Monday, November 24, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Breakthrough (1950)



                “Breakthrough” was one of the first American movies to deal with D-Day.  It did not set the bar high for movies like “The Longest Day”.  Being early has its advantages as it was greeted positively.  The movie was directed by Lewis Seiler (“Guadalcanal Diary”) and he made extensive use of war footage.  1/3 of the film is actual footage, including from the Germans.  This stunt makes the film more special than it deserves and partially overcomes the onslaught of clichés.  The film is your basic small unit campaign movie.  It follows the platoon from D-Day through the end of the war.  Although there are some deaths, it is not a “who will survive?” movie.  It sets itself up in this subgenre and then midway through shifts to the pressures of command subgenre.
                The movie opens in England in the summer of ’44.  The redemption angle kicks in early as Lt. Mallory (John Agar) puts his platoon in jeopardy during a live fire exercise when he goes to rescue a wounded man.  He is chewed out by Capt. Hale (David Brian).  The platoon is your typical heterogeneous mix required of black and white WWII infantry films.  The barracks is home to an ambitious politician wanna be, the unit clown who imitates Humphrey Bogart and others, a dweeb with glasses, a Jack Lalane type called “Muscles”, a hick named Jumbo,  a ladies’ man, and a guy from Brooklyn (imagine that!).  Mallory was a high school English teacher before the war.   None of the unit know this… oops, wrong movie.
                Training montage?  Check.  Ike meets the paratroopers in famous footage.  This must be D-Day.  Our guys are on board a transport ship.  The soldier banter is surprisingly unsucky.  They reach the seawall and then crawl toward the German trenches and force the Krauts to surrender.  It’s the opposite in difficulty level when compared to “Saving Private Ryan”, but it’s not terrible.  It is terribly brief, however.  On to the hedgerows and kudos for covering this aspect of the campaign.
"A guy told me you don't have to use your
teeth to pull the pin."
                Here’s a taste.  They are tasked with capturing a German position.  There is a preparatory bombardment.  They are crawling when their tank gets hit with an anti-tank gun.  One of the men gets killed because earlier he had shown off a picture of his girl.  A bazooka takes out the gun.  Abrupt ending.  Boo!
                When they approach a French town, the mayor and his hot daughter Collette (Suzanne Dalbert) insist the Germans have pulled out and it is not necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.  They enter to a celebration that is slightly marred when a German sniper opens fire killing Jumbo.  Capt. Hale kills the snipette (that’s right – this movie influenced the plots of both SPR and “Full Metal Jacket”!  Spielberg and Kubrick – hacks.)  In a humorous subplot, Collete tries to seduce Muscles, but he is not interested because he only has eyes for himself (and/or he is gay).
                A German counterattack is handled with some panache and then it’s to a rest area which means one thing – dames!  In an interesting (if not exactly groundbreaking) development, Capt. Hale realizes that he is cracking up due to caring too much about his men.  This is a surprise to the men since he has been doing a great impression of an ass hole.  He recommends the now fully redeemed Mallory to replace him.  He advises Mallory to avoid caring about the men.  “When they bleed, you bleed.”  The ass hole baton is passed.  As Seiler aided Spielberg and Kubrick, so he owes Howard Hawks (“The Dawn Patrol”).
The poster is not lying - there are dames
in this movie!
                “Breakthrough” is surprisingly not horrible.  The acting is satisfactory and no one really embarrasses himself.  Agar (who was in the process of divorcing Shirley Temple) was a pretty big star, but the rest of the cast was B-List.  The characters are all stock and even in 1950 they had all been seen before.  There was little character development, but who needs it when you’ve met them in previous small unit movies.  War movie fans in the theaters must have groaned a bit.  The dialogue is also average.  Not too sappy.  It’s the narration that gets treacly.  The movie is not nearly complicated enough to warrant narration, by the way.
                The movie has some strengths.  The action is energetic and the blending of the footage is relatively seamless.  Plus there is lots of it.  The use of the German footage is a nice touch and stands out.  It juices up the movie.  The theme that you have to be an uncaring jerk to be a good commander is not original, but it is competently handled.  Capt. Hale’s arc is honest about combat fatigue.
                Classic or antique?  Antique.  At the time it got props for being one of the first D-Day movies and for use of newly available footage, but there are much better movies that cover the same ground.
grade =  C+               

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