variety of different genre types (his “Guys and Dolls” is a delight, an imaginatively staged production honoring the stylish artifice of both the film’s theatrical roots and Runyon’s iconoclastic prose style, re-imagined- and distinctly superior to the theatrical version on every level -into one of the most underrated musical films of the studio era) might find fullest expression in such a restrictive story line; the entire film is predicated on the narrowest of lies, not a very fertile ground for thematic development, as the energies of script, director and actors are all wasted in the employment of a dual deception, one which is rather patently transparent, the latter thrown in as a cynical coda which makes no sense considering all that has gone on- the script’s version of giving the audience the finger.
The film follows the efforts of convicted robber Paris Pitman Jr. (Kirk Douglas), to escape from an Arizona territorial prison (he is sentenced for ten years) where he then hopes to flee with $500,000 in stolen money which he has hidden in women’s undergarments in a snake pit. (The film is rife with sarcastic symbolism down to the naming of the characters.) Pitman is an unrepentant “crooked man”, surrounded in a prison full of alike characters, with the exception of one, Coy Cavendish (Michael Blodgett), a young man who accidentally kills an enraged father in a clear act of self-defense, but is the one man in the prison condemned to hang; demonstrating the level of cynicism at work in the script. Pitman is set upon by a gang of jailhouse ruffians until he discovers the corrupt warden LeGoff (Martin Gabel) is attempting to soften Paris into splitting the loot with him in exchange for allowing Paris to escape, a plan which falls short with the warden’s intimely death and his replacement by straight-laced ex-sheriff Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) who immediately recognizes Pitman as a relentless con artist, yet, in an act of misjudgment uncharacteristic of the lawman but convenient to the plot, entrusts the convict with the task of playing supervising foreman to the prisoner’s work details and thus all resources with which to effect an escape plan.
The rest of the prisoners are a motley bunch, seeming disinterested in escape until tweaked by Pitman, and played by an impressively distinguished and wasted line-up of character actors, including Burgess Meredith, Hume Cronyn, John Randolph and Warren Oates, though there is little demanded in any of the roles beyond playing a stock stereotype whose only function is to be foolishly betrayed by Pitman, which is odd as the circumstances of all of these characters (with the exception of Meredith’s The Missouri Kid) is afforded a brief vignette explaining the circumstances of their arrest though nothing depicted carries the slightest weight in the rest of the plot; its simply meaningless filler that that fails to illuminate the characters and simply pads the running time of an already thin plot.
Visually the film is undistinguished, while not confined to studio settings that impart a claustrophobic feeling compared to the open vistas of many classic westerns, the film is set in a backdrop of aridity which imparts an apropos sense of men condemned to damnation, and the strict confinement of the characters (it takes place primarily in an Arizona territorial prison) prevents the men from challenging their character against the perils of the wilderness, except as an abstraction (a character is warned of the geographic positioning of the prison and of the impossibility of crossing the desert), a curious omission from a film concerned with escape from the very same perilous conditions.
Women are depicted as devalued objects good for only casual sex, including an unfunny running gag consisting of a schooteacher being systematically stripped during a prison mess hall riot. (Combined with Etta Place’s assertion that being a schoolteacher was the “bottom of the barrel” in the previous year’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, this was not a good period for the image of the Western schoolmarm.) However, the script’s infantile attitude toward sexuality isn’t limited toward women but extends to a sniggery mocking of homosexuality, a more inescapably problematic source of insult considering two of the main characters in the film, Hume Cronyn’s Dudley and John Randolph’s Cyrus are most definitely a couple.
The screenplay is by Robert Benton and David Newman, their first produced collaboration since 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and the same smart-aleck jokiness mixed with violent nihilism is present, except in this case Mankiewicz is not favored with the empathetic filters of a central romantic story made palatable as portrayed by a pair of attractive young movie stars combined with a story of rabid criminality turned mythic folklore by way of having the advantage of being filtered with a nostalgic (though dishonest) prism in which the characters might generate sympathy as- rather than violent killers -doomed, misunderstood youth. In “There Was a Crooked Man…”, there are no concessions to hipness that make the cold-blooded murder translate into “hijinks”; the elemental crassness of the writing shines through, and Mankiewicz, a man of erudition and taste, finds himself lost in material so cynical it would make Billy Wilder wince.
