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TOO LATE THE HERO (director/writer: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: Lukas Heller/Robert Sherman; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editor: Michael Luciano; music: Gerald Fried; cast: Michael Caine (Pvt. Tosh Hearne), Cliff Robertson (Lt. Sam Lawson), Denholm Elliott (Capt. Hornsby), Ronald Fraser (Pvt. Campbell), Ken Takakura (Major Yamaguchi), Ian Bannen (Pvt. Jock Thornton), Harry Andrews (Col. Thompson), Henry Fonda (Capt. John Nolan), Lance Percival (Cpl. McLean), Percy Herbert (Sgt. Johnstone); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Robert Aldrich; Cinerama Releasing Corp.; 1970)
“A Dirty Dozen formula macho war drama about war as betrayal.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The last of Robert Aldrich’s (“Attack!”) men-in-war series is a Dirty Dozen formula macho war drama about war as betrayal. Lukas Heller, the same writer from The Dirty Dozen, handles the script by keeping the narrative active and filled with pre-modern war clichés. It’s set in the Pacific region in World War II (filmed mostly on location near Subic Bay in the Philippines and also in a Hollywood studio). It’s about the insanity of war (so what else is new!) and tells about a rag-tag group of reluctant soldiers forced to go on a suicide-mission.

Shirker American Navy Lt. Sam Lawson (Cliff Robertson) returns drunk to the base after a night of partying, expecting to go stateside for his earned scheduled long leave, but is told, to his astonishment, by his stern commander, Capt. John Nolan (Henry Fonda), that the big brass has ordered him to be attached as a liaison officer with a British unit prepared to raid a Japanese outpost on the remote New Hebrides island. Lawson’s value is that the radio operator speaks Japanese, as the plan is to have him transmit false messages in Japanese from their radio to confuse them on the upcoming planned Yank invasion in that area and then destroy the radio.

Gung-ho Colonel Thompson (Harry Andrews), the commander of the irregular forces, briefs Lawson on the plan to go through the jungle from the Brit base in the southern part to the other end of the island where the Japanese are based and carry out this important mission. The 15-man patrol Lawson is assigned to is headed by the pompous, by the book, Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott), someone the men don’t respect because they don’t trust his ability to lead.

The men soon stumble into an ambush, but though they take heavy causalities they survive and advance through the dense jungle to arrive at the site of the Japanese radio transmitter. In the ambush, one of the cowardly and unreliable Brit soldiers, the piggish Scotsman, Pvt. Campbell (Ronald Fraser), robbed and mutilated a Japanese officer who knifed to death their sergeant and was previously shot dead by the wiseguy cynical cockney Pvt. Tosh Hearne (Michael Caine), who hates authority figures and only cares about looking out for No. 1.

Upon reaching the radio shack, Lawson and Hearne bond. They are not convinced of the mission and refuse Hornsby’s order to go inside. Instead Hornsby goes and blows up the radio transmitter rather than wait for Lawson to get up enough nerve to go inside and transmit, but while escaping is killed. There are now only five commandos left and they retreat in the jungle. In close pursuit is the unseen Japanese commander, Major Yamaguchi (Ken Takakura), who travels with a portable loudspeaker system and sends out urgent pleas for the men to surrender and he will not harm them or else declares that they will all die.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Hearne and Lawson refuse to surrender, but have different ideas about how to play it. Lawson is a guilt-ridden man over the death of the captain and while now in charge is motivated to complete the mission for the man he feels he might have killed by letting him down and plans to get back to the Brit base and tell them about the hidden air base they discovered. While Hearne wishes to lay low until after the Yanks are attacked and then figures the enemy won’t be looking for them and they can sneak back to the base, but is forced to go along as the officer not only pulls rank but a gun on him. Meanwhile the dastardly Campbell slays one of his own wounded men and tricks the other two tired and scared Brit recruits to surrender. But the Japanese hang Campbell upside down for the mutilation murder and robbery of their popular officer, and the Major announces over the loudspeaker he plans to kill his prisoners unless the two on the loose surrender. Instead Hearne and Lawson follow the wires back to the loudspeaker mic to locate the Major and kill him; they are not aware that the Major kept his promise not to harm the prisoners and their action means the prisoners are killed by the angered Japanese troops. Hearne and Lawson flee through the jungle and come to a clearing about the size of a football field in a no-man’s-land between the Japanese and British turfs and run zigzag, like running a gauntlet, to avoid the Japanese machine-guns, mortar and rifle fire, but just before they reach the Brit base camp Lawson goes down and Hearne becomes the sole survivor.

Hearne represents the pragmatic alternative to both Hornsby’s allegiance to serve his country no matter if right or wrong and Lawson’s Romantic guilt. Hearne advocated “fraggin” Hornsby and tried to pull Lawson into his selfish attitude by pleading with him to desert the mission, but he’s a complex character who does show under fire a concern for his fellow soldiers and, of all of them, has the best survival instincts: not compromised by idealism. But, in the end, the filmmaker believes he survives due to chance alone and that if he might be the least deserving to survive–that’s irrelevant.

The film didn’t do as well at the box office as expected, certainly not even close to what the mega-hit The Dirty Dozen (1967) raked in. It was released during the Vietnam War and might serve for some as a mild allegorical reminder of that unpopular and impossible mission (though one should note that Aldrich had written the story in 1959). What dazzled me about this ‘questioning of being a team player story’ and the folly of heroics, was that in all its ordinariness about mankind’s common vices it had a peculiar look that made things seem eerie: unidentifiable soldiers from either side kept popping up in the jungle to act animal-like fighting for survival and territory even though none of them seemed all that comfortable in such a pose. Its thick metaphorical conclusion has Hearne, of all people, absurdly popping up out of nowhere to tell the inquiring commanding officer “He was a bloody hero, killed fifteen Japs single-handed, thirty if you like.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”