Another feature of...
-- Dead or Alive
Our associate over at B-Notes, the amazing Apostic, recently posted a typically erudite article on Cowboy Commandos, a hybrid western/WWII propaganda feature. This reminded me of a film I’ve had moldering on my shelves for some years now, an equally (or more, as it turned out) bizarre hybrid gangster/WWII propaganda feature. So why argue with destiny, I thought. Let’s break that sucker out.
Hitler -- Dead or Alive was a rare lead vehicle for character actor Ward Bond. Bond is remembered for playing a series of memorable supporting roles in John Wayne movies (The Searchers, The Quiet Man, etc.), although Bruce Cabot was the actor who most often appeared with Wayne. Others will perhaps best remember him as Bert the cop in It’s a Wonderful Life. When the American Film Institute issued its controversial 100 Best American Films list, Bond was noted to the actor who had appeared in the highest number of them. Watching Bond in this schlock makes you realize that he was lucky to go on to small roles in great movies instead of becoming a regular lead in cheapo productions like this.
We open with a bizarre (presumably non-original) suite of music played over the opening credits. This overture features riffs ranging from the comedic to the melodramatic. Then it’s on to the skid row producer’s best friend, Ye Olde Stock Footage. Here it’s of a ‘40s era bomber plane taking off from an airstrip. This is observed by two men who, if I’m not mistaken, are actually in our movie. They’re reporters from the *cough* National News Service. Looking on, they agree that the amazing Johnny Stevens has done it again. They’ve been issued a statement on this amazing feat (?), but one newshawk is determined to dig further into the story. "What are we, men or rats?" he bombasts, sending us a quick, Uh-Oh, Odious Comic Relief Alert.
The two barge into the offices of Samuel Thornton, issuer of said statement. Thornton’s secretary stops them, but an adroit lie that they are appearing at the direction of Johnny Stevens gets her to page the boss. We then cut to the private workspaces of Thornton, a rich amateur inventor. We know all this because:
Thornton also falls for the Johnny Stevens thing and has the two sent in. The reporters are interested in Thornton’s donation of a million dollars worth of bombers to the War Department. (Not only was a million bucks real money in those days, but remember, the top marginal tax rates back then were above 90%. So accumulating that sort of money took real effort. Of course, this also means that if Thornton could write this off on his taxes, then his million-dollar gift cost him less than a hundred thousand bucks.)
What has their news noses twitching is that a million dollars was the exact sum offered months earlier by Thornton as a bounty on (get ready for it) Hitler – Dead or Alive. "One million dollars for Hitler. One million dollars for bombers." Now, one million dollars seems the sort of round number that might naturally come up more than once, but their news instincts prove correct. The reporters basically tell Thornton that he can tell them what’s going on, or they’ll just go ahead and make something up and print it. (!!) Apparently the Press worked the same way back then, only in the ‘40s they admitted it.
Backed into a corner, Thornton spills the beans. "What you saw today was a monument to three men who undertook to satisfy a bitter, thoughtless hatred. My hatred of Hitler." (‘Thoughtless,’ indeed. I mean, c’mon, who could hate Hitler?) Cue Flashback.
Three men enter Thornton’s office. Their leader is one Steve Maschik (Ward Bond). Their palaver quickly marks them as hoodlums. The pecking order as quickly established is Maschik (The Boss), Joe ‘The Book’ Conway (The Egghead – we can tell, he’s the smallest, wears glasses and is toting a newspaper, i.e., he reads) and Hans ‘Dutch’ Havermann (Muscle and Odious Comic Relief). They’re here to see about the bounty. Joe and Dutch think there are simpler ways to make a buck, but Maschik won’t hear of it. "I’ve never done nothing smalltime in my life," he growls, "and this ain’t no time to start."
Maschik speaks in a ‘comically’ earthy style to the secretary, calling her Toots and such. Conway intercedes and asks to see Thornton in proper Egghead style. Actually, Joe gets one unexpectedly good line here. Maschik and Dutch start reminiscing about the good old days, when they commanded an entire floor of a hotel. "And every floor a nightmare in chromium." Joe shivers. "Yeah, it wasn’t bad at that," Maschik replies, misunderstanding. Ah, Comedy.
