Thirty-Six Hours of Hell (1969)
Robert Bianchi Montero
Richard Harrison, Alain Gerard, George Wang, Pamela Tudor, Carlo Gaddi, Bruno Piergentili, Rodolfo Valadier, Luciano Catenacci, Geoffredo Unger, Vincenzo Sartini, Vittorio Richelmy and Noburo Homma.
Now a veteran director in the war genre, director Robert Bianchi Montero's second war film rises above his other two efforts in the genre, while ripping off several other, more well-known movies.
The story is explained in a lengthy introduction as a war correspondent narrates some really, really bad looking stock footage: In 1942, the Japanese dominate the Pacific. The American air force has been bombing one small island, which they now intend to occupy and use a base for launching the invasion of Rabaul. A Marine platoon led by Captain Stern (Richard Harrison, "Churchill's Leopards)" has 36 hours to scout the island and make sure all of the Japanese resistance has been wiped out before the Allies launch one massive, final bombing mission.
What's nice about this film is the way Montero's story follows his story from several different perspectives, tying it together quite nicely. The main focus is on Stern's trek through the jungle with his men and several encounters with Japanese tanks, pillboxes and patrols. Meanwhile, the commited Japanese Major Koshiro (George Wang, "Tepepa") deals with holding off the American patrol and a stubborn Swedish missionary (Pamela Tudor, "Kill Rommel!"). Finally, an American war correspondent (Alain Gerard) has accompanied the patrol, and he narrates the action from his own perspective, giving a much-needed human touch. Montero brings these three plot lines together in a nail-biting climax.
The cast of familiar actors is especially good. American actor Harrison is a very comfortable lead, and makes Stern a convincing leader of men - he's not flawless, there are times when he has to make hard decisions which may cost the lives of the men under his command, and we feel his agony at making those decisions. French actor Gerard is a great dramatic foil, who questions Stern's decisions almost every step of the way - but when he meets the Japanese in combat, he realizes that perhaps war isn't what he has perceived it as from the rear echelon. Wang hams it up as Major Koshiro, but is a great villain and a lot of fun to watch. Finally, Tudor really makes the most of her character, and despite limited screen time, is really the best of the ensemble cast: Her self-sacrificing missionary heroine is never less than totally believable, and kudos to her for a great performance. The supporting cast - including Luciano Catenacci, Rodolfo Valadier, Geoffredo Unger and Vittorio Richelmy - all have an important scene, and it's nice to see these actors in roles bigger than just space-fillers in the background, for a change.
While the film is really a fast-paced action flick, Montero is definitely trying to make an anti-war statement. Men on both sides die brutal, gruesome deaths: they're mercilessly gunned down by tanks, helplessly drowning in quicksand, or are burned to death with flamethrowers. There is a great scene, excellently handled by Harrison, in which Captain Stern tells one of his suboordinates that it really pains him to wake his men up from a rest, knowing that their minds are on family back home - and that the Japanese have lives and families, too.
As far as the action sequences go, Montero uses a variety of techniques and settings to keep them interesting and quite juicy. There's one great scene in which the war correspondent does hand-to-hand battle with a Japanese samurai-swordsman, in the middle of an underground cave which is about to explode. Montero uses low angles and point-of-view shots in one sequence, in which a Japanese tank rolls out of the jungle and mows down helpless American soldiers.
The low point of the film is that, despite Montero's collaboration with three other writers, the film still borrows scenes and plot points from other, better war films. For example, one soldier is shot and falls into a ravine, where a picture of his wife and children floats by in his helmet; there was an identical scene in "Anzio". Moments later, Japanese troops try to stop an attack by rolling burning gasoline drums down a hillside towards enemy infantry, a la the climax of "Battle of the Bulge". The war correspondent character reminds me a lot of a similar character in "Objective, Burma!" and the general mood and pace of the picture strongly resemble "Beach Red".
Montero also loses points because he failed to shoot on-location. The movie was shot almost entirely on soundstages in Italy, furnished with fake-looking tropical plants. The soundstages are serviceable, never looking too cheesy like in some older American films such as "Suicide Battalion", but they're bad enough to hurt the integrity of the film.
"Thirty-Six Hours of Hell" never manages to rise above the ordinary, but a fine cast of Italian actors, well-shot action scenes and some great, natural humanitarian anti-war touches make it a movie worth seeing.
SGT. SLAUGHTER'S RATING:
ON DVD HERE