The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cry of Battle

Made on a shoestring budget with a rogue, even amateurish feel to it, 1963's Cry of Battle is everything that a low-budget war movie should be. Unfortunately, it's also got a weird tie to history as it was the movie showing at the drive-in theater the night Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. That minor blip on the radar aside, it's well worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

In the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dave McVey (James MacArthur) finds himself on his own and on the run in the Philippines. The son of a prominent American businessman who got out of the country, Dave is helped by a Filipino guerilla fighter, Careo (Leopoldo Salcedo), and goes into hiding. It is there he meets Joe Trent (Van Heflin), a land-bound sailor also on the run. Joe makes a choice that forces them to join a different Filipino guerrilla group, thrusting the duo to take an active part in the fighting as Japanese forces sweep over the island. Joe has seen the worst the world can offer, but Dave has led a shielded life, until now at least.

Shot on location in the Philippines and almost always on a small, personal scale, 'Cry' has that distinct look and feel of renegade filmmaking styles. This is not a polished, manicured Hollywood war film. It is down and dirty, right in the mud with the guerrilla fighters. All those things can be a detriment to a lot of movies when handled poorly/incorrectly, but here it serves as a bonus. Director Irving Lerner used a mostly Filipino cast and crew, and the jungle locations give an authentic feel to the jungle fighting the islands saw during WWII. The music is kept in the background and to a minimum, the focus staying on the rather nasty elements of war.

It is in those rather nasty elements that 'Cry' amounts to a surprisingly dark, surprisingly effective war story. Two years before the U.S. was officially involved in Vietnam, it takes a low-budget, small scale WWII movie to show the outright brutality of war. More than that, it's a take on survival in war. Heflin's Joe at different points rapes a Filipino girl, uses his poker winnings to buy Dave a night with a prostitute, and sets up his own men in an ambush. Rita Moreno's character, Sisa, is a young Filipino woman who attaches herself to whoever can care for her. A rather blunt conversation about her being a whore is highly effective and far ahead of its time. Mostly though, this isn't a war story interested in the glory or heroism of war. It's war, and horrific things happen. Wounded soldiers kill themselves rather than be captured, and in general, death hovers over the hell of the situation. For a 1963 war film, 'Cry' has a lot of guts to be this honest.

There isn't a weakness among the three lead performances. Heflin gets top billing as Joe Trent, the veteran sailor who is light on morals and ethics but high on survival and enjoying life (women, fighting, drinking, gambling). In Dave, he sees potential for a big reward if he can bring the young man through the war safely. A credit to Heflin's ability as an actor, Joe is a despicable human being, and through it all, there is still that tiniest sliver of likability. A Disney star growing up, MacArthur breaks free from that clean, pure, cookie-cutter role in his part as Dave, a young man forced to grow up and be a man on the fly. An odd but believable buddy relationship (father-son, brothers) develops between the two as the movie develops. Moreno too is very effective as Sisa, a young woman who saw her family and village slaughtered by Japanese troops.

In looking at the action scenes in 'Cry,' it is another case of a small budget and very few extras being a bonus. The opening scene has Dave desperately trying to escape from machete-wielding bandits. A later ambush of a Japanese supply truck is similarly effective because it is a handful of guerrilla fighters against a handful of Japanese soldiers. There is no bigger picture, just a few men on either side trying to kill each other. The last 30 minutes get away from the war story some as Joe and Dave begin to drift apart as they fight over Sisa, but it's still interesting enough and builds to a solid ending. An underrated WWII movie that deserves more of a reputation.

Cry of Battle (1963): ***/****

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