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The Devil's 8
(1969)

Director: Burt Topper
Cast:
Christopher George, Fabian, Tom Nardini


Though I might seem a brave enough guy, since I constantly look for and subsequently watch movies that I have little to no idea what they are like beforehand, to tell the truth this reviewer has some personal fears. Some of these are film-related, like having the fear that I will be made to watch a Canadian movie that received funding from Telefilm, the film funding agency that has no sense of the public's taste for movies. (Yes, I will keep bashing Telefilm until they radically change their policies.) Though most of these fears are not film related. For example, ever since I can remember, I have had a fear of heights. (What makes it worse is that every time I get on an airplane, I always get a window seat.) But I would like to talk about one particular kind of fear I have, a fear that I have mentioned several times earlier on this web site. And that is the fear of being thrown in prison. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine why I am fearful of this possibility; even if you've only seen a fraction of the B movies that I have, you know of the dark stuff that can happen in a prison. Most likely you would be stuck in a small cell for most of a day, if not completely should you break the rules and get thrown in solitary confinement. There are the bland meals that are served three times a day. The most pressing problem, however, is the high risk of encountering violence even if you try to keep your nose clean. Prison doesn't just bring in the worst of humanity into itself; it also seems to bring out the worst of humanity to those who are stuck there year after year.

Sometimes when the idea of being stuck in prison enters my mind, I try to comfort myself by trying to think of ways I could get out should I be thrown in the slammer. I don't think too much of the idea of breaking out - even though this has been done successfully by a number of convicts over the centuries, the idea of all the security in modern prisons overwhelms me. And with mass media coverage, it would be harder to remain free once you've climbed over the prison walls. I suppose I could volunteer for something some prisoners have done in the past - take place in medical experiments. But there is of course the risk that those experiments could screw you up so badly that once freed from prison, you'd still have a hellish life. There is another possibility, one that's been proposed in a number of movies over the past few decades - volunteer to be trained as part of a crack commando unit and be sent on a dangerous mission. I would have mixed feelings about this should I be in prison and offered this. On one hand, I remember roughly what one condemned prisoner said to such an offer in the E. M. Nathanson novel The Dirty Dozen (which inspired the movie of the same name): "Sure, I'll do it - what do I have to lose?" Though he was facing execution, and Canada has no death penalty. Would I take such an offer? If I was facing life in prison... maybe. The chance of freedom would seem a lot sweeter. Though on the other hand, I would risk getting myself in a situation like the unlucky guy in the Dalton Trumbo novel (and movie) Johnny Got His Gun, or even just getting simply killed sometime during the mission.

Despite obvious potential problems that would cross the mind of any condemned prisoner should he be offered a ticket out if he would volunteer to be some part of commando force, this premise has all the same been appealing to a number of filmmakers (and audiences) for quite some The Devil's Eighttime now, ever since The Dirty Dozen first hit theaters. I think part of the reason for the popularity of these movies is that it shows prisoners redeeming themselves; if hardened criminals can shape up and do some good, there is hope for all of humanity. Of course, another reason is that it's an excuse for excitement and action. That's certainly one of the prime reasons why I sat down to watch The Devil's 8, but I was also interested by its interesting cast, a collection of some colorful B-movie actors. The plot: Somewhere in the southern part of the United States, a rural organized crime boss known only as Burl (Ralph Meeker, The Dirty Dozen) is running a bootleg liquor racket, and with his murderous goons has been able to fight off multiple attempts by the law to quash it. Federal agent Ray Faulkner (George, Enter The Ninja) finally comes up with a plan: He will spring six chain gang prisoners and train them to become a fighting unit that will destroy Burl's operation, with a promise to the prisoners that they will be pardoned once the mission is over. Faulker in short notice enacts the escape plan, and soon has on his hands the prisoners Sonny (Fabian, Get Crazy), token black Henry (Robert DoQui, Cloak & Dagger), token racist mechanic Billy Joe (Nardini, Cat Ballou), Sam (Joe Turkel, Blade Runner), the wimpish Chandler (Larry Bishop, Shanks), and Frank (Ross Hagen, Pushing Up Daisies), a former employee of Burl. Faulkner and his six men are joined by newbie federal agent Stewart Martin (Ron Rifkin, Alias), which of course makes eight men. But even with eight men who each have special skills, it's going to take a lot of work to whip them all into shape - that is, if they don't kill each other first!

If even you haven't seen as many rip-offs of The Dirty Dozen as I have in my lifetime, you probably still have some idea of the basic formula these films follow. Early on in these movies, the problem facing some sort of leadership is illustrated. Subsequently, the key person who is in charge of executing some sort of plan to combat the problem is introduced. Whether that person comes up with the idea of gathering a squad of people and training them or not, the person quickly gets to work gathering people. The recruits (made up of very different types of characters) are introduced, and they are subsequently put through intense training and learn how to work together. Once fully trained, the squad and their leader go out into enemy territory to execute their mission, encountering along the way some problems they probably didn't plan on. That's how these movies usually play out. I thought it would be interesting in my review of The Devil's 8 to examine the movie by how well it executes those expected plot points and turns. Here's what I thought:

Illustration of the problem facing some sort of leadership: The Devil's 8 doesn't waste any time in explaining things to the audience. When the character of Ray Faulkner is brought in by his superiors very early in the movie, the problem is illustrated to him (and us in the audience) in less than two minutes. I seem to recall the military brass in The Dirty Dozen explained its situation to Lee Marvin in an equally brief time. But while The Devil's 8 does not waste time setting things up, there was a part of me that wished there was a little more in this first part of the movie. Ray Faulkner is after a person that we know little about at this point. Maybe if there was a short opening scene showing Burl the bootlegger doing something bad (like killing a federal agent), we in the audience would have a better sense of what the protagonists are up against. But this was a minor quibble; the movie's desire to get to business quickly does beat some other Dirty Dozen rip-offs.

