Our brand new series looking back at the 1970s filmography of Sir Michael Caine starts with Too Late The Hero.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for Too Late The Hero lie ahead
Directed by: Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen)
Tagline: “It’s a dying business”
Other Featured Geezers:
Cliff Robertson as Lt. Sam Lawson, Ian Bannen as Pvt. Jock Thornton, Harry Andrews as Col. Thompson, Ronald Fraser as Pvt. Campbell, Denholm Elliott as Capt. Hornsby, Ken Takakura as Maj. Yamaguchi and Henry Fonda as Capt. John G Nolan.
What’s it all about Alfie?
In this cynical and downbeat World War II movie, American Lieutenant Sam Lawson (Cliff Robertson), a Japanese language interpreter for the US Navy, is not best pleased when he’s assigned to a British infantry commando unit in the New Hebrides. He was just about to go on leave, and had so far avoided active combat, but he now has to join what he calls “a bunch of limeys playing soldier, getting shot at”. Their mission is to destroy a Japanese radio transmitter to prevent it from sounding the alarm when a scheduled American naval convoy arrives in the coming days. Lawson’s role is to then use his Japanese language skills to transmit a fake message, giving the all clear, thus buying the Allies more time.
However, all does not go smoothly, as the team is led by the incompetent Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott) and consists of a rag tag bunch that includes the devious and cowardly Private Campbell (Ronald Fraser), the somewhat unhinged Private Jock Thornton (Ian Bannen) who enjoys singing ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ and last, but of course not least, the wisecracking and troublemaking medic Private Tosh Hearne (Michael Caine).
Eventually, after a series of mishaps and betrayals, Tosh and Lawson are the only ones left standing in the jungle with the cool headed Japanese major, Yamaguchi (Ken Takakura), hot on their tails.
Caine gets top billing here even though he doesn’t appear until around the 13-minute mark. He’s introduced trying to fix an insect racing competition by using the, shockingly unsportsmanlike, move of prodding his little beetle friend with a bit of chalk to get it moving. So…not the most glamorous of cinematic entrances. His name is also Tosh Hearne, which again, isn’t the most dashing of cinematic names, and instead sounds more like the name an elderly couple would give to their seaside cottage.
After his previous buttoned up, and dull, supporting role in the ensemble war movie Battle Of Britain (Dir: Guy Hamilton 1969), Caine gets much more to do here, including showing off some designer stubble. He’s back playing a ‘Cockney ponce’ as one of his fellow soldiers describes him.
There’s some of the Alfie in his jokey sarcastic asides, he seems to have a permanent cheeky smirk on his face, but this is the darkest and most cynical character that I’ve seen Caine play so far in his career. He has a jet-black morbid sense of humour; when one of his colleagues explodes after stepping on a mine he says calmly; “he’s got us surrounded” (I didn’t say it was a good sense of humour).
It’s not a particularly showy performance, and for most of the film he plays second fiddle to Cliff Robertson, but he makes the best of the material that he’s given, and livens up a sometimes-plodding film. He has strong chemistry with the other members of his unit, and his blunt yet compassionate banter with his injured comrades helps invest some humanity into a dour film that consists of mostly intentionally unlikable characters.
Caine’s fourth war film (Zulu, Play Dirty, Battle of Britain) since his first starring role in Zulu.
Harry Andrews was also in two of these previous war films; Battle of Britain and Play Dirty.
This is the second time Caine has stared with Denholm Elliott after Alfie. Both times Elliott has been uncharacteristically sinister (he plays a backstreet abortionist in Alfie).
Best Non-Caine Actor
The British ensemble is strong all around; Ian Bannen is fun as the slightly unstable Scotsman, Ronald Fraser is suitably detestable as the corpse looting turncoat and Harry Andrews is affable and has a nice moustache.
The real standout, unsurprisingly, is the always reliable Denholm Elliott. His Captain Hornsby is an out of his depth and ineffectual toff, desperate to be liked but shunned and mistrusted by his own men, and whose poor leadership leads to his unit accidentally shooting each other only a short way into their mission.
He starts off with the usual avuncular Denholm Elliott charm, but eventually reveals a darker side when he explodes with genuinely unexpected bursts of anger. In the scene where he attacks the Japanese wireless operator there seems to be some pent-up glee being released in his violent fervour. I found this turn all the more shocking because Elliott is naturally quite a lovable screen presence.
Unfortunately, his death scene is a little underwhelming though. Considering that he’s shot down by a machine gun there’s no blood or carnage. He seems to just totter about a bit, go slightly cross eyed and then faceplants (I’ll blame the director and not Denholm’s acting for this though).
