The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, August 9, 2012

First to Fight

An interesting mess of a movie, 1967's First to Fight at first gave me the impression of being a recruitment film made by the United States Marines. Little research proved nothing of the sort, but go figure. I maintain my stance. Moral of the story? The movie's all over the place; B-movie with a very low budget, soap opera quality love scenes, vicious if somewhat overdone battles, and at times it actually utilizes a pretty solid cast. Unfortunately in the end, it never amounts to much as a finished product.

The lone survivor from his unit after a horrifically costly firefight with the Japanese on Guadalcanal in 1942, Sgt. Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and shipped back home to help the war effort by encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. He can't help but think of the friends he left behind though and starts to question if he is more valuable in the Pacific fighting. Connell meets Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin), his "guide" on the war bond tour, and quickly hits it off, the couple marrying. Connell gets orders to report to Camp Pendleton as a drill instructor, but the thought still lingers. Should he volunteer for combat or keep his promise to Peggy to avoid the war?

Where to start here? I can't completely rip this movie from director Christian Nyby because at different points there are positives to take away from it. The problem with that is simple; the positives get buried under mountains of the negative. A B-movie does not necessarily mean a movie is bad, not by a long shot. That rogue, renegade, cheap shooting from the hip style can be an attribute to a lot of movies. 'Fight' doesn't qualify there. That cheap quality actually hamstrings the story. Any indoor sets look like retread sets from 1960s TV shows, and the musical score -- battle scenes an exception, those work -- is that aggressive, blaring type that DEFIES you not to be emotionally moved. Here's some advice. If you're a B-movie (yes, I'm talking to an abstract idea), just embrace it. Don't convince and beg us to like you.

Those are the little things that bother you (okay, just me) as you're watching a movie. Not enough to ruin a movie, but it certainly can bring a movie down a notch or two. The bigger issue here is the story, one straight from the War Cliches Department. The opening intro -- the bloody firefight on Guadalcanal -- opens things with a punch to the jaw in a highly effective action sequence. Most of the next hour though is spent on Jack and Peggy's oh-so-lovely relationship. It is Dullsville for sure. Everett quotes Bogie in two different scenes after the couple goes and watches Casablanca, then using 'As Times Goes By' as "their song." Oh, free advertising for Warner Bros. in an odd, extended clip from the movie. One montage actually has Jack and Peggy walking in place pointing at things as super-imposed images show all the fun stuff they're doing. Thankfully you can fast forward through these parts, but that's never a good sign when you're hoping to enjoy a movie.

Playing the lead character, Everett is an okay if not particularly flashy actor. Mostly known for his parts on TV shows and TV movies, he does the best he can with a character that for all his interesting background just isn't that interesting. The lovey-dovey relationship with Devin's Peggy of course doesn't help either. The last 30 minutes let Everett do some heavy lifting, and to be fair, he's very good as his now-Lieutenant returns to combat. What caught my eye when this movie appeared on TCM was the rest of the cast, some used better than others. A pre-stardom Gene Hackman is the best thing going here as Sgt. Tweed, the tough as nails Marine sergeant, a familiar/cliched part, but a scene-stealing one just the same. Dean Jagger is also solid as Colonel Baseman, Connell's commanding officer. Unfortunately Claude Akins is wasted in his two-scene appearance (maybe 3 combined minutes on-screen), and James Best is underused as Sgt. Ed Carnavan, Connell's best friend, a key part that's not given it's due. Also look for Norm Alden as one of Jack's Marines.   

What will no doubt bring some viewers in is the WWII setting, and for the most part, that's why I can somewhat give this a recommendation. For all the unnecessary and repetitive Wilhelm screams (listen HERE) and "exploding" soldiers jumping and twirling off of trampolines, there is a bloody, chaotic realism to some of these scenes. The opening attack along a stream on Guadalcanal is a gem for all the right reasons. The same goes for Connell's return to combat on Saipan as his rifle platoon moves toward dug-in Japanese forces. Unfortunately there just isn't enough of that in a 92-minute movie. Too much time is spent on the generally unbelievable love story. When will movie studios learn? Make a love story or a war story. It's the rare combination that works.

First to Fight (1967): **/****

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