The Devil’s Brigade

The Devil’s Brigade (1968)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Vince Edwards
Extras: Trailer

Among war movies there’s a specific subgenre that focuses on the heroic exploits of a group of rough-and-tumble types who finally come together as a team to wreak havoc on the enemy. Films such as ’The Dirty Dozen’ and ’Kelly’s Heroes’ exemplify this very rousing type of movie and the fact that they aren’t based on any factual event allows them to take a less serious and more rambunctious approach to war.

Another film in this vein is David L. Wolper’s production of ’The Devil’s Brigade.’ While just as rowdy and entertaining as the other films mentioned, this one has the distinction of being based on fact. The film focuses on the formation of the First Special Service Force in 1942 — a joint American-Canadian commando group originally formed to conduct sabotage operations in Nazi-controlled Norway. While their original mission was eventually scrapped, the unit did go on to fight in the Aleutians, Italy, and France where they were disbanded in early 1945 due to extremely heavy casualties.

Starring William Holden as Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick, the first part of the movie deals with the inevitable friction between the highly-trained Canadian troops and the all-volunteer American force made up of a fair number of undesirables as they come together for the first time to train in Montana. Cliff Robertson plays Major Alan Crown, the leader of the Canadians, and Vince Edwards is Major Cliff Brycker, the American commander. Both are fictional characters whereas Lt. Col. Frederick was in fact the overall commander of the real-life unit.

As is the case in so many other such films, the two groups eventually come together during a brawl with locals at a bar and soon enough the new-found chums are sent off to war. Here the film deviates from the facts a bit more as it focuses solely on the unit’s Italian operations. But these scenes offer up some of the finest depictions of special forces tactics ever to appear on-screen and the climactic mountain-top battle is spectacular.

’The Devil’s Brigade’ is presented in a letterboxed transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The lack of anamorphic enhancement is a real shame but the overall quality of the video is pretty decent. Colors are quite natural and black levels are adequate in all but the darkest of scenes. There are a few nicks and blemishes on the source elements but nothing major. I noticed some minor aliasing along sharp edges and a bit of edge enhancement but nothing too objectionable. The overall image is a tad soft but I haven’t seen a movie from this time period that wasn’t. In the end, this is a solid — albeit non-anamorphic — transfer.

Audio comes in English and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes. As one might expect, this is a fairly flat sounding mix. Dynamic range is somewhat constrained and there is no deep bass present. But dialogue is always clear and I noticed no glaring distortion or harshness. The lack of a surround mix certainly hinders the ’you are there’ feeling of more modern war movies but for an original vintage soundtrack this audio mix does just fine.

The only extra on the disc is the film’s very odd original theatrical trailer.

While ’The Devil’s Brigade’ is based on fact the film does take some liberties in its over-the-top portrayal of the Canadians as foppish, English-accented soldiers and the amalgamation of numerous real men and events into but a handful of on-screen characters and scenes. But the movie still manages to offer up a fairly accurate account of the formation of one of the earliest special forces units and stands as one of the very best of the World War II films.

MGM’s new DVD offers up a decent video transfer and adequate audio but the lack of anamorphic enhancement is a real pity. The disc is still an easy recommendation as the film itself is top-notch and the DVD can easily be had for under 10 bucks.