The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, December 23, 2013

Carter's Army

You can't help but shake your head sometimes. Fighting in World War II, hoping to stop Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany from worldwide domination, American fighting units were still segregated. It's weird. Something just doesn't add up in that equation. Several movies have addressed the subject, but more tend to tell the story of desegregation heading into the Korean War. Not all of them though, like a 1970 TV movie, Carter's Army, also known as Black Brigade in the dollar DVD bin.

It's July 1944 and Allied forces are fighting their way through France toward Germany. An experienced commando, Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd) has been tasked with a dangerous behind the lines mission, but even he doesn't know how dangerous, and seemingly ill-advised. A dam some 40 miles behind German lines is a key point in the Allied plan of advance, but the only troops in the area who can assist are a unit of African-American soldiers who haven't seen combat and are used for burial and latrine detail. Carter can't believe his orders, but he parachutes into the area, meeting B Company's commander, Lt. Wallace (Robert Hooks), and finding the remnants of an army unit. Not sure if he'll be able to complete the mission with the men assigned, Carter and Wallace head out with six other men, hell bent on getting to the dam and taking it, time running out as the lines are constantly changing.

This 1970 made for TV movie was part of the Combat Classic 50 Movie Pack that I got as a birthday present last summer. I'd heard of it -- mostly because of the cast -- but had never found a watchable copy. This copy? Tolerable if not good, but that's what you get with public domain DVDs. The final verdict in this WWII flick from director George McGowan is a mixed bag. It's dealing with racism during World War II is a solid jumping off point -- a racist, redneck white officer commanding black troops -- but it is ultimately its undone by its TV roots. It clocks in at just 70 minutes (did it air in a 90-minute window or 2 hour time slot?) but still manages to be dull, not featuring enough action or any coherence to be any good. How many long shots can we have of Carter and his team walking through the woods? More than you'd think for a 70-minute movie.

As the already short movie developed, I thought there was the most potential with the dynamic between Boyd's racist white officer and Hooks' frustrated black officer. Given a nearly suicidal mission anyways, Carter is stunned to find a unit of black soldiers with no semblance of order or command at a filthy, broken-down camp. His counterpart, Wallace, is sick of his men being used in mop-up duty, digging latrines and burying dead soldiers rather than being used in the fighting. Carter thinks little of the men, Wallace wants the new officer to give them a chance. That racist element never plays out enough, never really gets any needed resolution. Some scenes crackle, like Wallace talking to a French woman in the resistance (Susan Oliver) only to have Carter interrupt, telling him he'd better never catch him talking to a white woman. Like so many scenes though, it's cut short before it can explore anything in actually interesting fashion.

I'm all sorts of talented when it comes to overanalyzing....well, everything, but the portrayal of the black troops seemed a little politically incorrect too. They're portrayed stealing, drinking, gambling, being delusional, cowardly and generally, pretty dumb. Now........that said, there's some good actors assembled, even if they're given little to do. Carter's crew includes Big Jim (Roosevelt Grier), a behemoth of a man, Hayes (Moses Gunn), a physics teacher, Crunk (Richard Pryor), a soldier scared of his fears overtaking him, Brightman (Glynn Turman), a soldier who makes things up and writes them in his journal, Lewis (Billy Dee Williams), a knife-throwing bully, and Fuzzy (Napoleon Whiting), a deaf soldier. There is potential in each of these characters for development, some interesting background, but there's absolutely no time for any of that in such a short movie. I'm curious what a 2-hour version of this movie would have played like.

What I thought might save 'Brigade' (or at least bring it up a notch) was the actual mission. Unfortunately....yeah, not really. This is where the budget concerns affect the story. This dam Carter and Co. are gunning for is essential to both sides, but it's guarded by seven, maybe eight soldiers? If it's so important, why were just eight soldiers sent to complete the mission? If you can parachute Carter in, can't you just parachute more commandos in? No. Why? Because then we couldn't have this movie. Paul Stewart makes an appearance as General Clark, the possibly racist officer who sends Carter on his mission.

The ending is disappointing as the mission unfolds, only about 10 actual minutes, small scale right to the very end. There is an attempt at a message that is actually pretty good, but by then, it was just too late. If you're curious, watch it at Youtube HERE. Certainly potential, but it never lives up to any of it.

Black Brigade (1970): * 1/2 /****

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