First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.
Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.
While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.
Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.
Director J. Lee Thompson was determined—or so screenwriter-producer Carl Foreman claimed—that The Guns of Navarone (1961) should be “the greatest high adventure of all time.” More accurate to say it’s the summation of a cycle of stiff-upper-lip wartime mission movies that were a mainstay of English cinema throughout the Fifties, albeit imbued with popular novelist Alistair MacLean’s zest for Boy’s Own Adventure derring-do. Here the formula thrives on cross-pollination with the caper movie, in which specialists in various exotic arts join forces for a spectacular coup. And so mountaineer Gregory Peck, explosives expert David Niven, Greek partisan Anthony Quinn, and several other worthy chaps—not to omit local Resistance fighter Irene Papas—must knock out two massive, radar-controlled artillery pieces sheltered in a cave under the cliffs of Navarone, guns that control the wine-dark Aegean Sea and menace 2,000 brave British troops on the island of Keros. James Robertson Justice’s inimitable reading of the movie’s prologue is so flavorful that the ensuing high adventure almost seems anticlimactic. MacLean owned this territory (Peck’s character, we are told, “speaks Greek like a Greek and German like a German”), and eventually he was commissioned to write an original screenplay. The result, Where Eagles Dare (1968), became a cult favorite. By the way, David Niven actually served as a commando in World War II; whether his technical advice was sought on The Guns of Navarone is not a matter of record.
A village of farmers in the backcountry, vulnerable to periodic depredation by bandits, pools its meager resources to hire mercenaries to defend them. In 1954 such a synopsis fit a world-class Japanese film, Seven Samurai. By 1960 it also applied to John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, a Western set in Mexico and based on Akira Kurosawa’s movie. One of them can claim a place on cinema’s All-Time Ten Best List. That film is not Sturges’ Western, but once we get past the disparity in ambition and achievement between the two pictures, Sturges’ movie deserves the affection audiences have lavished on it for half a century and counting. Few movies from any nation, any genre, have come near being as sheerly cool. Yul Brynner has the lead, the peak moment of his exotic, semi-alien stardom before starting the irreversible slide to self-parody; and early in, or just prior to, their own stardom we get Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn—Coburn coolest of all, so balletically self-contained that only one of his lines is longer than five words. The other, slightly less magnificent two are Germany’s Horst Buchholz as a kid who would be a warrior (the Toshiro Mifune part!) and Brad Dexter, locating a certain nobility in being a schmuck. Eli Wallach played the bandit leader—a distinct upgrade in entertainment value, if not in the terror inspired by Kurosawa’s anonymous chieftain. The music is Elmer Bernstein’s; you know how it goes.
Another ride into Mexico, this time behind a great modern filmmaker. Major Dundee (1965) was Sam Peckinpah’s third feature film, and the first that threatened to end his career. By mid-Sixties terms it was an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what became the Vietnam era. At the outset, Apache chieftain Sierra Charriba conducts a murderous raid into Texas, then runs for cover across the border. He is pursued by Amos Dundee (Heston), a Southern-born Union officer whose command comprises regular U.S. Army personnel, black troopers, miscellaneous citizenry, and a collection of Confederate POWs led by his onetime brother-in-arms and sworn enemy (Harris). The journey is fraught with personal tensions and roiling with historical allegory—not unlike the shoot, which was, as they say, troubled. No wholly satisfactory cut of the film has ever been released. Still, the shards are astonishing. And try topping that Peckinpah team roster: James Coburn, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, Brock Peters, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, and John Davis Chandler.
Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) is a great thriller, one of the few great thrillers of the new millennium. Yet thrilling isn’t its entire agenda. The title refers less to a place than to a state of mind, a condition of life. During the 1972 Olympics, Palestinian terrorists took hostage and ultimately murdered the entire Israeli team at the Munich Games. In this fictional yet reality-based film, Golda Meir’s government dispatches a clandestine hit team to exact reprisal on eleven men deemed to have planned the assault. The team of five is a diverse band, most of whom seem unlikely candidates to be traversing Europe carrying out assassinations. Their mission is something of a phantasm: “You’re now officially unofficial,” the leader (Eric Bana) is told as he resigns his commission in the Israeli intelligence service. And then the five enter “a world of intersecting secrecies,” where morality is an immediate casualty, and righteous revenge cues fresh horror (“We’re in dialogue now,” a team member murmurs as a TV broadcasts word of a new Palestinian atrocity). The movie vouchsafes one breath-bating suspense sequence after another. It also sustains a theme dear to Spielberg’s heart, the preeminence—the sanctity—of “family”: the loved ones left behind at home, the nation of Israel, the Jewish race. This extends to the film’s most fascinating characters, an “ideologically promiscuous” father and son (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric) selling strategic information to every side in the shadow-world that is … Munich.
If MGM’s Northwest Passage (1940) is mentioned nowadays, it’s likely to be in service of an argument deploring Hollywood’s racist treatment of the American Indian. That’s an argument people are welcome to have, but let’s not ignore that King Vidor’s movie is a powerful adventure story of an era when “the West” was nothing more than a dream and no side had an exclusive on savagery. The time frame is 1759, the French and Indian War. The mission: Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) leads his buckskin-clad Rangers out of New Hampshire to attack St. Francis, an Abenaki Indian village in Quebec. The Abenakis have made a habit of raiding and murdering British settlers—and British is what Americans still were, at the time. Rogers’ own raid of vengeance is violent and decisive. It’s also (as in Raoul Walsh’s great WWII film Objective, Burma!) only the first phase of a harrowing journey. Expecting to renew their food supply from captured Indian stores, the Rangers find only a little parched corn. And so begins a grueling, weeks-long trek overland, with starvation, madness, and death by myriad forms of misadventure constant companions. Few American films have indexed the harshness of the wilderness more vividly, nor caught the absoluteness with which humanity can be erased there. Robert Young and Walter Brennan costar, but it’s Addison Richards as Crofton you’ll never be able to forget.