Mankiewicz’ direction is uncharacteristically flat-footed. It is very apparent that he has no feel for the material; there is not one scene in this supposed comedy in which the humor doesn’t feel spit out through the grit teeth of desperation, clearly indicating that the director (one of the most intelligent screenwriters Hollywood ever produced, his script for “All About Eve”, featured perhaps the wittiest, most literate writing in any studio film and proof that Mankiewicz was no stranger to acerbic humor) had neither a belief in his material nor an understanding of the “new” Hollywood hipster attitudes, in which under the guise of black comedy, a shotgun blast is as good as a guffaw.
This is the most nihilistic of films, in which friendship, trust, and honor are thrown into the dust (Much like the Marshal’s badge at the finale of “High Noon”, except in that case the gesture was one of disgust at the betrayal of societal decency, whereas in this film, its a general contempt for the very concept of human compassion.), abandoned with any possibility for sympathy to any character (and there isn’t memorable performance in the film), most of whom are exposed, by the end, as cold-blooded killers of the few decent characters. By the time of Pitman’s eventual fate (a blatantly meant-to-be-ironic meeting with the Serpent) and Lopeman’s inexplicable reversal of character the unrelenting cynicism becomes positively suffocating.
“THE OMEGA MAN” (1971)
The odd thing about an apocalypse are all of the errands you have to deal with afterwards. One might assume that the obliteration of the world’s population might lead to some leisurely quiet time for the lone survivor, but this never seems to be the case. In “The Omega Man”, housekeeping duties come secondary to battling a coven of albino mutations that calls itself “The Family”, (Not an allusion to the Mafia, however, more resembling a group of pesky relatives visiting for the holidays who just won’t go away.) who unlike the victims of biological warfare in Richard Matheson’s original novel, are not vampiric but merely cranky and in need of a case of Coppertone.
In adapting the novel “I Am Legend” in it’s second screen incarnation (the first being the Italian produced “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price), scenarists John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington follow a formula central to Matheson’s story which has become the primary narrative trope for every end of the world scenario to follow, including (with the notable exception of the Neville Shute based “On the Beach” which incarnates an eerie situation of hopeless acceptance and survival entropy) “The World, The Flesh and the Devil”, “Five” “Panic in the Year Zero”, “No Blade of Grass”, “A Boy and His Dog” and George Romero’s zombie films, (and their endless progeny) and that it is one of combative antagonism. Clearly never learning the message as to the root causes of the existent post-apocalyptic circumstances, the characters occupy themselves with little more than unceasing attempts to exterminate each other, but since there is no direct rationale for such behavior- survival nor even trivial creature comforts are not threatened by the continued existence of the other -one might flippantly categorize these actions as mere human orneriness. They fight because they are there. Or because lazy writing is involved at the conceptual level, (Which is just as depressing as carefully considered nihilistic views of human nature.) eschewing deeper philosophical musings for the ease of empty action set pieces. In a way, it is a continuation of the seemingly inevitable circle of societal hostility that has been fondly recorded in popular literature as far back as the Homeric epics, yet this film filnds itself ignoring a few twists in the formula (central points in Matheson’s novel) that might momentarily enliven the now predictable formula.
