“Too Late the Hero” is a Robert Aldrich (“Attack!”) film set in WWII in the Pacific, but obviously channeling Vietnam. It was released in 1970 to take advantage of the success of Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen”. That did not work out as the movie was a box office stinker. It could have been due to the story being dusted off after sitting around a decade. Aldrich has only himself to blame as he co-wrote, directed, and produced the movie. However, he apparently did not do the casting as he did not want Cliff Robertson as the lead and later, out of spite, did not let Robertson attend the Oscars when he won for “Charly”.
Robertson plays a Japanese translator for the U.S. Navy. He is transferred to a British unit on New Hebrides for a special mission. Lawson is a gold brick who is decidedly the opposite of gung-ho. The mission is to cross the island to take out a radio station before the Japanese can broadcast a warning about an approaching American convoy. When Lawson arrives at the British base he witnesses the return of a British patrol. They have to run across an open field under Japanese fire with their mates cheering them on. I wondered if this scenario would recur later in the film.
It turns out Lawson fits in because the unit he is assigned to is full of kindred spirits. For some reason, the British commander has assigned an officer with a dubious reputation (Denholm Elliott as Capt. Hornsby) and given him a squad of losers worse than the Dirty Dozen. The most prominent of the group is Pvt. Hearne (Michael Caine) who not only does not want to die for king and country, but even suggests fragging Hornsby. Also along is the poster boy for cowardice – Ronald Fraser as Campbell. Pvt. Jock Thornton (Ian Bannen) is the lone warrior and he is nuts.
|the Dirty Dozen lite|
They start by walking across the field to reach the jungle. The ambush of a Japanese patrol results in some friendly fire casualties thus emphasizing the incompetence of Hornsby and increasing the grumbling from a squad full of natural-born grumblers. It also starts the “who will survive?” count down. Hornsby has to threaten Hearne with court-martial for insubordination and then Lawson refuses to obey an order that would entail risking his precious ass. It’s a buddy film! It should have been called “Scared and Scareder”.
The mission is successful, but there are complications, naturally. They discover a secret Japanese air field and it is now essential to the outcome of the war that someone survive to report on it. The return home is marked by increasing dysfunctionality among our elite squad. Not everyone feels their skin is worth risking for the thousands of lives in the convoy. Making the return trip more interesting is a Japanese officer broadcasting over a loudspeaker. He offers a deal to prevent them revealing the air field. Some want to take the deal, but not our suddenly patriotic buddies. The squad keeps getting whittled down, as is common in this subgenre. I think you can guess who the two open field runners are going to be.
|the biggest suspense is whether|
those caps will stay on during the big run
“Too Late the Hero” is firmly in the suicide mission subgenre. We wonder who will survive, but do not care. There is little character development in contrast to “The Dirty Dozen”. Other than Lawson, Hearne, Hornsby, Campbell, and Jock, the rest are like Lever and Sawyer from the DD. The two main characters are unlikeable even for anti-heroes. Plus their arcs are implausible. Lawson goes from Madison in the “Americanization of Emily” to Roget in “Paths of Glory” to Steiner in “Cross of Iron” - all in one day! Hearne is even more ridiculous. He waffles between cowardice/insubordination/ betrayal and bravery. One moment he suggests hiding in the jungle and to hell with the convoy, the next moment he is suggesting stalking the Japanese officer! At least Campbell is consistently loathsome. The acting is not as good as you would expect from a cast featuring two A-list stars and a lot of recognizable British war movie faces.
|Place your bets on this guy surviving the mission|
I remembered watching "Too Late the Hero" as a kid (it is hard to forget the ending) and had an ominous wondering as to why I had never bothered to try to rewatch it. Once again my long-term gut memory was correct. The movie is a dud. It shows that most war movies made in the late 60s – early 70s thought they needed a gimmick and needed an anti-hero. It was also common to set the movie in WWII, but use it to comment on the Vietnam War. It is the type of movie that makes no secret of this by having a character described as a “long-haired conscientious objector”. Aldrich decided to take some liberties with the suicide mission subgenre, but it just doesn’t work. In spite of the gimmicks, the movie is painfully predictable. It is slow moving, but punctuated with bouts of action of the ammunition expenditure variety. It is definitely not going to make my 100 Best War Movies list.