There's a sub-genre of film you really don't see very often anymore.
Some call it the "Men on a Mission" movie, and it's become rarer than hen's teeth.
You know what I'm talking about: the setting is a war, usually WW2, and a handpicked team have been given a mission. To fulfill that mission they have to deal not only with the enemy, but personal agendas, vendettas, and occasionally even traitors in their midst. Usually the team is made of experts, or at least folks who can bluff their way through it, and the only real certainty is that they will do everything to finish their mission, and not everyone is going to get out alive.
World War 2, was the first war where espionage and special "commando-style" operations fired the imagination of Hollywood writers and filmmakers. The first movies were straight-forward propaganda adventures like Raoul Walsh's Desperate Journey, & Objective: Burma, where Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, and others had an enemy factory or radar station to blow up, or an enemy prison camp to escape.
This sub-genre hit its peak in the early 1960s with my personal favorites, the fictionalized (& Americanized) film adaptation of The Great Escape, and two Alastair MacLean adventures the novel turned movie The Guns of Navarone, and the movie turned novel Where Eagles Dare.
Every good men on a mission film has certain key ingredients that can make or break them as stories:
1. The Team: Must be interesting in their own right with back-stories that can help or hinder...
2. The Mission: This is their objective. The job that must be done, even at the cost of their lives. Of course making it easy would not make an interesting film, so you must have...
3. The Complications: These are what stand in the way between the Team and completing their mission. They can be enemy actions, betrayals, and/or the personal agendas or foibles of team members.
The Great Escape was the story of the real mega-escape from German POW camp Stalag Luft III, and while the studio changed many of the British, ANZAC, and Canadian pilots into Americans it stayed fairly true to the fundamental facts of the real story. The film captures the essence of the "men on the mission" ethic. These men are bound by duty to harass, confuse, and confound their Nazi enemies, and the best way they have to do it, is to escape, en masse. They know that many will not survive the attempt, but they are driven both by duty and a desire to be free to go for it, and to hell with the consequences.
The film itself is a classic adventure story, with director John Sturges passing on the usual shoot-em-up action in favor of a masterful blend of suspense and danger driven by the complexity of the escape and the ruthlessness of their Nazi enemies, with healthy doses of humor and camaraderie by the actions of the characters, maintaining their sanity in an insane situation, and the chemistry between the actors.
When the camp's scrounger (James Garner), a clever thief, blackmailer, and finagler, risks his own life and freedom to help the camp's forger (Donald Pleasance) get a shot at freedom, it shows that there's more to this escape than just sticking it to the Nazis. It's a blunt refusal for the men on this mission to give up their humanity in the face of the incredible inhumanity of their enemy. In a way, the quest for freedom from fascism
A similar theme is found in the cinematic adaption of Alastair McLean's novel The Guns of Navarone, starring Grogory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven.
The premise of the film is deceptively simple: The war is going badly in the Mediterranean, British soldiers are trapped on an island off Greece, facing a massive Nazi assault. They're going to be massacred unless they're evacuated by the Royal Navy. The navy could do it, but to get to their men, they have to sail dangerously close to the Nazi occupied island of Navarone. As the title suggests, there are guns on Navarone, large, radar guided guns, that could turn the rescue fleet into scrap iron unless someone spikes them.
A team of experts are assembled, and once again, the theme of humanity in the face of war rears its head. Anthony Quinn's Greek resistance fighter has pledged to follow team leader Gregory Peck in this mission, but he has also sworn to kill Peck after the war, because an act of mercy on Peck's part let the Nazis butcher his family on Crete. And as the mission progresses, and complications, disasters, and betrayals mount up, some start to question the value of mercy.
And the film doesn't really provide easy answers for the questions at hand. These men and women don't have time for philosophical and ethical debates, there are guns to blow up, and lives hanging in the balance. Like all good men on a mission stories, the mission must be completed.
On the flip side, is the ruthlessness of Where Eagles Dare, where mercy is short, and the people involved are as cold as an alpine glacier. It stars Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Euro-cinema vamp-goddess Ingrid Pitt as part of a team of allied commandos and spies on a mission in the Bavarian Alps.
Their job, at least on the surface, is to either rescue or terminate a captured American General before the SS and the Gestapo get him to talk about Allied invasion plans. The complications hindering their mission include an impregnable castle, high mountains, a couple of divisions of elite Wermacht soldiers, the possibility of treason in their midst, and the fact that nothing on this mission is what it seems.
