May 19, 2007
War Films That Get It Right: Two Classics Re-releasedBy Douglas Hanson
It's extremely rare when journalists or national security experts bother to look beyond the main battle areas of Iraq and Afghanistan to the less glamorous, but still critical campaigns necessary for victory in the Global War on Terror. What's even more surprising is when decades-old war movies, now restored and re-released, remind us that we ignore our own southern border and the maelstrom of Africa at our peril. Films so prescient deserve a second look within the context of our present day situation.
The Mexico Front
In 1964, a young director by the name of Sam Peckinpah was given the keys to the equivalent of the cinematic Ferrari. With a then-lavish $4.5 million budget and initial sole creative control over the story, Peckinpah set out to prove his mettle in the movie-making business. Unfortunately, the resulting film Major Dundee was forever known as a "flawed classic;" a movie that appealed to a limited audience of diehard fans despite its epic scope and one of the strongest casts ever assembled for a movie of any genre.
The original storyline was crafted by Harry Julian Fink, who later would go on to fame as the writer of Dirty Harry. Fink, Oscar Saul, and Peckinpah all contributed to the screenplay of Major Dundee. The plot concerned a Union Cavalry officer played by Charlton Heston, who toward the end of the Civil War was posted as commander of a POW camp in New Mexico Territory. He was itching to get back in the saddle to do some real soldiering, rather than be considered as a mere jailer.
Dundee soon got his chance when an Apache by the name of Sierra Charriba and his renegade band ambushed and massacred one of his cavalry units at a nearby ranch and then retreated to the presumed safety of northern Mexico. The homesteaders were also brutally murdered, while their sons were kidnapped to be raised as Apache warriors. Major Dundee then takes it upon himself to gather a detachment of his own Federal troops, civilian prisoners, and Southern "volunteers" under the leadership of Confederate Captain Ben Tyreen, who was played to perfection by Richard Harris. Their mission: to conduct an unauthorized incursion into French-occupied Mexico to secure the kidnapped boys, and to kill or capture the Apache leader and his cohorts.
Peckinpah had a cast that was the envy of any director at the time. In addition to Harris, Heston was backed up by Jim Hutton and James Coburn, who would later win critical acclaim in the lead role in Peckinpah's 1977 Eastern Front epic Cross of Iron. The rest of the players were all the top tier of Hollywood supporting actors: Michael Anderson, Jr. as the young bugler, Corporal Tim Ryan; and Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, and Slim Pickens. Brock Peters also starred as the Sergeant in charge of a detachment of black Union infantry. Austrian beauty Senta Berger rounded out the cast as the female lead, Teresa Santiago.
Fink, Heston, Harris, Coburn, Peckinpah and a huge budget by 60s standards - what could have possibly gone wrong? Almost everything.
Filming around Guerrero and Durango, Mexico ran into trouble because of a combination of extreme producer-director creative control power plays and actor personality conflicts. Eventually, Peckinpah's abusive attitude towards his cast and crew, which was made worse by his frequent booze and pot benders, caused Heston to physically confront the director with his cavalry saber. And according to Senta Berger, Richard Harris was nasty to just about everybody else on the set.
Despite these problems, the key players wanted the project to succeed. As a reflection of his personal character and determination, Heston offered to forego his salary if the studio allowed Peckinpah to re-shoot critical scenes. Reportedly, Columbia kept his pay while reneging on the agreement. Also producer Jerry Bresler, who to this day is castigated by surviving cast members for mucking up the works, eventually came down on Peckinpah's side and encouraged the studio to keep Peckinpah's original 136 minute cut; but the studio's patience had run out.
The result was an intriguing fictional story set against a true, but little known episode of US and Mexican military history. Though superbly acted and filmed, the movie suffered from several plot holes and a musical score that was totally inappropriate for a film that at its core was a dark and somber tale of divided countrymen, racial animosities, and bloody combat.
But thanks to Sony Pictures, Major Dundee received a much needed facelift. In 2005, Major Dundee - the Extended Version DVD was released with about 13 minutes of key scenes restored and a stunning digital re-mastering that eliminates the sometimes grainy film quality of the original. Also, the Mitch Miller Sing-Along Gang music has been removed in favor of a new score by Christopher Caliendo (Paradise, Unspoken) that better suits the serious nature of the film. However, on the DVD, viewers can play the movie with either the original score or with the new music.
The addition of just 13 minutes left on the cutting room floor has brought Peckinpah's vision of the story to reality. The clarity and flow of the action is outstanding, and the plot holes of the theatrical release have been filled. For example, the character of Riago, the Indian scout, who was perceived as a traitor by Cpl. Ryan, just disappeared somewhere in northern Mexico never to be seen again. In the new version, Riago's true loyalties are revealed in typical Peckinpah gruesome fashion.
The romantic relationship between Major Dundee and Teresa Santiago which received short shrift in 1965 is fully developed in the extended version, again providing continuity and rationale for the remainder of the story line. After viewing these scenes, I suspect that what was cut out in 1965 had just as much to do with the risqué factor as it did any creative differences. As such, the extended version of Major Dundee has received a PG-13 rating.
