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  Too Late the Hero You Want A Medal For It?
Year: 1969
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Michael Caine, Cliff Robertson, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews, Ronald Fraser, Denholm Elliott, Lance Percival, Percy Herbert, Patrick Jordan, Sam Kydd, William Beckley, Martin Horsey, Harvey Jason, Don Knight, Henry Fonda, Ken Takakura
Genre: WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The Pacific theatre of war, 1942, and Lieutenant Sam Lawson (Cliff Robertson) is having a very easy time of it, wangling his way out of responsibilities to spend his days sunning himself on the beach, or carousing with the local women. But all that is about to come to an abrupt halt as he is called to the offices of Captain John G. Nolan (Henry Fonda) who is determined that Lawson does not live out the rest of the conflict without making himself useful, indeed he is resentful of the Lieutenant and to that end has arranged for him to go on a mission. Lawson is supposed to be there as an interpreter, so Nolan has the ideal task for him: join a group of British soldiers on one crucial island, most of which is controlled by the Japanese, and carry out a dangerous excursion that needs his skills.

Director Robert Aldrich was interested in what war can do to people, and explored that subject in many of his films, but his real crowdpleaser had been The Dirty Dozen, three years before this, which while just as cynical was not so eager to provide the audience with the rousing adventure the previous effort had. This was just as hardbitten, and had similarities to the Dozen in that it detailed the tale of a group of men (the only women we catch sight of are locals underneath the opening credits) who have been thrown together with extreme reluctance since they do not share the faith of their superior officers that they are present in this situation for anything beneficial to the war effort whatsoever.

And none are more reluctant than Lawson, determined to follow his orders to the letter and not accept any variation that might involve sticking his neck out for anyone else, not even himself. But Robertson was not top-billed, that honour went to Michael Caine as Private Tosh Hearne, a conscript like many of his fellow soldiers who as he is the biggest name we can predict will last pretty far into the plot as those lower down the cast list were in a more precarious position. But could you describe him as a hero, late or otherwise? As often with Aldrich, he was notably sceptical about such notions, and if you did manage to claw something resembling heroism out of this morass of bad ideas then it was more through luck than any purpose or design.

All of which suited the time this was made, for like the far more successful MASH from Robert Altman, this may not have been set in the Vietnam War that was currently destroying hopes, dreams and lives in South East Asia, but assuredly it was what contemporary audiences would have been calling to mind as they watched it. This was the case with a rash of these productions, and the younger audiences responded well to them as they mirrored their own generally pessimistic view of the authorities who would send their generation to battle, but even for a cynical subgenre of the war movie, Too Late the Hero was too strongly bitter for it to be embraced by a large majority. It was as if the potential audience would say, sure, we don't believe in the validity of war, but we're not going as far as this in our disdain.

A little distance from the events in the news was possible when most of the cast were British, which at least offered a semblance of a wider, not to say grander, statement about the cost of war, and Aldrich recruited some solid performers to support Caine and Robertson (the latter of whom he did not get along with and the former who was not having a great time of it either). Ian Bannen and Ronald Fraser he had worked with before on The Flight of the Phoenix, Bannen playing a variation on that joker role where the state of the world war seems to have driven him insane, and Fraser another coward, but this time with no redeeming features of anti-authoritarianism; comedian Lance Percival was also there in a straight role, and Harry Andrews notched up another military man to play in his career, while Ken Takakura, one of Japan's favourite actors, showed up in businesslike fashion to torment the mission when all goes not according to plan. With this many professionals it couldn't fail to generate a cult following, as many Aldrich films did, but with its pitch black rejection of the value of heroism it shared something with Richard Lester's How I Won the War while remaining a gripping adventure. Not for those who like their battle flicks uncomplicated. Music by Gerald Fried.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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