Dad Month at Indicator – Blu-Ray Review

This month is “Dad Month” at Indicator, with four releases that are all complete “dad movies.” The first one is Hellfighters, followed by MidwayMacArthur and Gray Lady Down. Three are military films, then there’s Hellfighters, a fire-fighting movie that also has a military angle. And they’re all good Sunday afternoon films to watch with your dad.

Hellfighters is a John Wayne picture directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a British director best known for a lot of collaborations with John Wayne and James Stewart—with The Wild Geese the film most people might have heard of which funnily enough doesn’t star either. He did several of the movies Wayne made near the end of his life.  

This film is about firefighters, loosely based on the life of Red Adair. Adair was known for fighting big fires in the oil fields, and in the film, the big climax is where they go to sort out a fire in Venezuela with the guerrillas on their tail. It’s a perfectly fun afternoon’s watch, with John Wayne doing his schtick. Some of the shots are pretty impressive—in this day and age of so much CGI fire, it’s great to see the real thing on screen, and a lot of it. There’s a romance between the daughter (Katherine Ross) of Chance Buckman, the Adair character, and another firefighter, Greg Parker (Jim Hunter). Parker is notorious for using fires as a way to pick up women. Chance’s estranged wife, Madeline (Vera Miles), is in the mix as well. It’s not great, as it’s probably a little too long for its own good (as a lot of those types of movie tended to be), and it’s very pro-business (with a weird interventionist plot in Venezuela over the oil), but what did you expect? As usual, Wayne is a better actor than he is usually given credit for.

The funny thing about Hellfighters is that it is indeed the movie Ross did between The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She was under contract to Universal, but The Graduate was an Embassy Pictures film. After that, she was offered pretty much anything she wanted, but Universal realised they had a hot property on their hands and didn’t want to lend her out to other studies. So, she was stuck doing this silly movie with John Wayne. Ross was eventually dropped by Universal the following year when she refused to play a stewardess in Airport. Unfortunately, that also meant she lost out on the lead in Play It As It Lays, which she had been campaigning for, to Tuesday Weld. In a turn of fate, she then replaced Weld in The Stepford Wives, which is probably her best performance.

Indicator’s high-def remaster comes with a new audio commentary featuring film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, a BFI interview with McLaglan, documentary footage with Red Adair, several additional shorts and a Super8 version, plus the usual trailer and image gallery, and a 36-page booklet with new and old writing on the film.

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Next up is Midway, the first proper film about a key battle in the war in Pacific that occurred just beyond Hawaii. It’s directed by Jack Smight, a solid workmanlike director who cut his teeth on Studio One, The Twilight ZoneClimax, The Outer LimitsThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour and a lot of other high-quality TV. But he also had a pretty healthy film career for that type of director—he made some interesting culty stuff, like the Paul Newman neo-noir HarperThe Illustrated Man adaptation with Rod Steiger, and the bonkers science-fiction film Damnation Alley. The latter came right after Midway.

Midway tells the story from both the Japanese and American perspectives. It’s pro-American but fairly nuanced, Smight doesn’t paint the Japanese as pure evil. It’s competently made, and better than the Roland Emmerich version that came out more recently. Midway has a lot of big-name older actors, including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford and Hal Holbrook. Robert Mitchum and Cliff Robertson are there too, and on the Japanese side the admiral is played by Toshiro Mifune (but dubbed by Paul Frees, who was an impressionist in the ‘60s, as well as the narrator of The Manchurian Candidate—and the voice of the ghost host at Disney’s Haunted Mansion!). Presumably Mifune’s English wasn’t up to the standard they wanted, but the sync is actually pretty good. Pat Morito (The Karate Kid) is also a Japanese admiral, as is James Shigeta. Shigeta was a pop singer before he was an actor, and you would have seen him as Mr. Takagi in Die Hard.

It’s exactly the type of movie you would expect. It’s well-done for what it is, but when the battle starts happening it gets a bit cheesy. They were cutting any corners they could, so it cuts between studio footage and documentary footage of the actual battle, a lot of which had been shot by John Ford. There’s a TV version and a theatrical version, with the first being a two-parter. The longer version adds back a lot of scenes that were cut. Both are on the Indicator disc. It’s none of these actors’ best work, but it has a pretty good John Williams score (this was between his work on Jaws and Star Wars), and the sound design is impressive for the time. If you want to see a better Midway film than the more recent one, this is the one to choose. 

The new commentary for Midway is with film historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin, which is joined on the disc by four documentaries—including Ford’s 1942 The Battle of Midway—a large booklet, and many more extras.

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MacArthur is a very clear cash-grab to capitalise on the runaway success of Patton five years earlier. Directed by Joseph Sargent, who also did The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, it’s a biopic of US general Douglas MacArthur. Sargent collaborated with a pair of hack screenwriters. Apparently, Spielberg was the original plan for director, which is why you see Powell Barwood and Matthew Robbins on the script, two writers who worked on his first official feature, The Sugarland Express. MacArthur was a deeply problematic figure, to say the least, but you’re not going to hear about that here. The script is pretty crap, and Gregory Peck, who plays the lead, was not very fond of the script. It revolves around MacArthur looking back on his life when he visits West Point again in 1962. Peck could do this role in his sleep—he’s Gregory Peck, after all—and it puts forward a very rose-tined view of MacArthur’s life. 

It doesn’t sound like anyone involved was particularly happy with MacArthur. The studio used too much studio footage instead of shooting on site, and that gives it a very televisual feel. It’s only Peck that’s really worth watching. Every other actor turned the part down, from John Wayne to George C. Scott, Cary Grant and Marlon Brando. It has a fairly good Jerry Goldsmith score—Goldsmith also did the score for Patton.

Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin provide a new audio commentary, and along with the usual extras that you would expect, Indicator has pulled together loads of vintage Pathe newsreels about events depicted in the film.

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Finally, we come to Gray Lady Down, a submarine film with Charlton Heston and Stacey Keach. It’s also Christopher Reeves’ first film, coming right before Superman. It’s the usual submarine disaster movie—they sink, they’ve got to be rescued… you’ve seen a thousand of these, and probably better, but it’s fine. It’s in the same vein as Irwin Allen’s ‘70s disaster movies. The film actually has a pretty good cast. It was directed by David Greene, who did the batshit hippie movie, The People Next Door, and was his second-to-last feature. After that, Greene did a lot of television. 

It’s got pretty good production values and is well-shot, with the result being a decent film despite everything. At one point the submariners have to pass some time, so they fire up a projector and watch… Jaws! It was shot by Stevan L. Larner, who was also the final and third cinematographer on Badlands, replacing Tak Fujimoto. 

A new Peter Tonguette audio commentary, a 1984 Guardian interview with Heston, two shorts, and an interesting 41-minute doc on the US Navy Submarine Rescue Program are joined by many more extras and a booklet featuring a new essay by Omar Ahmed, amongst other writing on the film.

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★★★

Ian Schultz

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