1942, a forgotten and decrepit military base in Montana.
In the middle of a brawl among a group of unruly, ragged and undisciplined American soldiers—guilty of “military and moral delinquencies”, as their commanding officer puts it—the sound of bagpipes comes floating down the road. A contingent of Canadians, the best of the best-trained army in the world, comes marching along in precise formation. Not a man is out of step, not a hair is out of place. They are the picture of discipline. And they are to be, along with the Americans, amalgamated into a fighting force that will be dropped into the middle of Norway.
A little later, when the men begin to mix, conversations take place.
An American, Pvt Billy ‘Bronc’ Guthrie (on hearing one of the Canadians speak with a French accent): “One of them’s a frog, boys. Why don’t you say something, froggie?”
The Canadian, Pvt Henri Laurent: “Merde.”
Another American, Pvt Rockwell ‘Rocky’ Rockman: “What the hell does that mean?”
The Canadian Corporal, Wilfrid Peacock, addressing Rocky: “To most people, it’s an insult. But to you, I’d say it’s a compliment.”
With such mutual dislike, it’s going to take a miracle for their commanding officer, Lt Col Robert Frederick (William Holden) to transform this lot into an efficient fighting force. Except that Frederick, even if he’s never been in combat, even if he’s opposed to this entire plan (he wrote a report on why it’s unfeasible and has had to travel to London to explain his stance to Lord Mountbatten—with no effect on the British) does not believe in miracles.
Today, April 17th, is the hundredth birth anniversary of Hollywood star William Holden. ‘Golden Holden’ was born in Illinois on April 17th, 1918, and was just 19 years old when he got his first film contract, for The Golden Boy (1939). From 1942 to 1945, Holden served in the military (in the US Army Air Corps), and returned to a changed career: from the boy next door of The Golden Boy to more nuanced, more mature roles in films like Picnic, Sunset Boulevard, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
To commemorate what would have been the hundredth birthday of one of my favourite Hollywood actors, I wanted to review a film of Holden’s. My favourite Holden film (Stalag 17) I’d already reviewed. It was a toss-up between a few films I’d seen but not reviewed (Rachel and the Stranger, Escape from Fort Bravo, Born Yesterday, Dear Ruth, The Bridge on the River Kwai) and some I’d never seen before. I chose this one, one of several war films that starred Holden.
Holden’s character, Lt Col Robert Frederick, in The Devil’s Brigade begins the story by going to London to meet Mountbatten and present his case. His main complaint about the proposed plan is that once the combined force of American and Canadian troops has been dropped into Norway, how are they going to get out after their mission’s completed? Frederick is dismissed courteously but with an obvious brushing aside of his protests. When he’s gone, Mountbatten and the others agree that Frederick himself is perhaps the best man to actually take charge of the establishment and training of the unit.
The next we see Frederick, he’s in this hellhole in Montana, where his future office has broken windowpanes, dust all over the few sticks of broken furniture, and a rattlesnake nestling in one corner.
As second in command, he has Major Bricker (Vince Edwards), who goes about with a cigar in his mouth and has a penchant for collecting snakes—he keeps them in his foot locker, in the hope that proximity will help him get over his fear of the creatures.
And they have this wild bunch of men, some sent from specific units, some from prisons (in passing conversations, we discover that there are men here whose misdemeanours range from being AWOL to being charged with rape).
Among those gone AWOL and come here is Pvt Ransom (Andrew Prine), who’s run away from his unit after having been thrashed for trying to get fresh with a senior officer’s girlfriend. Ransom denies that the girl was the other man’s girlfriend; Frederick, seeing the wounds on Ransom’s wrists where he was tied while being beaten, accepts him into the unit.
Meanwhile, of course—as I mentioned at the start—the Canadians have arrived, led by their CO, Major Crown (Cliff Robertson, another favourite of mine).
While the officers settle in quickly enough, the men are not ready to put aside their differences. The Canadians are inclined to regard the Americans as boorish and crude; the Americans treat the Canadians with a mixture of bemusement and contempt (one of them even tries lifting the kilt of one of the Canadians, passing a rude remark as he does so). For all that Corporal Peacock tells his men to control themselves and not rise to the bait, it’s obvious that most of the Canadians are eager to get back at the Americans.
Frederick has his work cut out for him if he’s going to turn this bunch into an elite fighting unit. And even when he is able to achieve that (through a combination of good luck and a shrewd understanding of human nature), there are more obstacles ahead. Not least being that once the unit—the ‘First Special Service Force’, as it’s officially named—is in place, fully trained and ready to go into battle, inexplicable orders arrive for its disbanding. The Norway operation is off; the men of the unit are to be split up and sent off to different units.
I began watching this film with mixed feelings. I wished it would be as good as Stalag 17, but I had little hope. As the film progressed, it looked to me to have shades of films like 12 o’Clock High and The Dirty Dozen. It eventually settled into something fairly entertaining and likeable. Not as gripping or memorable as Stalag 17, but a decent enough war film, and a good showcase of Holden’s acting.
Little bit of trivia:
The Devil’s Brigade is based on the true story of Lt Col Robert Frederick (a much-decorated officer who ended WWII with eight purple hearts, more than any other officer of the American armed forces). Frederick did draw up a detailed report opposing the formation of the First Special Service Force (which was supposed to consist of Americans, Canadians and Norwegians), but was overridden. When the officer initially designated CO could not take charge (due to differences with those higher up), Frederick took over. As shown in the film, the plan to land the unit in Norway was shelved, but the First Special Service Force—dubbed the ‘Devil’s Brigade’ by the Germans—ended up in other theatres of war, distinguishing itself in the process, even being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
What I liked about this film:
Plenty. The acting is good. Holden and Cliff Robertson shine, but so do several others in supporting roles: Claude Akins as Rocky, Jack Watson as Corporal Peacock, and Vince Edwards as Bricker.
The dialogue is, at least in the first half or so of the film, often sarcastically funny. The barbs that fly thick and fast between the Americans and Canadians—mostly with the Americans at the receiving end of the choicest slurs—are hilarious.
The background music, composed and conducted by Alex North, is excellent, and the battle scenes of the last half-hour or so, involving the Devil’s Brigade’s taking of the mountain area of La Difensa, are good.
What I didn’t like:
That last half-hour, of the battle, is pretty much unrelieved battle, with very little dialogue to relieve the scenes of combat. After a while, the combat began to be too repetitive; I’d have liked less of the action and some more of the sort of insight into the men themselves as is shown when an important character is wounded.
Plus, for me, there was a major element in the plot that made no sense. Why would any military top brass in its right mind form a team out of one lot of highly-trained, extremely well-disciplined soldiers and another lot of ‘misfits’ (the term used repeatedly for the Americans in the Devil’s Brigade before they pull up their socks)? It doesn’t fit, logically speaking. (Interestingly, none of the online resources I’ve been able to find regarding the real Devil’s Brigade mentions anything about the Americans being the riffraff of the Army).
On the whole, though, an interesting film, and made more interesting by the fact that it’s based on a true incident and real people.
Happy hundredth, Mr Holden!