Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, May 27, 2011

You Desert Rats: PLAY DIRTY, RAID ON ROMMEL


Late May, summer vacation, Memorial Day. a time to embrace the inner WW2 past life veteran. Where were you when you fell? If you had a past life in North Africa, running raids against Rommel's fuel dumps, and maybe died under the treads of Rommel's esteemed Afrika Corps, you will love Netflix streaming, whereon WW2 desert warfare is amply represented.

The tussel with Monty and Rommel has long captivated the cinematic imagination.  On such a flat, harsh, unforgiving playing field, strategy is everything and both sides can get lost just trying to find the front. There are ample opportunities for stealth and skullduggery as front lines are hundreds of miles across. It's where scrappy outlaws and cunning commandos undertake missions where they wear any country's uniform but their own. 

 First: RAID ON ROMMEL (1971) with Richard Burton as a British commando taking out the shore guns of Tobruk. There's some icky misogyny with Danielle De Metz as an anachronistic jet-set Saint Tropez Italian courtesan (see how she's sandwiched in the poster atop), as if the whole movie resents some producer's edict his gold-digging hot model girlfriend be included, and no one bothered to ask her to change into something from the period. There's even a nasty crack about white slavery when she's shot up with heroin, and hip early-70s rage at high gasoline prices, making a great show of exploding fuel dumps and unlucky Germans lit ablaze in the Tobruk night thanks to Burton's ruthlessness with a flame thrower. It's such a mounting orgy of explosions by the end that it starts to resemble some surreal demolitions-porn video. Turns out it's all lifted from an earlier film, one called TOBRUK, in fact. 


PLAY DIRTY (1969) goes for the existential vibe where that's concerned: tire repair, driving stolen trucks up a mountain, weathering a sandstorm, and other SORCERER-waiting-for-Godot-style existential tomfoolery. Michael Caine is the by-the-book officer, Nigel Davenport the hardened cynic, Nigel Green the dissolute, cynical and well-worn Colonel who plans the mission (another fuel dump, by Jove!) Together they shoot unarmed Red Cross workers, (nearly) rape a German nurse, kill innocent bystanders and otherwise commit egregious and unclean deeds in the name of 'the mission.' Also anachronistically, they blare tons of music on the jeep radio like it's goddamned Top 40. The acting is all good but the existential vibe a bit souring. Part of my yen for WW2 movies is that they provide a rare chance for noble Hawksian male camaraderie but PLAY DIRTY denies that fantasy, trying to shoehorn post-1969 Vietnam bitterness into pre-1945 history.


When I see a war movie I want more than the begrudging respect of a few salts and an innocent German nurse nearly raped and then stabbed for no discernible reason. I want more than WAGES OF FEAR-style men in trucks minutiae. Hitler and Japan were the be-all and end all of ruthless evil. We can try to fathom the depths of soullessness we are all capable of, but even the cynical air of the late 1960's-early 70's Vietnam era which infuses both these films can't argue with that level of horror. Why bother souring us on the last chance we ever had to be truly the good guys? There's a time and place where we actually won the war, and no amount of Vietnam disillusion should cloud that up. Sometimes in showing how gritty and vile war is you only show how bitter and jaundiced you are, and PLAY DIRTY alas seems to think rubbing our noses in rotten behavior is a kind of Robert Aldrich shortcut to hip anachronistic CATCH 22-MASH-DIRTY DOZEN relevance. But cynicism should never cut so deep you start biting the hands that hold your tickets. Only on the Military Channel.

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