The Reluctant Heroes (1971)
If I didn’t know any better I’d swear this made for TV affair by way of Aaron Spelling was made on the sets and locations of MASH when Alan Alda and company were on vacation. However, the TV show didn’t debut till the fall of ’72 while this tale of soldiers in battle during the Korean war hit TV screens a year earlier in ’71.
Unable to make it’s mind up between comedy and an outright “war is hell” drama, we start off with a few enlisted men down at the swamp tending to their liquor producing still. Now you know why I thought I’d tuned in to a rejected MASH episode. It’s here that we’ll find Dirty Dozen flunky Trini Lopez and ex Green Beret Jim Hutton enjoying a stiff drink till their fun is ruined by Sargent Cameron Mitchell handpicking a group of volunteers for C.O. Ralph Meeker.
Mitchell will also enlist Warren Oates and Don Marshall for the new orders sent down to Meeker from the higher up Brass. Incorporating as many clichés as the script can, Oates once again will be playing a southern hick that he so excelled at and one with a decidedly racist outlook on Marshall and the world in general. Battlefields do make for strange bedfellows and Oates might have to look to the last person he wants to for help before that last bullet is fired.
The last man to join in the march up a secluded mountain peak to set up an observation point is TV regular Ken Berry. Berry was by this time finishing up his time spent on the TV series Mayberry RFD. He’s been sent along by Meeker to observe as he’s a wartime historian. He’ll also outrank the members of Mitchell’s platoon though Hutton, Lopez and the rest are seasoned front line fighters.
Supposedly the hill they are stationed on isn’t a heavily platooned area by the enemy but of course that intel is way off course and the boys are about to be overrun by the North Koreans led by Soon-Tec Oh billed as Soon-Taik Oh in the opening credits. Not surprisingly, Soon-Tec would be a regular guest star on MASH in a variety of roles. Cue the clichés as one of fighting men turns out to be a coward, Hutton is the sour vet who complains far too much and Mitchell gets hit bad, having to give up command to the inexperienced Berry who it turns out might make for a fine commander with an advanced skill at plotting out offence and defence thanks to his knowledge of the great battles throughout history.
Yes, this light hearted romp has turned to the horrors of war by the twenty minute mark from director Robert Day. Mr. Day had a variety of genre titles to his name including Boris Karloff thrillers, Mike Henry Tarzan adventures to countless television credits ranging from The Avengers to Kojak and Matlock.
Cut off from company commander Meeker and their home base, the group will have to hold their ground and when circumstances allow it, turn into an elite fighting force that will see them become the Reluctant Heroes of the title when they seize an opportunity to save the lives of countless US soldiers. Consider it a real poor man’s version of the Bridge at Remagen.
Like most TV Movie productions of the day, this one is done on the cheap and features a whole slew of familiar faces. Usually on the downside of their careers which for the most part is what we get here. The one actor here who still had his best to come was Warren Oates thanks mainly to his leading roles for Sam Peckinpah in Alfredo Garcia and as Dillinger for John Milius.
Always one to watch the credits, I noticed that this is one of the titles that saw long time character actor, Bert Remsen serve as the casting director. Joining the dots as I have been known to do, this Korean war flick saw Trini Lopez and Ralph Meeker reunited after appearing in The Dirty Dozen together. Not really familiar with the music of Lopez, this makes just the second film I’ve seen him in and it’s no Dirty Dozen but like many of these TV productions of the era, it’s an opportunity to see a select group of actors that I’ve always enjoyed in film and television. So it works for me.
If you are looking to score a copy of this one, I found it on a budget label that had five action movies for a couple bucks in a Walmart bargain bin. Thankfully I knew my Warren Oates titles and it caught my eye as the other four titles will probably go unwatched by yours truly for years to come.