Also, Ken Takakura is excellent as the Japanese major. His calm level headedness brings class and gravitas to his small amount of screen time and makes him a compelling adversary. The film really picks up once he is introduced. The film’s treatment of him is also refreshing. Before he is introduced the characters frequently mention how brutal the Japanese soldiers are, and how not to trust them, but Yamaguchi ends up as the most honourable, and even most sympathetic, character in the whole film.
Yet the American stars let their side down. Henry Fonda is there briefly in the opening, playing the cameo role that actors of his stature have in these kinds of films, where they just sit behind a desk on a nice studio office set and give the audience some perfunctory exposition. He’s neither particularly good or bad, just Henry Fonda. He is upstaged somewhat by his snazzy wicker chair.
Lieutenant Lawson’s whole deal is that he doesn’t want to be there. However, when you watch the film, you get the feeling that the actor playing him didn’t want to be there either. Robertson’s lowkey grumbling dissatisfaction becomes a real drag, and he doesn’t have much chemistry with his co-stars, sucking the energy out of most of his scenes. His first line is a languid burp, which really sets the stage perfectly for the performance that’s to come from him.
It seems likely that Robertson really did share his character’s reticence as he had fallings out with the director Aldrich throughout the production to the extent that Aldrich reportedly left the film early, leaving the second unit director, Oscar Rudolph, to complete filming. One of the causes of Robertson’s irritability was that he was not released from his filming schedule to accept his Best Actor Oscar for the film Charly. He also later described the film as “junk”.
During pre-production Aldrich allegedly said he wanted “anybody but Cliff Robertson” as the lead, and also went on to complain that the character had not been played as he wanted which meant the ending where he dies doesn’t work as intended. So not a happy working relationship between these two, and it definitely shows on screen through Robertson’s lifeless performance.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts
This film is not factually accurate, the Japanese were never in the New Hebrides in World War II, and it doesn’t really seem interested in actually telling a story about that war. Instead, it’s an allegory for the then ongoing Vietnam war. One character even talks about “long haired conscientious objectors” which obviously applies to the 1960s and not the 1940s.
I think this is one of the film’s issues as the two wars aren’t entirely comparable. Being a cynical objector to World War II is very different to being opposed to Vietnam. A film addressing either of these viewpoints directly could have been interesting, but this film is stuck half way in-between both and so is muddled in its overall message.
It’s two and a half hours long and it does really drag at points. It has a slow start, with a lot of gratuitous marching, but does pick up considerably in the latter half when the men are pitted directly against the Japanese major and the tension is then ratcheted up.
Superficially this film has similarities to Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, which was released 3 years earlier, with its ensemble cast of anti-heroes going on a suicide mission, but this ultimately feels like just a watered down and less focused redux. There are snatches of blood (although of the bright red Dulux paint looking variety frequently seen in films of this era) and occasional bursts of shocking violence but overall, it feels much less visceral and exciting than The Dirty Dozen.
The action scenes are mostly unengaging apart from Caine and Robertson’s zig zagging bullet dodging finale, and the scene where Denholm Elliot casually walks across the enemy compound to take down the wireless operator single-handedly. However, that scene is spoilt slightly by the occasional emergence of what sounds like snippets from the score of a Carry On film interspersed with some irritating military drumming.
Which brings me to the worst thing about the film: its score, which is pretty bad throughout, and sometimes openly distracting. It’s loud, brash and toneless and the exact score you’d expect to hear when you think generic war movie. It really makes you appreciate how important soundtracks are for setting mood.
Lastly, this is one of the sweatiest movies that I’ve seen in recent memory. The gents’ tops are soaked throughout; it really made me want to put a fan on and take a shower afterwards.
In his autobiography Caine described the Philippines, where the movie was shot, as the worst location shoot he’d had in his career. This was obviously the turning point for him realising that he should pick his upcoming roles mainly on where he’d most like to have a nice holiday.
Gregory Peck greeted the returning cast at the airport in order to give Robertson his Oscar. Robertson had with him a fake one made of wood, gifted to him by the film’s crew, and threw it over his shoulder when he saw Peck, hitting Caine in the forehead and causing him to bleed profusely. I got this dubious fact from IMDB, and can’t verify it, but I do really hope that it’s true.
A watchable, though unremarkable and overlong, war movie from the gritty and cynical 1970s featuring some strong work from a host of recognisable British character actors but a dud turn from its American star. Something to pop on during a lazy Sunday afternoon and watch with your Dad maybe. Although if you want a downbeat World War II movie headlined by Caine then Play Dirty (1969) is a much better shout.
Rating: 2/5 Sweaty War Vests
Where You Can Watch This: This is not currently streaming but is available to purchase on DVD.
Up Next: The Last Valley in which Caine co-stars with Omar Sharif in a forgotten historical epic. We’ll look at that when this series returns…
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