The film opens on startling shots (remembering that this was produced decades before CGI when panoramic expanses were not available at the drop of a keyboard) of a vacant Los Angeles. The barren landscape that is home to Charlton Heston’s Robert Neville are not the ashen ruins of a city devastated by Atomic heat, but an unnerving shell of a metropolis, outwardly unaffected but a corpse of a city nonetheless; an obscene reminder of Man’s ingenuity standing in the fatal wake of Man’s foolish nature. Border clashes between Russia and China have led to escalations of apocalyptic dimensions with the release of a viral agent that quickly spread an unstoppable plague around the globe. In flashbacks, we are witness to the results of the widespread pandemic intercut with television news reports of it’s progress reported by an anchor (Anthony Zerbe) who will later resurface as the post-plague “Family” patriarch Matthias, creating what could be (though the opportunity goes unexplored) an interesting comparison on the influence of the voice of mass media with Matthias’ later deluded vocal zealotry. (One wonders if he assumed the mantle of leadership through his oratorical skills, but this is never explained.) Also seen through flashbacks are Neville’s collaborative attempts to develop an anti-plague vaccine (he is a doctor and Army Colonel) and the circumstances by which he self-injects himself with an experimental serum rendering him solely immune to the disease.
Neville’s days are spent with the basic chores of maintaining his rather elaborate self-created fortress against the nocturnal attacks of “The Family”, though his greatest enemy may not be the harassing mutant hordes on the street, (One wonders where they manufactured so many perfectly tailored black hooded cowls or finely engineered giant catapults without tools when their only evident ability is to howl in unison?) but isolation; a loneliness made all the more palpable by being surrounded by beings with whom, though their presence is a constant factor, elicits no normal socialization. Being surrounded only increases his sense of loneliness, as reflected in both his pathetic attempts at mimicking conversation with a companion bust of Caesar but also in a creative sequence in which Neville plays the film “Woodstock” in a theater just to have the company of the crowded images. (This is a scene which should have been played for far more emotional resonance than the director Boris Sagal mines it for.)
Certainly the hostility Neville demonstrates toward “The Family” is as much borne of frustration of isolation with his own kind as it is in retaliation for the group’s repeated attempts at killing him. For their part, “The Family” has adopted an passionate hatred of science (which they feel has cursed them) and the agents (Neville in particular) of such tools of world destruction. Having been spared immediate deaths, the mutant survivors have adopted a quasi-religious fanaticism that calls for the “cleansing” of all remnants of science and technology (so naturally instead of simply burning down the block Neville lives on, they construct a complex catapult- which weapons technology is forbidden is all a matter of historic timing, it seems) which begs the question as to what the focus of the groups nights will be once Neville is destroyed: mahjong tournaments?
This is a fundamental flaw of many SF films in that there is little consideration to the depth of newly developed social structures beyond the immediate needs of the film’s scenario. If it doesn’t concern the list of requirements of the inevitable action sequences it is considered unimportant, yet this absence of attention to societal details inhibits the full potency of a legitimate speculative SF concept; unless, of course, the filmmakers are willing to concede their effort is simply another empty conceptual shroud on which to hang an action film with no resonant properties intended. Therefore, instead of a menacing alternate society organized by the elemental requirements of organization and survival, “The Family” is reduced to a stock stereotypical band of loudmouth vandals screaming “booga booga” into the night. Equally is the lack of depth acquitted in Neville character dilutes the drama and makes the finale less of an emotional catharsis and simply a hasty conclusion to a conflict between two immovable objects.
Hope for humanity and for the plot to proceed beyond the combative paralysis inherent in the screenplay with the emergence of another “normal” survivor Lisa, portrayed by that most underused of talented actresses to emerge from the explosion of black talent into the American cinema in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Rosalind Cash. She brings not only a tough no-nonsense edge to her character, but a genuinely sexy femininity that is welcome but spoiled by an excess of gratuitous nude shots of the actress which serve no value save to create an unwarranted air of cheap sexual exploitation in what pretends to be a class production. Unfortunately, along with Lisa is an accompanying group of surviving youngsters who don’t figure into the story except to represent the “hope for tomorrow” at the finale, (though the fact they would be pursued by “The Family” goes unmentioned as that would occur after the end credits and thus is of no concern to the screenwriters) and two additional “normal” humans: Dutch (Paul Koslo), a former medical student and Ritchie (Eric Laneuville), Lisa’s brother who is in the early stages of transforming into a nocturnal mutant. This dilutes any welcome humanizing Adam & Eve developments the film might consider, and puts Heston right back into action mode.
