Beach Red

Director: Cornel Wilde
Cornel Wilde, Rip Torn, Burr DeBenning

Although I love movies and I am glad for the opportunity to be in a position to write about movies for others that are equally interested in the same offbeat films as I am, there are times that I am not sure that I would actually like to be in the position of making movies. From what I have read over the years, whatever position you might be in inside the motion picture industry seems to inevitably be a major pain in the butt. One such aggravating position in the industry is trying to actually sell movies to an audience, whether they may be brand new movies or movies made decades earlier. For example, there's a strong possibility that you know about the problem of trying to sell foreign films to a North American audience. Whether you attach subtitles or dub the product, chances are you'll get a bad reaction either way, since North Americans generally dislike subtitles and film purists get into a fury when a foreign film is dubbed. But I would more like to talk about certain genres that Hollywood has traditionally found to be a tough sell when looking at the world market. For example, there is the comedy genre. While it generally has been easy for Hollywood to make a comedy that appeals to the local market, when it comes to selling it outside of North America, there is often resistance. Other countries have much different cultures that means what they find funny is often much different than what North Americans find funny. Horror is another genre that can be a problem. While zombie apocalypse movies, for example, have found audiences in modernized and urbanized countries, selling them in the third world has proven to be tough. They have a different view of society, as well as having a horror tradition much different than the western world, so this more modern type of horror has less appeal in this part of the world.

I once read a book that stated that there are only a few genres in the film world that prove to be universal. One such wide appeal genre is the thriller genre. Another one that has proven to be reliable is the action genre. That's not to say that you are instantly safe picking one of those genres. There is one kind of action movie that I've observed many times over the years that often proves it is pretty tough to sell, and that is the war movie. At first glance, one might be confused by this - after all, war movies usually are an excuse for a lot of action. But there are potential pitfalls in selling a newer or older war movie. First, war movies for the most part are usually based on real historical incidents, and selling the history of one culture to another culture that had no part in that historical incident can be tough. The history that a culture is most interested in is more often than not their own. Another problem that can come up for war movies - specifically older war movies - is that they can seem dated. Take the 1930 All Quiet On The Western Front or the 1949 Battleground, for example. I've seen both movies and admired them, and I can see why they were influential. But at the same time, they have same dated elements. While each movie was strong stuff in its day, by today's standards their portrayal of warfare seems almost squeaky clean. You don't see in those movies gushing blood or soldiers having to go to the bathroom out in the battlefield. Sometimes war movies can be dated right from the beginning, like The Green Berets. While I personally did not find this John Wayne movie to be as bad as most people have declared (though I still wouldn't recommend it - mostly too talky and boring in my opinion), I have to wonder what Wayne was thinking when he put in material like an orphan boy mascot hanging around an army base, material that was hopelessly dated even in 1968.

Although I find a number of older war movies to feel in parts kind of dated when today we get graphic movie depictions of warfare like Saving Private Ryan, that does not mean that I am unable to enjoy an older war movie. As I said, I liked All Quiet On The Western Front and Battleground. When I sit down to watch an older war movie, I prepare myself by trying to think of what the Beach Redminds of audiences were like at the time the movie was first released. As well, I focus on parts of the movie that don't get dated, like writing and acting. When I first got the opportunity to watch the 1967 war movie Beach Red many years ago, there was one other aspect of the movie I focused on - the direction. That's because it was directed by actor Cornel Wilde, whose direction of the movie No Blade Of Grass I had found to be very memorable. And with Beach Red, I found he had done it again; I had never seen a war movie like this one before. Years passed until recently when I found a DVD copy of the movie, and I decided to buy and watch it to see if it still had the same power over me as it did years before. The events of Beach Red take place in World War II, in the Pacific theater. A United States Marine unit, lead by one Captain MacDonald (Wilde, The Naked Prey), has been ordered to land on and take over by force an island that is controlled by the Japanese. As the Marines land on and start to take control of the island, we get to know several of them. There is Colombo (Jaime Sanchez, Invasion U.S.A.), a shaken soldier who looks for any possible path out of this war. There are also Egan (DeBenning, The Incredible Melting Man) and Cliff (Patrick Wolfe), two soldiers who bond through combat. And there is also Honeywell (Torn, Freddy Got Fingered), a sergeant with a sometimes brutal attitude towards the enemy who leads the three men as well as the rest of the Marines assigned to him. As the fighting progresses, we also get to meet various members of the Japanese military, lead by one Colonel Sugiyama (Genki Koyama), who are on the island, and see things from their perspective.

