Monday, June 14, 2010
It is based on the true story of the founding of the 1st Ranger Battalion, an American commando unit from WWII fashioned after British commando units that ended up taking part in France, North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The story sounded like an easy home run for a studio, and a young, impressive cast was assembled to fill out the important roles. Just last week I reviewed The Devil's Brigade, a prime example of the 'unit picture,' and I had high hopes for this one. But instead of telling a hard-hitting, realistic look at this fighting unit, director William Wellman turns in a soap opera-ish story that almost completely disregards the actual development and fighting history of the battalion for a handful of wasted falling in love subplots. In other words, an unofficial companion piece to 1955's Battle Cry.
Early in 1942, Army captain William Darby (James Garner) is chosen to lead a new American fighting force, the 1st Ranger Battalion, where regular Army soldiers can volunteer to be trained similar to British commandos. Their job will be to lead beachheads and often work behind enemy lines, causing whatever havoc they can. The volunteers go through arduous training in England and by the end only 600 of the 1,500 remain. Their training is completed, and it's not long before the Battalion is shipping out to help join the war effort, including missions and fighting in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
For several years, I've tried to track this movie down, one, because of the subject matter, and two, the casting. Along with James Garner, there's Jack Warden as the tough sergeant, Edd Byrnes as a lieutenant fresh out of West Point, and enlisted men that include Stuart Whitman, Peter Brown, Murray Hamilton, and Adam Williams. First off, Garner is almost a secondary character even though Darby is the commander and has his name in the title! Right in the middle of his TV success with Maverick, Garner is completely wasted here, making an occasional speech or address to his men before disappearing off-screen. Too bad because his scenes with loyal sergeant Jack Warden provide the few positive moments this movie actually has.
The cast does what they can with their characters, but they're hamstrung by the movie's inability to pick a tone. Instead, it bounces all around from slapstick, broad, physical comedy to steamy romance to hard-edged battle scenes. Pick one and go with it, but don't bounce among all three. Byrnes, Whitman and Brown are all given romantic subplots -- the same way the platoon in Battle Cry did -- that grind the story to a halt, especially Whitman's and Byrnes' stories. A quick 2-3 minute firefight is shown, then Warden's narration, then a 20-minute interlude as Whitman woos a British girl and Byrnes falls for an Italian girl he mistakes as a hooker...oops! Repeat this several times, and you've got a 122-minute movie about soldiers falling in love.
Then there's the comedy angle which would have been more appropriate in a Marx Brothers movie or a Three Stooges short. One character is introduced in a comedic fistfight full of over the top stunts and over exaggeration with funny sound effects and all. Then there's a running gag with one private -- played by the director's son, William Wellman Jr. -- who always fall asleep on the go and falls off the back of the troop truck and has to run to catch up. Pretty hilarious, huh? Wellman Jr. also gets one of the most overdone theatrical deaths I've ever seen. And on a non-comedic rant, there's also a drawling, ladies man of a private (played by Corey Allen) who is billeted with an English family, seduces the wife, forces himself on her, convinces her to leave her husband and then dies in a training exercise. It's a despicable character who is dispatched quickly -- thankfully -- and serves no real purpose for even being there.
The one saving grace I figured could be the actual scenes of the Battalion forming and then going into battle. The training sequences are handled well enough with a few nice montages, but the battle scenes are hampered by some very obvious indoor work. Wellman showed with 1949's Battleground that indoor battles can work very effectively, but it doesn't click here. Epic sequences of a battalion under attack is an actor or two with a few extras getting shot alongside them. SPOILERS The battalion is all but wiped out in Italy, but we never see more than a handful of Rangers and the two or three German machine gun pits firing down on them. END OF SPOILERS Disappointed in the scale and lack of emotion brought up in these scenes. What scenes do work are those of the battalion bonding, the quiet moments as they rest and recuperate, but they are few and far between.
After years of being unable to find this movie, the Warner Archive has made it available to purchase through a made-to order DVD. It's a great system offering over 500 previously unreleased movies, but Darby's Rangers is a good example of doing your research before you buy. Thankfully, I didn't buy this one. It had a lot of potential but wastes a good cast and never makes up it's mind as to what type of war movie it wants to be. A disappointing negative review for sure.
Darby's Rangers <----TCM clips (1958: */****