The addition of new characters does nothing to change the straightforward trajectory of the narrative, a strange circumstance considering even the introduction of a more pacifist viewpoint espoused by Ritchie that Neville rejects without consideration. However, this strain of morally based thinking which might bring a more complex level of tensions to the film is equally abandoned by the scenarists as merely a convenient ruse to draw out Neville into an obvious trap and bring the film to it’s rather tepid conclusion.
By subjugating the characters into the narrowest of formula action stereotypes, the film loses whatever possibilities it might generate for an effective dramatic arc in the story; conceding to a stillborn structure of cat and mouse without either side gaining perceptible advantage, leading to the necessity of disproportionately stupid actions on the parts of all of the characters in order to advance the dramatic stalemate. No progress is made in the film without a decision consciously made that flies in the face of all the knowledge and survival instincts the characters possess. (How many time does Neville get caught off guard remaining outside the protection of his fortress as the sun already sets? Is staying alive such a minimal priority the man can’t even set his watch?) This constant pandering to a standard of mindless action unmotivated by common sense makes the continuation of the Neville-“Family” conflicts all the more tiresome. There is an extended sequence where Lisa and Duke save Neville from immolation in Dodger Stadium by turning the lights on and blinding the mutants, but then inexplicably turn them off before making their escape, all in the service of a supposedly suspenseful chase sequence. It’s asking a lot of the audience to simultaneously experience the visceral pleasures of suspense while they’re shaking their heads in disbelief over the film’s constant disregard for logic.
Charlton Heston brings with him his usual unflappable granite-jawed bravado, but he is also effective in the few intimate moments where the brittle constitution of his sanity is tested by the likelihood of the remainder of his life spent in isolation. Had the film explored this aspect of the story and been unafraid to brave a more literary form of storytelling in which character is a priority over action, it might have found inclusion in that small roster of SF films which properly celebrate the human condition rather than movie box office commercialism.
“100 RIFLES” (1969)
“100 Rifles” is a fast-paced western adventure unfolding amid the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, completely unlike Tom Gries’ earlier film- the overlooked masterwork “Will Penny” -this film suffers from a perpetual inconsistency of tone; veering wildly from dramatic urgency to faux slapstick villainy (The latter usually reserved to accompany the more sadistic applications of torture and murder) expressed through a wildly fluctuating screenplay that betrays it’s more sobering elements of tribal genocide for the sarcastic callousness of buddy-buddy witticisms amid inappropriately partnered backdrops of indiscriminate bloodletting.
Needless to say, the script is a rather sketchy effort, with the potential for a strong narrative line, but due to the violent divergences of tone, regressing into an often calamitous episodic hodgepodge; the plot becomes increasingly full of holes, resulting in a fractious proclivity toward leaving connective events unexplained nor motives addressed. For instance, Lyedecker pursues a fleeing Yaqui Joe and both are later caught by Verdugo and his men, the General making great sport of capturing a pair of anti-military antagonists when a simple explanation by Lyedecker might work wonders to clear the misconception, but the man stays strangely silent or- worse yet -finds the occasion to irritate the despot with a string of flippant remarks, something that continuously devalues the dramatic core of many of the most tonally waffling scenes; and actions that are also out of character with how the role of Lyedecker is developed both by the script and by the actor.
In 1912 Mexico, Arizona lawman Lyedecker (Jim Brown) follows the half caste Yaqui Indian, Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds)- who has robbed an Arizona bank of six thousand dollars -across the border, planning to buy guns for his oppressed people who are at odds with the reigning governmental authority, represented by the vicious General Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), and his German advisor, the more practical but equally coldblooded Lt. Von Klemme (Hans Gudegast, aka Eric Braeden). What distinguishes the two men is that Verdugo is a true sadist whereas Von Klemme’s ruthlessness seems to emanate from sheer amoral pragmatism. Also, in this apparently international conglomeration of villainy is the great Irish actor Dan O’Herlihy as the cowardly representative of the vast railroad interests; whose personal and corporate influence is also made completely unclear and whose character seems to have no intrinsic value to the story except to remind everyone what stinkers the railroads were.
