War is Hell. And Entertaining.
Man, there have been a lot of World War II movies. Do a search on the Internet Movie Database and about 500 films come up. The majority are devoted to combat in the European theater of operations, and certainly nothing filled those wartime audiences (or, for that matter, us peacetime audiences) with more of a warm, fuzzy feeling than watching battalions of Nazis meeting their grisly demise. On the flip side, the Germans stood a better chance of garnering a sympathetic portrayal than their beastly East Asian Axis counterparts. Few WWII movies, modern or otherwise, ever portrayed the Japanese as anything but depraved monsters.
More movies have been made about World War II than any other conflict, and with good reason. I mean, think of all the coexisting plot lines: the armies of the world massed to prevent a madman’s aspirations of global domination; a race to construct a doomsday weapon; heroic deeds on individual as well as unit levels; epic battles in the land, sea, and air; and last but not least, the machinery of death mobilized like never before to exterminate millions of innocents. Action!
Now, far be it from me to denigrate the achievements of our fathers and grandfathers during that conflict. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude that I doubt we’ll ever be able to repay (a prescription drug plan would be a start). And the recent surge in Hollywood projects and other tributes has been well-deserved, but let’s face it, the “Greatest Generation” shtick is wearing a mite thin. The renewed focus on the deeds of the WWII generation is refreshing to a point, but the motivations appear less than noble. For one thing, it seems that the vast majority of those joining the love-fest are members of that Not So Great Generation: the Baby Boomers. Like a death row inmate beseeching Jesus for forgiveness, the Boomers are staring down the barrel of old age with the sudden, sobering realization of how bankrupt their lives have been, and looking for any way to redeem themselves. Not only that, but it’s a not-so-subtle commentary on their disappointment with *their* kids, i.e. my generation. The implication in the numerous documentaries, books, and movies like is that my generation is too soft to suck it up if the s**t were to hit the fan. It’s funny how one can lose one’s perspective a scant 30 years after dodging the draft. So build a WWII memorial on the Mall, fly your flag on Memorial Day, and take the time to thank Uncle Joe for putting the boot in Hitler’s a*s. Aside from that, let these guys live out the rest of their lives in the peace they’ve earned and quit trying to make a buck off their lives.
Anyway. The war movie, especially those concerning the Second World War, underwent a genre sea change during the 1960’s and 70’s. Until that time, most war movies were stunning exercises in jingoism. Certainly the ones filmed while the war was still being fought had an excuse, and what kind of Americans would we be if we didn’t lord our achievements over all the good peoples of the world, as we did during the 1950’s (recall that Kubrick’s groundbreaking study of combat and cowardice, “Paths of Glory,” was set in World War One)? With the advent of the 1960’s, the gung-ho characterizations and sterile action of the previous decades began to give way to increasing realism and moral ambiguity. While not entirely able to escape the need for unlikely heroics and an effective “us vs. them” dynamic, movies like “The Bridge at Remagen” and “Hell is for Heroes” began the unenviable task of scratching away that shiny, patriotic “Good War” veneer to display something more truthful to the actual experience.
Some of the greatest war movies of all time came out in the 1970’s – Apocalypse Now and “The Deer Hunter” for example – unfortunately, both of these channeled the alienation and uncertainty prevalent in America following the Vietnam War (thankfully, Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris would soon remind us that we could’ve beaten those lousy VC, if only we’d had a few overpaid, egomaniacal action stars on our side). As the 80’s dawned, the time was ripe for a movie that blew away the World War II movie stereotypes and allowed the viewer to examine the ambiguities in that conflict.
Before you jump to any hasty conclusions, “Attack Force Z” would not be that movie. It’s a perfectly acceptable little film, but it’s not exactly revolutionary.
I’d like to sit here and tell you that the Australians beat us to the punch in the WWII film department (they certainly caught us with our pants down in the car chase movie department, releasing “Mad Max” to an America swollen with bad disco movies and ill-fitting Jordache jeans). I’d like to tell you this, but I can’t. “Max” starred a 22-year old Mel Gibson on the cusp of his star-making turns in “The Year of Living Dangerously” and “The Bounty.” Before those, he would make “Gallipoli” – a powerful study of the nature of friendship in wartime (World War I again, ah well) – and the balls-to-the-wall sequel to “Mad Max;” 1982’s “The Road Warrior.” That same year, he would film a low-key, no-budget Australian World War II picture called “Attack Force Z.”
“Attack Force Z” centers on members of Z Special Force, an elite combat group of the Australian Armed Services made up of volunteers from all branches of the Allied forces. The mission in the film is fictionalized, but (as the opening titles tell us) is supposedly representative of the kind of high-risk operations Z Force performed.
The ostensible star of the movie is John Phillip Law, who plays Lt. Jan Veitch of the Army of the Netherland East Indies. Law was arguably the biggest name of the film, or at least the biggest American name. Though aside from “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” the most high-profile feature he appeared in until 1982 seems to be “Barbarella.” I suppose that for the acting community appearing with Jane Fonda is sort of like leaning into a fastball: sometimes you just gotta take one for the team.
Gibson is second-billed in “Attack Force Z” as Captain P.G. Kelly of the Australian Imperial Forces. As the commander of the mission, it is Kelly’s job to wear the jaunty beret and make those cool commando hand signals that every junior high kid uses when playing Ninja Death Patrol.
Sam Neill plays Sgt. D.J. Costello. Neill, coming straight from relatively lukewarm reviews for his performance as an adult Damien Thorn in the third “Omen” movie, was probably happy to be back with local talent. Costello serves as the matter-of-fact moral center of the movie.
There are two other members of the squad; Bird – the requisite wise-a*s radio guy, and King – who dies in the first ten minutes. And aside from a few witty rejoinders, Bird doesn’t really move things along. That task is left to the three leads and the events in which their characters find themselves embroiled.
The attack continues in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “ATTACK FORCE Z”>>>