Monday, June 20, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Darby's Rangers" (1958)

If I may suggest an alternate title for "Darby's Rangers," a 1958 alleged war film that marked the leading-man debut of James Garner, it would be "The Star-Crossed Love Lives of Darby's Rangers."

Never have I seen a military drama so done in by sex. It's not enough to say that romance is a recurring distraction in this film; it would be more accurate to describe the battle scenes as interrupting all the mush.

This insipid movie was directed by William Wellman, who made other, better war pictures, including the outstanding "Battleground." The film, written Guy Trosper from a book by James J. Altieri -- who served in the original Army commando troops dreamed up and led by William Darby -- purports to explore the inception, training and exploits of Darby's Rangers, who would form the basis of the glorious Army Rangers.

But almost from the start, the movie seems less concerned with the usual tropes about men of disparate backgrounds bonding during the cruel grinder of war than with the women they fall for. First, during training in England, it's a bunch of British lasses. Later, the love story moves to the Italian peninsula.

I have not read the book by Altieri, but based on its title -- "The Spearheaders" -- I seriously doubt it followed the amorous adventures of the Ranger battalions. I can only imagine his shock upon seeing his war memoir turned into a two-hour mash note.

There are really only two aspects of "Darby's Rangers" worth commenting on: The young cast, which contained a number of notable fresh faces, and a pair of combat scenes that show off Wellman's considerable ability with action and suspense.

Garner is best known as a television actor these days, but his film career was long and bright. He has a good, forceful presence as Darby, a man inexperienced in combat but who nonetheless had a clear vision of what this new model of soldier could do. At one point he angrily complains to a high-up general about his men being bogged down in foxholes in Italy -- not because he considers the duty beneath them, but because it's such a poor use of expert troops trained at guerrilla tactics.

Charlton Heston was originally slated to play Darby, but made exorbitant (for the time) demands for a share of the profits. Garner, then 30, had been cast as Sgt. Bishop, a smooth card shark from Reno, but was tapped for the lead role right before shooting started. Stuart Whitman, featured in last week's classic film column, slid into the Bishop part.

Jack Warden plays Darby's right-hand man, a Jewish master sergeant who also provides the film's laconic (and largely unnecessary) narration. Murray Hamilton, forever the obsequious mayor from "Jaws," also turns up in a small role as a Ranger who loves to get into scraps, and whose Irish accent comes and goes.

Edd Byrnes shows up halfway through the movie as a fresh-faced lieutenant who learns that doing things by the book isn't always the best way with the Rangers, who relish their status as dogface killing machines. He finds out just how much when he falls for an Italian girl (Etchika Choureau) and runs into all sorts of ridiculous complications, ending with a pregnancy and a desperate need for penicillin, which he can only obtain from the military dispensary by marrying her.

I know the Italians can be pretty traditional about marriage, but I'm pretty sure the bride has to be conscience when the wedding takes place.

Byrnes had just become a star playing Kookie, a character on the TV show "77 Sunset Strip," who was known for constantly combing his hair. Byrnes wears a lavishly-styled pompadour in "Darby's Rangers" that most military barbers, and even Donald Trump, would find excessive.

Whitman, as Bishop, has his own romance with an English bus attendant (Joan Elan) who turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy lord and lady. Bishop resents being roped in, including the girl's adamant declaration that they will marry one day, and skips out.

Peter Brown, playing young Private Rollo Burns, has his own U.K. romance with the 19-year-old daughter of his Scottish training sergeant. They get engaged just before he ships out.

In the most bizarre sequence, one Ranger recruit known as a Lothario seduces the wife of the British professor whose house he's temporarily billeted in. The marriage is broken up, the soldier dies in a training accident, and the wayward housewife gets a nasty comeuppance from the aforementioned Scottish sergeant.

Just when I was thinking "Darby's Rangers" was irredeemable, a couple of stellar combat scenes arrive late in the going. They're notable because the movie makes extensive use of stock footage from the war, so these are some of the few combat scenes that were actually shot for the movie.

One involves a line of Rangers ducking past a convoy of German Panzers. They wait until the tank is right upon them, then scurry past the looming treads, where the pilot can't see them. It's a riveting bit, as we keep expecting a misstep to result in a horrible death.

The other terrific sequence is a battle in the fog, with the Rangers trying to fight an enemy they can't even see. The fog is pea-soup-thick, and looks like it was poured down like a gray blanket from Olympus. The scene has an unnerving dream-like quality.

During the few minutes "Darby's Rangers" can spare from exploring the love lives of soldiers, it actually reminds us what a good war movie resembles.

1.5 stars out of four

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