First published at Dscriber.com on Aug. 21, 2009
Let's go kill us some Nazis!
Quentin Tarentino's new film, "Inglourious Basterds," opened Friday. At 12:01 a.m., to be precise. I was there, in spirit at least, ready for action with the fanboys. (Remember, fanboys grow up to become aficionado-men.)
What is it about men-on-a-mission films that's so seductive? Is it the thrill of watching the execution of a cunning plan? The fascinations of watching specialists in death-dealing and espionage assemble? The barely-suppressed homosexual subtext?
All of the above. Aggression and male bonding go hand-in-hand, and men seeking escape relish a film full of violence and explosions, without those pesky female characters that slow things down with "relationships" and "dialogue" -- unless of course they are villainous seductresses or shapely allies.
Tarentino's affection for the subgenre is no secret. The men-on-a-mission subgenre is perilously close to the "caper/heist" subgenre -- one that the director already examined in "Reservoir Dogs" in 1992, and glancingly referenced with a feminist twist in "Pulp Fiction" -- Uma Thurman's character talks about the TV pilot "Fox Force Five."
Both categories deal primarily with codes of masculinity and honor, but in this case, the protagonists aren't criminals subverting a corrupt and vulnerable system, but a group of cynical pros and/or a "rag-tag bunch of misfits" that go above and beyond the call of duty -- in order to kick ass.
The roots of the movement spring from several sources. First, there are the patriotic, propagandistic World War II-era dramas such as "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" (1943, Dir: Delmer Davies), "Sahara" (1943, Dir: Zoltan Korda) and "Objective Burma!" (1945, Dir: Raoul Walsh) that outlined heroic struggles against the enemies of freedom, emphasizing bravery, teamwork and sacrifice.
Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" from 1954 is another key development. Its tale of compassionate mercenaries who aid a poor village in repelling bandits inspired John Sturges' classic Western adaptation, 1960's "The Magnificent Seven" -- which cleaned up at the box office and spawned three increasingly inept sequels of its own.
The third stream of influence issues straight from Howard Hawks, the Golden Age directing genius who was notably a "man's man" and promulgated the tight-lipped tough-guy buddy ethos in films such as "Only Angels Have Wings" (1936). Disgusted by Fred Zinneman's 1952 "High Noon," in which Gary Cooper seeks help from townsfolk who won't lift a finger to help him face a bad man out for revenge. Hawks determined to make his own statement.
According to Grant Tracey in Images Journal, "Hawks disliked the film intensely and felt that Cooper acted inappropriately: a professional never asks amateurs for help, a professional is 'good enough' to do the job himself, or with the aid of fellow right-thinking professionals."
Hawks' "Rio Bravo" (1959) does precisely that, with John Wayne's sheriff scorning offers of assistance from "amateurs" against the bad guys. The film proved so successful that it spawned two Hawks-helmed remakes: "El Dorado" in 1966 and "Rio Lobo" in 1970.
Then came Alistair MacLean. The prolific Scottish thriller novelist wrote the template for the men-on-a-mission saga with "The Guns of Navarone" in 1957. Its adaptation onto celluloid four years later under the direction of J. Lee Thompson put all the elements together, triggering an avalanche of similar projects, most set during World War II.
So raise your glass to the following selections. For better or worse, they typify the film fantasy of a violent job well done:
Operation Crossbow (1965) Dir: Michael Anderson. With George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Paul Henreid. Those damned Germans are building rockets in Peenemunde -- they've got to be stopped!
Bad Guy: Anthony Quayle.
Babe: Sophia Loren.
Quote: "If you can just get inside that research site, then you will have made great leaps and bounds towards the target."
The Heroes of Telemark (1965) Dir: Anthony Mann. With Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Michael Redgrave. Those damned Germans are making "heavy water," essential for atom-bomb production, in Norway -- they've got to be stopped!
Bad Guy: Anton Diffring (one of the all-time great Evil Nazis).
Babe: Ulla Jacobsson.
Quote: "Don't you ever make the mistake by underrating the Germans. By any means."
The Professionals (1966) Dir: Richard Brooks. With Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy. When Mexican bandits kidnap a rancher's wife, a team of experts are sent south to get her back.
Bad Guy: Jack Palance.
Babe: Claudia Cardinale.
Quote: "So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, 90-proof whiskey, and 14-carat gold?"
The Dirty Dozen (1967) Dir: Robert Aldrich. With Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez. Twelve condemned Army criminals are given the chance for a pardon if they survive a secret mission to parachute behind enemy lines and kill most of the German High Command.
Bad Guy: Robert Ryan (and he's supposed to be on our side!)
Babe: Dora Reisser.
Quote: "Killin' generals could get to be a habit with me."
Where Eagles Dare (1968) Dir: Brian G. Hutton. With Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Michael Hordern. In another MacLean adaptation, commandos must parachute behind enemy lines to rescue an American general -- or is he?
Bad Guy: Derren Nesbitt (and isn't that Anton Diffring back there?)
Babes: Mary Ure, Ingrid Pitt.
Quote: "Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy, over."
