The Wooden Horse Review
Well, the first thing that leaps out about this collection of war-time derring-do and stiff-upper-lippedness is that Sam Peckinpah's hyper-violent Cross Of Iron has been included in it. Elsewhere, the selection covers the best of the classic black and white epics that have long-since embraced a Sunday afternoon slot on TV. When compared to the likes of The Cruel Sea, The Dam Busters, Ice Cold In Alex and The Colditz Story, the blood and thunder chaos of Peckinpah's anti-heroism stance sticks out like a sore thumb and seems a somewhat careless addition thrown haphazardly into the mix just because it is a war film that Optimum Releasing happened to have the rights to distribute. But aside from that little wayward inclusion, this full boxset - and note that the films can be bought separately in three individual volumes as well - is otherwise full of the stalwart British attitude to battling Jerry with a sense of glorious patriotism, humour in the face of adversity and dogged determination. And there are some great character dramas in the set, too. The check discs that I have received only cover five films out of the full set of twelve, but a terrific flavour of these jingoistic, tin hat and have-a-go days is still in abundance.
First of note is the all-time classic of J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold In Alex. Set in the Libyan deserts in the wild days of the siege of Tobruk, with John Mills' beer-besotted ambulance driver trying to get himself, two luscious army nurses, his grizzled, gruff and great Sgt. Major (a towering Harry Andrews) and a somewhat shady South African officer played with delicious ambiguity by Anthony Quayle to the safety of allied-protected Alexandria. Dodging enemy aircraft, roving Africa Korps patrols, minefields and the mighty, remorseless desert itself, the mismatched assortment stagger through hardship, chaos and disaster and forge a bond that is as implacable as it is touching. The celebrated beer commercial that features perhaps the greatest moment in the film - a clue being an ice cold lager and a very thirsty hero - shows just how well received and remembered the film continues to be. John Mills as the on-edge and borderline alcoholic Captain Anson was never better, helping to boost the film's refreshingly dark edge. His base camp rivalries and beleaguered, yet dogged, tenacity make his ultimate compassion and courage all the more effective, producing one of the most fully-rounded war-time characters from the era. It is a terrific performance from a consummate professional. But he is also backed up by strong direction from Hunter and fantastic accompaniment from the likes of Quayle's possible German spy, Andrews' taciturn, but humane, hardnosed soldier and the simply exquisite Sylvia Syms as the brave nurse who never once looks less than adorable, no matter how much sand and dust gets blown in her face. The movie's theme of heroism, compassion and a damn good sense of humour is, perhaps, best summed up in the early, and slightly surreal scene in which the two gritty Eighth Army grunts watch in horror as their bonkers CO is blown to smithereens, and realise they've just seen the last of the tool kit and, more importantly, Anson's crate of whiskey. As taut as they come but packed with classy performances that lay waste to many of the British war-film clichés so prevalent of the times. Unmissable.
Cross Of Iron, despite its misplacement in this collection, is a very important film, too. Telling the ironic and war-condemning story of a platoon of German soldiers led by James Coburn's dangerously sane and valiant warrior Sgt. Steiner as they struggle to survive the madness and carnage of the Eastern Front, Peckinpah's violent tale is like a transplanting of his earlier The Wild Bunch from the miasma of a blood-drenched Mexican border town to the grey, earthy squalor of Second World War trenches. Battling conflict-warped egos and crazed authority every step of the way, Steiner's commandos fight their way behind enemy lines, encounter a lost squad of Russian women-soldiers who prove every bit as savage as their male counterparts and evade a terrifying tank assault that takes them through foxholes and bomb-craters and on into a shell-blitzed factory. Fighting for the honour of their own friends and not for the deranged medal-hunting glory of their new CO, a brilliant Maximillian Schell as the eager, but cowardly, Captain Stranski, Steiner's men paint the screen with machine-gunning frenzy and knife-slashing fury. Coburn, although doing his best to portray a soul-battered man who has seen and done far too much, is sadly miscast in role. His lanky, arm-swinging poise becomes all-too-obvious a bullet magnet and his quirky, war-weary cynicism has a habit of slowing down the action that Peckinpah clearly revels in. For an anti-war statement, Cross Of Iron suffers from too much incendiary, body-flinging fun. Its story, about the corruption of the soul in the pursuit of false acclaim and the lack of morals in the heat of conflict, is suited best by the bunker-banter from James Mason's seen-it-all-before commander and David Warner's tousled and tired NCO. An action-classic, but a narratively simplistic story that seeks to reveal the cowardice and betrayal of arrogance, the film's best line comes from Coburn's enraged soldier who, after surviving a terrible double-cross drags his over-zealous commander out into the battlefield to show him exactly “where the Iron Crosses grow!” Thankfully, the film also appears to be uncut.