Happily contributing to the side of the righteous is Raquel Welch as the revolutionary Sardita, whose exact status within the resistance hierarchy is never made quite clear but since she evokes a greater sense of intense energy than the rest of the bunch, most of whom are extras who seem to have no function but to drop to the ground every time a gun or artillery shell goes off- and the fact that she has second billing -her place in the midst of all of the action goes without comment nor criticism; though Miss Welch’s portrayal is doggedly sober, without a hint of deprecating self-consciousness which casts further jaundiced shadows on those incidents of more broadly puckish behavior by her male counterparts. This film was released at a time when there seemed to be a market for western films with a basis in Mexican Revolutionary backdrops (from sources as disparate as the John Wayne vehicle “The Undefeated” to Sergio Corbucci’s domestically unheralded spaghetti western “Companeros” to Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”) but in none of these features was there ever any useful historical context introduced that would explain to the uninitiated just precisely what the political situation being unexplored as the story background was all about; instead the situation was exploited as cheap cannon fodder, where dozens, if not hundreds, of people could be massacred at the drop of a hat without the usual empathetic visceral punch, instead being regarded as so many extras biting the dust for the sake of action filled visual compositions- this coming, not coincidentally, at a time when the American cinema was placing a tentative politically correct [a term that screams oxymoron if ever there was one] foot forward concerning the Native American, with efforts such as “Little Big Man” and “Soldier Blue” -thus substituting one form of acceptable mass human target practice for another. The film suffers mightily as drama as there is insufficient contextual explanation of the conflict and thus the motivation for the violence (and thus the action) to import a needed gravitas in the depicted struggles of the characters (certainly Sardita) except as a Sisyphus-like exercise in avoiding and reencountering the exaggerated brutality of comic book level villain General Verdugo. In many ways, the film most resembles a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon, with the protagonists constantly maneuvering in and out of peril without apparent motive except to keep the momentum alive, but with questionably tasteless allowances for the constant slaughter of innocents to ramp up entertainment values.
However, even as a piece of mindless action entertainment under strictly commercial considerations, due to the adrenalin-like infusions of directorial energy by Gries, the film does move like a runaway train and features a fine, energetic performance by Raquel Welch, who seemed to relax and expand as an actress in all of her western vehicles, and a commandingly stolid but solid one from Jim Brown as an American lawman who finds himself on the wrong side of Mexican law (being that the authoritative figures are depicted as homicidal martinets, this doesn’t tarnish his heroic stance) but on the right side, defending the innocent. The same cannot be said for Burt Reynolds who seems to be acting in another picture altogether; inappropriately channeling the hillbilly histrionics of Hal Needham fodder-to-come.The sexy Soledad Miranda is wasted in a fleeting cameo as a prostitute, but Dan O’Herlihy is wonderfully, wittily opportunistic as an oily railroad agent. Fernando Lamas does all but twirl his moustache as the foul Verdugo, but Hans Gudegast provides some needed multi-layered tension as the practical but deadly Von Klemme. (Were he the chief villain of the piece, this film might have been an entirely different and finer picture.)
The entire enterprise may not make much sense (Sardita is dispatched in a climactic gun battle without much fanfare from the “heroic” leads, and there doesn’t seem to be any strategy to the authoritarian power block except to merrily kill everyone in sight), but despite it’s nonsensical nature it improbably remains an entertaining picture; proving there is primal value in the art of forward motion. The film was wildly controversial at the time for a interracial love scene between Welch and Brown, a reminder of the often painfully slow baby steps Hollywood has taken toward a fleeting glimpse at maturity. However, there is even greater significance to the racial profile of the film which escaped unnoticed, which is the lack of overt onscreen notice of Brown’s skin color; a not insignificant move toward harmonious blending of races without the garish necessity to hold up placards to state the obvious, or worse yet have ethnicity be the defining characteristic of a role. (It was not until 1965’s “The Bedford Incident” that Sidney Poitier played a lead role that did not deliberately mention his race.)