A Movie A Week: TOO LATE THE HERO (1970) Yes, I hear you. So will the Japs if you don’t keep your bloody voice down.
Published at: May 19, 2009, 4:31 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
Today we take a look at Robert Aldrich’s WW2 flick TOO LATE THE HERO, following the writer/director over from last week’s great thriller HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE.
I picked this film up when I knew I was going to interview Michael Caine at ShoWest. I ended up buying a whole lot of Michael Caine flicks I hadn’t seen, some of which I didn’t get to before the chat. This is one of those films.
And it was one of my more anticipated, to be honest, because of many factors, the most important of which was Robert Aldrich’s name. I also love WW2 films and Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson and Denholm Elliott. Seemed like a no-lose scenario for me.
And while the movie isn’t horrible, I did find it to be a bit of a let down.
All the actors do well, the story’s actually really interesting, but something just doesn’t click. I’m sure you guys know what I’m talking about. Sometimes films have all the right ingredients, but the flavor just never comes through.
Basically, you have Cliff Robertson as an American Naval officer who makes it perfectly clear he signed up only to translate Japanese communiqués safely from his lazy days on the Allied beach. He is ordered, by Henry Fonda in a cameo role at the beginning of the film, to join up with a British regiment holding out at the treeline that marks enemy territory.
The idea is this outfit makes their way through the enemy-controlled jungle and sneaks into a base on the other end of the island, overlooking the waterway where a ton of Navy ships are going to be passing by on their way toward the mainland. If the Japanese see these ships they will radio to the mainland and the fleet will be fish in a barrel for the Japanese air force.
So, the mission is to get to the camp and destroy the communications at the very least. Where Robertson comes in is they want someone who speaks Japanese to first send out a false report to the mainland that makes damn sure their attention is diverted when the fleet moves through their waters.
Denholm Elliott is in charge, but he’s not a good leader. He’s nervous and doesn’t have the respect of his men. Far from it, actually. He’s not a bad person, but not the kind of guy you want covering your back in a stealth mission through enemy territory.
Michael Caine’s Pvt. Tosh has the men’s respect. He’s a medic and a cynic… a cynic medic. Heh. Anyway, he has trouble with authority, especially Elliott, and has a yellow streak a mile wide. Naturally Robertson fits in well with him, hating the fact he has to stick his neck on the line.
What’s interesting about the story is just how vulnerable this British camp is. There’s a wide, flat field stretching out between the base and the tree line. It’s too far to be attacked from, but that cuts the other way as well. Anybody venturing into enemy territory or coming back from it is vulnerable.
When Robertson firsts arrives a pair of British soldiers returning from a mission run through the field, zig-zagging to avoid mines and also the enemy fire from the jungle and those hiding amongst the tall grass. The Brits can give limited trial and error mortar cover and scattered machine gun fire, but for the most part all they can do is cheer their buddies on and hope they make it.
The first off beat came for me when the men go out on their mission, mere hours after the blokes ran out of the jungle and got bullets in the back from an unseen enemy hiding in the foliage, and Aldrich didn’t treat it as a tension scene. He focuses instead on Robertson taking a little bit of command, stepping slightly on the toes of Denholm Elliott by making sure the men going out in groups of four spread out to not be so easy a target.
Aldrich decided, in short, to put the focus on character, which is fine, but much less exciting and not as needed as we soon get half an hour of character work as the unit navigates the jungle.
What works for this film is the fact that, to the person, every character is flawed. None of the troop are particularly brave or good men, but of them all Denholm Elliott knows he has a job to do and people whose lives are on the line if they don’t do their job. But even he is flustered and makes some extremely inhumane decisions leading up to the raid on the outpost, which happens surprisingly early in the movie.
It goes bad (thanks greatly to the cowardice of both Robertson and Caine) and the bulk of the suspense comes from the survivors trying to get back to their base, surrounded by the enemy. We also meet our villain, Ken Takakura, as a Japanese Major who has hundreds of speakers set up around the jungle so he can speak to the soldiers. He attacks their morale when his people can’t find the men themselves.
Much like the main characters aren’t particularly heroic, Takakura isn’t particularly villainous. He’s well-spoken, promises good treatment and seems to be disappointed by their unwillingness to surrender. But there’s something untrustworthy about him. You don’t blame our group for hiding out.
Some of them are scared, some of them are wounded and some want to surrender. The failed attack on the base has changed Robertson, though. He watched a comrade die right in front of him because he was unwilling to come out from cover and do his job. The accusing dead man’s stare visibly shakes Robertson and now he feels an obligation to get back to the base and alert the ships that they’re still going to be spotted, saving those lives in the process. Now the title makes a little bit of sense, yeah?
To me, that’s a fascinating angle to a movie like this, a unique way to approach heroism and, more interestingly, when cowardice wins. I’d like to think of myself as a good and decent person, but I have no idea what I’d do in a life-threatening situation. I could freeze just as easily as jumping into action. Hell, it’s probably more likely that I’d freeze.
There are a lot of interesting ideas and themes in this movie, but like I said at the beginning of the review they just don’t gel. It’s not a really boring movie, but it does drag and isn’t nearly as riveting as it should be.
Caine does a good job, giving it his all, but his character isn’t all that memorable. It’s pretty great to see him again paired with Denholm Elliott, who I will always love because of my repeated viewings of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as a kid. The two shared a fantastic scene in ALFIE where Elliott played a skeazy abortionist.
Cliff Robertson is really the main character even though Caine gets top billing and brings just the right amount of pathos to the character. The rest of the squad, filled with British character actors, are all top notch.
So you can see where the frustration comes in. Aldrich’s direction is fine, even though I disagree with where he chooses to put the focus through much of the film. The whole just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.
I’m currently about 3/4ths of the way through Michael Caine’s autobiography WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? and he has a couple stories from this film that are more interesting than the movie itself. For one, he hated shooting in the Philippines calling it the worst location he’s ever had to work in. But he also states that Cliff Robertson is indeed a real life hero, who kept his cool during emergencies.
The story that stuck in my mind was that the two were flying to the location on a small plane with the rest of the cast and as they were in the air the old rickety plane’s door actually opened. While everybody else panicked (I sure as shit would) Robertson jumped into action and told Caine to help him.
Caine reluctantly agreed and followed Robertson to the open door, fighting against the rushing of the wind through the cabin. Robertson told him to grab his belt, which Caine did, and proceeded to lean out of the airplane… in flight… and grabbed the door, pulling it shut. Then he congratulated Caine on a job well done, which struck Caine as odd considering it wasn’t he risked falling to his death.
Pretty sweet, right?
Final Thoughts: TOO LATE THE HERO is worth a view for fans of the genre and of the individuals involved, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of the great cast and talent behind the camera.
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, May 25th: THE BEST MAN (1964)
Monday, June 1st: THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956)
Monday, June 8th: THE QUIET MAN (1952)
Monday, June 15th: RIO GRANDE (1950)
We follow Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda over to 1964’s Gore Vidal play turned flick THE BEST MAN about the race for the Oval Office, directed by PAPILLON and PLANET OF THE APES’ Franklin J. Schaffner. Recorded this one off of TCM a while back and I don’t think it’s on DVD. Very curious. See you folks next week!
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