The boys are ushered in to see Thornton, who confirms the bounty. Proving why he needs Joe, Maschik replies, "I don’t quite get it. What’s the idea?" I don’t know, the offer seems sort of self-explanatory to me. The idea is that Thornton’s brother, formerly a visiting teacher in Germany, was murdered by the Gestapo. We next get a quick rundown on Our Heroes’ criminal past – they’ve just gotten out of Alcatraz – and then they call in Thornton’s attorney to draw up a contract.
Here they introduce the idea of Hitler’s ‘doubles,’ look-alike surrogates intended to confuse assassins. Also brought up is the language barrier. "We’ll get around alright," Maschik retorts. "We used to run a beer racket in Milwaukee." Not to mention having a character named "Havermann" on hand. The boys sign the contract and head off. Then Maschik reenters the room excitedly. "Say," he wonders, "while we’re over there, how much would it be worth to you if we knock off Mussolini at the same time?"
A montage of stock footage is used to indicate the boys traveling to Germany. (For instance, when the announcer explains that they left the city by train, we see a train. Get it?) They end up "somehow" in Canada, where they join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Canada got into the war before we did, due to their ties to England. Americans eager to join in the fighting did often join the Canadian military rather than waiting for us to enter the war. In any case, the boys end up as paratroopers based in England. It’s here that they meet transport pilot Johnny Stevens. I love it when plot threads come together.
Their plan in motion, the boys highjack the plane after their comrades have leapt out during a practice mission. On the way over to Germany, a "Jerry" fighter plane appears on their tail. Luckily, Maschik is a master with a Tommy Gun (being a gangster and all), and shoots the fighter down. (!!) This is kind of thing you’d expect a ten year-old to roll his eyes at. I once saw a movie where Chuck Connors blew up an enemy ship by climbing the smokestack and dropping in a satchel of grenades. That was about a hundred times more realistic than this bit.
They’re about out of fuel anyway, though, so they make their jump. Johnny, needless to say, comes along for the ride. Being roughly two hundred miles out of Berlin, Maschik decides to "hitchhike" the rest of the way. Actually, they steal a truck from some German soldiers who don’t seem to ‘get’ that Maschik’s wearing a Canadian uniform rather than a German one. (!!) I don’t know if I’m getting this across yet, but this film doesn’t exactly rival The Longest Day for historical accuracy.
Johnny comes along, but still isn’t sure what’s going on. He’s understandably worried that the boys are German spies. (Although they presumably killed the two soldiers who had been in the truck.) In a further bit of comic relief, the truck they stole proves to contain beer. "Just like old times," Maschik notes. Their progress towards Berlin is, as you’d expect, indicated by mileage markers along the way. Unfortunately, they fail to pass any comical advertising signage as they drive along. Want to feel smooth / When on the Blitz? / Then lather up / Like Hans and Fritz – Fuehrer Shave.
Soon some motorcycle patrol soldiers are pursuing them.
Frankly, having seen Maschik down a fighter plane with a submachine gun, I’m
not really worried. They get pulled over, and by guys who know everything
they’ve been up too. Apparently they didn’t kill the fellows in the
truck after all. In another unlikely bit, the boys successfully play the
"Would we do all this if we weren’t on a secret mission for the
High Command?" card. It’s amazing how often Nazis fall for that
one. Anyway, they escort Our Heros in to see the sector commander.
The boys examine their cell (which is quite nice and spacious) for bugs, whereupon Joe finds a mike hidden in the wall. Being a cheeky American, Maschik uses it to call for room service. Ha, ha, that’s showing those Krauts somethin’! Meanwhile, Hecht is meeting with Elsa, his apparent mistress. Hmm, ‘Elsa.’ That’s a German name, all right. The scriptwriters really did their research on this one. Anyway, Hecht is burned that three lowly Americans, of all things, will have the glory of presenting a valuable message to The Fuehrer. He tells Elsa that he intends to torture the secret out of them so that he can personally bring it to Hitler. Elsa, however, reminds him that the Reich must come before his personal ambition. He admits that she is right, whereupon she sends him off.
