It's fall of 1864 and the tide of the Civil War has fully turned in favor of the Union forces on all fronts. At a prison camp in the northeast, a group of Confederate prisoners led by Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) plots their escape and manage to break out, hoping to head north into Canada. From there? Hopefully lead raids into Union territory to help ease the pressure on Southern forces. Their first target is a small town in Vermont, St. Albans, that offers several banks just waiting to be knocked off with the funds meant to help the Confederate cause. With his fellow escapees and several other Rebel soldiers hiding out in Canada, Benton puts the plan into play. He starts off posing as a landowner and businessman just visiting St. Albans, but all the while he's putting the pieces together to pull off the successful raid and robbery. There's so many pieces though and success depends on everything going off without a hitch. Can Benton and his Confederates succeed and get out alive in the process?
The American Civil War lasted four years, three weeks and six days between 1861 and 1865 with hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed, wounded and crippled. It is probably the darkest time in American history -- or certainly one of them -- and in general, is a historical era underutilized in film. There just aren't many Civil War movies out there for viewing pleasure. The unfortunate part? A movie like this is a prime example, a true story of a real-life incident. Read through the history books and there are literally hundreds and thousands of stories like this just waiting to be told. Sure, there are the major battles like Gettysburg, Shiloh and Antietam, but what about stories like these? Read about the real-life raid HERE if you're curious.
I was very glad to finally track this one down. From director Hugo Fregonese, 'Raid' clocks in at a crisp 83 minutes and has that distinct B-movie feel but is never held down by its relatively small scale and budget. It's dark and dirty and nasty with the raid being unleashed partially as a counter to Sherman's march through Georgia. In other words, it's about the war, but it's more too. It's about revenge. Title cards introduce the days as the raid draws closer, Benton's plan being put into action with minute details. Much of the story takes place in the St. Albans set with some brief detours into the prison camp and also across the U.S./Canada border. 'Raid' is content to not be an epic but to tell a little known story that's become a footnote in most Civil War and history books. Nothing flashy, but well done and always interesting.
Now what originally caught my eye with this 1954 Civil War drama was the cast. There's some established stars and some rising stars who would go onto bigger and better things in the late 1950s and into the 1960s and beyond. Heflin is just solid as always, the relative anti-hero and leader of the raid. We learn his family was murdered and his home burned down, the desire for revenge coursing through his body. His men include Lee Marvin as a fiery, unpredictable and possibly unhinged Confederate fanatic, Peter Graves as Benton's loyal, capable second-in-command, James Best, an uncredited Claude Akins and later, John Dierkes. Some cool names working together, giving some variety to the Rebel group.
A big plus to the story is that nothing is black and white. It isn't Confederates good and Union bad or vice versa. It's both. This was war, and there was nothing particularly pleasant about it. We get to meet some of the St. Alban residents, starting with Anne Bancroft (just 23 years old) as a widowed boarding house owner (with young Tommy Rettig playing her son), Richard Boone as a Union officer trying to overcome a mistake he made in combat, and assorted other townspeople from farmers to business owners to preachers. It adds a cool element to the story as we see this raid won't be as easy as planned once Benton gets to meet people around town.
If there is a relative disappointment, it comes in the finale, the actual raid. The quick-moving story builds and builds, and the raid is well done as Fregonese sticks pretty close to the facts of the 1864 raid. Unfortunately, the ending just kinda...well, ends. It's fairly accurate to the truth, but this is one case where maybe stretching the truth even a little would have livened things up a touch. As is, the ending scene is rather abrupt as 'THE END' pops up on the screen. It is still a worthwhile movie but the ending could have been far stronger. Still, it tells a little known slice of Civil War history that simply isn't very well known. Worth tracking down a copy for sure.
The Raid (1954): ** 1/2 /****