TOO LATE THE HERO (1970)
Cast: Cliff Robertson, Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Ronald Fraser, Ian Bannen, Ken Takakura, William Beckley and Percy Herbert.
Veteran director Robert Aldrich tried to re-work the success of “The Dirty Dozen” with a blatantly anti-war remake, “Too Late the Hero”. Unfortunately, an able cast is wasted in this very anti-war effort, which plays out more like an anti-Vietnam allegory than a tale of wartime heroics.
In the spring of 1942, American Lt. Lawson (Cliff Robertson, “Up from the Beach”) sits lazily on a Pacific island, doing everything possible to avoid hazardous duties. Captain Nolan (Henry Fonda, in a one-scene cameo) disrupts his comfort with a hazardous assignment. Lawson is flown to the New Hebrides for a cooperative mission with the British. We find that the British hold one end of the island; the Japanese hold the other. Lawson and a patrol will penetrate enemy territory to destroy a vital radio station.
At first, the film seems utterly predictable. Lawson is a type we’ve seen before – an unlikely soldier who redeems himself heroically by the final act. But with the introduction of the English characters and their Japanese counterparts, all audience expectations are shattered. Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott), the unit commander, proves to be a bungling – and homosexual – idiot, and the men have no faith in him. Pvt. Hearne (Michael Caine, “Play Dirty”) is obviously dis-satisfied with Hornsby’s indecisive “leadership”, and after his incompetence results in unnecessary deaths, Hearne breaks into an open rebellion. Before long, the mission goes downhill, and Lawson and Hearne find themselves united in a mutual struggle for survival behind enemy territory.
Aldrich all-too-clearly means to convey a heavy-handed message that war is bad – very bad. He’s got several points to make: officers are corrupt, cold-blooded incompetents. In one scene, Hornsby is seen to shoot wounded prisoners without flinching. In the past, typical Japanese characters have been portrayed universally as evil, murderous dogs. Here, Aldrich tries far too hard to humanize them. First, he introduces a sympathetic Japanese character, Major Yamaguchi (Ken Takakura) in the second half of the film. Yamaguchi is tall, handsome and compassionate – even though he is taunting the fleeing Allied soldiers over loudspeakers spread throughout the jungle. He urges them to surrender, promising good treatment – and seems utterly sincere.
Secondly, Aldrich makes the English out as the villains. Pvt. Campbell (Ronald Fraser) is a coward who runs from battle, but also loots the bodies of dead soldiers – both English and Japanese. He stirs up dissension and even murders one of his own men who won’t cooperate with an attempt to surrender to the Japanese. History has taught us just how badly the Japanese mistreated their prisoners and how cruel they were. Any movie that makes them out to be saints and paints the Allied forces as incompetent, murdering thieves needs to be scrutinized carefully. “The Dirty Dozen” made no attempts to glorify Nazism, and 11 of its 12 main characters, a band of criminals, found redemption through self-sacrifice.
The ensemble cast is what holds this piece together. The actors are all very capable and seem sincere, despite the lunacy of much of the script. Robertson seems a comfortable lead, although Lawson’s character is never totally fleshed out. As the film begins, he’s obviously a coward, but steps into the role of leader far too easily in the second half. He doesn’t seem to struggle with his previous notions of warfare or leadership, his role has suddenly shifted without explanation. Robertson is so good, though, that this can be overlooked somewhat and is forgivable. As Hearne, Caine is the real star of the film. He’s just as cynical as Lawson, but is open and blunt about it. He knows that Hornsby is incapable of leading and isn’t afraid to point it out to him, even if it means a threat of court-martial. Throughout, his arguments seem legitimate, and Caine always come across as completely sincere. Finally, Denholm Elliott is exceptionally fine as Hornsby. He doesn’t seem to know his role as a leader-of-men too well, and this often results in the deaths of his men and, ultimately, a botched mission.
The jungle locations are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Joseph Biroc, but never come across as particularly dark and foreboding. Here, gory death and destruction takes place among beautiful trees, ferns and flowers. Again, this is a film meant as an anti-Vietnam statement, and the jungle locations are a perfect setting.
Unfortunately, as I’ve repeated ceaselessly, “Too Late the Hero” can’t seem to decide supposed to be a movie about a jungle patrol in the New Hebrides in 1942, not a movie about a patrol in Cambodia in 1968. The social commentary on the Vietnam War is delivered too heavily and blatantly distorted. The characters garnish little sympathy, and there is not enough action to keep the slow, talkative pace flowing. As a drama, it almost succeeds; as the action spectacular the trailer claims, it is barely serviceable.
SGT. SLAUGHTER’S RATING: