It's 1942 and with World War II very much yet to be decided, Lt. Colonel Robert Frederick (William Holden) has been summoned to a staff meeting in England. Even though he has no combat experience, Frederick is being given command of a new unit, the First Special Service Force. Their ultimate mission is still to be decided but the Colonel prepares for the training that awaits his brigade that consists of a crack unit of well-trained Canadian troops commanded by Dunkirk veteran Maj. Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson) and an unruly, misfit group of American troops headed by the similarly unruly Maj. Cliff Bricker (Vince Edwards). The two sides bristle immediately, but training continues. If Frederick can manage to keep his men together, their services are very much needed, including a dangerous mission on the Italian front.
From veteran director Andrew McLaglen, 'Brigade' is based on a real-life military unit, the First Special Service Force. Released just a year after The Dirty Dozen, it bears some striking similarities, but it more than capably carves out its own niche in war movie department. It is one of the great men-on-a-mission movies, and that's saying something considering the late 1960s were rampant with them. McLaglen filmed on location in Italy for much of the second half of the movie, giving an authentic look and feel to the proceedings as the Brigade goes into battle. Composer Alex North turns in a gem of a soundtrack, his theme for the Brigade (listen HERE) one that you'll be whistling for days. The main theme is a highlight, but North specializes in the quieter, darker and more sinister moments leading up to the battle in the finale.
More of a workmanlike director than an auteur, McLaglen specialized in movies like this with impressive casts of male stars. This 1968 WWII flick is loaded with star power. As Colonel Frederick, Holden doesn't get a flashy part, but he leads the way just the same. His officer wants to prove himself while also proving how capable his men are too. The best part in the film goes to Robertson as Maj. Crown, an intelligent, well-spoken and brutally capable officer who survived the Dunkirk disaster. It is a smart, underplayed role, and he steals every scene he's in. As his American counterpart, Edwards too is very solid. His Maj. Bricker is blunt and without a filter, a scrounger and hustler with the best of them. Also look for Dana Andrews, Michael Rennie and Carroll O'Connor as American generals, all making cameo appearances.
Ah, yes, and then there's the rest of the cast. If the star power above wasn't enough, McLaglen assembles a deep, talented cast of tough guys to fill out the ranks of the brigade. Leading the American contingent, look for Claude Akins, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Luke Askew, Tom Troupe, Bill Fletcher and Tom Stern. For the Canadian half of the Brigade, watch out for Jack Watson, Harry Carey Jr., Jeremy Slate, Richard Dawson and Jean-Paul Vignon. It's cool just seeing all these recognizable faces here together, some leaving more of an impression than others. Jaeckel as Omar Greco, an acrobat trying to escape but finding a home instead, especially stands out as does Akins as Rocky, the American bully, Prine as Ransom, a smart misfit, Watson as Peacock, the tough but gentlemanly Canadian and Slate as O'Neill, the hand-to-hand combat instructor.
I think it's the cast that separates the movie from so many other solid WWII movies. It's a familiar formula here; introduce everyone, train them, have them put their differences aside following some male bonding and then unleash them on the enemy. The male bonding comes courtesy of a barroom brawl (watch HERE) with some rowdy lumberjacks, a great scene. The script is ideal in its ability to let these tough guys be tough guys. It's fun, natural with chemistry and features some great one-liners. Other highlights include Slate's introduction in a showdown with Akins (watch HERE), a 30-mile hike where the rivalry develops further, and many others. Moral of the story is this, we need these parts to be effective for the second half of the movie to truly work. And you bet it does.
The last hour follows the Brigade as it enters combat. Required to prove themselves and their ability, Frederick leads a patrol behind the lines to a heavily guarded Italian town crawling with Germans. It's a lighter action scene, but memorable just the same. The best part though is in the finale, the Brigade ordered to attack the apparently impenetrable Mount la Difensa (where the Service Force really made a name for themselves), a mountain garrisoned by German infantry and heavy armor. First, they must scale a sheer cliff-face to mount a surprise attack on the garrison. It is a great action sequence, McLaglen filming in the trenches and dugouts as the Brigade begins their assault. We always know where the battle is, where it's going, and the sheer scale of it. When the casualties do come (and they do, quickly and with some surprises), it makes this extended battle sequence that much more effective emotionally.
This has always been one of my favorites, and I seem to pick something new up with each passing viewing (I'm guessing I'm somewhere between 20 and 30). This time? The darkness late, Frederick greeting his men as they prepare for battle. North's score goes dark, Dawson explaining "Haven't you ever heard a man say goodbye?" It's an eerie, uncomfortable moment. Spot-on too, considering the Brigade sustained 77% casualties in the coming battle. 'Brigade' doesn't have the reputation of so many other WWII movies of the time, but it deserves some attention. A hidden gem.
The Devil's Brigade (1968): ****/****
* Rewrite of June 2010 review