While October proves to be the—rightfully so—month of terror for Twilight Time, releasing films such as The Blob (1988), Audrey Rose (1977), The Vanishing (1993), and The Believers (1987), September is marked by the brand’s focus on war, rebellion, and mercenaries, with the release of Che! (1969), The Killer Elite (1975), Dogs of War (1980), and Salvador (1986). The Cuban revolution, independently contracted and unofficially sanction American spies, the overthrowing of an African dictatorship, and the conflict in El Salvador, each film sets their focus on distinct and different conflicts. Yet, while there exits many unique differences among these films, they are undeniably similar in their depiction of Western involvement in foreign affairs. Each film is an attempt by “Hollywood”—used liberally to incorporate the British produced The Dogs of War—to highlight—or perhaps cynics will say profit—from the specific historical events that had largely impacted society, albeit heavily fictionalized at times. These four films, when analyzed together, reveal a wealth of different aspects about the history of cinema. They see a change in the handling of non-fictional events—from the not-so-biographical Che! to the largely accurate, if not romanticized, Salvador. In addition, the films reveal noteworthy changes in the depiction of on-screen violence: classical in Che!, Peckinpah’s ultra-violence in The Killer Elite, the near documentary-esque handling in The Dogs of War, and finally Stone’s almost parodic, hyper-realistic use of violence in Salvador. Times change, and so do the pictures, but for all their differences these films are aligned by their likenes.
Directed by Richard Fleischer, Che! is perhaps the weakest among the four titles, but that is not to say that the film is not without a great deal of merit. Che! does however require a significant suspension of disbelief. If you are coming to Che! with a working knowledge of the actual history of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, forget it now; it will not help you. No, Che! is not an accurate representation of history. What it is, thanks to Fleischer’s skills, is a beautiful film, in spite of its playing fast and loose with the facts. Those familiar with Fleischer’s directorial work will almost immediately recognize his mark on this film. The use of DeLuxe color allows Fleischer to exploit the film’s earthy palette—skin tones are a shade tanner, green a bit darker and richer. While the success of DeLuxe—as opposed to Technicolor—has been argued elsewhere, for Che! it is perfect; the colors connect the film to earth, it visually embodies the film with the essence of the communist uprising. In addition to the color profile, Fleischer’s use of widescreen photography is stunning as always.To say that Che! isn’t an entertaining watch would be an embellishment. Yes, there are many structural problems in the narrative, which causes the film to feel more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive whole. Worse, the film doesn’t really to know what it is try to say in relation to Che’s politics. It is neither a glorifying film, nor one that entirely criticizes Che. Yet, it is not so objective that this middle-of-the-road approach feels adequate. It, rather, toggles the lines from scene to scene, leaving the viewer with the responsibility of putting the pieces together. Being the last script written by Michael Wilson (Planet of the Apes, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), it is hard to see when the film went wrong. Wilson had proven track record of writing structurally strong scripts, and a political ideology that had him blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Whether the fault was in Wilson’s original script, Fleischer’s adaptation, or perhaps an intervention of the studio, the result leaves Che! a bit of a mess. As messy as it is, Omar Sharif’s performance as Che is remarkable. Sharif breathes life into the otherwise spotty script; he gives the character of Che a humanity that rises above the narrative’s ambiguous treatment. In addition, Jack Palance’s Castro is a treat for Palance fans. For Che!, Palance is a bit more reserved than in some of his other films, but that entertaining blend of expressionistic acting and wild energy is still on display. While Palance was, at this point in his career, known for playing antagonists, his role as Castro is surprisingly humane. Bottom line, if you need historical accuracy in your biopics look elsewhere, but if you are looking for a beautifully shot, well acted piece of Hollywood’s history Che! will not disappoint.