Introduction of the key person hired to combat the problem: The movie also doesn't waste any time when it comes to doing this - the opening sequence of the movie depicts Ray Faulkner undercover executing his plan to spring specifically picked prisoners from a chain gang under the guise of a mass escape, while he himself is disguised as one of the chain gang prisoners. During the escape, we also get a flashback to that short scene I mentioned in the previous paragraph. While both scenes do reasonably illustrate that Ray is both resourceful and seemingly knows what he's doing, there are some unanswered questions. How did he get into the chain gang? How did he get his six personally picked prisoners to follow him during the escape? These questions and a few others are not answered. While these unanswered questions are not fatal blows to the movie, at the same time I felt the movie was kind of being lazy in this section. Personally I would have given up a little speed for a little more explanation.

Introduction to the other members of the team: If you remember The Dirty Dozen, you will remember that early in the movie, Lee Marvin's character spent some time going to various inmates in the military prison to interview them before recruiting them. This extended sequence not only introduced us to the members of the team, it helped to flesh them out, making them fully formed characters early on instead of stock characters. In The Devil's 8, we learn almost nothing about the inmates before they are recruited. A couple of minutes into the movie, there is the prison breakout that the Faulkner character orchestrates. And a few minutes after that, Faulkner has his shanghaied recruits lined up at the training camp and tells them what the deal is. At this point, we still know next to nothing about these characters. You may be asking if we get to learn more about them in the next stretch of the movie, the training sequence. Not too much more. When Faulkner first tells his intentions to his still mystified men, he states the qualifications of a couple of his men, then says about the rest of them, "You are young and will learn." As the men go through their training, we learn a few other things, some of which gets to show the talents of the cast. As Frank, Ross Hagen broods appropriately and shows some convincing pain from a trauma in his criminal past. Actor Robert DoQui has a nice scene where he reacts to the bigot in the group with humor and ends up triumphant. The character of Chandler, acted by Larry Bishop, has a cynical attitude to the general situation that's believable. But that is about it. Apart from those things, the six convicts pretty much act and talk alike, and it's often hard to differentiate each one from the others. As for the other two group members, I suppose the character of Faulkner is okay, showing some playfulness as well as the feeling of a real team leader. He could have been made to be more colorful, but at least he comes off a lot better than the eighth person to join the team, newbie agent Martin. He doesn't come into the movie until more than half the training sequence is over, and his second appearance isn't until the mission actually starts to unfold.

The training sequence: Before I get into describing the actual training, I would like to add to that above paragraph that the reason there doesn't seem to be much character development early on is because of the length of the training sequence itself. The whole training sequence lasts only about twenty minutes. On one hand, that might be a good thing for some viewers, those being people who want the movie to get to business right away. On the other hand, the whole training sequence seems to be so rushed that the movie fails to get some key things right. For example, most of what we get to see of the training, such as racing cars around obstacle courses or firing automatic weapons, isn't terribly exciting. It's too rushed and sloppily directed, and you don't get the sense that the team is becoming a formidable force or really learning anything. The mission they are training for also seems vague and unfocused for a long time; we don't learn what exactly Faulkner has in mind until training is half over, and even then it's briefly mentioned and subsequently forgotten about. The biggest problem about this segment of the movie is that we don't get the feeling all eight individuals become a well-oiled and interlocked team; they may be together, but they don't seem to have a common goal or feel supported by each other. One thing the training sequence does get right is making sure that there is some humor along the way. It's not laugh out loud funny humor, but these small comic touches do add a little sparkle and help this section of the movie to be somewhat bearable despite those aforementioned flaws.

The execution of the mission: As you probably guessed from the above paragraph, where I mentioned that the training only lasts about twenty minutes, the remaining hour or so of the running time is devoted to showing the team out in the field and executing their mission directives. While you may think that the movie has been saving a lot of action and suspense for this remainder of the movie, that is not the case. The filmmakers pretty much blow every remaining step. Faulkner and his men seem mighty disorganized, for one thing. They are seen making various plans (like where to set up camp) in the middle of their mission when they should have made them before starting their mission. Once they set up camp and get down to business, it's not that much better. They leisurely slam a few cars belonging to Burl off the road. They get drunk. Frank rekindles a relationship with an old girlfriend who is working for Burl. They look around for Burl's still. As you can see, this part of the movie isn't exactly action packed. This last hour of The Devil's 8 is so slow and dull that the filmmakers have to throw in a (mediocre) barroom fight sequence in the middle of it to try and add some life. Well, I guess the climatic shoot-out at Burl's still is okay, though it doesn't have the impact it should have had mainly because the character of Burl has not been made to be a strong bad guy. He only has a few (short) scenes beforehand, and his behavior in those scenes is too casual to make him a person that the protagonists should fear directly or indirectly.

As you can see from the above paragraphs, The Devil's 8 manages to screw up the Dirty Dozen formula pretty badly for the most part. The movie also makes some serious botches elsewhere. For starters, while the movie takes place in the Deep South, it was filmed in southern California, which often looks nothing like moonshine country. There are some shoddy production values as well, which includes some of the worst rear projection I have ever seen in a movie. And the musical score is more often than not very inappropriate, sometimes sounding as if it were composed for a surfing movie instead of an action movie. I could go on listing faults of the movie for quite some time, but I think that would be redundant. The kindest thing I can say for the movie is that it doesn't manage to beat the Michael Dudikoff movie Soldier Boyz as the worst Dirty Dozen rip-off I have seen to date.

(Posted October 17, 2019)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: The Annihilators, The Magnificent Seven Ride!, Seven

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