Warner Bros. hit on a great idea a few years ago with their "TCM Greatest Classic Films" sets, each of which combines four classic films on the flip sides of two DVD's. With "TCM Greatest Classic Films: War," WB roll out their sixth wave of such collections, with three or four sets in each wave, making a total of twenty-one two-disc collections so far. At the rate things are going, given the studio's back catalogue of great old movies, they should run out of material sometime in the twenty-fifth century.
Of course, it's easy for Warners to put out these sets since they already released all of the movies in single-disc editions, and what we get here are the same masterings. Still, that doesn't make the sets any less a bargain.
THE DAWN PATROL
The 1938 version of "The Dawn Patrol" that we have here is actually a remake of the famous 1930 Howard Hawks film of the same name. It's unusual for a studio to remake a picture so soon after the original, but perhaps Warners wanted to take advantage of Errol Flynn's popularity at the time as a dashing hero. Flynn had just scored successes in "Captain Blood," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "The Prince and the Pauper," and "The Adventures of Robin Hood." What better follow-up than as a World War I flying ace?
It's France, 1915, and Flynn plays Captain Courtney, a brash young flyer in the 59th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. He's eager to get into the skies but frustrated by the egg crates the government has given them to fly, planes "stuck together with spit and glue."
Warner Bros. surrounded Flynn with a fine supporting cast from their company of regulars. Among them you'll find David Niven as Lt. Scott. (Niven and Flynn were good friends, even sharing a cottage together during their early days in Hollywood.) Basil Rathbone, a year away from Sherlock Holmes, plays Major Brand, the company commander, a man also frustrated with having to send his men into combat in rickety airplanes. Two more staples of the character-actor field, Donald Crisp and Barry Fitzgerald, play Phipps and Bott respectively.
There's not much of a plot involved in "The Dawn Patrol." Mostly, it's all about camaraderie and dogfights and bombing runs and stiff upper lips. The movie is surprisingly talky but entertaining, too, in a hammy, overstated, even corny sort of way.
The 1.33:1 ratio picture is beautifully clear, free from any major print damage. However, it appears more like light brown-and-white than a true black-and-white. Stock footage, some of it used in the 1930 production, looks soft and grainy. Overall, though, the PQ acquits itself quite well for an old, monochrome movie.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound provides decent dynamics but not much frequency range. There is also a slight background noise and a fairly low output level, requiring one to turn the volume up a bit more than usual, exacerbating the hiss.
The bonuses are rather extensive, actually, beginning with a "Warner Night at the Movies," which provides an array of features one might have found at a motion-picture theater in 1938. First up, there's a theatrical trailer for "Four's a Crowd," followed by a vintage newsreel. Then, there are two short subjects: "The Prisoner of Swing," twenty-one minutes with Eddie Foy, Jr. and June Allyson, and "Romance Road," eighteen minutes, in excellent Technicolor. Finally, there's a black-and-white Looney Tunes cartoon, "What Price Porky?"
The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections, a theatrical trailer for "The Dawn Patrol," English as the spoken language, and English and Spanish subtitles.
Film value for "The Dawn Patrol": 7/10
RKO Pictures made "Gunga Din" in 1939 with Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the son of the silent-screen star. One brawny (McLaglen) and two dashing (Grant and Fairbanks) heroes looked to be just the right combination to take audience's minds off the recent Depression and the looming prospect of World War II.
And right they were. RKO even brought in director George Stevens to oversee the film, the director having just created such breezy fare as "Annie Oakley" and "Swing Time," and who would continue in this lightweight vein until after the War, at which time he would get more serious with "I Remember Mama," "A Place in the Sun," "Shane," "Giant," "The Diary of Anne Frank," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
Of course, "Gunga Din," loosely based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, is outlandish, silly, preposterous fun, but that's the whole idea, is it not? The movie is children's play for adults (as well as for kids), the ultimate buddy film, where the heroes can do some serious male bonding, and where not even true love can get in the way of a few laughs, a good scrap, a smidgeon of excitement, or the faintest hint of danger.
The setting is a military outpost in India during the late nineteenth century, when the sun had not yet begun to set on the British Empire. Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks play Sergeants Cutter, MacChesney, and Ballantine, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, happy-go-lucky comrades in arms, and stalwart heroes all. Grant is the comedy relief, McLaglen the muscle, and Fairbanks the romantic.
In the main plot, the company sends the three buddies to investigate a thugee cult uprising threatening to sweep all of India. In a subplot we learn that Sgt. Ballantine is engaged to be married to a Miss Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and planning to quit the service. His pals don't much like the idea of his leaving, so they hatch a scheme involving a temple full of gold to lure him into staying. By the movie's second half, the two story lines come together in a rousing adventure and climactic battle sequence that is the essence of what action movies are all about. And Ballantine may be through with the army, but he's not through with his friends.
Now, where does this leave the title character, the water boy Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe)? Mostly out in the cold, actually, until the very end of the picture where the chap not only saves one life (as in the poem) but a whole company of soldiers. You knew that. Despite Din's infrequent appearances on screen, Jaffe makes the character his own, and we remember him just as much as we do the three principal leads.
