The “Men on a Mission” genre
Before there was Tarantino’s Basterds, we had a long history of “Men on a Mission” movies, enough probably to call it a genre. The most famous are The Dirty Dozen and The Guns Of Navarone. One of the best is Where Eagles Dare. Some of the more obscure like the Rod Taylor-acted Dark Of The Sun inspired Tarantino’s own entry. The genre has continued through every decade with the same rag-tag crews going on a task usually considered a “suicide mission”.
Near the end of their careers, American Primitives, Andre De Toth and Robert Aldrich, tried the genre in two little-talked about films: Play Dirty and Too Late The Hero.
Odd enough, both films star Michael Caine. In Play Dirty, he’s an expert in oil, a soldier who didn’t plan on firing a single shot and somehow gets roped into a scheme to join a group of true outcasts, gathered from all over, to blow up a Nazi oil reserve.
This is a cynical picture and that attitude doesn’t take long to kick in. From the beginning, we learn that our crew is just a decoy, a bunch of expendables meant only to be butchered as a group of “real” soldiers follows their trail to do the job right. The best scene comes when our outcasts watch as the “real” soldiers are ambushed by Nazis and massacred. Caine’s character tries to warn them but Nigel Hawthorne’s hard-as-nails Leech stops him. He doesn’t mind watching his own allies murdered as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Andre De Toth, who we wrote about earlier with his great crime picture Crime Wave, keeps up this hopeless tone till the very end. It sets in to the point that we laugh when the next bad thing happens and the film turns the “Mission” genre on its head. The mission doesn’t matter at all this time.
In Too Late the Hero, Cliff Roberston plays the reluctant soldier: an American who speaks Japanese and hides out from his commander (Henry Fonda) until he’s tracked down and brought in. A few days before his leave, he’s assigned to a group of British soldiers on another suicide mission: this time to destroy Japanese communications and send a false transmission to fool them. As usual, the soldiers have been collected from the bottom of the barrel. Michael Caine is among them, as the always-skeptical medic. Also in the ranks is the incompetent team leader played by Denholm Elliott and the crazy Irishman played by Ian Bannen.
Somehow with the same modus operandi as De Toth, Aldrich (director of greats like Kiss Me Deadly and the classic Mission movie The Dirty Dozen) misses the right tone for this picture. All the elements are present but the feel isn’t and the movie plays out as one jungle attack after another. Whereas De Toth’s cynicism refreshed the genre, Aldrich’s seems tired and uninspired.
Still, it’s curious to see these two directors try. We will write more, much more, about Robert Aldrich in later entries.