Since Hecht looks almost exactly like a very slightly more sinister Colonel Klink (Monocle, bald pate, etc.), we’re unsurprised to learn that Elsa is running her own game. It turns out that she’s a spy for the allies, and is worried that the boys do indeed have a valuable piece of information for the Germans. Well, you can’t accuse them of skimping on the plot. Elsa has Greta, her secretary and confidant, send a message to their contact in the camp, one who works in the kitchen.
We cut to the boys complaining about the large portions of bland food they’re being served. Ah, yes, the hardships of war. Johnny finds a playing card in his food, leading to further painful comic relief. After two or three minutes, though, they realize that there’s writing on it. (Master spies they ain’t.) The card is signed ‘Rosebud,’ who Johnny -- what a handy lad! -- knows to be the codename of a mysterious female operative who helps smuggle prisoners out of Germany.
Being old pros, the guys know how to bust out of the cell they’re in, they’ve just been biding their time. Maschik takes the card as a signal and decides that there’s no time like the present. They fool the (one) guard rather easily and even more easily bust the lock on the cell door. Meanwhile, another guy, played by a fellow who doesn’t even attempt a German accent (he does say ‘Yah’ a couple of times, though) reports that the mike listening in on the boys’ cell has been disabled. He’s told to go check things out.
Soon he and a second guy approach the cell. Maschik, dressed in the guard’s uniform, gets the drop on them. This results in our first use of the obligatory ‘Was ist los?!" Now all we’ll need is a "Mach schnell" or two and we’ll have fulfilled all our German Dialog requirements. Funnier is that everyone in Germany so far has been speaking English. In fact, while the one guy shouts ‘Was ist los,?’ his associate cries out, "What’s going on here?" I don’t know, it seems to me that if you’re going to have two Germans simultaneously crying out exclamations, they should at least do so in the same language.
Now that they conveniently have German uniforms for our main three characters, they escort ‘prisoner’ Johnny over to the administration offices. Maschik figures they need a prominent hostage to get out of here. He leaves the others outside while he goes inside to rustle up Hecht. Security is, if anything, laxer here than in the prison area, and soon Maschik is peering in the door of Hecht’s secretary. (I assume.) He overhears that Hecht has left the base when the fellow notices him. Upon being questioned, Maschik takes the guy out with what appears to be a karate chop (?).
Our Hero next opens an arms cabinet rather handily in the same room. This is accomplished by shooting thorough the lock with what appears to be a Colt .38 revolver, which I wasn’t aware was a standard sidearm for soldiers of the Reich. I guess so, though, because that’s what he grabs from the cabinet, an armful of revolvers and cartridge boxes. (Apparently the studio producing this hadn’t gotten their supply of Luger and Walther semi-automatics yet.) Luckily, no one notices him leaving the main office whilst bobbling a armload of pistols, and they are soon distributed amongst the others.
Hecht and Elsa drive up in his chauffeured staff car. The Colonel orders his driver to return Elsa home and heads inside. At this the boys leap out and highjack the car. People finally seem to notice all this and they have to shoot their ways out. (Lucky the gates to German concentration camps are made from balsa wood planks, though.) In the chaos Dutch is wounded and falls from the vehicle. He goes down but not before taking a Natzie or two with him.
Soon the mighty forces of the Reich are in pursuit. Admittedly in the person of two measly motorcycle soldiers, but hey, maybe it’s a Sunday or something. Maschik manages to shoot them through the rear window. I think. All we actually see is the pursuers slowing down and pulling off to the side of the road. Either they didn’t have any stuntmen available for a gag or, more likely, they couldn’t risk damaging the motorcycles by actually crashing them.
Elsa identifies herself as Rosebud and gives them directions to a spot off the main road. As soon as they’re hidden she takes off to draw away further pursuit. The boys are to hide until that night, when someone will come for them.
