THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE (15)ACTING:
“The Longest Day” is the first great battle epic and thus has an international all-star cast. Even though it is the first of many (“A Bridge Too Far”, “Midway”, “Tora Tora! Tora!”, “Battle of the Bulge”, “Battle of Britain”), it still has the most all-starish of casts. Sometimes when you put together so many big names, they just go through the motions. Other times, they compete with each other and try to get the most out of their limited screen time. TLD falls firmly into the second category. It is fun to watch the heavyweights break out the tools of their trade to make impressions on the audience. John Wayne throwing his coffee cup upon news of the green light, Richard Burton emphasizing the term “ack ack”, Robert Mitchum chewing on his cigar, etc. While the big stars idiosyncranize their performances, the movie’s also has star making turns by some B-listers who made the most of their involvement and in the process made their real-life characters famous. Red Buttons as caught-on-the-steeple Steele and Heinz Reincke as the insubordinate Luftwaffe pilot Pips Priller come to mind.
“The Devil’s Brigade” is one of the “dirty” movies inspired by “The Dirty Dozen” from a year earlier. The acting is a pale imitation of its daddy. William Holden plays the tough father figure Lt. Col. Frederick and he has able support from Cliff Robertson as his second in command Maj. Crown. The movie does not make full use of the potential acting duel. The rest of the cast is B-listers who did not earn promotions from their work. One of them is Richard Jaekel as an acrobatic soldier. Poor decision by the casting director to remind the audience of TDD. You also get several other familiar faces like Claude Akins, Richard Dawson, and Andrew Prine.
FIRST QUARTER SCORE:
The Longest Day 9
The Devil’s Brigade 6
Being an epic without a central character or group means TLD is not really susceptible to normal combat movie clichés. It does have some of the characteristics of its battle epic subgenre but then it did establish the subgenre. It bounces back and forth to get both sides’ perspectives. The brass are identified by title cards. So are places and times. It is command-centric, but includes some grunts to give the micropicture. More than most of the epics, by the way. It uses lots of extras and hardware. Kudos for avoiding the pompous score and forcing in a romantic sub-plot.
TDB could have easily been a parody of the misfit commando unit on a suicide mission. It has the standard command confrontation (Frederick vs. Crown) and an alpha male pissing contest (Rocky vs. Peacock). In fact the movie pats itself on the back for mixing an American unit of criminals with a Canadian unit of well, the opposite. All three confrontations are resolved positively and predictably. There is a redemption figure who goes from cowardly to super-soldier (Andrew Prine as “Handsome”). There is brawl in a bar with local yokels that leads to bonding between the Yanks and Canucks. The unit has to prove its worth to the hide-bound authorities by doing a mini-raid. They succeed by breaking the normal rules of warfare and disobeying orders, naturally.
HALF TIME SCORE:
The Longest Day 17
The Devil’s Brigade 11
TLD does an outstanding job bringing Cornelius Ryan’s book to the screen. The first fifty minutes are dedicated to introducing the main characters and setting up the invasion. It explores the themes of impatience on the Allied side and complacency on the German side. It builds nicely and is not boring. The scenes are kept short. The movie then shifts into the invasion itself and follows several units starting with the paratroopers. It is a deft blending of command, units, and individuals. The jumping around is not jarring and the plot flows smoothly. The big picture is easy to follow and the individual stories are uniformly interesting. There are even some fleeting, but memorable moments of comic relief. My favorite is when the British war correspondent yells at the wayward carrier pigeons “Damn traitors!” As a reenactment of Operation Overlord, it is spectacular.
TDB is a poor man’s “The Dirty Dozen” and thus is too predictable. But then again, even if it had come before TDD, it would still be predictable because it’s a war movie that is not interested in breaking any new ground. An undisciplined unit is trained by a tough guy and then goes on a suicide mission behind enemy lines. How original! The entire Americans vs. Canadians premise (although based on an actual unit) is implausible. There is some broad humor of the “you have to be a guy to get it” variety. However, the movie is entertaining if you don’t expect much and it does manage to stay on this side of ridiculous and silly. The narrative arc is a familiar and thus, comforting one. You get what you want.
THIRD QUARTER SCORE:
The Longest Day 27
The Devil’s Brigade 17
For a movie that attempts to tell both the big and small, the brass and the boots - TLD has a surprising amount of combat. In fact, it may have the highest percentage of any of the epics. Certainly it has some of the highest quality set pieces. These include the taking of the Orne River Bridge, the paratroop drop into Ste. Mere Eglise, the landing at Omaha, the scaling of Pointe Du Hoc, the assault on Ouistreham, and back to the break-out from Omaha. Each is Old School (and thus not equal to the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”), but are very well done for the time. The combat is large scale even without CGI. Much of it is the standard “guns and grenades” variety with no bullet wounds or blood, but plenty of explosions and intensity.
TDB has the two set pieces. The first is the capture of the town which is the “sneak and stab” type. It is reminiscent of “The Dirty Dozen”’s war games scenario. Fun, but not particularly suspenseful (since you know if they don’t succeed, the movie is over) and of course utterly unrealistic. The attack up and on Monte la Difensa is surprisingly good. The film saved the best for last. It is an extended battle with lots of fireworks. There is even some cool hand-held camerawork. The violence is moderately graphic and the deaths (including several major characters) are not laughable.
The Longest Day 36
The Devil’s Brigade 25COLOR ANALYSIS:
Finally a match-up that went as expected. “The Devil’s Brigade” was lucky to get into the tournament as the selection committee was influenced by some of the fans of the film. The spunky mid-major film was in over its head against the granddaddy of all war movie epics. The talent-laden TLD pummeled the outclassed underdog. Although William Holden, Cliff Robertson, and Richard Jaekel were motivated by having not been recruited by TLD, they were unable to get revenge.