Ice Station Zebra (1968) Dir: John Sturges. With Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Patrick McGoohan. ANOTHER MacLean adaptation, this one set during the Cold War. A submarine mission to rescue injured scientists at the North Pole is a cover for the retrieval of a spy satellite.
Bad Guy: Alf Kjellin as Col. Ostrovsky.
Babe: Not one woman in the entire film.
Quote: "The incident is close-ed."
Play Dirty (1968) Dir: Andre de Toth. With Michael Caine, Nigel Davenport, Nigel Green, Harry Andrews. Leery petroleum exec must join British mission to destroy German oil supplies in North Africa.
Bad Guy: Richard Harris, who got fired from the production early on.
Babe: Vivian Pickles as "German Nurse."
Quote: "Sometimes you need to learn that playing by the rules gets you nowhere."
The Devil's Brigade (1968) Dir: Andrew McLaglen. With William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Vince Edwards, Claude Akins, Richard Jaeckel, Harry Carey Jr., Carroll O'Connor, Michael Rennie, Dana Andrews. Americans and Canadians gotta get along in order to take impregnable Nazi fortress in Italy.
Bad Guy: Paul Busch.
Babe: Gretchen Wyler.
Quote: "Faith moves mountains. It doesn't take them."
Five for Hell (1969) Dir: Giancarlo Parolini (as Frank Kramer). With . . . um, never mind. Nutty G.I.s have to steal secret plans from Nazis -- behind enemy lines, of course. Bad Guy: Klaus Kinski.
Babe: Margaret Lee.
Quote: "Certo, Fraulein."
Kelly's Heroes (1970) Dir: Brian G. Hutton. With Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O'Connor, Harry Dean Stanton, Gavin MacLeod, Stuart Margolin. The perfect, one-time-only intersection of mission film, caper flick and dark counterculture comedy -- complete with hippie tank unit. Watch for the spaghetti-western parody sequence at the end.
Bad Guy: Karl-Otto Alberty.
Babe: None visible.
Quote: "We got our own ammunition, it's filled with paint. When we fire it, it makes... pretty pictures."
Too Late the Hero (1970) Dir: Robert Aldrich. With Cliff Robertson, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews. An attempt to recreate the success of "Dirty Dozen" with the Japanese instead of the Germans as the target.
Bad Guy: Ken Takakura.
Babe: Nope, sorry.
Quote: "Sometimes I feel like I should just give up the ghost and be done with it!"
Raid on Rommel (1971) Dir: Henry Hathaway. With Richard Burton and not much else. Commando raid on Tobruk goes awry, and officer must utilize misfit medical unit instead. Bad Guy: Wolfgang Preiss.
Babe: Danielle De Metz.
Quote: "I don't care whether you pay her off in lollipops or cut out her tongue with a dull knife. She's your responsibility."
The Eagle Has Landed (1976) Dir: John Sturges. With Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh. This time, it's the Germans who play dress-up and try foolhardy attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill.
Bad Guy: Donald Pleasance -- as Heinrich Himmler!
Babe: Jenny Agutter.
Quote: "My God, you're a German!"
Inglorious Bastards (1978) Dir: Enzo G. Castellani. With Bo Svenson, Fred Williams, Ian Bannen. The inspiration for Tarentino is an awful low-budget "Dirty Dozen" knockoff, complete with bad miniature work and naked machine-gun-toting SS women.
Bad Guys: Numerous, and constantly leaping about in death throes.
Babe: Debra Berger.
Quote: "How's it going there, Colonel?" repeated 8,000 times as said officer tries to steal gizmo from V-2 prototype.
The Wild Geese (1978) Dir: Andrew McLaglen. With Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger. Mercenaries must rescue imprisoned African leader -- their job becomes much tougher when they are betrayed.
Bad Guy: Stewart Granger (and he's supposed to be on their side! Sounds familiar?)
Babe: Rosalind Lloyd.
Quote: "Good luck to you, you Godless murderers."
Force 10 from Navarone (1978) Dir: Guy Hamilton. With Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, Carl Weathers. The "Navarone" gang are back together, fighting the Germans in Yugoslavia.
Bad Guy: Franco Nero.
Babe: Barbara Bach.
Quote: "You're Nicolai . . . you're the man who blew us in Greece!"
The Dogs of War (1980) Dir: John Irvin. With Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely. Mercenaries are paid to depose African dictator so that a pro-West one can take his place.
Bad Guy: Illario Bisi-Pedro.
Babe: JoBeth Williams
Quote: "Everybody comes with me, goes home."
Attack Force Z (1982) Dir: Tim Burstall. With John Phillip Law, Sam Neill, Mel Gibson. Aussie commandos must rescue plane-crash victims from Japanese -- as well as defector with secret that could end the war.
Babe: Sylvia Chang.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Dir: Steven Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon. D-Day squad must find and bring home the last surviving brother of fallen soldiers.
Bad Guy: Joerg Stadler.
Quote: "James, earn this . . . earn it."
Black Hawk Down (2001) Dir: Ridley Scott. With Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard. Somalia, 1993. A plan to kidnap warlord's lieutenants leads to a disastrous firefight in Mogadishu.
Bad Guy: The entire population of Mogadishu, evidently.
Quote: "Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way."