Later we see a purportedly exhausted Elsa feeding Hecht a story. She reports that she fainted during the chase. Upon awakening she found that her captors had fled. Hecht calls his men and gives orders not to check any out of the way places (!), thinking that the boys will try to hide in plain sight. Considering how moronic the Nazis were in these things, you have to wonder how they gave us so much trouble during the war.
We cut back to the guys, commiserating over Dutch. Suddenly they hear a noise. "Somebody’s whistling Yankee Doodle!" Johnny exclaims. Joe concurs. "It’s the only tune no Nazi would ever whistle!" (I mean, c’mon, what can you say about a line like that?) They emerge from their hiding place, signaling their contact by whistling the end of the tune. Their contact, Meyer, tells them to follow him at a distance. Meanwhile the aforementioned patriotic tune tinkles merrily on the soundtrack.
Soon they enter a darkened house, and the strains of ‘Yankee Doodle’ briefly segue into ‘My County, ‘Tis of Thee.’ (!) Meyer takes them to a set of stairs that swing upwards on a hinge, like those Spot lived under in The Munsters. This leads down to a secret cellar where the guys meet up with Elsa. She lays her cards on the table, saying that if they really have a strategic message for Hitler she’ll see that they never reach him alive. This frankly seems like the kind of statement you shouldn’t make when alone with three armed men. But there you go.
Elsa expresses some level of incredulity when told of their real goal. They’ll never get close enough, she predicts. Moreover, she doesn’t think Hitler’s death would end the war. His military advisors would continue, and perhaps even do better on their own. This is a startlingly subtle argument for this particular movie (although a necessary one, as we’ll see). The latter part specifically is fairly prescient, given when it was made. It was Hitler’s growing madness and subsequent bungling that eventually lost Germany the war before the A-Bomb could be deployed against them. Certainly it’s hard to see Germany invading their Russian allies if not for him. Especially when any number of easier targets in Africa offered the oil the Reich War Machine so desperately required at the time.
Maschik explains that they intend to kill Hitler for the dough, not necessarily to end the war. Elsa expresses some disgust at this mercenary attitude but offers them sanctuary. She goes to leave and Johnny follows her. He expresses thanks for her work as Rosebud, but warns that she should leave for England before she is discovered. Elsa explains that she intends to stay until they catch her, even though it means her death. She then takes her leave for the evening.
The next morning Meyer serves them a grand breakfast. His guests wonder at the large array of food. Meyer replies with a rather unlikely tale of how he once saved Hitler’s life. (!) ("We all make mistakes," Joe quips.) Especially amusing are the boys' half-interested reactions as they listen, as if Meyer were recounting old fishing stories. Anyway, here we go: Twenty years ago Meyer saw Hitler savagely beaten by students after giving a speech. (I’m not really that up on Hitler’s life, but was he politically active in the early ‘20s?) Being a doctor at the time, he took Hitler into his house and nursed him back to health. He also mentions that he sewed up Hitler’s lip, cut completely through with a broken beer stein. I haven’t seen the end of this movie before, but that sounds rather like a plot point detail. I’ll be looking for that scar later.
Oops, here we go. Meyer further explains that Hitler has hated him ever since. (Again, this seems somewhat naïve on the filmmakers’ part. I don’t think many people Hitler hated would still have been around in Germany in ’42. Hell, many people Hitler didn’t hate weren’t either.) "My operation left a crooked scar on his lip," he reports, "that made him appear to be sneering all the time. He grew his mustache to hide that scar."
Maschik is pleased with this info. No need to worry about Hitler’s doubles, he exclaims. They can just shave off his ‘tache to see if it’s really him or not. (!) (Question: Did the CIA guy who came up with the idea of using thallium salts to make Castro’s hair fall out ever see this?) Meyer remains unconvinced. "He may even have been clever enough to put scars on the lips of all his doubles," he notes. This might sound implausible, but again, history would prove the screenwriters correct. When Hitler’s living head was saved in a pickle jar after the war he also had the heads of many of his doubles saved in pickle jars to throw pursuers off the track.
