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, January 29, 2010


Before the History Channel became more interested in reality-based programming in the last year or so, this network focused more on (and it's a novel concept) history programming. Makes sense to me. Some dubbed it 'the Hitler Channel' because so much of their schedule was devoted to WWII shows, but that was just a small portion of their schedule. For years on Sunday mornings, History would show older war movies, ranging from classics to cheap retreads, and when I could be bothered to get up early I'd tune in and see some of my favorites, one of them being 1967's Tobruk.

It's a story set in 1942 North Africa as an inexperienced American army joins British forces in trying to keep German commander Erwin Rommel from completely booting the Allies out of the continent. I don't have numbers to back this up, but it seems to me a majority of WWII movies tend to focus on post D-Day stories as the Allies trudge across Europe. Personally though, the early stages of the war are just as interesting to me with TV shows that included The Rat Patrol and movies like The Hill and Play Dirty all set in North Africa with Tobruk added to that list.

Captured by French authorities and about to be shipped off to a German prison camp, Canadian officer Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) is rescued by a team of commandos led by Capt. Kurt Bergman (George Peppard), a German Jew fighting with the S.I.G (Special Investigation Group) in the Allied forces. Craig, a member of the Long Range Desert Group, has been busted out to guide a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. The commando commander, Colonel Harker (Nigel Green), has two objectives, destroy the harbor guns in Tobruk to help the invasion force and to destroy Rommel's fuel depot. Harker's men will pose as P.OW.s with Bergman's German Jews posing as their German escorts as the convoy travels over 800-miles across the desert to accomplish their mission.

Threading the needle to get to Tobruk, Harker's commandos and Bergman's unit face German minefields, patrols appearing out of nowhere, even their own fighters attacking what they think is a German column. But worst of all, there seems to be a traitor among Bergman's men, and when they pick up two German sympathizers with news that Egypt will join the fight against the Allies, their mission becomes even more important. It's a large-scale story in the vein of The Guns of Navarone (harbor guns moved from the Mediterranean to Tobruk) and Where Eagles Dare, and while not on par with those WWII action/adventures, it is still an above average flick.

For a WWII adventure to be nominated for an Academy Award -- any award -- says something. Tobruk was nominated for special effects (Howard A. Anderson and Albert Whitlock) and for good reason. The effects during the action sequences were ahead of their time, especially the finale as the commandos try to pull off both aspects of their mission as an invasion force readies to hit the beach. This is one of those battle sequences that really makes you feel like you're there scrunched up behind a rock, hoping a bullet doesn't find you. Even better, with the use of many of these effects it looks like the stars, especially Peppard, did many of their own stunts.

Tobruk's action is so good in fact it was used over again 4 years later in 1971's Raid for Rommel. Whole scenes were cut from Tobruk and inserted right into the 1971 vehicle starring Richard Burton with a similar storyline. And the action is the reason to seek this movie out, and that's considering a story that is pretty decent compared to most shoot 'em up flicks. Right from the start there's a commando rescue, but that is just the beginning. Tobruk never goes too long without some suspense, some adventure of some sort. The ending is something else with tanks, flamethrowers, motorcycles and commandos descending rappel cords off a cliff all thrown into the mix.

Getting to the finale is a lot of fun too with the three leads playing off each other well, especially Peppard and Green. Peppard steals the movie as a German Jew looking for revenge, any sort of vengeance against Germany for what they're doing to his people. He's ruthless in his actions and is more than willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. Green is the stiff upper-lip commander who clashes instantly with Peppard's Bergman, even questioning his motives. Their rivalry drives the movie, both actors rising above what could have been cardboard cutouts of characters. Hudson isn't at his best -- a soldier sick of war who does his job and nothing more -- but it is a decent enough part.

Other supporting parts include one of my personal favorites Jack Watson doing what he does best, playing the tough sergeant, with a similar end result to at least two other movies of his I can think of. Guy Stockwell is Lt. Mohnfeld, one of Bergman's officers, and Norm Rossington and Percy Herbert as two commandos around for some comedic relief. Tobruk's screenwriter Leo Gordon, who usually played tough guys in supporting roles, gets a crack to play one of the good guys for a change as well as Sgt. Krug. A WWII movie that's a lot of fun, a good old-fashioned popcorn flick. Of course, there's no DVD release but who knows, maybe History Channel will put it on one Sunday morning.

Tobruk <---trailer (1967): *** 1/2 /****

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