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Posted on May 25, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Impossible Mission Films

By Wyatt Kingseed

A long-time staple of Hollywood action films set in wartime is the Impossible Mission. A small group of highly-trained soldiers and assassins attempt an extraordinarily difficult operation behind enemy lines. Most often they are sent by overbearing higher-ups to take out a specific military target or to perform a task that requires unusual heroism. Common plot elements characterize the genre: the mission requires near superhuman skill to pull off; the team’s leader is often a reluctant killer, a level-headed sort who manages to keep his eye on the prize while everyone else is losing their focus; expect high casualties; watch out for an unlikely traitor; and know going in that the good guys will win.

With good production values these films are fun, with lots of explosions and tension. Here are six of the best: For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1960), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and The Eagle Has Landed (1971).  


1.jpgFOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.  Ernest Hemingway’s great novel of the Spanish civil war is faithfully brought to the screen by director Sam Wood in perhaps the first film of its genre. A small band of disparate men (and in this case two women) embark on a dangerous commando mission, one whose success may alter the course of the entire war. It was a winning formula—the film earned nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture—and Hollywood would return to the basic plot again and again.  

Gary Cooper is Robert Jordan, an ideological American mercenary and munitions expert helping republican insurgents battle fascism and the Nazi-supported nationalist troops of General Franco in the Guadarrama mountain range. Jordan’s mission is to blow up a strategically important bridge as part of an upcoming offensive. War-weary Pablo is the titular head of the guerillas but the real leader is his wife, Pilar, a rugged, strong-willed patriot who wonders if Pablo has lost his fervor to fight. She shifts her loyalty to Jordan, a move that causes Pablo to consider sabotaging the mission.

Hemingway critics often describe the author as misogynic, but Pilar is one of literature’s great female characters. She is a tower of strength and courage. Greek actress, Katina Paxinou, portrays her with wild gypsy intensity. And like the novel, her vivid description of the capture of a town dominated by Franco loyalists, and their brutal execution, is a highlight. Paxinou won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. Akim Tamiroff, also nominated, plays Pablo as a devious and brooding man, one seemingly not to be trusted.  

Wood concentrates on the action—there is a lot over the three days depicted in the film—but still has time for Jordan to fall in love with Maria, a young girl previously raped by enemy soldiers and played by Ingrid Bergman. Few films have had two such beautiful stars, whose close-ups are nearly as spectacular as the scenery. Filmed in the High Sierras in vivid Technicolor, the rugged mountain terrain is blanketed in snow and looks foreboding and difficult. Victor Young’s magnificent score adds immensely to the action.

The odds against Jordan are high. The film takes an ominous tone when Pilar reads the American’s palm but refuses to divulge what she sees, and another thrilling episode reveals the extent the guerillas are out-gunned. A troop of cavalry sent to ferret out insurgents traps a small band of fighters atop a ragged peak. When rifle fire fails to dislodge the bandits the army calls in planes to finish the job. It is a great scene in the Hemingway tradition–soldiers laughing in the face of death, their courage besting their fear. Jordan will face similar firepower at the bridge as he lays his dynamite and tries to escape with Maria.

2.jpgTHE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.  Winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1957, and six other Academy Awards, this is director David Lean’s first big epic. Set in Burma in 1943, much of the focus is on the psychological battle of wills between the two chief protagonists, both guided by blind principle: Alec Guinness (Best Actor) as Colonel Nicholson, the senior officer of the allied POWS; and Sessue Hayakawa (Best Supporting Actor) as Colonel Saito, the Japanese prison commander. The men are two sides of the same coin, and it is fascinating to watch both consumed by pride.

The two knock heads over Saito’s insistence that British officers work along side enlisted men to help build a railroad bridge over the Kwai River. Nicholson’s persistent refusal to cooperate nearly gets him killed. Punished with solitary confinement in a cramped corrugated tin box under the blistering sun, he finally emerges as an emaciated skeleton, bowed but not beaten. Because Saito faces a deadline from headquarters–failure to finish the bridge on time means dishonor and suicide–he is forced to meet Nicholson’s demands, which include turning full control of the project over to the British. Nicholson, the epitome of a “stiff upper lip” British officer who wants nothing more than to maintain military discipline, forgets that there’s a war on and that he shouldn’t be abetting the enemy. He marshals his troops to construct an engineering marvel.

In the meantime, an American officer makes a miraculous escape from the brutal camp and is later recruited to lead a commando mission back to the site to destroy the bridge before the enemy can use it to transport troops and supplies. William Holden at the peak of his international stardom plays Commander Shears, a hard cynic who thinks Nicholson and Saito are both nuts. In one scene he unleashes his disgust at people who think war is a game, cursing that they only know “how to die like a gentleman… how to die by the rules.”

Filmed in the Ceylonese jungle, the tropical heat seems to radiate from the screen.       
The film has little action until the end, but the tight script moves it along. One of the best scenes has Nicholson atop the completed bridge, considering the worth of his life in a soliloquy to Saito. “…there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy; but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight… tonight!” It is a speech for every man.

Shears and the small band of commanders mine the bridge and wait for the train. Ironically, Nicholson uncovers the plot, and as the prison doctor later laments in the film’s final bit of dialog, “madness” ensues. This is a great film, one of finest ever made.

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