It's a darker, more cynical view of the sub-genre, loaded with treachery and violence. (And in a bit of trivia, it has the highest body count of any Clint Eastwood action movie, according to some experts) The elements of trust and humanity which are so prominent in the Great Escape, and Navarone, are not necessarily gone, but certainly badly burned by the necessity of men having to do terrible things in order to fight the greater evil of Nazism. These men and women are willing to sacrifice their souls for the cause if it meant that others didn't have to.
However this particular sub-genre wasn't much longer for this world, falling victim to the rampant petty rebellions of the baby boom generation. The first nail in the coffin was The Dirty Dozen.
I'm not knocking the Dirty Dozen as a film, it's an expertly crafted action-adventure film, with a great cast, but there was problem.
No one seemed to notice that it was a satire, a parody, if you will, of the men on a mission sub-genre.
At least that's my theory, and I do tend to be right about just about everything.
Take a look at the premise of The Dirty Dozen: A group of useless men, mostly convicted murderers are sent on a potentially helpful, but ultimately unnecessary suicide mission to massacre high-ranking Nazis on holiday. It's basically the Bizarro universe version of men on a mission, intended to satirize not only the sub-genre, but the military, and popular concepts of machismo, and rebellion that arose in the late 1960s.
Sadly, no one seemed to see that.
Soon the theaters were flooded with cheap imitations where the professional commandos guided by noble notions of duty and sacrifice, were replaced by thuggish poseur rebels acting out of revenge and a desire to look cool. And even if anyone tried to do a straight men on a mission story, there was usually a "loose cannon rebel who plays by his own rules," tacked onto the team to provide the necessary air of rebellion. Like all attempts to force hipness, it quickly became a cliche and relegated the sub-genre to the direct to video discount bin.
Gone was the camaraderie, you wouldn't see a modern hero risk do what James Garner did in The Great Escape and risk everything to help a blind friend. It would have been interpreted as wussy and bad for the "hero's" gritty image.
The second nail was Jame Bond. Bond handled his espionage-commando missions for the most part alone, or accompanied by the occasional bodacious damsel. He didn't have, need, or even want a team. Lone wolf heroes were in, teams were out.
The third nail was the cult of celebrity. You just can't assemble an all-star cast of more than two people without spending a minimum of $100 million, and that's if you're doing a romantic comedy with one set, and no special effects. Plus, Hollywood isn't as friendly anymore as it used to be. Most of the A-Listers live ensconced in luxurious prisons, living in a permanent stage of paparazzi siege. The only time you can a major ensemble cast is either with a very famous, honored, or hip director, and usually even then a couple of the top stars do all the work, while the rest of the team is populated by relative nobodies who are made into nothing more than glorified extras.
Another nail was a change in attitude in Hollywood. It just became harder and harder for people living their entire lives safely cocooned in the Axis of Ego* to grasp the concept of ordinary men and women using their wits and courage to battle for anything beyond the personal. Revenge was okay, but outside of James Bond, crown, country and the lives and freedom of others became almost alien concepts in action cinema. You might see it in historical drama**, or fantasy films where it's no doubt viewed as a quaint curiosity, like calling your designer jeans dungarees or visiting the malt shop. It's just not part of their lives or mindset.
Which leads to the final nail. Right now Hollywood wouldn't dare make an action film about kicking Nazi ass without including some piece of moral relativism about how Churchill was somehow being bad too tacked on like... um... something with a tack in it. The reason is fear that their story may be interpreted as some sort of endorsement of the current Republican administration and the war in Iraq. So gone are the days of Richard Burton, Gregory Peck, and Steve McQueen risking their freedom, lives, and very souls to complete the mission and save the day, we now have John Cusack, Ryan Phillippe, and Jake Gyllenhaal whining about how the mission just isn't worth doing anymore.
And it's showing at the box office. The old films I mentioned were all monster hits of their time, the current crop, pretty much all dismal failures once they played outside their comfort zone of Hollywood insiders and critics who want to be Hollywood insiders.
So, will we see a return of this sub-genre? Well, I don't really have much hope for it, unless something pretty drastic happens in Hollywood.
*Axis of Ego: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, & Malibu.
**I consider Saving Private Ryan a historical drama, not an action film.
**I consider Saving Private Ryan a historical drama, not an action film.