If you were feeling in a highly generalizing kind of mood you could argue that there’s usually only two types of Second World War movie – the ones where everyone acts the hero for the greater good and the ones where everyone is burnt out, cynical and looking to find any short cut they can to get send home early and – most importantly – alive. One of the finest examples of this kind of flick is The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich’s 1967 classic that detailed a suicide squad (apologies to DC) being formed of a band of criminals and deserters that broke rules and ranks to entertaining effect. Well, in 1970 Aldrich tried again with the equally off-beat Too Late A Hero, a movie that dealt with a group of men who were on the right side of the law (barely) but who’s general malaise about their predicament leaves them woefully unprepared to accept a mission that will probably mean certain death.
Smug translator Lieutenant Sam Lawson has somehow spent the entirety of the conflict chilling on a beach, sucking up beers and avoiding combat while he soaks up sun in the South Pacific. However, his luck runs out spectacularly when, much to his dismay, his leave is cancelled and he’s singled out for a mission that’ll see him flown out to join a British Infantry commando unit located in the New Hebrides Islands. Arriving at the base, it immediately becomes apparent that despite the competency of no nonsense base commander Col. Thompson, the morale of the men are well and truly in the crapper and many have lost all faith in what they’re supposed to be fighting for. It doesn’t help that the base is located in a vast field surrounded by hostile jungle that’s barely a stone’s throw from a Japanese communication post and any patrols are in danger of being cut down by enemy fire as the cross the long, expanse of land.
The mission is to head out and destroy the Japanese radio transmitter so an American naval convoy can slip by without getting spotted, but the mission pretty much goes tits up almost immediately mostly thanks to the awful leadership of upper class twit Captain Hornsby who has his own men succumbing to friendly fire during a poorly staged ambush and leaves wounded teammates behind to get butchered by the enemy. Also not helping is the attitude of them men who, led by nihilistic cockney medic Tosh Hearne, would probably kill their superior officers and bugger off if they thought they could get away with it, so Lawson finds himself trapped in the middle of a absurdly dangerous mission with men who want to be there even less than he does. Does he suck it up and finally become the hero, or does he cut and run before a Japanese bullet finally finds its mark?
A sweaty, grim, man on a mission movie, Too Late The Hero is obviously trying to put a more sober spin on the well worn tale of a group of mismatched dudes facing certain death. Compared to Aldrich’s previous classic, the pressures on these men are infinitely greater due to the fact that they aren’t criminals but are regular commandos slowly baking in the heat of the Pacific islands and their attitudes are most definately not that of heroes. Uncle Ben himself Cliff Robertson plays his character initially as a whining brat of a man, willing to search for a loophole to quit the war entirely instead of actually having to fight in it, while Michael Caine’s Hearne spends virtually every line of dialogue he has trying to get everyone within earshot to call the mission off – even when he’s in the bloody middle of if. Even the people who are ready to fight are compromised due to the fact that they end up being woefully incompetent, such as Denholm Elliot’s cocksure Captain who’s well meaning blundering causes more casualties than the Japanese and the rest of the men are an assorted line up of cowards, idiots, or men who will even murder their own if it means they can save their skin for a little while longer.
The result of this, however, leaves Too Late The Hero feeling depressing and dull when it should be thrilling and nail biting as its director and stars do too good a job of making its cast of motley characters utterly unsympathetic, even after the survivors pull their last minute heroic shit and the sole reason you stick with Caine and Robertson’s characters at all is mostly because they’re played by Caine and Robertson. The former makes his constant, cockney complaining tolerable thanks to his effortless charm while the latter broods on his situation with typical charisma but the result isn’t actually that interesting. If the leads don’t care about the consequences of their actions then why should we? But then if we do care about the mission then that also means that the attitudes of the men we’re watching are incredibly repellant and cowardly – simply put, the movie essentially shoots itself in the foot in its attempts to give us more flawed heroes that you’d usually get. Maybe some beefed up banter would have helped, maybe an earlier heroic turn would have counteracted cynicism that’s as thick as mustard gas, but as it stands, the movie strands us in the jungle with a cluster of hugely unsympathetic men whom you mostly can’t tell apart and then slows the pace down to a frustrating degree.
It’s not all bad, of course. There’s standout support from Henry Fonda and Harry Andrews and there’s a couple of stirring action sequences with the final, race across that field being legitimately gripping, especially as we don’t know who exactly which characters are sprinting where, but all in all Too Late The Hero falls short, which is strange when you consider that Aldrich had already proved he could capably do war with The Dirty Dozen and nihilism tinged thrillers with What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
More like Too Little, Too Late The Hero.