Along the path of their adventures, the protagonists meet villainous murderers, stranglers, the worshipers of Kali; pits of venomous snakes; Indian temples with labyrinthine tunnels; rope-ladder bridges over deep, narrow gorges; minor brawls; major fights; and all-out battles. Does this remind you of anything? Do you figure George Lucas and his buddy Steven Spielberg might have seen "Gunga Din" more than a few times in their youth?
The mountainous desert region of Lone Pine, California, fills in admirably for India's Khyber Pass, and director George Stevens's previous experience as a cinematographer pays off with spectacular scenery and composition. Alfred Newman provides the familiar musical background, at once heroic and exotic. In addition, I've always enjoyed the big gong during the opening credits, lending a tongue-in-cheek note to the proceedings before they even begin.
Oddly, the fight scenes have a herky-jerky, fast-motion appearance to them reminiscent of silent films, but maybe the director intended them to look that way for light comic relief. It seems a little dated at first, but you get used to it.
"Gunga Din" is so filled with silly hokum, it's hard not to like it. The cheeky humor goes a long way toward making it almost an outright comedy. Practically every action-adventure ever filmed since "Gunga Din" owes a little something to this movie, from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to "National Treasure." "Gunga Din" has got it all: passion, romance, high good humor, and derring-do. The characters are unforgettable, the pacing is crisp, the scenery is gorgeous, and the music is elating. Like the poem, the movie is sentimental and corny and totally absurd, and we wouldn't want it any other way. This is grand and exhilarating filmmaking that's hard to resist.
The opening credits are a bit more grainy than the rest of the picture, but things clear up considerably as the movie goes along. This is an archival restored print in that the studio found and replaced some twenty minutes of lost footage, but it does not appear to be a digitally restored print in terms of film quality. Therefore, it is as good a print as Warner Brothers could find. Some grain is always present, some occasional age marks, and average definition for an older film. There are fairly good black-and-white contrasts in most scenes and good black levels throughout, but now and again one notices a particularly murky scene.
The audio is 1.0 mono, reprocessed in Dolby Digital for added clarity. The entire frequency range sounds limited, especially the bottom end, and the sound spectrum seems more than a bit hard and thin at times. There is also a small degree of intermittent hiss accompanying some of the dialogue in quieter scenes. Most of the time, however, one never notices the sound at all.
The primary bonuses are an audio commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer, who provides his usual expertise in background information; and a newly made, eleven-minute, making-of documentary, "On Location With Gunga Din." The documentary includes interviews with the director's son, George Stevens, Jr.; the RKO chief in charge of production at the time, Pando Berman; and the late Doug Fairbanks, Jr. In addition, we hear screenwriter William Goldman pay tribute to the film, saying that nothing else had as big an impact on him as a writer than "Gunga Din." Finally, there's a 1939, black-and-white Porky Pig/Looney Tunes cartoon, "The Film Fan," that's cute and filled with puns; thirty-one scene selections; an original 1939 theatrical trailer, and a 1957 re-release trailer. English is the only spoken language, and there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Film value for "Gunga Din": 8/10
Maybe the less said about this 1951 World War II melodrama with John Wayne, Ward Bond, and Patricia Neal the better. Wayne is the second-in-command of a submarine, and Neal is the love interest. It's only 109 minutes long but feels like 109 hours.
Wayne plays Lt. Commander Duke Gifford, one of Wayne's usual, hackneyed, tough nice-guy characters. Was he ever anyone else? His first mission is saving a group of children from the Japanese on an island in the Pacific. How nice can you get? Neal plays Lt. Mary Stuart, a nurse at Pearl Harbor and Duke's ex wife. Bond plays the skipper of the submarine, Commander John T. "Pop" Perry, and Philip Carey plays Lt. Bob Perry, a rival for Nurse Stuart's hand.
The movie is typical of John Wayne's war films: heroic, nationalistic, patriotic, sentimental, and hokey. Even the music is over-the-top, with sudsy melodies or stirring tunes signaling each change in activity.
The whole first half of the film deals with the drama of the characters' lives, especially their love lives and their humorous goings on. Think of the movie "Pearl Harbor" here. Then, finally, when a little action does begin, it's interrupted by more talk. The biggest conflict turns out to involve the design of the torpedoes used at the beginning of the War.
For the most part, you'll find nothing new in "Operation Pacific," and the miniature ships the studio used only makes the movie less persuasive than it could have been.
The picture comes in a black-and-white, 1.33:1 standard-screen ratio, and like the audio, it's pretty ordinary even for its day. The image quality is slightly soft and in a very few scenes a little blurry, but it holds up reasonably well despite its age. Although there is a modicum of natural film grain visible, it is otherwise a fairly clean print, except in the stock footage, which was probably never very good-liking to begin with.
The audio is as mundane as the video: monaural, reproduced here via Dolby Digital 1.0. While there is very little in the way of dynamic range or frequency extremes, the all-important midrange is smooth and clear, which is the primary matter in an older film.
There is not much in the way of extras on the disc, either. There are some cast and director film highlights; a theatrical trailer; thirty scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and several Asian subtitles.
