Friday, February 10, 2017

144. Iron Angel

144. Iron Angel (1964)
Director: Ken Kennedy
Writer: Ken Kennedy
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A group of soldiers serving in Korea are dispatched to take out an enemy mortar that’s blocking a supply route. After completing the mission, they meet up with a nurse who complicates their situation.

The Koreans have set up a mortar that’s preventing US soldiers from getting supplies to the line. A young Lieutenant is tasked with taking the mortar out before the next shipment goes through. He picks an older sergeant, Sgt. Walsh, and four men who’d served under Walsh because they were the only survivors of a prior encounter. The Lieutenant acts as though Walsh was a coward and did something treacherous to survive. When the Captain asks the Lieutenant about it, though, the Lieutenant admits that these five are the only ones who’ve seen any combat whatsoever.

And that’s the problem with the movie: the characters don’t have a consistent stance on how they feel about each other from the very beginning. You can’t have a character going, “You’ve coming with me so I can make you pay,” to, literally a minute later, going, “These are the only people I can trust.”

Walsh gives the list to the Corporal, an African-American, which is only worth noting because one of the other four is “Reb,” a racist that is constantly making comments about the Corporal. Later in the movie, the Corporal says Reb has people call him that so they’ll assume he’s Southern and thus won’t blame him for his racism, even though he’s actually from Iowa. That’s actually a clever character detail. The movie doesn’t do anything with it, though.

The other two men are generic war movie types—the devoutly religious and the young naïf—and all six of them, including the Lieutenant, go off to find the mortar, which they do relatively quickly. Walsh suggests someone sneak around back since they’re taking direct fire, but the Lieutenant accuses him of being a coward and commences a direct assault. Walsh tries to cover him, but his gun jams. The Lieutenant gets shot and Walsh runs forward to successfully complete the job. Reb fires off Walsh’s gun, demonstrating that it wasn’t jammed, and the Lieutenant, with his dying words, curses Walsh as a coward.

This is only the first third of the movie. The group has to rendezvous at a field hospital that they don’t 100% know the way to or if it still exists. On the way, they find a crashed Army ambulance with its nurse still present. She refuses to let them on board with their weapons because it’d violate the Geneva Conventions. Remember when Americans saw the Geneva Conventions as something to abide as opposed to a bucket list?

There’s back-and-forth with her and the group, they’re found by some Korean soldiers, the Corporal gets shot, but the Americans win. They find a map on one of the bodies that reveals a second mortar set-up further up the line. They also learn that the Lieutenant was the nurse’s fiancé, which is unfortunate, but not spun out at all because nothing is of any great consequence in this movie. They manage to find the second mortar, take it out, but Reb and the naïf get shot. The naïf dies after reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Reb and the Corporal make amends, off screen, because they’re both getting sent home. Walsh and the Christian are reunited with their company and the nurse goes back to the field hospital. THE END.

What I haven’t mentioned yet are the weird cutaways. Three times during the movie, characters start telling lurid stories about women and the movie whip-pans into a fantasy sequence of what’s being described. No dialogue, no voice-over, just lusty, dancing women in various states of undress. The scenes don’t make sense and are just padding, maybe also there for the lascivious edge they add to the picture. War pictures usually have characters end up in brothels or clubs that serve soldiers so there can be an excuse to squeeze in nudity, but it happens in-between moments of action. The characters are actually there and it plays either into the larger story of the movie or into the theme of war allowing people to shed the stifling conventions of society and be what we really are—real men and real women focused on the moment that matters. Alternately, it’s there to demonstrate the debauchery of war, how it drags everybody involved with and adjunct to it down. Whatever the reason, there is a justification for it. Here, they are literally moments where the movie goes, “Are you tired of watching this movie? Let’s see what’s on the other channel briefly. That sucks, let’s go back.”

The movie’s also not about anything. This isn’t a character study, it’s not about what war does to people, it’s not even particularly about ennobling the soldier. It’s just some nondescript people on a job that they get done. There could be some exploration of officers vs. enlisted men—prioritizing glory over survival—but that’s not here. It could be about Reb, a cowardly, shit-stirring soldier and the damage he can do to a group, but that’s not it either. The group doesn’t even learn about the second mortar until the third act so the movie’s not even about trying to do this one job that’ll protect the company.

It’s not terrible, it’s just average, with really weird cutaways to girls dancing and stripping. I actually liked it in terms of plot, I just didn’t think they did anything interesting with it. The movie is curious to consider in the context of Vietnam. Troop levels were increasing there by the time this movie was produced, so you can try to read it as reflecting the national mood about that war. If you do that, the movie’s ambivalence, neither gung-ho about soldiers nor earnestly depicting the horrors of war, becomes a cultural signifier of the US’s attitude to military intervention at that point: just something you do before you come back for your real life, if it doesn’t kill you in the process.

So it’s an odd duck. I don’t recommend it because it’s not fun, it’s not campy, but I also don’t advise anyone to avoid it because it’s not actively bad. The movie’s merely okay, relentlessly on the verge of tipping over into being something better, and never tipping. Which maybe speaks to my frustration watching it. I kept waiting for promises that were never fulfilled.

This movie’s in the public domain and I’ve added and MPEG-2 to the Internet Archive here.

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