The Cruel Sea pits a dogged, but conscience-riddled Jack Hawkins against the might of the Atlantic as he takes his warship, Compass Rose, into troubled waters and fights off the dreaded U-Boat menace, staff problems and the sacrifice of domestic bliss back on dry land. Directed efficiently by Charles Frend, the film benefits from a real “getting-to-know-you” sense of character development, as the plot is steered strenuously through the passage of time for a new crew as it learns the ropes, goes into battle and forges an esprit de corps that will alter it forever more. A snarling Stanley Baker has a tendency to roar out his lines and speak extremely rapidly, which would make him a comical figure if it weren't for the steel-hard glint in his eye. Donald Sinden, as his subsequent replacement cuts a rather dashing First Officer, and it seems strange that his filmic career didn't become as memorable as the evidence he reveals here would suggest. Hawkins, of course, takes the honours and delivers a pitch-perfect performance that, although resolutely of the times, still packs a punch today. The pain and anguish he displays at the gut-wrenching and horrible decision he is compelled to make during the film's tensest sequence has a lingering quality that manages to wash away the fake cheerfulness that a lot of films of this type are too keen to promote. Sadly, some of the model work is pretty poor and the use of real-life footage seems jarringly ill-fitting with the rest of the film. Back home, the lovely Virginia McKenna brings a more human and realistic reason to return from the war in one piece. Terrific and powerful stuff.
The Colditz Story may have smart direction from Guy Hamilton, who would go on to direct Bond in Goldfinger, some nicely authentic sets and one of those wonderful us against them prison atmospheres, so marvellously exploited by the likes of the far superior The Great Escape, but it contains too high a sense of humour for its own good. John Mills plots and schemes of escape from the infamous Colditz Castle and Anton Diffring curls his Germanic lip and preens with arrogance, but the whole thing comes across like a public school saga of cheeky pupils trying to put one over on their stern, authoritarian teachers. People may occasionally get themselves shot but the emphasis is steadfastly one of good-natured camaraderie and playful set-pieces, with the film ultimately acting more as a moral booster than a realistic drama. A much more enjoyable and dramatic story is contained within The Wooden Horse, but then the japery of these good old boys is still quite infectious, even if Colditz - rather like Stalag Luft North (from The Great Escape) - doesn't actually seem like such a bad place to be held prisoner in the first place.
The Dam Busters is another all-time classic. Plotting the science that devised the famous bouncing bomb through its early disasters and re-tinkering by the determined Dr. Barnes Wallis, played with friendly conviction by Michael Redgrave, and the steely, up-and-at-'em attitude and training of the bomber squadron flyboys led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a committed Richard Todd, the film culminates in one of the most spectacularly famous climaxes of war cinema. And, just like Ice Cold In Alex, the film was effectively parodied with another great beer commercial. Benefiting from much more accomplished model work and far better integration of real-life footage of the destruction those bombs wrought than anything The Cruel Sea could muster, The Dam Busters is cracking, top flight entertainment. This version remains unaltered with regards to the mild racist terms that are historically authentic - it just remains to be seen whether the remake, overseen by Peter Jackson, will retain such accuracy.
The other films featured in the full are In Which We Serve, The Battle Of The River Plate, I Was Monty's Double, Went The Day Well?, They Who Dare, The Wooden Horse and The Way Ahead. But the best of the bunch, barring The Wooden Horse, have been covered here.
Basically, this collection offers up a solid assortment of heroism and character study and is a marvellous depiction of the post-war era and the attitudes that such events create.