The year is 1942 and the Second World War is at its fiercest so far, so the need for Allied troops to be trained for combat is at an all-time high. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick (William Holden) has an idea to combine American and Canadian forces in one special unit, but when he is flown over to Britain on what he regards as a needless mission, he is told by Lord Mountbatten that this concept, partly taking U.S. criminals to recruit for an excursion in Norway, is not tenable. What Mountbatten doesn't tell him is that he was working out whether Frederick is up to the job, and soon the plan is being put into action, though there is rivalry between the nations' soldiers...
There really was a "Devil's Brigade", but its tale was not exactly as told in this fictionalisation which arrived at a stage when war movies were falling under the shadow of the actual war America was fighting which could be seen on the world's news broadcasts. For the young folks, an unironic flagwaver, even if it was about a just war as the Second World War was regarded as, was not going to tickle their fancies and so it was that this was more aimed at the older generation, even those who remembered that conflict first hand. Besides, it was obvious to everyone the efforts here were dead set on generating the massive profits the previous year's The Dirty Dozen had enjoyed.
That was not to be, and The Devil's Brigade was relegated to also-ran status pretty quickly, though in the years since it has appealed to a following of buffs who like their combat fiction uncomplicated, goodies vs baddies stuff, with a bit of grit to send us off musing that war was Hell, but wasn't it fun to watch from a distance? For some, at any rate, but the living rooms of the United States were not finding the Vietnam War images too palatable, and there was another aspect here that made it apparent this was not a young man's picture, which was the casting, as almost all the actors playing the soldiers were too old for their roles, reminiscent of a certain John Wayne-directed item in 1968.
The director for this one was Andrew V. McLaglen, surely one of the tallest film directors of all time, who was credited with revitalising the ageing careers of both Wayne and James Stewart with a bunch of mostly Westerns. He was much-maligned for his supposedly unimaginative presentations, but he was a safe pair of hands and you did not particularly need a bunch of flourishes in a movie such as this, or indeed any of his canon, however this does have the effect of rendering his work as somewhat dusty and prematurely over-the-hill, as it was here. Holden was not an O.A.P. or anything, but he and his co-stars were no spring chickens either, leaving the not coincidental impression of one of those seventies action flicks where a group of getting on a bit stars would go on a mission they were plainly unfit for.
At least you could believe the likes of Claude Akins and Richard Jaeckel (borrowed from The Dirty Dozen) were still in decent enough shape to handle a wartime situation, but the effect was of a collection of old soldiers acting out their reminiscences rather than relating them to their grandchildren for the umpteenth time. Much play was made of the brawling the rival Americans and Canadians get into, culminating in a barroom battle with lumberjacks (!) that echoed the macho ideal of violence as a bonding agent that McLaglen's mentor John Ford would have endorsed, as it did with the eventual attack on German forces in Italy (not Norway - the top brass change their minds, rendering the men's skiing training obsolete). It was all very professionally done in an old Hollywood manner that was turning passé, but perfectly acceptable to while away a Sunday afternoon with, being both rough hewn in its limited charms and long enough to doze off halfway through and wake up ten minutes later having missed nothing. Music by Alex North.