Even if you are nowhere the movie buff that this reviewer happens to be, it is very likely that you have some idea of what your typical American World War II movie was like if it happened to be made during the war itself. Namely, that the Allied forces were portrayed in the end as ideal heroes, proving themselves and getting the job done despite personal demons or any kind of obstacles in the field. And that the Axis powers were depicted as some kind of living demons, a heartless and cruel force that had to be eradicated completely off the face of the earth. Beach Red was made twenty-two years after the end of the war, so you may wonder if a more balanced and fair portrayal of both sides would be used. I'll start off with the American characters first. Though the movie does in the end paint these soldiers as heroes, along the way there are moments that show that they are not perfect soldiers - or human beings. For example, there is the Columbo character. Though he does what he's ordered to do, there is a moment in the movie where he seizes the opportunity to get out of direct combat by returning a wounded comrade to safety. Along the way, he himself gets shot. Normally a character like this would eventually be killed, but he isn't. In fact, he relishes getting shot because he knows he will not only be awarded with a Purple Heart, but he'll be ordered out of combat completely. His fellow soldiers are more heroic and sworn to duty, but that does not mean they don't show weakness. When one solider makes his first kill, his first instinct is to joyfully exclaim his triumph. But after a few seconds pass, we see that the impact of killing a human being is starting to weigh on his conscious. Other soldiers don't seem to mind killing at all. Sergeant Honeywell has a lengthy monologue where he basically says that the enemy must be completely wiped off the map, at any price. Though we in the audience may find character flaws like these uncomfortable, actor/director Wilde all the same manages to show that these soldiers are human beings - flawed, like us. The audience sees that even we might start to crumble like some of these soldiers if we were pushed into combat.

As a whole, these American soldiers do work hard to get the job done, but I did appreciate Beach Red showing they were not perfect. It's a fair and balanced portrayal. When it comes to depicting the Japanese forces, however, I have to say that the movie does somewhat disappoint. Most of the time when the Japanese are onscreen, they are engaged in combat and are not saying a word or committing another action that might show insight into what's going on in their minds at the time. There are some quieter moments, like when one Japanese soldier is shown sketching a plant while on guard duty, and later when one Japanese soldier is stunned when he (obviously) makes his first kill. But there is still some frustration coming from the fact that what dialogue is spoken by the Japanese is spoken in Japanese without subtitles telling us what is said. I am not sure why Wilde didn't give the audience more insight into the Japanese forces. Maybe he thought that making the enemy somewhat mysterious would make them come across as a bigger threat, and subsequently make the combat portions of the movie more effective. I don't know if it's because of this, but I do have to admit that the depiction of combat in Beach Red is for the most part well done. I could have not done with the occasional use of stock footage in the lengthy opening sequence - it looks old and faded, and does not fit in with the footage shot specifically for the movie. But the surrounding new footage more than compensates. Wilde manages to stage some moments of great scale that will make you wonder how they were pulled off, such as seeing hundreds of soldiers in the same shot storming beaches or rice paddies while bullets and explosions are going on all over the place. There are other action moments that have various kinds of impact, like seeing the appalling sights of dozens of soldiers gunned down as they are ordered to take down a Japanese machine gun nest, or one extremely tense moment when soldiers from both forces find themselves in hand-to-hand combat, combat that forces both sides to pull dirty tricks to just not win, but to also survive.

I remember the first time that I watched Beach Red, when watching the opening action concerning the storming of the beaches, I said to myself, "Steven Spielberg must have seen this movie before directing Saving Private Ryan." I still believe that after seeing Beach Red for a second time. There are some remarkable similarities, such as both movies having a moment with a solider losing a limb while storming the beach. It's testament to Wilde's direction that someone like Spielberg would copy him. But Wilde's power as a director in this movie goes further than that. There is some technique in Wilde's direction that I have never seen done in another movie; it starts right with the opening credits when they move from watercolor pictures to live action in a brazen manner. (I can't properly describe it.) Later, during moments when various characters are having flashbacks (or seeming premonitions of future events), Wilde shows multiple still shots of what the characters are thinking at right that moment (mostly life on the home front) while dialogue is heard. It sounds simple, but it makes these moments more memorable than had Wilde gone the tired and expected route of shooting twenty-four frames a second. Also more realistic, if you ask me - I find when I think of a memorable moment (good or bad) from my past, the memory comes to me in a flash. As well, Wilde seized the opportunity of the Production Code crumbling to put in some material more adult than in past war movies - there are some gory moments, a dash of nudity, as well as showing that soldiers back in World War II did indeed have to go to the bathroom out in the battlefield. Certainly Beach Red doesn't have as much graphic material as many war movies that are made today, but even more informed viewers today watching it more than fifty years after it was made will strongly sense what Wilde intended to do behind the camera - show that warfare is dirty and bloody business. War does indeed make a beach red.

(Posted September 21, 2020)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Blu-Ray)
Check for availability on Amazon (Amazon Prime Video)

See also: The Inglorious Bastards, No Blade Of Grass, P.O.W. The Escape