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Too Late the Hero

Being attached to the U.S. Navy in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1942 isn't the first place Lt. Sam Lawson (Cliff Robertson) wants to be, but by all accounts he doesn't have the worst of it — after all, the translator divides his time between interpreting Japanese radio transmissions and lying on a beach swilling beer. But it's all about to change for the reluctant officer — one day before he's due to take a one-month leave, he's ordered by his commanding officer (Henry Fonda) to join a British combat unit on an island in the New Hebridies. What's worse, the mission is complicated, and dangerous: The Americans are losing boats in the island's vicinity, and the British will stage a commando operation from their HQ on the island's southern tip, through heavy jungle, to the Japanese base on the northern shore. After destroying the Japanese transmitter, Lawson will radio an all-clear to the Japanese authorities, giving the U.S. Navy time to overtake the hostile territory. But if Lawson, who has never seen combat, isn't the best man for the job, his British counterparts aren't much better. Despite their sensible, no-nonsense CO (Harry Andrews), the rank-and-file suffer from morale so low it's practically rock-bottom. Among the most cynical is medic Tosh Hearne (Michael Caine), who doesn't appreciate his assignment to the suicide mission any more than Lawson. And they're placed under the authority of Capt. Hornsby (Denholm Elliot), a rustic English gentleman who clings to the idea of warfare as a gentleman's business rather than the bloody brutality it can become in a matter of moments. Produced, directed, and co-written by Robert Aldrich, Too Late the Hero (1970) marks his follow-up to the popular, successful The Dirty Dozen (1967), and one has to hope the filmmaker could catch lightning in a bottle more than once. However, while Hero doesn't match Dozen's epic serio-comedy with smart-assed convicts turned noble assassins, it does retain the Aldrich touch. Foremost is the director's penchant for anti-authoritarian characters — stern and laconic, Cliff Robertson is a good fit as Lt. Lawson, who never signed up for combat but sure as hell is willing to kill someone if it means the difference between him dying in the jungle and going home. Michael Caine, as Tosh, is even better, coming off his string of British successes into one of his first forays into the American film industry. He's frequently snarky (nicknaming Lawson "Snow White"), but as the mission moves from one mishap to the next, he begins to unleash the sort of verbal fury that made him an inimitable movie star. One certainly could ask for more — while the mission has a clear purpose, the plot tends to be a bit too sprawling for its own good. And while Caine is the star of this show, one also realizes just how much Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes contributed to The Dirty Dozen — Aldrich could have used their likes here as well. MGM's DVD release of Too Late the Hero features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.78:1), although it's been slightly opened from the original theatrical ratio, which was intended to be 2.00:1 (apparently matted from a 35mm source, so there is no cropping or pan-and-scan to be seen). The DD 2.0 audio is clear and perfectly acceptable. Trailer, keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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