The Devil’s Brigade (1968)
With Andrew V. McLaglen in the director’s chair of this male dominated WW2 action adventure we should expect it to play like a John Wayne flick. Why you ask? Well McLaglen grew up as a member of the Ford/Wayne stock company by extension of his own father Victor McLaglen. He would even direct five of Duke’s films beginning with 1963’s McLintock. And for that reason this plays so much like a variation of most any 60’s John Wayne western/war films one half expects The Duke to turn up and take over as commander from leading man, William Holden, just as the mission begins.
Obviously influenced by the smash hit of 1967, The Dirty Dozen, the trailer for the Devil’s Brigade sets the direction of this enjoyable wartime adventure based on a true story. Loosely? Probably.
“The American Misfits and the Proud Canadians.” …. “The Spit and the Polish.”
The fact that the Canadian Armed Forces play a major role in the film also starring the likes of Cliff Robertson and Vince Edwards makes this my selection for the 2020 O Canada Blogathon that is once again being hosted by a pair of fellow Canucks, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings.
There’s a rousing score from Alex North to begin our journey over the opening credits that feature some stellar imagery of our fighting cast. Our star player, William Holden, is being led to the slaughter when he’s escorted by Dana Andrews to meet the the higher ups, Carroll O’Connor and Michael Rennie. The assignment? To take the military castoffs of the U.S. Army and turn them into an elite fighting force like those of the Canadian outfit that are led by Cliff Robertson they are being teamed with.
Time to introduce some of our fighting force. On the U.S. side of the camp we’ll find the bully of the outfit, Claude Akins, a bald headed acrobat played by Richard Jaeckel and Andrew Prine as a misunderstood youngster who wants to get on with the fighting. Now on the Canadian side of the barracks you’ll meet Cpl. Jack Watson, Pvt. Richard Dawson and Sgt. Jeremy Slate. Not a real live Canadian among them. Couldn’t they have at least gotten Donald Sutherland or Christopher Plummer involved?
Training camp pits the opposing forces against each other and it’s the Canadians who are in tip top shape taking their role in the war seriously. A major part of the fun is watching Akins and Watson verbally spar throughout the montage of he-man training and when no one can seem to straighten out the large bully, Slate, as a hand to hand combat specialist is brought in to lay out Akins and teach him a lesson in an amusing scene. As for Watson? He and Akins will patch up all their disagreements over a beer and a barroom brawl when Don McGowan shows up with a gang of toughs.
Nothing like a barroom brawl to nudge men towards some male bonding.
Now that the men are set on fighting one common enemy, Holden, couldn’t be happier and along with second, Vince Edwards, and Robertson, the trio set out to prove to the General staff that their men are capable of taking on all comers, most notably the German fighting force.
Time for The Devil’s Brigade to spring into action but before doing so General O’Connor points out, “Faith moves mountains. It doesn’t take them.” Yes the Brigade have been assigned to take a heavily fortified mountain stronghold of German soldiers and it’s a hell of a battle over the film’s final thirty odd minutes that sends the platoon into action that will see both countries losing heroic men on the battlefield. I’ll let you tune in to see just who makes the final salute in the end.
Remind you of the Dirty Dozen? It should considering it follows the basic plot line of the Robert Aldrich classic though it does have more men participating in the mission that also includes Luke Askew who did double duty in 1968 military pictures. He also turned in a memorable performance in John Wayne’s The Green Berets as Sgt. Provo. You may recall his closing scene with the Duke or if you haven’t yet seen the film, it’ll tease a smile from you I’m sure. A couple others you’ll spot are Norman Alden and a carry over with McLaglen from the Wayne/Ford stock company, Harry Carey Jr.
The credited stunt coordinator on the film was Hal Needham. Hal had a long association with McLaglen going back to being Richard Boone’s stunt double for the six season run of Have Gun Will Travel. A series that McLaglen directed 116 episodes out of 225. On my count the two worked on 12 films together before Hal moved onto to directing himself. He’d score a major box-office hit behind the camera on Smokey and The Bandit in 1977.
As much as I enjoyed this film after going a decade or so between viewings I was reminded of just how much I’m not a fan of how us Canadians are sometimes presented on screen to differentiate us from our neighbors to the south. While I’ll grant you I’ve seen my fair share of bagpipes and men in kilts on Canadian television, what irks me the most is the fact that they’ve got Cliff Robertson sporting some Scottish accent to match up with Watson and Dawson. All the years I’ve lived and breathed, I don’t believe I have had one acquaintance that talks like any of these three. If anything you could probably mistake most any of us Canucks with a good many people I’ve met across the border to the south.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Robertson, grew up watching Dawson kissing each and every female contestant on the original Family Feud and love to hear Watson barking orders at subordinates. As a matter of fact Watson’s role here is almost an audition for the scene stealing performance he gave as the foul mouthed drill sergeant whipping The Wild Geese into shape for the 1978 film. Guess who directed that one ….. yup …. Andrew V. McLaglen.
1968 proved to be big year for Cliff Robertson, he’d score an Oscar win for his role in Charly. Holden was one year away from what one could arguably call the greatest western ever made, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and as for third billed Vince Edwards, he was keeping busy following the end of his Ben Casey TV series in 1966.
As this is based on the true story of the First Special Service Force, I’ve included a link here to learn more about the actual missions and battles the men fought if you’d like to know more about this piece of WW2 history. After all, they were the real heroes.
Previous titles I’ve featured in the O’Canada Blogathon from years past are as follows….. James Cagney in Captains of the Clouds, Oliver Reed caught in The Trap , a Canadian concert film Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom Connors and Mother Lode starring Charlton Heston.
In closing I’d like to encourage you all to scroll back up to the top of the page and pay a visit to Kristina and Ruth who gladly take the time to feature our wonderful country, the films and the stars who hail from Canada that populate them.