Saturday, March 28, 2009


The Cliff Robertson & Michael Caine World War II epic “Too Late the Hero” (**1/2 out of ****) qualifies as another searing indictment of warfare. Producer & director Robert Aldritch recaptures some of the flavor of “The Dirty Dozen,” but the films differ in narrative closure. Each film takes place during World War II. “The Dirty Dozen” occurred in Nazi-occupied France, while “Too Late the Hero” transpires in the Japanese controlled South Pacific in spring 1942. Each group of warriors performs a special mission. The U.S. Army convicts in “The Dirty Dozen” receive a pardon offer to participate in combat. The British soldiers in “Too Late the Hero” aren’t exactly convicts, but they are neither elite troops nor military role models. They are survivors from the fall of Singapore. Although it never made the millions that “The Dirty Dozen” grossed at the box office, “Too Late the Hero” has ten times the depth and irony in its storyline than “The Dirty Dozen.” Conversely, “The Dirty Dozen” is far more entertaining on a visceral level, while “Too Late the Hero” turns rather depressing until the final foot race across open ground with mortar teams lobbing shells and snipers blasting away nonstop as the brave Allied souls try to cross it. The ending is this movie’s chief surprise. Actually, this ending seems inspired by Jefferson’s run past the ventilation pipes at the end of “The Dirty Dozen.” While “The Dirty Dozen” killed a chateau filled with high-ranking German officers, the men in “Too Late the Hero” only blow up a radio transmitter. Nevertheless, the performances are flawless, and the characters are truly interesting. You’ll recognize several familiar British faces, such as lantern-jawed Harry Andrews, Percy Herbert, Denholm Elliot, Ian Bannen, and Ronald Fraser, from other World War II movies. The settings and production values are more than adequate. Aldritch filmed “Too Late the Hero” on location in the Philippines. Along with its inanimate mission goal, the chief problems with “Too Late the Hero” are its uneven storyline and the lack of sympathy that mars our rapport with the protagonists. “Too Late the Hero” is similar to at least two World War II movies. First, it is comparable to David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) where an American officer is loaned to the British for a special mission behind enemy lines. Second, “Too Late the Hero” is like John Boorman’s “Hell in the Pacific” (1968) because the Allies and the enemy share the same island. Although only Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune shared the island in “Hell in the Pacific,” the remnants of Colonel Thompson’s British troops have a toe-hold on the southern tip of the island while the Japanese outnumber them vastly and occupy the greater part of the island.

Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson of “Charly” plays U.S. Navy Lieutenant (J.G.) Sam Lawson who has an easy job eavesdropping on Japanese radio chatter and interpreting it. Lawson is nowhere near combat, until his Commanding Officer, Captain John G. Nolan (Henry Fonda0, assigns him to join a British commando team to blow up a radar station in the New Hebrides east of Australia. After an interesting opening sequence that features British, American, and Japanese flags slowly disintegrating as they fly in the breeze, the action shifts to a quiet U.S. Naval base in the South Pacific in spring 1942 as the Shore Patrol searches for the elusive Lawson. They find him and take him to Nolan. Lawson has been planning a four week leave and news that he is about to embark on a combat mission doesn’t set well with him. “This is something the British are organizing for us that involves a certain amount of physical hardship,” Nolan brusquely informs him. Initially, Robertson believes that if he resigns his commission then he can get out of being sent on the mission because the British need an officer. Nolan is prepared to send him on the mission as an ordinary seaman if Lawson resigns. “I can’t win, can I?” Lawson reluctantly accepts the mission. This scene provides an interesting reunion for both Fonda and Robertson who played presidential rivals in Franklin Schaffner’s “The Best Man” (1964), and Fonda appears in this scene only as a ‘special guest star.” Anyway, the disgruntled Lawson is flown out, and then put aboard a PT boat and finds himself in a British camp run about 11 minutes into this film. Robertson plays Lawson as an anti-hero from start to finish and unless you are a Robertson fan, you’re not going to like his negative attitude. Clearly, “Too Late the Hero” couldn’t have been made during World War II when war movies were hopelessly patriotic.