Hecht and some men show up upstairs, whereupon we learn that the guys are hidden below Elsa’s own house. (Yeah, that’s a good idea.) Hecht informs Elsa that the Americans are here to kill Hitler. They know because Dutch had a paper to this effect on him when he was shot down. (!) Boy, good thing the Nazis didn’t think to search the guys’ pockets when they had them locked up, eh? Anyway, Hitler was so annoyed when he heard the news that he personally wants to see them executed. He’s traveling down here right now for that very purpose.
Elsa is especially distressed to learn that an entire block of the nearby village will be ‘purged’ if the boys aren’t captured by the time Hitler arrives. Maschik, listening in, is himself shocked to hear that Hitler would order the mass deaths of women and children. This information changes his outlook, and he now looks forward to killing Hitler for personal rather than monetary reasons.
Hecht has been ordered to conduct a house-to-house search, and not even Elsa is exempt. His troops look around the place but find nothing. This is what Hecht expected, naturally, and he takes his leave. Soon after Elsa gets a phone call. She’s supposed to have been arranging a dance exhibition for The Fuehrer. Here she learns that she will be picked up and escorted to a secret location later that evening for that very purpose. (Although they forget the ‘secret location’ bit in a couple of minutes when she describes the layout of the place to Maschik.) She requests to bring along her personal quartet of musicians. Hmm, I think I see where this might be going.
Elsa heads downstairs to tell Maschik that his mission is off. She won’t risk the retaliation against innocents that the attempt would engender. Maschik, however, enraged by what he’s just heard, is beyond taking no for an answer. "Who said anything about an ‘attempt’?" he grits out. "I’ll get to the guy. And when I get to him, it’ll be an end to him and all his blood purges." Elsa is just as adamant, though. She informs them that they will be smuggled back out of Germany.
One point the film skirts around here is that it isn’t just attempts against Hitler’s life that will trigger the purge. If the guys aren’t recaptured, the villagers will be slaughtered anyway, under the assumption that someone there is hiding them. (Which, actually, is true.) So smuggling Maschik and the others out of Germany would have the same result as them going after Hitler.
Anyhoo. Elsa splits, allowing for a further explication of Maschik’s moral reformation. He’s not in it for the money anymore. "All I want to do is put a stop to the killing of dames and kids, by knocking over the only guy in the world that’s rotten enough to do such a trick," he avers. (Boy, if only that were the case!) I should mention that Ward Bond is really pretty good here. Considering that they probably shot this film in under a week, he manages to bring a credible yet restrained rage to the part. I’m not saying this is an Oscar caliber performance by any means. Still, for a film of this type Maschik’s transformation from a mercenary to a true believer is surprisingly adept.
That evening Elsa, wearing a somewhat goofy ‘racy’ outfit, descends the stairs to hear musical instruments being horribly misplayed. Entering the library she finds Maschik and the others, including Meyer, wearing the clothes of her quartet of musicians. (Imagine, four guys who proved exactly the same sizes as our conspirators!) An odder circumstance is that each is disguised with false facial hair, wherever that came from.
They explain that the real musicians are tied up in the cellar. Elsa orders them released, but Maschik points out that they’d go right to the authorities. Moreover, as Joe explains, the passes they stole with the musicians’ monkey suits will get them past any guards. Right then a Nazi officer (played by another guy who can’t even pretend to do a German accent) arrives to escort them to Hitler’s country house. The die cast, and Elsa has no option but to go along with the plan.
Cut to the courtyard of *cough* Hitler’s none-too-palatial country estate. A variety of Nazi brass is in attendance, and the place is draped with the obligatory gigantic swastika flags. Set dressing! The conspirators enter and assume their position in the musicians’ alcove. With no one looking (yeah, right), Maschik opens a valise and hands out revolvers to the men. Then we get a supposed moment of suspense when two generals start arguing over some music. They head over and ask Maschik to play some Beethoven on his violin. Their cover is almost blown when everyone is distracted by the appearance of Hitler’s toy airplane circling overhead. Whew! That was…too close!
