Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beach Red

As a piece of filmmaking, Cornel Wilde's Beach Red (1967) is as crude as anything, but, while this may be a question of circumstance rather than choice, really, what better way to approach a war picture? In the relentless first half, American soldiers take a Japanese-held beach and then advance inland, the men shoot and get shot and Wilde films it all with the same matter-of-fact brutality. In one scene, a grunt looks down at the glowing red stump of his arm after it's blasted off, then stumbles forward, his unbalanced frame filling the screen until he collapses. Peppering the lulls in the action with a whole catalogue of slapdash experimental techniques (in the literal sense of the word "experiment" - an untrained artist trying whatever techniques he can think of to tell his story) - soldier's interior monologues presented in voice-over, milky flashbacks to the home lives of each character (American and Japanese alike), still photographs, twice underlined symbolism, stock footage - Wilde's film's an odd mixture: incredibly potent, unsentimental battle scenes and less potent, incredibly sentimental interludes in fitful alternation. Eventually the action simmers down and we get some hokey bits of camaraderie - poorly acted and filled with ludicrous dialogue - as the characters progress from indistinguishable canon fodder to thinly sketched caricatures. But even these lumpish chunks of characterization prove necessary, if only as a foil to the savagery always lurking at a given scene's periphery. In a late bit of melo, these two modes (talking and shooting) trade off to deliriously rude effect, a dying Japanese soldier getting riddled with bullets just as he accepts a canteen from his US counterpart.

Wilde may well fit under that oft-abused rubric "primitive", but as Michael Atkinson points out in his essay on the filmmaker, the director's brand of pulp gets us about as close to the "fears, hatreds, and needs of being alive" as we're likely to get, without the buffer of a knowing irony. And what better testing ground for these unconscious forces than the merciless World War II jungles of the Philippines that form the inescapable terrain of Wilde's picture. While that often held adage about war films always making their subject matter exciting never quite made sense - war always looked pretty unpalatable to me, but if increasingly cinematic video games like the Call of Duty series remain bestsellers, then what do I know? - they should certainly never merit that descriptor with which J. Hoberman damned Schindler's List. Luckily there's nothing remotely "tasteful" about Wilde's sulphurous vision.

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