Producer & director Robert Aldritch co-wrote the story with Robert Sherman and the script with Lukas Heller. Although “Too Late the Hero” takes place in World War II, the film undoubtedly reflects the contemporary dislike for the Vietnam War. Ninety percent of the action occurs in the jungle, and Aldritch gives the jungle a claustrophobic nature. Between the opening and ending no-man’s land scenes, “Too Late the Hero” encloses the audience within high green walls. Once Lawson arrives at the British camp, he meets the camp commandant, Colonel Thompson (Harry Andrews of “633 Squadron”), and Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliot), who will lead the mission, but none of Hornsby’s men respect him. Hornsby is as worthless an officer as you can imagine, but he commands troops almost as worthless as he is. Indeed, Hornsby is taken aback by Lawson’s negative attitude when he first meets him. “What an extraordinary fellow,” Hornsby observes of Lawson. Colonel Thompson retorts, “Well, he’s an American.” Thompson then inquires about Hornsby’s health and if he is up to commanding the mission. “It seems to me to be a marvelous opportunity to really hurt them,” Hornsby replies to Thompson. Before Lawson, Hornsby, and the patrol head out, they watch as an incoming patrol scrambles across the no-man land and try to avoid sniper bullets. Lawson asks why they cannot proceed at night across no-man’s land, and Hornsby points out that it took so long for them to locate Lawson that they must leave immediately on miss the target date for their mission. At the outset of the film, everybody is fuming because they cannot find Lawson and he realizes that he has made his own mission that much more difficult. Again, “Too Late the Hero” is a cynical a war movie as you will find.

The British plan cross the island to the north and destroy the Japanese radio so that the enemy cannot wire a nearby island and request air support to bomb a U.S. Navy convoy which will pass near the radio camp on the coastline. Just before our heroes are to raid the Japanese camp and blow up the transmitter, the British soldier carrying their radio drops it by accident and permanently damages it so that it cannot be used. Predictably, Hornsby reacts with rage, but concocts another plan. They will overpower the Japanese radio operator and transmit their false message on the Japanese radio and then destroy it. Lawson refuses to follow Hornsby into the radio hut because he believes Hornsby is violating the orders that Colonel Thompson gave him. Earlier, Hornsby had proved what an incompetent commander he was when he laid an ambush with his men on both sides of a column of advancing Japanese and five of his men died in the cross-fire from their own men. Once they reach the Japanese camp, he improvises rather well, but dies when Lawson refuses to participate in Hornsby’s new scheme to relay the false message by the Japanese transmitter rather than their own transmitter. A battle breaks out and our heroes mow down their share of Japanese troops before they retreat into the jungle. Accidentally, the next day, our heroes stumble onto a Japanese airfield that has been so cleverly camouflaged that U.S. aerial reconnaissance hasn’t spotted it. Our heroes flee but this time they are pursued by a Japanese officer who deploys speakers to try to lure them back to him so word will not reach enemy lines about the presence of their hidden airfield. Our heroes must now survive long enough to get back to base and inform Colonel Thompson about the enemy airfield.

Aldritch directs old school style. When Hornsby shoots two mortally wounded Japanese soldiers after the first battle, you see him fire at them but they do not appear in the same shot when he fires his revolver. However, what sets “Too Late the Hero” apart from most war films is Aldritch’s portrayal of the Japanese. They don’t wear Coke bottle glasses and they use psychological techniques to create friction about the British soldiers. The Japanese officer sets up a series of loudspeakers and tries to convince our heroes to give themselves up. Some do and then he threatens to kill them if the others do not. Indeed, the enemy is the enemy, but Aldritch doesn’t depict the Japanese as heinous. The British spend more time killing each other than the Japanese. The irony here is that the enemy really isn’t all that villainous. Just as Hornsby found his nerve at the Japanese camp, Lawson finds his nerve later when he realizes that he must get the valuable information about the concealed Japanese airfield back to Colonel Thompson to save the fleet.

If you look at the “Too Late the Hero” trailer, it reveals the message. Most people become a hero too late. An above average war film.