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Ernest Borgnine

Review: Small Soldiers

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

About halfway through Small Soldiersit struck me: just who is this film’s audience? On the surface it’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy turned nightmare, a “War Toy Story” with a pair of spunky teenage heroes in the line of fire. But there’s another film here too, a consumer satire crammed with pop culture references and movie quotes aimed at much bigger kids – well, adults actually.

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Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

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Review: Law and Disorder

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Ivan Passer must have taken another look at his countryman Milos Forman’s American picture, Taking Off, before addressing himself to Law and Disorder, for the new film contains several notable echoes of its predecessor: a community-enlightenment seminar in which an obviously neurotic psychologist advises the women how to defend themselves against potential rapists (cf. the pot-smoking in Taking Off); a wife’s comically grotesque attempts to turn on a jaded husband (cf. Lynn Carlin’s pixilated drunk dance); the complaint of the protagonist, a beleaguered parent with a troublesome daughter, that “normal girls run away at 16—she stays around to annoy us” (a nod to T.O.‘s central premise). There any resemblance to Forman’s adroitly judged satire and Passer’s own small masterpiece, Intimate Lighting ends. Passer’s account of several middleaged middle-American males’ endeavors to set their world a-right by forming an auxiliary police force to patrol the neighborhood attempts to limn the frustration of those who straddle the caste line between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but he lacks any feeling for the specifically American experience. Actors like Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine are difficult to control at the best of times, and Passer, who steers his way so surely through the klutzy exoticism of blowsy Czech housewives and passed-over Czech Lotharios, apparently has no notion when satirical caricature gives way to gross overplaying.

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Review: Shoot

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Guy starts his movie with loving closeups of a ramrod squeezing oil down a rifle bore and a hand stroking off the outer barrel, he’d better have either a sense of humor or a deep enough fetishistic commitment to justify the indulgence. Harvey Hart, a Canadian director who did several seasons of American TV and a couple of U.S. feature films in the mid-Sixties, apparently possesses neither, but he’s consistently displayed a predilection for hanging his camera in pointlessly odd places and cluttering up his foregrounds as sententiously as possible. Since Shoot is based on a premise at once pretentious and preposterous, he’s the last man I’d have nominated to save it—and whaddaya know, I’d have been right.

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Review: Convoy

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

Convoy continues Peckinpah’s voyage into “nihilist poetry,” in the phrase of Pauline Kael, which began to be dreamily insistent in The Killer Elite and became the whole show in Cross of Iron. At a glance, the new film looks closer to conventional narrative than that Yugoslav-based war picture, filmed in a nightmare neverneverland of green mud and orange blossoms of flame, with nary a Bo Hopkins or L.Q. Jones among Sgt. Steyner’s Teutonic Wild Bunch to certify the place as home. Convoy rumbles down a linear track in the modern American Southwest, accommodating a couple of days’ time in the lives of legendary badass trucker Rubber Ducky (Kris Kristofferson) and an ever-increasing number of his confreres, gathering initial impetus from a run-in with a trucker-hating, dirty-tricks-playing sheriff (Ernest Borgnine), and escalating through a series of deliriously ill-advised acts of rebellion that virtually compel the retributive/destructive force of The Law to come down on the vagabond heroes—these “modern cowboys,” as both a fatuous politician and the logic of Peckinpah’s own career would have it. Rubber Duck and some half-dozen good buddies, barreling toward the state line, gradually find themselves the vanguard of a vast caravan and the focus of a boundless populist movement whereby all sorts of abused “little punks” (Frank Capra’s phrase this time) get to sound off about everything from Nam and Watergate to the infamous “double nickel” national speed limit, which restricts private-enterprise commerce and just plain interferes with a fella going down his own road (cf. Jr. Bonner) at his own good time. The poetry comes in less through the occasional overlap ballet of trucks amid backlighted dust clouds—a rather film-student-y idea carried off no better than the average film student might–than in the bemusement with which Peckinpah piles on the improbabilities. Finally, Rubber Ducky and cohorts are no more driving through a real piece of the American Southwest than Sgt. Steyner and his platoon were walking through a documentary version of the Second World War on the Russian front.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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