The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Breakthrough (1950)

Maybe it's the difference in wars, but with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, movies about those conflicts have almost 100% in theaters. Audiences don't want to see those stories that are so fresh in their minds and memories. Why then after WWII were audiences hit with waves of war movies? Was it just a different war? Did people feel differently? Was it because the United States won? I'm trying to figure it out myself. Released just five years after the war, 1950's Breakthrough is a strong example of what was to come in the war genre.

In England in the spring of 1944, the Allied invasion force is prepping for the coming invasion of France. Among the armies is Lt. Joe Mallory (John Agar), a young, inexperienced officer fresh out of training school. He's been given command of a veteran rifle platoon that's been fighting in North Africa and Italy for two-plus years, with their former commander, Capt. Hale (David Brian), now placed in command of the company. Hale turns to Sgt. Bell (Frank Lovejoy), the similarly veteran soldier, to help Mallory adjust and keep an eye on the platoon. With the coming D-Day invasion, the platoon will have to count on each other if they hope to make it through the campaign alive.   

This straight forward, no frills WWII flick premiered recently on Turner Classic Movies so I took my chance and recorded it, remembering seeing an old VHS box of it years before at a local video store but never picking it up. It isn't a classic, but it is interesting to watch considering how much it foreshadowed what war films would become over the next 10 years. From director Lewis Seiler, it is an early example of a unit picture, a story focusing on a squad, platoon, company, regiment, get the idea. Lovejoy's narration is solid without trying to be the end-all, be-all in narration, and the story chooses to focus on the platoon's involvement in the fighting, not the bigger picture of how the war effort is going.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but there was something appealing about this war movie. It doesn't have that whitewashed feeling of so many WWII movies made so close to the end of the war. It's war with one side fighting the other. No bigger picture about why they fought or for who. The Germans are the enemy, but they're not demonized. The Americans are regular troops from all walks of life, individuals forced to work together to help each other survive. It isn't a graphic movie, but it is certainly intense, especially considering its 1950 release, including one battle sequence late. The story follows the 3rd Platoon from spring 1944 to late summer 1944, following them through training, onto Omaha Beach at Normandy, and then through the hedgerows in the French countryside. The formula -- from the episodic story elements to the character archetypes -- would be used countless other times in the years to come, but this is one of the earliest ventures and one of the best.

I'll say again, but 'cliched' isn't necessarily a bad thing. The character archetypes here have been used in countless war movies before and since and will keep on being used as long as there's more war movies. The three lead performances are some of the basics, Brian's Hale the hard-edged commander, Agar's Mallory the newbie trying to learn on the job, and Lovejoy's Bell the veteran soldier who knows how to survive and get his men to do the same. Lovejoy especially represents himself well, having some fun with a familiar character. The platoon includes Cpl. Dominick (William Campbell), the motor-mouth aspiring politician, Rojeck (Paul Picerni), the natural soldier and better complainer, Finley (Greg McClure), the fitness freak, Nelson (Richard Monahan), the wet behind the ears newbie, Henderson (Edward Norris), the family man, Jimbo (Matt Willis), the amiable Southerner, Hansen (Dick Wesson), the jokester, with William Self and Danny Arnold having less visible parts.

Nothing fancy, and nothing that will startle or amaze you, just a good, old-fashioned war story. Solid casting, fast-moving, effective and interesting story, and an honest, forthright look and feel of what it must be to be a soldier. Well worth tracking down a copy if you can find one.

Breakthrough <---short Youtube clip (1950): ***/****

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