The Killer Elite (1975)
After the box-office failure of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Peckinpah produced what would become to be considered one of his last great films, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garci. Despite its micro-budget, Bring Me the Head was initially a critical and commercial failure. With two box-office failures, and a growing history of ruptured relationships within the studio system, Peckinpah was all but finished in Hollywood—until Mike Medavoy decided to give him another chance. Acquiring the script for The Killer Elite—based on the novel Monkey in the Middle by Robert Syd Hopkins—Medavoy felt that Peckinpah was the director most fit to bring The Killer Elite to the screen. Enlisting both James Caan and Robert Duvall—made stars by their performances in both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II—The Killer Elite had all the elements necessary for success. The result, however, is far from the potentiality.
The Killer Elite is a film that sets in motion Peckinpah’s downfall, a flawed film that is, at times, aimless. Yet—like Fleischer’s Che!—there exists enough within The Killer Elite to bite into. It could be argued that the included commentary track on this release—featuring Peckinpah aficionados Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons (who spent time on set) and Nick Redman—offers an overall more entertaining experience than the film itself, but as the commenters note, while this is far from Peckinpah’s shining achievement there is a great deal of the great director’s vision on display. To begin, Peckinpah’s inconsistent, if not unclear, politics are on clear from the first moments of the film. Opening first on a series of quotes from a fictional CIA operative, there is an allusion to the fact that there may exist a CIA funded group of paid operatives that work outside the guidelines of American politics, but for CIA interests. Peckinpah immediately contradicts the statement with a second title card that claims that the events in the film are completely fictitious, and that the belief that there could exist such an organization is absurd. This sort of contradiction has strongly marked Peckinpah’s career, where he had existed as a provocateur—in which he remains to this day. You may not agree with him, you may not even have a grasp of what he believes, but you’ll be damned if you aren’t stirred by his brashness.At its core, The Killer Elite is a revenge story. When he is betrayed and crippled by his partner and best friend George Hansen (Duvall), Mike Locken (Caan) works through a painful and debilitating recovery in order to see his retribution. Locken takes to martial arts to overcome his physical downfalls, learning how to utilize his, now, required cane as a weapon. When Hansen resurfaces, working on an assignment to assassinate a Japanese politician, Yuen Chung (Mako), currently residing in America, Locken is quick to agree to an assignment to protect Chung’s life. You can see the factors that Peckinpah was probably drawn to in the script. There is a great story in Locken and Hansen’s relationship; a delicate balance between hatred and love, which is enforced by their outstanding performances. Caan and Duvall have a chemistry that explodes onscreen. This dynamic relationship makes the fine line between hate and love all the more believable. The second theme that seems of interest to Peckinpah, unfortunately, does not resonate quite as loudly: the mistrust of government organizations. The film eschews the stronger prior plotline in favor of climaxing with the latter. Hansen and Locken’s conflict is settled—rather uneventfully—thirty minutes before the film’s conclusion. The rest of the film makes an honest attempt at appealing to mass audiences with a final battle aboard a line of war ships, but, with the most engaging element of the story resolved, the ending sits flat. Peckinpah doesn’t build the tension of mistrust between the operatives and Locken strong enough to justify the film’s conclusion. In the end, The Killer Elite is not great Peckinpah, but contains enough stamina to keep it from sinking. Addition to The Killer Elite, Twilight Time have included Noon Wine, a television adaptation that Peckinpah directed earlier in his career. With this introduction, the viewer has the ability to see the stark difference between a young director on the rise, and one on his way out.
