02 June 2012

"Hell Is for Heroes"

Hell Is for Heroes
Starring Steve McQueen, Bobby Darrin, Fess Parker
Co-Starring Harry Guardino, James Coburn, Mike Kellin
Also Co-Starring Nick Adams
And Introducing Bob Newhart
Directed by Donald Siegel
Screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr
Story by Robert Pirosh
DVD Release Date: 22 May 2001

This is my review of the film as posted on Letterboxd. Remarks about the DVD follow.

My family owned a consignment shop for 20 years. This DVD came in several years ago, but it never sold so when its time was up, I snagged it. I grew up liking reruns of Daniel Boone starring Fess Parker, so I was interested to see him in this. Finally, after having the DVD for several years, I got around to watching it for the third annual DVD Talk Historical Appreciation Challenge.

The opening credits alone yielded two surprises. "And Introducing Bob Newhart" was a curious thing to see. He's been around for so long that I forget there was actually a beginning to his career (though technically, The Bob Newhart Show had already been on TV before this film opened in 1962). Also interesting for me was that the score was composed by Leonard Rosenman. I only know him from his score for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. There's actually very little music in this picture; I would guess about 12 minutes or so, tops, but I certainly recognized a similarity between this and his Trek work.

I've never been particularly fond of war movies because they tend to be rather generic and banal, and unfortunately this one is just as guilty as any other. The Interwebs tell me that screenwriter Robert Pirosh was in the U.S. Army during World War II, and that he collected information about skirmishes along the Siegfried Line that served as the basis for his fictionalized story. The Interwebs also tell me Pirosh was supposed to direct the film, but left after finding himself incompatible with star Steve McQueen. McQueen also seems to have rubbed everyone the wrong way. His reluctance to participate or be around anyone is pretty clear on the screen and inadvertently the on-set misery imbues it with one of its few genuinely interesting elements.

Still, I'm a sucker for the tragically hopeless underdog story. Be it Glory or Shaun of the Dead, there's something about the human spirit of perseverance even in the face of certain death that I find fascinating. Beyond the obvious nobility of sacrifice, there's always the opportunity to speculate about oneself. Could I carry on in those kinds of situations? So far I've been fortunate that it's merely an abstract curiosity but I know every day around the world, our brothers and sisters are made to find out for themselves.

There is a sort of "futility of war" message here, but it doesn't seem willing to assert itself over the "heroism of sacrifice" theme. It's left to us the viewer to decide whether to applaud or pity the doomed protagonists.

I found myself liking the characters, and I wanted to care about them but it felt as though the film was just going through the motions. It felt as though the film was a chore for all involved, like the cinematic equivalent of that last album an artist records to finish off their contractual obligation to a label they're desperate to leave.

Paramount's DVD looks and sounds fine, though clearly it hasn't been lavished with the kind of attentive restoration that its contemporaries held in higher esteem have received. The lone bonus feature is the original theatrical trailer. I have to admit, it's a decent trailer. The official release date is 22 May 2001, but my DVD insert clearly reads, "2006." It appears to have been part of those periodic repackaging waves of catalog DVDs that studios are wont to do in hopes they can unload unsold product by making it look different from the original release that nobody bought.

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