Robert Aldrich’s career is a manifest of contradictions. One of the first living directors to be lauded as an auteur, he conscientiously worked his way up from the bottom of the studio system, despite being born into great wealth and power. He always chafed against studio interference, but his four cherished independent film productions failed commercially, returning him to work-for-hire status. His bleak and violent visions painted mankind as a hopelessly corrupt species, yet they beat the drum for his belief in the redeemability of the individual. In Too Late the Hero (1970), the last of Aldrich’s informal war trilogy, these themes collide and cross-cancel, leaving the viewer lost and bloody in a nihilistic no-man’s-land much like the setting that opens and closes the film.
In his 1955 essay “Notes on a Revolution,” critic and soon-to-be New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette identified Aldrich, along with Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann and Richard Brooks, as one of the auteur “front-rankers” who were imbuing their film projects with personal meaning and vocabulary. Even this early in his career, Aldrich is already identified by Rivette as a master of “precise dissonance,” whose work is “an account of moral suffocation, whose only way out must be some fabulous destruction.”1
By 1970, Aldrich was riding high on the success of The Dirty Dozen, which he had directed three years previously. He cashed in his profit participation in the film and used the money to establish his own studio. He contracted ABC Pictures to make four films, and, after two flops, found himself pressured by his distributor into making something in the vein of Dirty Dozen. Aldrich dusted off an older script and headed to the Philippines for location shooting.
In each of Aldrich’s war films (ironically, all set during WWII, America’s morally unambiguous “Good War”) – Attack! (1956), The Dirty Dozen and Too Late the Hero – all the ideals undergirding the traditional American war film are stripped away. In Aldrich’s films, the real enemy is not the Axis but the officer class, which embodies the negation of all the values the soldiers are fighting for: honour, truth, independence and equality. Here, leaders are confused, incompetent, cowardly, vindictive and entirely motivated by self-interest. In their hands, the foot soldier is just another tool to be used, misused or casually destroyed without consequence.
In this universe, the only way for the individual to regain a sense of integrity is through destruction. Arnold and Miller state it succinctly in their The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich: “If you stand against the system, you will be crushed. If you compromise with the system, you will pay with your self-respect. If you step outside the system, you forfeit your self-determination by default. Thus the conundrum posed by Robert Aldrich.”2
Like The Dirty Dozen, Too Late the Hero is what Aldrich referred to as a “patrol picture – it’s X number of men trying to get from here to there and back, or from here to there and survive.”3 However, in The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich was able to keep the audience with him by getting them to identify with the murderers and psychopaths that make up the unit, doing so by pitting the Dozen against the System, so that their Pyrrhic victory (it’s a suicide mission, after all) simultaneously fulfils the desires of the System and serves as a big, rigid middle finger to it as well.
Tony Williams states perceptively, “As Aldrich would learn, most audiences reject narrative ambiguity unless that element appears in a framework that may superficially appear to confirm their attraction to a genre in the first instance.”4 No matter how ‘anti’ the stances are that Aldrich takes in this film, in The Dirty Dozen the mission is in fact accomplished; and, through official sanction, a group of convicted criminals, committing the same acts they were convicted for, is manufactured into a mass of dead heroes.
In Too Late the Hero, however, there is no-one with whom to identify. The ostensible protagonist, Lieutenant Lawson (Cliff Robertson), enters the film drunk, dishevelled, and disrespectful – an opportunist looking for the safest route through the war (shades of William Holden’s American protagonist in Bridge on the River Kwai [David Lean, 1957]). His knowledge of Japanese condemns him to be “volunteered” for a mission to take over a Japanese listening post to assure the safety of an approaching Allied navy convoy. In a brief role as his irritated commanding officer, Nolan, Henry Fonda smashes Lawson’s attempts to shirk his duty, as a portrait of FDR stares down serenely over his shoulder (in The Dirty Dozen, the President’s portrait likewise hovers beatifically over Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman in an early scene). “I can’t win, can I?” asks Lawson. “No, you can’t,” is the reply.
