Friday, November 17, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #15: Too Late the Hero

(Alternative titles: Robert Aldrich’s Too Late the Hero; Suicide Run)

Cast: Michael Caine (Tosh), Cliff Robertson (Lt Lawson), Ian Bannen (Thornton), Harry Andrews (Colonel Thompson), Ronald Fraser (Campbell), Denholm Elliott (Captain Hornsby), Lance Percival (Corporal McLean), Percy Herbert (Johnstone), Patrick Jordan (Sergeant Major), Henry Fonda (Captain Nolan), Ken Takakura (Major Yamaguchi).

Crew: Robert Aldrich (director and producer), Robert Aldrich and Lukas Heller (writers), Gerald Fried (music), Joseph Biroc (cinematography), Michael Luciano (editor), James Dowell Vance (art direction).

Synopsis: Japanese-speaking US navy linguist Lieutenant Lawson is sent to join a British operation on an island in the New Hebrides. An American Navy convoy will soon be passing the Japanese-controlled north coast of the island. The mission is to disable the enemy transmitter and have Lawson send a false message to the enemy in Japanese from a British transmitter. The operation is led by Captain Hornsby, who bungling costs the lives of several men on the way. When the British radio transmitter is damaged beyond repair, Hornsby decides to send the false message using the Japanese radio. Lawson refuses to help him, so Hornsby destroys the enemy transmitter. Only half the patrol gets away from the enemy camp, including Lawson and a British medic, Tosh. The survivors discover the Japanese have planes hidden on the island. Unless someone makes it back to base and alerts the Americans, the navy convoy will be decimated. The Japanese commander uses loudspeakers to talk to the patrol. He offers them a chance of survival – but only if all those still alive surrender. Three do but Lawson and Tosh keep going. They have to cross an open plain to get back to base but Japanese soldiers are waiting to gun them down. The pair makes a run for it, but only one of them makes it safely across…

Producer/director Robert Aldrich scored a box office hit with The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He used the money from that to establish his own studio, securing the independence he had long craved. Among the first films Aldrich made for his own studio was Too Late the Hero (1970). The picture was based on a story written by him and Robert Sherman, adapted into a screenplay by Aldrich and Lukas Heller. Caine was cast as surly private Tosh Hearne with American actor Cliff Robertson as the reluctant Lieutenant Sam Lawson.

Location shooting began near Subic Bay in the Philippines during January 1969. Too Late the Hero was the biggest film ever made in the country at that time. The cast and crew spent months filming in a rain forest. Aldrich decided he needed professional athletes rather than stunt men for the climatic sequence, where Hearne and Lawson had to run half a mile across an open plain. The director hired two members of the Detroit Lions American football team and flew them to the Philippines for a fortnight to act as stand-ins for Caine and Robertson.

Caine recalled working with Aldrich during an interview with Venice magazine in 2002. ‘Bob was great. He was a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s man. He was tough, built like a brick chicken-house, an ex-football player. He made very macho movies and we spent 18 weeks in the jungle in the Philippines with him. It was an amazing movie to make, but we were glad to get out of there, I can tell you. There were these little snakes all over the jungle that looked just like twigs on a tree. And they were deadly. One day before we went in the jungle, this band of little native guys came out, none over five feet tall. These guys could actually smell the twig snakes and would survey the area before we went in! The only thing that worried me is if one of them had a cold.’

Robertson won a best actor Oscar for his role in Charly (1968) while Too Late the Hero was filming in the Philippines, but Aldrich refused to let him attend the awards ceremony. Instead Gregory Peck presented Robertson with the trophy in a special event at the airport when the cast and crew returned to America. Studio work was shot at Aldrich Studios in Los Angeles and the production wrapped by the end of June 1969. As part of his promotional duties for the film, Caine featured in a photo shoot for Playboy magazine. Dressed in character, he posed with half a dozen topless models for the October 1969 issue. Co-star Denholm Elliott appeared, looking somewhat bemused, in one of the pictures.

Originally scheduled for release in December 1969, Too Late the Hero reached US cinemas five months later, rated GP. Critics gave the picture a mediocre response and it failed to repeat the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967). In the UK it was rated X by the BBFC. The film was released on video in 1987 and made its DVD debut in 2001.

Reviews: ‘Too Late the Hero generates a great deal of excitement … but it is strong meat and pretty fly blown at that.’ – The Times
‘The latter half of the film builds up an effective sense of paranoia – reinforced by the irascible acting of Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson…’ – MFB

Verdict: Too Late the Hero is one of the many war-is-hell films that got pumped out in the late 1960s and early 1970s like so many cynical celluloid bullets. Aldrich recycles plot elements from his own output, such as a suicide mission featuring a dozen scoundrels – just as in The Dirty Dozen (1967). Too Late the Hero is a decidedly humourless effort, but the quality of acting helps overcome the stolid script. Caine is reliable as ever, well matched by Robertson. The film’s highlight comes at the climax with the duo running for their lives across the open plain, even if Aldrich telegraphs his finale in the movie’s first 20 minutes. It still remains gripping viewing, waiting to see who survives.

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