For those who are interested in the weapons and tactics of the era, the original version had no rhyme or reason for how and why the troopers finally confronted the Apache and his band in Mexico the way that they did. The new film provides the tactical thought and the resulting maneuver that allow the viewer to make sense of the second to last battle.
The final battle against the French Lancers on the Rio Grande was always one of the best scenes in the original, and the restored version only makes it better with a visually stunning widescreen presentation that is crystal clear; and as with all of Peckinpah's movies, very bloody. If there is a knock on the new film, it's that there is a strange gap in the new musical score during the climatic fight against the French. For some reason, Sony and Caliendo failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to strengthen the emotions and intensity of the border fight against "Europe's best."
Watching the new version today in light of threat on our southern border is a grim reminder that our security, economic, and geo-political problems with Mexico are nothing new; and more importantly, our post-modern response - which is to say no response - is at odds with how every Commander-in-Chief has historically handled those who seek to gain advantage over the US via our chaotic neighbor to the south.
Major Dundee is indeed fictional, but the historical backdrop is real. The French caught us looking the other way because of the Civil War, and ultimately stationed 30,000 troops in Mexico. When the Confederacy surrendered, General Ulysses Grant sent three Union corps of 50,000 troops led by legendary cavalryman Gen. Philip Sheridan to Texas. Sheridan's battle hardened veterans would have made mincemeat out of the French army had they approached the Rio Grande. Sheridan also covertly supplied the Juaristas with much needed arms and supplies. A few years later, Emperor Maximilian was dead and the French were gone.
The deplorable conditions that Dundee found in northern Mexico hadn't changed much when Gen. John J. Pershing went in during his Punitive Expedition to rid the threat of cross border raids by Pancho Villa. Nor is it much different in a relative sense today; leaving too many places along both sides of the Rio Grande vulnerable to well-trained and equipped global proxy warriors in the employ of drug cartels and Jihadists, who like the Europeans of old are making the most of our inattention to the close battle.
The most frustrating aspect is that the US government and our President show a singular disinterest in securing our southern border, while the military consistently displays an odd aversion to using the means at hand to kill those that would do us harm. Grant and Sheridan certainly wouldn't have let this sore fester for years on end, and would be appalled at our lack of vigilance and desire to protect our own country. Where are men of such caliber today?
In contrast to the Administration's approach to Mexico, it's on solid footing when it comes to moving Africa towards a more secure future, both economically and militarily. Even GW's critics admit that he has done more for the continent than any previous Commander-in-Chief; albeit not purely out of the goodness of his heart - grand strategy in the War on Terror has demanded it.
We abandoned Sub-Saharan Africa in the early 60s due to the build-up in Vietnam, and the resulting power vacuum allowed the Eastern Bloc to wreak havoc among the newly freed African colonies. Most often, communists rationalized their presence in Africa as promoting freedom from racial oppression and to fight exploitation from corporate magnates and their former colonial lackeys. All simplistic rubbish of course; but widely accepted and promoted by Hollywood movers and shakers. Americans were exposed to the horrific policy of apartheid in South Africa in a grand cause celebre style while remaining ignorant of the larger fight, and how global socialism squashed the hopes and dreams of all Africans. Witness the clumsy and cartoonish 1980s Lethal Weapon II as an example of racial pandering from self-righteous, liberal film makers.
It isn't surprising therefore, that a film exposing the true nature of African Cold War proxy campaigns would come from British conservative producer Euan Lloyd and his remarkably un-PC mercenary movie The Wild Geese . Like Major Dundee, Lloyd's 1978 wartime masterpiece was digitally re-mastered and issued in 2005 as a "30th Anniversary Edition" though strangely, the actual 30-year mark will not occur until next year.
Lloyd decided that for his film there would be no rookie director at the helm. Instead, veteran TV and movie action - adventure film maker Andrew MacLaglen (The Undefeated, The Devil's Brigade, The Blue and the Gray) was chosen to run the show. The story was adapted from Daniel Carney's book, The Thin White Line (later renamed The Wild Geese to capitalize on the success of the movie), and the screenplay was written by Reginald Rose. Yes; that Reginald Rose of 12 Angry Men infamy, who would seem to be an unlikely candidate to write a truthful account of a mercenary group in Africa. But more about him later.
The movie is about the recruiting, training, and operations of a 50-man mercenary unit commanded by Col. Allen Faulkner, played by the master, Richard Burton; co-star Richard Harris (again) is his operations officer and planner, Captain Rafer Janders. By this time, Harris' reputation for his drinking and rabble rousing was well known, so to placate the insurance carrier, Lloyd made Harris deposit half his salary in escrow to provide funds to "repair" any damage for his rambunctious nature. Reportedly, Harris remained dry for the entire production, with the exception of one incident.
The rest of the cast was stacked with the best of international action stars. In between stints as James Bond, Roger Moore played one of Col. Faulkner's Lieutenants, Shawn Fynn. The much underrated Hardy Kruger was South African Lt. Pieter Coetze. Kruger deserves high praise for his portrayal of the pivotal character in the movie that provided the much need balance in understanding the complexities of the African situation. Jack Watson, who was perennially typecast as a tough British Army NCO during his acting career, is in top-notch form as Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) Sandy Young, who has the task of whipping the mercenary band into shape.
