Thursday, 18 December 2014

McLaglen Double Bill : Hellfighters (1968) Shenandoah (1965)

Today I found myself watching two films from the director Andrew V McLaglen who died in September of this year (read the obit I posted at the time here) No rhyme or reason to it, it was just that both films had been on Film 4.

On its release in 1968, Hellfighters was billed as John Wayne's most exciting action picture. Of course, it's anything but. This thinly fictionalised account of real life oil well firefighter Red Adair is far too talky, cliched and stultifying to be the most exciting action picture of anyone's career, let alone The Duke's. It's pure potboiler which wastes it's rather distinctive backdrop terribly.

It's a real shame a greater insight into the lives and technicalities of the men whose occupation it is to put out huge fires couldn't have been explored in any depth because that would have been a far more interesting story to have watched than the torpid tale of 'firefighter's widows' that Hellfighters actually is. Too much of the film concerns the oft spoken notion of 'this ain't no life for a lady', detaling as it does Wayne's own failed marriage to Vera Miles and the possibility of history repeating itself as his daughter Katherine Ross falls for his junior partner, the charisma free Jim Hutton.

Watch only for the very beautiful Katherine Ross who, under contract with Universal at the time, must have felt like she'd stepped into a different and out of touch world going from The Graduate to this.

I've got to say I've never really been that big a fan of John Wayne. I understand why for many he's an icon, I do so the appeal, but it has always been rather lost on me. However, my late grandfather had two heroes; Bing Crosby and John Wayne. As such I always feel a little bittersweet when I watch something featuring either of them, especially around Christmas time. It makes me feel close to him, but also makes me realise he's no longer around.

He loved a good western too, which brings me neatly to the second part of this double bill.

As I recently blogged here, I've always been a sucker for the American folk classic 'Oh Shenandoah'. My second McLaglen directed film of the day shares its name with that classic, Shenandoah, and it is also another film which features a performance by Katherine Ross, albeit it is a smaller role here than the one in Hellfighters, ironically playing the wife of a character played by John Wayne's son, Patrick.

Shenandoah is an impressive and respectable civil war drama concerning a firm but fair patriarch (the brilliant James Stewart) who is determined to keep his family out of the encroaching warfare but ultimately find themselves caught up in the Confederates last stand through sheer bad luck and misfortune. 

A strong Vietnam allegory, McLaglen's film from a screenplay by James Lee Barrett, doesn't shirk from its responsibility in addressing the futility of war and how, in their opinion, good fathers should keep their families at home and close. It's just a shame then that as the film progresses, McLaglen - never the subtlest of directors - feels the need to spell out everything to the viewer in an increasingly in your face manner; be it the merciless bloodshed (and suggested raping) the wild scavengers AWOL from their platoon undertake - which gives us a flavour of the fondness for grim tones he would later adopt for his 70s features - or the reunion between a Confederate boy and his childhood friend (a black youth now in a Yankee uniform) on the battlefield - which is clearly meant to be touching but he hits us over the head with such sentimental close ups of both actors you can't help but laugh and wonder if there was more than just friendship going on!

Shenandoah is definitely the strongest of the pair and one I'd recommend to anyone. It doesn't matter if you're not that big a fan of westerns, as the film works well enough as a timeless family saga and the desires we have to keep those we love protected and safe from harm. James Stewart gives an exemplary performance although some of his family aren't the best depicted or indeed fully dimensional characters. That said, the striking Rosemary Forsyth as his only daughter is especially captivating and gives Ross a run for her money.

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