Too Late The Hero

Too Late The Hero (1970)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, Henry Fonda, Ronald Fraser
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

In keeping with the peculiar trend for well-titled movies to be renamed and dumbed down for American television audiences, this fine wartime drama may be better known to stateside late night TV fans as "Suicide Run." Written and directed by the late, great Robert Aldrich, "Too Late the Hero" is an action-packed feature very similar in style to the director’s previous smash hit, "The Dirty Dozen."

Cliff Robertson stars as U.S. Navy interpreter Lt. Sam Lawson, assigned by Captain John G. Nolan (Henry Fonda) to join a British Commando unit tasked with destroying a Japanese communications center in preparation for a coming major Allied push in the South Pacific. Led by the incompetent Captain Hornsby (Denholm Elliott), the unit is made up of burnt-out soldiers — personified by caustic medic Pvt. Tosh Hearne (Michael Caine) — who want no part of the false glory inherent in this suicide mission for which they have been "volunteered."

Just as the in-fighting within the team begins to build to a head, the unit comes in contact with the enemy and all prior disagreements give way to primal survival instincts as the commando unit is brutally reduced to just two men — Lawson and Tosh. The reluctant heroes must now not only fight for their own survival against the very capable Japanese Major Yamaguchi’s (Ken Takakura) forces, they must also decide whether to complete their mission or run for safety.

This type of war movie was quite popular in the 60s and 70s and there is really nothing unique in this portrayal of disgruntled warriors at the brink of physical and mental exhaustion. While Cliff Robertson shares top billing and does a fine job, it’s Michael Caine who delivers the grittiest performance as the wise-cracking Everyman soldier Tosh. This is the type of role that Caine once owned on the silver screen and it’s a delight to watch him in his full-on Cockney glory.

The movie also deserves credit for depicting the Japanese soldiers as competent, albeit brutal, foes. In this aspect, "Too Late the Hero" reminds me very much of John Boorman’s Pacific War masterpiece "Hell in the Pacific" in its attempts to do away with the standard caricatured portrayal of the Japanese that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time.

"Too Late the Hero" is available in both 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and <$PS,pan and scan> versions. This review will focus exclusively on the <$PS,widescreen> transfer. For a 1970 film that hasn’t undergone any obvious digital remastering, this is a print that exhibits both strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, the image is quite sharp although the abundance of dark foreground objects framed against bright blue skies does introduce a noticeable amount of edge enhancement in certain scenes. Colors are also quite good and surprisingly lush with a very broad palette. Black levels are fairly stable as well although some of the darker jungle scenes do collapse into shades of gray.
On the minus side, the transfer is plagued by minor problems caused by the physical deterioration of the film elements. There are frequent small blemishes, along with the occasional large tear or reel change mark, evident on the print. The picture is also a bit jittery due to what I must assume to be worn sprocket holes in the film.
Overall the image looks quite good and is only marred by the slightly beat up film elements. Only a full restoration would have cured these problems and they in no way detract from the overall enjoyment of the movie.

Audio is presented in a basic <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 Surround mix. Dialogue is usually easily understandable although the odd passage or two comes across mumbled. Dynamic range is quite constrained and there is some distortion when played at high volume levels. Consequently, sound effects are rather flat sounding. Surround use is limited to the musical score which gives it a much fuller feel than the rest of the soundtrack. Given the limitations of this mix it should come as no surprise that deep bass is wholly nonexistent. It’s a serviceable soundtrack which is about the best one could hope for from a 30-year old film.

The only extra on the DVD is the film’s <$PS,full frame> theatrical trailer. Done in the typically bombastic style of the era, the trailer succeeds in giving away pretty much the entire story so don’t watch it until after you’ve seen the movie.

"Too Late the Hero" is a fairly grim and violent war movie that manages to maintain an anti-military viewpoint while still promoting the classic theme of brothers in arms. The final dash for safety is well worth the price of admission and stands as one of the most riveting cinematic conclusions. Interestingly enough, the original film was presented in two versions featuring different endings designed to appeal to either a U.S. or U.K. audience. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing which version appears on this DVD and no, the alternate version is not available for viewing.

Anchor Bay presents "Too Late the Hero" on DVD with decent enough video and audio quality and fans of quality war movies should be satisfied with the effort. While a full restoration of the film, and inclusion of a few insightful extras, would have been splendid, I certainly can’t fault Anchor Bay for not going the full mile for such a minor release.