Lending credibility to the production was real-life mercenary Ian Yule as Sgt. Tosh Donaldson, who later introduced Irish soldier of fortune Col. "Mad" Mike Hoare to Lloyd. The producer was so impressed that he made Hoare the official military adviser to ensure the realism of the combat scenes. And adding to the already robust action-adventure roster, Lloyd hired John Glen to be the film editor and second unit director. Glen has the distinction of having made more 007 movies (five) than any other director.
The film starts off predictably enough. Faulkner is hired by a merchant banker in London by the name of Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to organize a specially trained unit to parachute into Africa and rescue deposed President Julius Limbani before he is killed by General Endova, who is "one of the most corrupt dictators in Africa." Matherson's motives are far from pure. He needs to get Limbani out and back to London or else Endova bargains away a significant portion of his bank's copper rights.
The Wild Geese is anything but a formulaic soldiers/mercs are dumb, bloodthirsty, killer robots film so prevalent of the immediate post-Vietnam era. We see that Janders, who is an idealist of the highest degree, initially turns down Faulkner's offer to be his operations officer since he has promised his boy that they would spend Christmas vacation together. The exploration of Faulkner and Jander's intense friendship and the conflict over Jander's love for his son versus going on the mission is one of the most emotionally stirring subplots of the movie. It also provides one of the best endings of a war film ever experienced; and all with one simple line delivered by Burton to Jander's son.
Eventually, the unit is assembled and begins training in Swaziland. Watson as the RSM is unequalled when it comes to the tough, but caring senior NCO role. The unit then jumps in to conduct the raid. The initial operation goes off without a hitch, and MacLaglen's and Glen's action genre expertise shine through producing taut and realistic scenes of small unit combat action. All is going well until Matherson orders the group to be abandoned since he has cut a new deal with General Endova, and no longer needs President Limbani to save his copper holdings. Faulkner's mission now is just to survive and get his men out of Africa as best as he can. And on top of everything else, the group is being pursued by Endova's own regiment, the Simbas.
It is during the escape to a remote African village that many of the preconceived notions of Africa and her people come crashing down via the interaction between Limbani, admirably played by Winston Ntshona (Blood Diamond), and the white South African, Lt. Coetze. For example, it may come as a shock to the Hollywood crowd, but as Coetze reminds Limbani, "we (whites) are as African as you are, and make no mistake, we are here to stay." And just as surprising to the left I'm sure, Limbani replies, "I'm glad to hear that." The arguments continue throughout the journey until both men realize that they need each other more than they had imagined. Ultimately, Coetze gives his life to save Limbani to make his Africa a better place.
The movie does not shy away from the military reality of a proxy war in Africa designed to produce the kind of chaos ripe for a communist takeover. Endova's army is clearly shown being advised by East German and Cuban cadre, while Limbani's own accounts of black on black oppression and slavery under the tutelage of Eastern Bloc socialists is sure to open the eyes of those who have been spoon-fed popular notions of African ways in the post-colonial period.
One wonders whether screenwriter Rose had a personal political epiphany of sorts since writing his slick, leftist propaganda piece of 12 Angry Men, or whether he was tied to Carney's novel at the insistence of Euan Lloyd - perhaps a little of both. Two years later, he went back to work for Lloyd to write the script for The Sea Wolves. More surprisingly, he wrote the screenplay for Lloyd's 1982 anti-communist thriller The Final Option (overseas known as Who Dares Wins); a story inspired by Lloyd himself who watched from around the corner as the British SAS seized the Iranian embassy from terrorists in London in 1980.
The Wild Geese was the last movie released by Allied Artists, and because of legal wrangling received only a limited distribution in the US (I first saw the film in Germany shortly after it premiered in the UK). Nevertheless, it was the 14th highest grossing film internationally for 1978. As a comparison with 2006 worldwide takes, The Wild Geese would be on par with The Departed, and would have topped Borat, Eragon, Poseidon, and Blood Diamond.
As might be expected, the premier in London was marred by the usual suspects objecting to apartheid policies even though they had not seen the movie. In an interview on the DVD, Lloyd had actually first shown the movie in Soweto, the site of horrific riots in 1976 resulting in over 500 deaths. The Soweto Times published excellent reviews of the film, and copies of these were handed out to the protestors. They simply threw them away, unwilling to acknowledge the inconvenient truths of the movie and its production, such as that Faulkner's unit was fully integrated, and the mixed cast and crew shared living quarters while filming in South Africa.
A new generation of willfully ignorant socialist "activists" are hard at work trying to subvert our strategic maneuvers in the Global War on Terror. Africa is a key component of that plan, and is long overdue for getting the attention it deserves from the Coalition. A good start to understanding the huge problems we and the Africans face is to revisit the tale of Col. Faulkner and how his men tried to save a man and his nation, while in the end, saving themselves.
Douglas Hanson is the national security correspondent of American Thinker.