HBO’s “The Pacific premieres on the West coast as I write this, and it’s time to take a look at two acclaimed films that take a sidelong look, even comic, look at the hardships and danger of war. Both of them, for whatever reason, have “Mister” or “Mr.” in the title.
Our first film is suggested by master cartoonist and my personal consultant on matters relating to World War II, Randy Reynaldo. Directed and co-written by John Huston, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr as a Marine and an Irish nun who are forced to live under the noose of enemy Japanese soldiers when they become marooned on a remote island. Though a hit on its release, it’s become a somewhat obscure film today, despite being one of Huston’s personal favorites and despite the enormous talent and appeal of its two stars. (Kerr was nominated for an Oscar; Mitchum was not, though many feel he was robbed.) I confess to having not seen it myself, but after looking at the trailer below, I really want to. Something tells me I might like it even better than the not-completely-dissimilar, “The African Queen.”
I’ve seen the second film so many times since childhood, it’s kind of fused with my subconscious, though I didn’t think of including it here until almost the last minute. Directed by two of the greatest classic-era directors, John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, and featuring four of the greatest stars of three different Hollywood eras, “Mister Roberts” doesn’t break any cinematic ground but that doesn’t matter.
Starring Henry Fonda as an intelligent and humane officer desperate to get off the cargo ship he’s been stationed on and away from its small-minded, tyrannical captain (James Cagney) in order to see real action against the Japanese, it’s easily one of the funniest and most captivating tales of wartime life ever made, right through to its devastating conclusion. There isn’t a single battle shown, but no film I’ve even seen more powerfully conveys the grim seriousness of war in quite the same way. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s still a classic.
The second collection of past Criterion releases – stripped of their DVD extras (and more than half their cost) – presents an even better, more accessible collection of films from the cinephile-sanctified vaults of legendary distributor Janus Films than the prior volume. This boxed set (the titles are also sold separately) is highlighted by three of the most entertaining and emotionally open films by three of the mid-20th century’s most revered filmmaking powerhouses: François Truffaut’s innovative 1959 coming-of-age drama, “The 400 Blows”, starring a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, set the pattern for the genre worldwide, while also launching France’s iconoclastic New Wave of the 1960s; Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” is a deeply moving and gently humorous film about a milquetoast bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura, the fish-faced badass leader of “The Seven Samurai”) facing certain death from stomach cancer without benefit of a billionaire buddy or bucket list; and 1954’s “La Strada” is a wondrous surefire tearjerker by the great Federico Fellini and starring his wife, the even greater Giulietta Masina, as a Chaplinesque waif, and America’s own Anthony Quinn as a very mean muscleman. England’s 1944 “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” starring Roger Livesay and Anton Walbrook – two great actors, too little remembered – and featuring an astonishing film debut by gorgeous 24-year-old A-lister-to-be, Deborah Kerr, is from the still-not-legendary-enough team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas ever made, as well as an eye-opening, Technicolor, quasi-wartime propaganda epic, and my current unofficial “all-time favorite movie,” if you really want me to name one.
Definitely worthwhile, but not anyway near the same category, is another British entry, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Co-directed by star Leslie Howard (“Gone with the Wind”) and stage-to-screen specialist Anthony Asquith, and with Wendy Hiller as the definitive Eliza Doolittle, it’s a solid but sometimes slow adaptation of the Shaw play, which you may know as “My Fair Lady,” but without the music or sentiment, or “Pretty Woman,” but without hookers and with actual wit. Finally, we have 1959’s “Black Orpheus”, Marcel Camus’ retelling of the myth of Orpheus, samba style. It’s a beautiful but slow ride that has millions of fans – just not me. All in all, there’s no faulting this collection. However, the absence of DVD extras makes a strong case for curious viewers to simply join Netflix and rent the original Criterion releases, great bonus features and all.