Tuesday, October 15, 2013

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? “Battle Circus” (1953)


 
                “Battle Circus” is a Korean War movie released in 1953.  It was written and directed by Richard Brooks (“Take the High Ground”).  The movie is about a MASH unit and was originally entitled “MASH 66”.  The studio worried people would think it was about potatoes.  Instead a title was developed that reflected the circus atmosphere and tents of a Mobile Hospital.  The technical adviser had operated a MASH unit in Korea so the operation was accurate.  Humphrey Bogart was paid $250,000, but that princely sum did not keep him from regretting making the film.  The fact that he burned his thumb during a scene where he destroys papers before a retreat did not increase his enthusiasm.  The scene was left in the film.  At least he got decent reviews.  His co-star June Allyson was lambasted by the press.  So much for broadening her resume beyond “the girl next door”.

                “Battle Circus” is a “story about the indominable human spirit…”  It is set in an unspecified part of the Korean War, but based on the constant bugging out it would seem to be the first year.  The set looks like a MASH unit.  In other words, you’ll recognize “MASH” the movie and TV show.  There are the iconic tents and the helicopters bringing in the wounded (the movie was partly filmed at Camp Pickett, Virginia where the MASH units were trained).  We are introduced to the dangers of military medical care through a ridiculous strafing attack on the unit.  Using actual footage – of a USAF F-86!  Apparently the director did not give a crap about our intelligence level.  By the way, I would be surprised if there were any MIG strafings of hospitals in the entire war.

June finds out her make-up kit was left behind
                A cherry nurse arrives named Ruth (Allyson).  The hard drinking surgeon Maj. Webbe (Bogart) takes an immediate lusting for her.  They immediately begin the Hollywood process of hooking up.  This involves embarrassing pick-up lines by Webbe that would have Hawkeye Pierce gagging.  Plus Webbe is about as subtle as a kick in the stomach.  Ruth is very protective of her female virtue – for about five minutes.  That’s how long it takes the wolf in scrubs to get her to lower her surgical mask.  Soon she is the aggressor and madly (as in insanely) in love with him.

                It’s not all love in war.  Webbe saves a little Korean boys life by performing open heart surgery.  He is an ace surgeon and an ace drunk.  His drinking gets him in trouble with his superior.  In the obligatory carpet calling confrontation, Webbe makes a bizarrely contemporary comment about the “three world wars in our lifetime”.  How did I miss one?  I assume the screenwriters are referring to the Cold War as WWIII, but I thought that was only a recent bit of historical revisionism. 
looks just like a real war photo, doesn't it?

                Allyson gets to show off her serious acting chops (or lack thereof) in a silly scene where she talks down an enemy prisoner welding a grenade during an operation.  There are no subtitles but I’m pretty sure he is upset with the romance.  It appears that this naïve newbie has developed into a battle-hardened caregiver.  The movie closes with one last bug-out as the unit has to escape through enemy lines under artillery fire.  The nurses get separated from the doctors.  I mean Bogart gets separated from Allyson.  Will they have a loving reunion?  You’ll have to watch the movie.

listen kid, I can get my make-up guy to
make you look like you're in a war,too
                This is a strange movie.  It is part sappy romance and part realistic depiction of the workings of a MASH unit.  The look of the unit is real and the activities seem authentic.  The bug-outs are appropriate for that stage of the war.  The use of helicopters is well done.  All this effort is diluted by the romance half.  It would be like MASH bombing in the comedy sphere.  The two leads have little chemistry.  Bogart looks too old for the role.  Their dialogue is cringe-worthy.  No couple talks like that in real life.  Plus the arc of the romance defies reality.  Ruth goes from skeptical to stalking in the bat of an eyelash.  Of course, the actors are not helped by the script.  There is a painful scene where they wallow in a mud puddle.  Hilarious not.  This is the only time in the film that Allyson is not well-dressed, well-made up, amd well-coiffed.  At least the doctors sweat a little in the operating room.

                In spite of my carping, the movie is not that bad.  Aside from the elephantine cliché of a romance, the movie has some interesting twists.  The enemy is not demonized.  The movie is nurse-centric as oppsed to concentrating on the male doctors.  The film does a good job commemorating the role of the MASH units.

                Classic or antique?  Neither.

grade =  C 

12 comments:

  1. Yeah, it really is a mediocre movie. I could put up with the sad attempt at comedy and the boring dialogue but June Allyson's screeching voice was too painful.

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    1. the war movie buffOctober 16, 2013 at 9:28 PM

      I actually don't dislike her as a comedian, but she is totally miscast for this role. But Bogart is also not right for the part and adding the two mistakes together amplifies the problem.

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  2. anyone else immediately picture a Chris Rock Giraffe in a clown-painted flak helmet yelling "Battle Circus Battle Circus yatdatdatta dada daaadada Battle Circus"? ... Just me then? OK. ;)

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    1. the war movie buffOctober 16, 2013 at 9:31 PM

      Now I won't be able to sleep tonite wondering what the Hell you are talking about.

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    1. the war movie buffOctober 16, 2013 at 9:35 PM

      Thanks. I will check out "Homecoming". Give me a couple of years to get to the rest.

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  4. You've seen most of those above, haven't you? I have.
    Anyway, you made me laugh. I didn't know what a MASH unit is, yes, shame on me, but wouldn't have thought of potatoes. It sound sfar more sappy than realistic and the acting seems off. Why did Bogart accept that role. I honestly thougth he hadn't made a lot of B movies.

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  5. Here is an incredible fact: Bogart made this movie between "African Queen" and "Caine Mutiny"! My theory is that the studio wanted to patriotically make a Korean War movie and Bogart was under contract.

    As far as the list, are you kidding when you say you have seen most of them? I had not even started on Mush's first list when he throws out this one!

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    1. No, I wasn't joiking about the list but most was an exaggeration. More than on the first list maybe.

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    3. Thanks. I am always looking for titles (and the time to watch them - that will be what retirement is for, I suppose.)

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    4. Gosh, I made my own counting. Out of 119 films (leaving apart the fact that several movies have been made with the same English title), I've seen 46.

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.