The reluctant Lawson is shipped to a godforsaken (literally; HQ is in an abandoned church) jungle island in the New Hebrides. There, he is matched with a ragtag bunch of British commandos, who are first found torturing insects, much like the children at the beginning of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). Ranking officer Colonel Thompson (Harry Andrews) states, “I don’t know what the natives were like here, but there are none anymore.” Wiped out or driven off; either way, there are no inconvenient bystanders around to distract from the killing. The island is a perfect little battleground.
The Pacific War setting also differentiates Too Late the Hero from Aldrich’s earlier work. In European war films, there is a strong sense of context – there is a history there, and combatants are fighting over familiar turf – and similarly, in both Attack! and The Dirty Dozen, the geographical logic is tight: we always know where our characters are and where they want to go. In Too Late the Hero, on the other hand, the jungle swallows up all sense of direction or progress – a powerful metaphor, but an approach that also disorients the viewer. We have no idea of where anyone is in relation to anyone else; the sense of mission and urgency, even the possibility of agency, are gone. We literally can’t keep track of things in the movie.
None of the members of Lawson’s team are admirable. The squad leader, Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott), is sincere and motivated, but he’s also an idiot who gets his men killed through incompetence and a brute who executes wounded Japanese prisoners. The rank-and-file soldiers are absolutely unmemorable, not above corpse-robbing and mutilation, useful only as slaughtered plot points.
The film’s devil’s advocate is Private Hearne, played by Michael Caine in a film-stealing performance. (Robertson was reportedly a prima donna during filming, while Caine wasn’t. Guess who wound up with better scenes?) Hearne is the grimly witty reality principle at work. When a comrade is blown to shards by a mine, he remarks, “You might say he has us surrounded.” He questions the need for the mission, advocating turning back, hiding out in the jungle, anything but sacrificing themselves for what he sees as a worthless cause. “Six months from now, they’ll still be where they are, and we’ll still be where we are,” Hearne insists. “Getting ourselves killed isn’t going to make any difference to anyone except us.”
But Hearne is also compassionate, outraged and decent. The problem with Too Late the Hero is that his is the strongest argument in the film. Lawson’s sudden switch from coward to hero is unconvincing, and his talk of saving lives through his actions are perfunctory and hollow. He must in fact force Hearne at gunpoint to act in accordance with his new-found ideals. By getting the viewer to identify with Hearne, Aldrich negates all the action in the film, reducing it to a parade of unsupportable and vicious absurdity.
The film isn’t helped by plot holes, inconsistencies and irrelevant points. A contrived opening and closing sequence mandate that the British can only enter or exit their base by running across an enormous open field, prey to Japanese snipers. That makes a point about war as spectator sport, but it’s not a situation supported by any known military strategy. There’s a Noble Enemy, Major Yamaguchi (Ken Takakura), who complicates the moral equation. There’s an implausibly hidden Japanese air base in there as well. (And hey, grenade fuses were four seconds long – the devices did not wait a minute or so to explode until the proper dramatic moment arrives.)
The film’s co-screenwriter, frequent Aldrich collaborator Lukas Heller, issued the most damning and accurate assessment of the film:
[Too Late the Hero] was an illustration of [Aldrich’s] enormous failings as a writer, and to some extent as a director. It was terribly elaborate. To get the dramatic conflict that he wanted to establish, there had to be so many convolutions of plot, so many situations that had to be explained. It seemed to me a tremendously self-conscious examination of heroism.5
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Too Late the Hero (1970 USA 145 mins)
Prod Co: ABC Pictures, Palomar Pictures, The Associates & Aldrich Company Prod: Robert Aldrich Dir: Robert Aldrich Scr: Robert Aldrich, Lukas Heller, George Marzbetuny Phot: Joseph Biroc Ed: Michael Luciano Mus: Gerald Fried
Cast: Michael Caine, Cliff Robertson, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews, Ronald Fraser, Denholm Elliott, Henry Fonda, Ken Takakura
- Jacques Rivette, “Notes sur une revolution,” Cahiers du Cinéma 54 (Christmas 1955), reprinted and translated in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s – Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, Jim Hillier, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 96, available at http://www.dvdbeaver.com/rivette/ok/revolution.html ↩
- Edwin T. Arnold & Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1986), p. 75. ↩
- Robert Aldrich, quoted in ibid., p. 118. ↩
- Tony Williams, Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2004), p. 259. ↩
- Arnold & Miller, op. cit., p. 152. ↩