Fighting the Good Fight in “The Devil’s Brigade”

1968 saw the release of several notable war movies. War movies were still popular, even if the real ongoing war in Asia was not. Especially popular were movies that glorified the heroes of the previous generation. The biggest money maker, as far as WWII movies, was Where Eagles Dare, a film based on a novel by Alistair MacLean.  There were several others that came out in 1968. By far the box office star for war movies was The Green Berets, which was John Wayne‘s answer to the protests over the unfavorable Vietnam war. For my money, the absolute best war movie from 1968 only had two actors, however; Hell in the Pacific, with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as enemy combatants eventually forced to form a partnership when both are stranded on a deserted island.

Equally rousing however is The Devil’s Brigade, based on a true story of the formation of the First Special Service Force during WWII, a combined force of American and Canadian troops. The Canadians are composed of staunch chins up soldiers, but the American force is a ragtag gaggle of various malcontents. Not exactly criminals like those that formed the crack outfit in The Dirty Dozen, but I did notice a few characters who seemed to resemble some of the characters in that previous movie.

Of course William Holden‘s Col. Frederick is not a stand-in for Col. Reismann, but he does exhibit some of the same disregard for authority that Lee Marvin’s  does. And Claude Akins‘ Pvt. Rockman could easily be mistaken for John Cassevetes’ Franco (with maybe a dash of the racist views of Telly Savalas’ Maggott). Richard Jaeckel, who was a sergeant in the first movie is a private here, not quite as dumb as Donald Sutherland’s Pinkley, but just as carefree. If you’ve seen the former flick, you might find yourself attaching some of the same similarities to the characters in this one.

The Devil’s Brigade

William Holden plays Lt. Col. Robert Frederick who arrives in Britain to discuss with Lord Mountbatten what he considers an ill-conceived idea. He had already sent papers from the U.S., but had to show up personally, and is disgusted when he finds that the Allies are going through with their plan despite the flaws in the plan he has already pointed out.

It turns out this meeting was really to get a good look at Frederick, because the Allied command has ideas of forming a crack troop of soldiers for a mission in Norway. Frederick has to mold a ragtag group of soldiers, most of whom have been in and out of the brig for various offenses, and shape them into a group that can head the Norway invasion.

Among these are Private “Rocky” Rockman (Claude Akins), a bulky malcontent who is always itching for a fight, Private Omar Greco (Richard Jaeckel), who has gone AWOL more times than anybody can keep track of, and Private Theodore Ransom (Andrew Prine), who is running from a cushy job as a piano player for a base because he really, really wants to get into the action.

On their first day on the base the soldiers are astounded by the arrival of a contingent of Scots-Canadians, marching smartly in formation, decked out in kilts and bagpipes.  There is the requisite hostility between the Americans and the Canadians, mainly it seems because the Canadians are in better shape as soldiers. Rockman and a few others are constantly trying to instigate a fight, but the orders are down from the leaders that he Canadians are to resist the temptation. A brawl in a bar with a bunch of unruly lumberjacks is the thing that gets them all on the same page.

But word comes down from the high brass that they have decided to let the Brits take the Norway mission. Frederick is disgusted, mainly because the higher-ups don’t think he has done a good enough job on his troops to make them ready. He demands an opportunity to prove their worth and he is given it;  a recon of a German garrison in Italy. Like Rambo in First Blood: Part II, their job is only to look around and bring back information, but the renegade side of Frederick has other ideas. They actually plan to capture the garrison.

They end up doing just that, but it’s not over yet. Now that the high command has seen how capable this “Devil’s Brigade” is, they are given another mission, to capture a mountain fortress. And it won’t be easy, I can tell you that much.

Holden is joined by a familiar cast of actors in this one. His second in command is Dr. Ben Casey, Vince Edwards, really. Cliff Robertson plays the leader of the Canadian contingent.  Richard Dawson appears as one of the soldiers.  Carroll O’Connor is a general with whom Frederick appeals for a chance for his troops. You’ll even catch Dana Andrews and Michael Rennie in the head office.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.