Sunday, June 28, 2015
None But the Brave
Most of the movies I review here are of the horrific persuasion, but I'm breaking tradition because I've recently been on a western and war movie binge — mostly stuff from the 1960s. None But the Brave is a 1965 American-Japanese co-production directed by and starring Frank Sinatra, and featuring a few recognizable names in both the American and Japanese casts. Sinatra himself plays a supporting role as a booze-swilling medic, with Clint Walker (The Dirty Dozen, Cheyenne, Killdozer, Scream of the Wolf, et. al.), Tommy Sands (Babes in Toyland, The Longest Day, Ensign Pulver, et. al.), and Tatsuya Mihashi (The Bad Sleep Well, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Human Vapor, et. al.) taking the lead roles. The film does have a clear connection with my favorite monster movies in that the Japanese part of the production comes courtesy of Toho Studios, featuring special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya and starring several Toho "regulars," including Mihashi himself; Kenji Sahara, veteran of numerous Godzilla and other daikaiju films; and Susumu Kurobe, best known for his portrayal of Hayata in the original Ultraman series. A young John ("Johnny") Williams provides the musical score.
The movie tells the parallel stories of two platoons, one Japanese Imperial Army and the other US Marine, both stranded on the same remote island in the Solomons, the former simply left behind as the Japanese military retreats farther and farther north, the latter the survivors of a US Navy R4D transport shot down by a Japanese Zero. The two ranking American officers, Captain Dennis Bourke (Walker) and Lieutenant Blair (Sands) initially clash over command of the unit, with the more seasoned Bourke advising a strong defense and the use of guerrilla tactics and Blair advocating a full-on frontal assault against the enemy, which Bourke claims will end in their own defeat. Eventually, Bourke's toughness and no-nonsense approach earn him full command. The two enemy forces engage each other, each inflicting a few casualties on the other. During a reconnaissance mission, the Marines discover that the Japanese are building a boat in order to escape the island. The Marines attempt to capture it, but rather than have it fall into their enemy's hands, the Japanese destroy it.
During the fighting, a Japanese soldier named Hirano (Homare Suguro) suffers a leg wound that turns gangrenous. Japanese commander Kuroki (Mihashi) meets with Bourke and offers a truce between them if the Americans will send their medic, Maloney (Sinatra), to perform surgery. Bourke agrees to the terms, and Maloney — in reality, only a pharmacist's mate — is forced to amputate Hirano's leg in order to save his life. While the Americans and Japanese maintain their uneasy truce, which is to last as long as the war continues to pass them by, the monsoon season begins, and the two adversaries discover they must work together and build a dam to prevent the spring that supplies their fresh water from being submerged beneath the rising ocean waters.
The endeavor is successful, but the Americans have managed to repair their radio transmitter and contact their HQ, which sends a destroyer to rescue them. With the war now returning to their little island, Bourke offers to accept the Japanese's honorable surrender, but Kuroki refuses, stating that he and his men would rather die than become prisoners of war. And as the Americans prepare to evacuate the island, Kuroki's men attack and kill many of the Marines, though, in the end, it is they who are, to the last man, wiped out.
In the 2000s, director Clint Eastwood received critical acclaim for his war films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, which told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American and Japanese points of view respectively. To some extent, those movies mirror the themes from None But the Brave, which portrays individuals on both sides as sympathetic, exhibiting both dignity and weakness, their focus on personal honor and duty. Sinatra's movie articulates a distinct anti-war sentiment, which comes off as both heavy-handed and occasionally cheesy, though there's no question of its sincerity. The character of Kuroki narrates the movie — by way of personal journal entries — portraying himself as a soldier by duty but a noble romantic at heart. As his American counterpart, Bourke is a man haunted by having lost the love of his life in a Japanese attack just before proposing marriage to her. He proves himself a capable leader and fierce fighter, but as he gets to know Kuroki, a long-repressed compassion for his fellow man begins to surface.
At the climax, as the Americans are preparing to evacuate and the Japanese refuse their terms for surrender, Lt. Blair tells Kuroki, "We wouldn’t attack you, Lieutenant." Kuroki replies, "I would! The truce is ended. I belong to the Imperial Japanese Army. Until my country advises otherwise, I remain at war." These lines seal the fates of both sides, and the deaths of both the Japanese and the American soldiers — men who had worked together for their mutual survival — hit pretty hard, despite the rather static staging of the battle scenes. Heavy-handed though it may be, it's an effective, moving statement that these men's sense of duty — their nationalism — supersedes their basic humanity.
Sinatra may not be the world's finest film director, and a certain amateurishness to some degree undermines the story's solemnity, but the movie is colorful, with fair pacing and more than competent acting, especially from the Japanese cast members. The special effects by master Tsuburaya often shine, exhibiting the distinctive and appealing visual style of the best of his tokusatsu films. The aerial dogfight early in the film is very clearly done with models, but these are beautiful models, the flying scenes realistic enough to be visually exciting. The raging monsoon, which floods the island and finishes off the Marines' R4D transport, brings to mind the brilliant storm footage at the beginning of Mothra vs. Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Thing). Unfortunately, John Williams's score — like most of his early film work — comes off as nondescript, ultimately forgettable. It is fortunate that over the course of his scoring career he matured with style.
I admit to having more than a soft spot for None But the Brave, for purely nostalgic reasons. Back in the summer of 1970, the movie aired on television on a Friday night — a most memorable Friday night, a night that I spent over at my friend David Hare's house. It was the night before the Saturday that we went to see the daikaiju double-feature War of the Gargantuas and Monster Zero, and, in my lifetime, rarely has there been an event more indelible in my mind. A World War II film featuring Toho regulars and special effects by Tsuburaya made for the perfect appetizer for the upcoming main course.
None But the Brave may be far from a great film, but it's a strong film, with good performances, some fine visuals, and a moving theme.
"Nobody ever wins."