Monday, September 19, 2011

Reeling Backward: "633 Squadron" (1964)

Wow, what a piece of crap.

Normally I try to be charitable to the classic films I'm watching for the Reeling Backward column, seeking out movies I think I'll enjoy or find interesting on some level

In the case of "633 Squadron," a 1964 WWII movie starring Cliff Robertson as the leader of a British air squadron, the only thing interesting is how gobsmackingly awful it is.

I lay most of the blame at the feet of director Walter Grauman, a television guy who made a few theatrical films. Although some of the air combat sequences are exciting -- perhaps owing to the fact that Grauman himself flew B-25 bombers during the war -- any time the action is grounded, the movie goes into a deadly  torpor.

The dialogue is incredibly hackneyed, and it's not helped by generally wooden deliveries from most of the cast. Astonishingly, one of the screenwriters is Howard Koch, one of the Oscar-winning writers on "Casablanca."

Topping things off is the musical score by Ron Goodwin, which makes the fatal mistake of intruding upon the movie without enhancing it.

I think in particular of one scene where Roy Grant (Robertson), the American commander of an international RAF squadron, is confronted with bad news by his superior. Goodwin's music goes almost silent while each piece of dialogue is delivered, then creeps in with a little slow arpeggio during the pauses. Comically, the musical notes rise or fall depending on what each man says, so the result is a ridiculous alternating of musical swells going up and down.

But Goodwin's main theme used during the flying scenes is a bray of trilling trumpets that gets the heart moving. It sounds very familiar, too -- I think subsequent films may have borrowed from that lick.

The cinematography by Edward Scaife is often quite dazzling, too, making good use of the full-color Panavision. His shots of planes screaming through the air on an intricate bombing run through a narrow canyon are terrific.

Unfortunately, the film constantly resorts to models to portray explosions, and they're just awful. It looks like a balsa wood toy made by an adolescent that he subsequently blows up with firecrackers. Some archival footage is also ham-handedly worked in ... though not extensively since most of that would've been in black-and-white.

Robertson was a solid actor that Hollywood never quite knew what to do with. (He passed away while I was working on this column.) His character here is mostly a collection of typical "Yank" traits as seen from the British perspective -- cocky yet sullen, resentful of authority and yet committed to military camaraderie.

His commander (Harry Andrews) give him a vital mission: To blow up a rocket factory the Nazis are building in Norway. If those rockets are allowed to go online, the Normandy invasion is doomed to failure.

Because the factory is in a narrow canyon, their only hope is to bomb the overhanging cliff with "earthquake bombs' in order to get it to cause an avalanche and crush the facility. Laughable stuff. Though supposedly George Lucas was inspired by this sequence for the trench run scene in the original "Star Wars."

There's a subplot involving Finn Bergman, the leader of a Norwegian resistance operation. Their job is to provide intelligence on the bombing site, and take out the anti-aircraft guns right before the mission. Bergman clashes and then bonds with Roy, and somehow his sister Hilde (Maria Perschy) materializes just in time to provide a love interest for Roy.

Hilariously, Finn is played by George Chakiris, the dark-haired and -complected actor best known for pleading Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang in "West Side  Story" (for which he won an Oscar). Chakiris looks about as Norwegian as an Egyptian pyramid, especially when contrasted with the blonde, fair-skinned Perschy.

(Chakiris was actually Greek, whose Mediterranean good looks allowed him to play a variety of nationalities along the lines of Anthony Quinn, whose lineage was a mix of Mexican, Aztec Indian and Irish.)

At one point Finn is captured by the Germans. In order to prevent the mission from being revealed under Nazi torture, Roy is assigned to bomb the building where Finn is being held, killing his friend in the process.

He succeeds, but apparently he was too late. When the rest of the Norwegian resistance fighters move in to take out the anti-aircraft guns, they are ambushed and wiped out by the waiting Germans. Strangely, it is never explicitly depicted that Funn divulged this information during interrogation; the audience is left to infer this when the Germans get the jump on the Norwegians.

Not that the resistance fighters do much to hide themselves: They're shown blithely walking down open paths and roads on their way to assault the gun positions. The Germans hide from cover and attack with machine guns and grenades. For guerrillas, the Norwegians seem to have the tactical smarts of gorillas.

The only thing I found truly interesting about "633 Squadron" was the planes. They fly De Havilland Mosquitos, versatile aircraft built by the British for a variety of uses. They were exceedingly fast, superficially resembling a B-17, but with only two engines and much, much smaller. They carried a crew of but two, the pilot and navigator/bombardier.

The Mosquitos were tactically very dissimilar from the B-17, B-24 and other large American bombers, which were designed to fly in large groups and fight off more nimble enemies with an array of heavy armaments, and withstand a ton of punishment. The Mosquitos were made of wood and couldn't take much damage. Initially they were intended as fast bombers, lacking any defensive armaments. Later iterations included forward guns, and the Mosquitos were used as night fighters, aerial reconnaissance and even against ships and submarines.

These daring, unique planes also starred in another British war movie from 1969, "Mosquito Squadron." I haven't seen that one, but hopefully the humans in that film made for better counterparts to the amazing machines, unlike in "633 Squadron."

1 star out of four

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