Early in 1969 Andrew Sarris panned Play Dirty, which ticket-buyers mostly avoided as an apparent attempt to cash in on the success of Robert Aldrich’s 1967 megahit The Dirty Dozen. Then a funny thing happened. As Sarris went on writing about other 1969 movies, he kept referencing Play Dirty for doing this-or-that better than whatever film was under review. By year’s end the great man wryly acknowledged that Play Dirty had just missed making his Ten Best list. It’s a dirty little WWII movie indeed, set in North Africa, with the wolfish Nigel Davenport as an unregenerate criminal serving in the private army of a semi-daft scholar who believes that the principles of desert warfare haven’t changed since the time of Alexander. This scholar—played by an even more memorably unsavory Nigel, Nigel Green—holds that “war is a criminal enterprise; I fight it with criminals.” And since Davenport will keep bringing his officers home with gunshot wounds in the back, a replacement is drafted to nominally lead a mission to blow up Rommel’s fuel depot. Enter Michael Caine, a distinct nonwarrior—a British Petroleum employee!—whose chances of survival depend mainly on Green’s paying Davenport to keep him alive. The movie’s director, Andre de Toth, was a past master at chronicling internecine warfare and multiple double-crosses. Oh, one more certification of institutional unreliability: Green’s superior officer is played by Harry Andrews. Proceed, gentlemen.
We’ve edged farther and farther away from conventional military goings-on. Here’s a classic men-on-a-mission tale with an entirely civilian context. The Lineup (1958) was made as a feature-film companion to the well-established police procedural TV series, and after a whirlwind opening minute-and-three-seconds involving the theft of something from a ship just docked in San Francisco harbor and two abrupt deaths, things quiet down for a reel or two as SFPD detectives investigate the case. Then the real movie—make that the real Don Siegel movie—resumes, as a team of hitmen arrive in town to do a day’s work. Eli Wallach, in his second big-screen role, is brilliant as Dancer the trigger man, described by his handler Julian (the excellent Robert Keith) as “a wonderfully pure pathological study, a psychopath with no inhibitions.” They move from neighborhood to neighborhood, pursuing a certain something that went missing in that amazing opening frenzy. One gooseflesh-raising scene follows another until the action peaks at Sutro’s museum–cum–skating gallery, a multi-tiered setting Siegel exploits for maximum tension. The end, right? No, just the launch pad for the finale, the most kinetic car chase the movies have ever done (and we’re not forgetting Bullitt and The French Connection). Shooting on locations all over the City by the Bay, veteran cameraman Hal Mohr rises to every challenge, no sweat.
Might Robert Aldrich be the master of the mission movie? We’ve mentioned The Dirty Dozen, the sardonic anti-Establishment WWII caper that helped define the late Sixties. Before that came the WWII drama Attack! (1956). The brilliant 1972 Western Ulzana’s Raid took seismic reading of the Vietnam era. We choose to salute a 1977 movie that was underrated at the time and has mostly been MIA till its welcome restoration on Blu-ray and DVD: the atomic-age thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming. One Sunday morning several escaped convicts infiltrate a missile silo in Montana and threaten to launch its nine programmed “birds,” thereby starting World War III. Three (Paul Winfield, Burt Young, William Smith) are interested only in freedom and a multimillion-dollar ransom. The fourth, their leader (Burt Lancaster), is an ex–Air Force general who wants to force the government into damning revelations about its foreign policy. His favorite ransom clause involves taking the President (an excellent Charles Durning) hostage and having him broadcast the exposé to the world. Aldrich makes a virtue of limited production resources by having the film unfold primarily in imaginative space: several sets—the Oval Office, the concrete-bounded control room of Silo III, the blank plain surrounding it—and further abstracting of the effective dramatic zones into split-screen panels, juxtaposing points-of-view, widely separated events, things seen and not able to be seen. Or as jaundiced Secretary of Defense Melvyn Douglas says, “The beginning of the end of mankind. In graphic black and white.”
In Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain figures she can get bin Laden. In The African Queen (1951), missionary spinster Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) sees no reason she shouldn’t get the Königin Luise, the German gunboat patrolling a lake downriver from the Methodist church she and her late brother maintained in the jungle till Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops torched it. Of course, she will have to rely on the gin-soaked riverboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and his none-too-trustworthy steam launch, which lends its name to John Huston’s most beloved film. Huston chronicled a lot of quests in his career, none so cockeyed as this fable of two lovely unlovely people making common cause in wartime (German East Africa, 1913). It wasn’t until he got to the Congo that the director realized what a funny picture The African Queen was going to be, thanks to the odd coupling of Bogie and Kate: “One brought out a vein of humor in the other, and this comic sense, which had been missing from the book and screenplay, grew out of our day-to-day shooting.” This was the director’s first feature film in Technicolor, which does splendidly by the African locations but heightens the imperfections of the stars’ aging flesh—something that only adds to the characters’ vulnerability and the movie’s unexpected tenderness. James Agee worked on the script with Huston; Jack Cardiff, the premier Technicolor cameraman of his day, shot the picture. Bonus happy ending: Bogart’s long-overdue Oscar.