#40 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
I sometimes describe directors as on autopilot, when they make movies that speak to their thematic obsessions, but the films don’t have the same kind of passion or craft as their best work. This a level below that. This is Fritz Lang going through the motions of directing a motion picture. I don’t think there’s a single thing in this film that spoke to him, and he simply took the paycheck and a trip to the Philippines. At least when John Ford made Donovan’s Reef, it seemed like everyone was having a good time. I can’t say that about anyone here.
Ensign Chuck Palmer (Tyrone Power) is in the Philippines in 1942 when the Japanese defeated the American forces and pushed MacArthur back, leaving Palmer and many others to fend for themselves deep behind enemy lines. In the confusion, he tries to negotiate his way onto a boat to Australia to rejoin the fight with a colonel readying to bug out, but he can’t get on. Instead, he manages to put in a good word for a woman, Jeanne (Micheline Presle), who is looking for a doctor to help with a pregnant woman. Will Palmer and Jeanne end up together by the end? Have you ever seen a movie before?
This movie begins to drag almost immediately. It was based on a non-fiction book by Ira Wolfert of the same name, and the script seems to be the dreary kind of adaptation that is simply interested in capturing moments from source material and putting them up on screen without any regard for how movies work, get structured, or are simply different from books. The recreation on screen of Palmer taking his little group of army men (despite him being a naval officer) to live in the hills for months and then make their way to a Filipino military base to see if they can offer them a ride to Australia is just lazily laid out with each event flatly filmed, perfunctorily acted, and slowly moving from one event to another. There’s even a shootout with Japanese soldiers that has no real energy to it before the group just eases on into the next scene.
The Filipino authorities send him to join the American guerrilla forces in the Philippines, and it’s there that Palmer becomes a guerrilla. I did not expect so much of his guerrilla activities to be dealing with radios, though. Really, it’s all about setting up a radio tower, and it’s just kind of dull. It’s so dull, that we end up spending more time with Palmer reconnecting with Jeanne, who lives nearby, with her husband Juan (Juan Torena). Is that going to prevent Palmer and Jeanne from getting together? Don’t you believe it. That guy is gonna die so that our two attractive leads get together in this movie about guerrilla fighting in the war.
Seriously, this movie is just lazy. I was reminded of They Were Expendable, John Ford‘s John Wayne movie about the temporary nature of life in a warzone. That had a similar setting with a similar cast of character, but the terror of losing everything precious, no matter how little it is, dovetailed very well with the romance that popped up between Wayne and Donna Reed. The thematic weight gave greater feeling to the actions at play in the film. Here? It just feels like an extra subplot that could be cut without harming anything around it. There is no thematic connection anywhere in this film. It’s just a lazily assembled series of events that eventually lead to an exciting action conclusion.
So, I was mostly bored by this, and then the final action conclusion starts, and I was actually entertained a bit. A bit. It was very much a surface-level entertainment of Lang simply managing an action sequence well enough, but it was a nice way to end a movie of mostly boredom. Palmer leads his men into a small town where some Japanese soldiers soon roll through. They hide in a Catholic church (the one touch that feels like it might have come from Lang himself, but the Philippines being so Catholic it might just be a coincidence), and a shootout ensues. It’s a well-filmed shootout, and, as a combat short film, it would be pretty okay on its own.
Powers, Presle, and Tommy Cook as the Filipino guerrilla Miguel are fine. There’s no standout performance anywhere helped none at all by the fact that the actors have so little to do. I’m not even sure I’d call Palmer a character. It’s pretty much just Stock Military Man slowly making his way through the Philippines and waiting for MacArthur to return.
It’s mostly just boring. There’s nothing to grasp onto in terms of character, theme, or even plot. It’s plodding and dull, but at least the final action sequence is decent.