Subbing in for Charlton Heston who was originally slated to play Col. William Darby in this Wild Bill Wellman military bio, is first time leading man James Garner assuming the title role.
“Maverick himself in his first starring big screen role!”
When Jack Warner lost his temper over the percentage points Heston was to receive from profit participation, he promptly tore up Heston’s contract only to be sued by Heston and his agent Lew Wasserman. Jack paid up and promoted assigned costar James Garner to the lead role. The rest is history. Heston is really the lucky one here. He got paid for a movie he didn’t appear in and to top it off, Darby’s Ranger’s is really a dog of a film considering the talent involved.
With Jack Warden doing double duty as narrator and Garner’s personal sergeant, our newly christened leading man is stuck behind a desk during WW2 and wanting nothing better than to lead a team of commando’s into enemy territory. Pleading his case to Willis Bouchey’s General, Garner gets the go ahead to train and lead a team of top tier soldiers to fight the Nazi’s. For recruiting purposes and giving us some background on the lead actors of the Rangers, a few actors are featured in mostly comical vignettes as we get to know them. These include the Mayor of Shark City, Murray Hamilton as a quick tempered brawler, Stuart Whitman playing a skirt chasing soldier in jolly old England and Peter Brown as a green recruit.
There’s plenty of grouching and complaining as the Rangers hit boot camp overseen by the English and drill Sergeant, Torin Thatcher. There’s far too much romantic shenanigans going on for the first half of the film that seem out of touch with the subject material. The comedy isn’t very funny and I somehow think that even audiences of 1958 must have felt that this film seemed outdated and better suited to audiences of the thirties.
By the time Garner leads the men into battle, the film proceeds to mix the action with some montages of actual WW2 footage which was fairly common during the era of filmmaking. Having left the women back in England including second billed Etchika Choureau who isn’t even playing Garner’s love interest the boys hit Sicily. She’s hooked up with Whitman’s rebel whereas Garner actually plays this one stag with no leading lady.
It’s a march across familiar war torn territories including Anzio where some of the Rangers will be left behind before the team is disbanded as this two hour feature film comes to a close.
I somehow can’t see this film going before the cameras as it is. Not if Heston had stayed on to play the leading role. He was an action star and there’s very little action in here for Darby. I think the film might have been in for some major rewrites for good old Chuck. Likable as James Garner is, here he proves to be ……… well …… likable. It’s as if he’s prepping for those Doris Day comedies to come. The film really did need a Heston or a Holden to lead this regiment into hell on the front lines and play tough to the very end. Garner wasn’t quite there yet.
Now on to the positives. I’m a guy who likes to see my favorite character players and lesser known leading men on screen and when they turn up in the same film, all the bigger bonus. Torin Thatcher is one such guy.
To me he’s always a hard ass or villain and though he’s the gruff Sarge here, he’s really an old softy.
Murray Hamilton is always a welcome site due to his playing that Mayor guy in 1975. Eventual leading man Stuart Whitman was always a favorite of mine growing up and I still welcome finding new films I’ve yet to see where he makes an appearance. Either in support or leading roles.
As for Garner himself, there’s just no way not to like this guy. Another of those actors that I grew up watching thanks to his many films and TV work as Rockford. Lastly, let us not forget the GREAT Jack Warden. An actor who made everything he appeared in worthy of checking out. (I think)
In the end I think if I had to I’d rather watch Darby’s Rangers again before having to watch Wellman’s other film of 1958, Lafayette Escadrille. Neither one is much good in the end but both feature a solid cast of up and comers. Despite some truly great films from Wellman including Wings, The Ox Bow Incident and Island in the Sky, his career kind of wound down with a couple of forgettable titles. Despite living until 1979, Wellman never directed another feature film following this less than stellar year.
Collector that I am, I did indeed pick up the Warner Archive release of Darby’s Rangers should you need to snag a copy for yourself.