Film value for "Operation Pacific": 4/10
BATTLE OF THE BULGE
"The Battle of the Bulge" was a noble subject for a war movie, but it comes off about as enthralling as a History Channel documentary rather than as a fleshed-out motion picture.
Ken Annakin directed, and we really don't know him today for his action flicks; but his resume does contain this one and the aforementioned "The Longest Day." His other famous films include "Third Man on the Mountain," "Swiss Family Robinson," and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines." His last film was the unfortunate "New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking." In "Battle of the Bulge" he keeps the strategies of the two sides simple and keeps the audience well informed of what's going on. In a film of this length, things could have gotten confusing for the viewer, but Annakin handles the logistics in a sensible and straightforward manner. No flashbacks and weird crosscutting for the sake of spicy cinematic effect.
In keeping with epic movies of the day, "Battle" begins with an overture, ends with exit music, and even has some intermission music in between, all of it composed and conducted by Benjamin Frankel and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra. It's a class act all the way.
Moreover, the film spares no expense on sets, props, locations, armies, real tanks, miniature tanks, and an all-star cast. Again, it's a class act. If only somebody had determined whether the script could keep one's attention for 169 minutes.
Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw star as the representatives of the two sides of the war, Fonda the American, Shaw the German. Fonda plays the fictional Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, a reconnaissance expert who was a former police inspector before the War. He foresees the German attack through some simple deductive reasoning based on evidence he's collected, but nobody will believe him. Shaw plays the fictional Col. Martin Hessler, a brilliant, hard-nosed German Panzer officer whom the Nazi High Command pick to spearhead the counteroffensive.
It is appropriate for most war movies to attempt to put a human face on conflict by concentrating on individuals, but in this case the screenplay doesn't delineate the character of either Kiley or Hessler very well. We go back and forth from one side to the other, but we never learn much about these men beyond what I just revealed. Mostly, they are stereotypes, Kiley the likable good guy, Hessler the unsmiling villain. We get the impression that Kiley is just anxious to get home, while Hessler just wants to continue the war, all the time realizing the Germans cannot win it.
In addition, there are Robert Ryan as General Grey, the head of American military operations; Dana Andrews as Col. Pritchard, Grey's Aide and a primary doubter of Kiley's theories; George Montgomery as Sgt. Duquesne, a seasoned soldier; James MacArthur as Lt. Weaver, an unseasoned officer; and Ty Hardin as Lt. Schumacher, a Nazi infiltrator. Most important, though, are Charles Bronson as Maj. Wolenski, a heroic tough guy (what did you expect?), and Telly Savalas as Sgt. Guffy, an entrepreneur or war profiteer. It is only these last named characters who display any distinct personality, and, therefore, it is they who remain in memory longest. The other characters seem like chess pieces being moved around a board.
A narrator begins by telling us the story is about "a few battle-weary American divisions. To them the war seemed already won." The German hope was to divide the Allied troops and throw them into disarray long enough for Germany to get its new secret weapons readied, things like jet airplanes and new, superior tanks. According to the film, it was the few American divisions we see that saved the War from going on any longer than it might have.
The most harrowing sequences in the show occur at the beginning and the end: a car chasing down a dirt road and then the final tank battle. The film executes both of these segments well, and they keep our attention. It's the two-and-a-half hours in between that are the problem, and one comes away merely admiring its craftsmanship.
Warner Bros. originally filmed the movie in 70 mm Ultra-Panavision for showing in Cinerama, one of the widest formats available for theaters, so expect an ultrawide screen ratio, rendered here at about 2.75:1. More important, WB restored the picture from the best elements they had at their disposal, making the video look better than most new movies.
The movie's Technicolor holds up beautifully, with hues that are vivid, solid, realistic, and deep, and black levels that are extraordinarily strong. Object delineation is excellent, too, for standard definition, with a bare minimum of visible print grain. "The Battle of the Bulge" represents some of the best picture quality the medium has to offer.
WB revamped the soundtrack, presenting it in its original multichannel, remixed in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Given its age and the fact that many soundtracks of the era tend to come off as edgy and metallic, this one is fairly smooth and natural sounding, especially the music. The sonics have a wide dynamic range, good clarity, strong impact, and a reasonably well-controlled bass. There is a wide front-channel stereo spread, although a somewhat restricted rear-channel response. The surrounds limit themselves mainly to musical enhancement, and a few explosions and gunshots. At times, too, the sound seems slightly muted, while at other times it seems a touch nasal, perhaps the result of noise reduction, I don't know. In any case, most of it comes off pretty well.
The primary bonus items are two vintage, black-and-white featurettes, "The Filming of Battle of the Bulge," about nine minutes, and "History Recreated," about eight minutes, both in standard definition. In addition, the extras include forty-seven scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Film value for "Battle of the Bulge": 6/10
The other collection in WB's sixth wave of "TCM Greatest Classic Films" is "Westerns," and it includes "The Stalking Moon," "Ride the High Country," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," and "Chism."
The ratings listed below for "TCM Greatest Classic Films: War" are averages for all four movies in the set.