July 24, 2013

Movie Review: The Devil’s Brigade (1968)

Corporal Peacock, your stripes are not a license to behave like an ass. - Major Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson)

Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

Writer: Robert H. Adelman (book), William Roberts (screenplay), George Walton (book)

Producer: David L. Wolper

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Vince Edwards, Claude Akins

In the World War Two genre of films, one of the most popular sub-genres is “misfits on a mission” The Dirty Dozen is the most well-known of these films. Others include The Misfit Brigade (about Nazi misfits sent to the Eastern Front) and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet.

One of the better known examples is The Devil’s Brigade. It tells the quasi-historical story of the 1st Special Service Force, an 1,800 man commando force formed in 1942 from American and Canadian servicemen. They were trained in a variety of skills, including mountain climbing and skiing. They fought primarily in Italy, with their last action taking place on the Franco-Italian border in 1944, after which they were disbanded.

The unit’s leader, Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick, is played by William Holden. Holden exudes the toughness and non-nonsense attitude that Frederick possessed, even if his role is under-stated. His two subordinates are U.S. Army Major Cliff Bricker (Vince Edwards) and Canadian Army Major Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson). Edwards and Robertson have meatier roles than Holden. Bricker is a con-artist and hustler who can get anything the unit needs, and has no respect for the dregs the Americans send to the unit. Crown is an Irishman haunted by the failure of the British Army at Dunkirk. He wants the men to learn because he knows who they’ll be going up against. The two majors play off of each other nicely.

The film also has the requisite “tough guys.” Claude Akins plays Private Rockwell “Rocky” Rockman. The name is ridiculous, but Akins plays the role quite well. Rough and physical, he makes the transformation from lout to good soldier look believable. His Canadian counterpart is Corporal Wilfrid Peacock. Played by Jack Watson (better known for his role as Sandy Young in The Wild Geese), Peacock is Rockman’s foil at first, before they inevitably become fast friends.

Utah Hospitality: The Utah National Guard contributed 300 men to the battle scenes, and the final battle at Monte la Difensa was filmed in the Wasatch Mountains

As for the film itself, I’m kind of indifferent to The Devil’s Brigade. It surprises me to say that, because parts of it are wonderful. Director Andrew McLaglen did a great job with the final battle scenes. The highlight battle at Monte la Difensa is fantastic. Well shot and brutal, you feel like you are right in the middle of the fight. And the requisite “brawl that unites everyone into a cohesive unit” is fun to watch.

But it is a real “paint-by-the-numbers” exercise. You have the misfits, they don’t get along, and then they do after being forced to come together. The brass doesn’t believe in them, so they prove themselves, only to be rewarded with an impossible job. So to rise above that, the film itself has to be exceptional. And I don’t know if Devil’s Brigade makes that level.

Turnover: 1,800 men strong, the Brigade would suffer over 2,700 casualties during its brief existence.

When you are dealing with a non-fictional incident or unit, you have to be relatively faithful to that. Otherwise, what’s the point of telling the story? So why McLaglen made the US soldiers convicts and losers, as opposed to the volunteers they actually were, is beyond me. Why he creates a situation where the brigade captures a town and entire German battalion as prisoners when it never happened is beyond me. Why he ends the movie at the first battle they fought when they fought even more impressive battles later is beyond me. And in choosing Monte la Difensa as the battle (which, again, was beautifully designed and shot), why did McLaglen make the choice to have the battle fought in summer, as opposed to winter when it actually occurred? Wouldn’t that be even more impressive?

Is it fair to judge the film like that as opposed to sticking only to what appears between the opening title and final credits? I think so, especially since the film claims to tell the story of the 1st Special Service Force. It is a good film, but it could have been a better film.

The Devil’s Brigade makes the Top 100 list…for now. But I don’t know if it will survive once we’ve gotten to 120 movies or so. Definitely better that the average war movie, it falls short of lasting greatness.


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