The Dogs of War (1980)
The Dogs of War is probably this series’ shining star. Two years after Christopher Walken’s performance in The Deer Hunter won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Walken starred in this very different, but nonetheless highly entertaining war film. Starting with an explosive (pun intended), and heroic getaway, director John Irvin is quick to present viewers with an action packed glimpse of bravado and machismo. However, this is somewhat misleading, as the real intention of Irvin is far from presenting audiences with yet another testosterone-injected, bloody cinematic visage. With both he and his cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, well experienced in the form, Irvin takes a qausi-documentarian-esque approach to the film. Violence is not exploitative; it harbors meaning. Further, the film’s interests lie stronger in the minutiae of procedure than in violence itself.Hired to gather information on the actions of a tyrannical African Dictator General Kimba, paid mercenary Jamie Shannon (Walken) embarks to fictional West Africa region of Zangaro, his only weapon—a camera. For the first act of the film, Shannon spends his time spying, taking photos, and collecting information that the British government will use to overthrow the vicious leader. However, when Shannon falls under suspicion he is savagely beaten and extradited out of the country. Lucky to be alive, and able to salvage his information, Shannon’s mission is done—but the British government isn’t done with him. Desiring to launch a coup to overthrow Kimba and place one of their own leaders in his place, Shannon is contacted again with an offer to the lead the coup. His common sense clashes with the fiscal opportunity, and he agrees to return to Africa. While there is a great deal of violence in store, and Irvin is certainly not apprehensive about putting it on display, for The Dogs of War death has a cost. The film is vehement in its critique of Western interest in foreign affairs, which the film equates as a feigned humanitarianism as a cover for economic profiteering. Aside from Irvin and Cardiff’s bold oscillation between styles— a distanced documentary-esque grace meshed with politically edged narrative filmmaking—, The Dogs of War’s significance is witnessed in Walken’s performance. In her introductory essay, Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo describes the cinematic nature of Walken’s face, and she is right to do so. Walken has a face for film, but even more so, he has a look. He has these cold, dead eyes that somehow still manage to reveal a degree of emotion. He is calculated in the same breath that he is reeling with pathos. He embodies the complicated nature that the role requires of him with an ease that few—if any—other actors could. Alongside his role in The Deer Hunter, Jamie Shannon is a role that was made for Walken.
If The Dogs of War is not the crowning of achievement of Twilight Time’s September run, then surely it must be Oliver Stone’s 1986 dissection of the El Salvadorian conflicts, Salvador. Stone has, since his debut with Platoon, been a polarizing figure in the film world. Often lambasted for his politically charged films, Stone cannot be said to be a filmmaker without a goal. Stone wears his politics on sleeve; his films are a reflection of his interests. What is so intriguing about Salvador, beyond the fact that it is based on the true story of journalist Rick Boyle, is that the film was produced amidst the continued conflict in El Salvador, which did not come to a conclusion until 1992.Co-written by Stone and Boyle himself, Stone describes the James Woods’ portrayal of Boyle as actually less obtrusive than his real life counterpart. The film follows Boyle as he embarks on El Salvador in order to profit from covering the civil war and escalating political climate. However, when he witnesses the atrocities on display, Boyle’s motivations change from economic to philanthropic. Woods performance is among the best of his career. He is snide, crude, pig-headed, selfish, and, yet, he is extremely likeable and engaging. Like Walken in The Dogs of War, there are few actors that would be able to rival Woods’ performance here. What really allows Salvador to shine, is Stone’s mixing of reality and romanticized fiction, to promote the cause of the left wing fighters. The included commentary track on the disc with Stone himself, is particularly engaging, as he dissects the film’s dedication to reality. Chunks of dialogue are extracted from real life, interspersed with a romanticized image of the oppressed fighters. Some may take issue with Stone’s slippage of fact and fiction, but, when viewed under a historical lens, his actions have a purpose. Stone produced this film when the events in El Salvador, and particularly America’s involvement, were largely ignored. When discussed, the left wing militias were demonized in an attempt to promote American interests. Stone’s film is as much his attempt to present an accurate depiction of the conflict as it is his own propaganda to alert Americans to the atrocities at hand, to open their eyes to what they are supporting. For this, Salvador is one of Stone’s finest films.
A theme that is consistent among the films—with the slight exception of Che!—is the idea of profiting from war and conflict. In each of these films we have characters acting as independent operatives, involved in the conflicts of other nations—the latter three with the expressed interest being monetary. While attempts have been made to pan each film, a retrospective can reveal their ambitions—even if they fail in doing so—to tackle important issues revolving Western violence, war, influence in foreign land, and rebellion. Thanks to Twilight Time, we have the opportunity to engage with these formerly unrelated films, placing them under a unified lens to reveal what may have been lost before. Twilight Time have done a great deal of work securing wonderful prints, that look stunning in 1080p high definition, with a great deal of worthwhile features spread amongst the collection.