Looking up at the craft, Maschik asks if Johnny can fly it. "I can fly anything that’s got wings and half a motor," he quips. It’s true. Movie scientists are conversant in every scientific discipline; movie pilots can fly any aircraft known to man (and some that aren’t). Then, with the plane having landed -- offscreen, needless to say – we get the entrance of Hitler himself.
From here on in the movie just goes berserk. I didn’t know whether to consider myself luckier than Apostic for this or to envy him his Western. As he points out, Cowboys Commandos was, Nazis aside, as cookie-cutter an oater as any of those churned out by the hundreds back then. Remove a little speechifying and turn the Nazis into rustlers and the film would have been exactly the same.
Not so with this picture. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. From here on in the constant changes in tone are almost dizzying, and I could hardly believe my eyes at the events subsequently portrayed. I can only describe the remainder of the film as lunatic.
Hitler arrives, inevitably, in the person of actor Bobby Watson. Watson began as a vaudevillian specializing in ethnic comedy. You know, drunken Irishmen, burnt cork black guys, that sort of thing. He would eventually, however, make almost an entire career out of playing Hitler, usually comedic ones. He still holds the record for the most screen appearances as The Fuehrer. However, movie fans will most remember him for one of his last (albeit uncredited) roles, as the Diction Coach in the classic Gene Kelly/Donald O’Connor "Moses Supposes" number from Singin’ in the Rain.
The dictator is introduced with a jaunty little comic tune. He then, like most of Watson’s Hitlers, proves to be (mostly) of the broadly comical variety. This includes Watson’s trademark comic opera German accent. Hitler regales his subordinates with a zany tirade regarding his plans to take over the world. Russia, England, the U.S., even Japan. His generals express amazement at this, since Japan is their ally in the war. You know, like the Soviet Union was. Actually, they don’t mention that, since the Germans had by this point invaded Russia and caused them to suddenly become our ally.
On the other hand, the film again manages to make an intelligent observation here. One of the generals declares that they wouldn’t dare presume to ask for details for these plans. "Why not?" Hitler replies. "Did I ever try to conceal anything? Did I not publish Mein Kampf? Did I not warn my enemies of every move I would make?" Sadly, this is all more or less true. But Mein Kampf was so outrageous that most everyone, in Germany and out, wanted to believe that the book was posturing on Hitler’s part.
Hitler spots Elsa, and goes over to tell her that she’s wearing too much clothing for a dancing recital. The joke being that for the time her midriff-bearing ensemble was already rather racy. Suddenly Hecht notices Maschik, but it’s too late. A gunfight ensues until Our Hero puts his gun to Hitler’s head. Panicked, he calls for his men to surrender. Unfortunately, by the time this occurs Joe has been shot down.
This being the sort of movie it is, Hitler turns out to be a craven coward. (Although one that fought and was gassed in the trenches in WWI.) He’ll spend much of his remaining screentime squealing, "Don’t kill me!" As the film continues to spiral further away from reality, Maschik tells Johnny and Elsa to escape using Hitler’s plane. Maschik plans to return to their cellar hiding spot with Hitler as a hostage, hoping to use him as leverage to get Germany to call off the war. (!!) Of course his compatriots don’t want to go, but Maschik is calling the shots now.
Maschik demands a car and Hitler orders that they obey him. Things are moving fast now as the film picks up harebrained steam. For instance, less than a minute after Johnny and Elsa leave the camera shot, we see them in Hitler’s plane flying up above! Johnny flashes them with a light from the plane. "They’re signaling the Victory Call!" Meyer notes. "They ain’t kidding!" Maschik cheerfully replies.
Taking Hitler, Meyer and Maschik grab the waiting car and hightail it back to Elsa’s. After all, Maschik reasons, the Nazis have been looking for the place for years and never found it. (Of course, they didn’t know Elsa was a traitor before, either.) The idea is the English authorities, notified by Johnny and Elsa that Maschik is holding Hitler in a secret location, will negotiate an end to the war for his return. In the meantime, Elsa would get messages to them through her normal organization.
Ah, well, best laid plans and all that. When they return to Elsa’s they find Greta tied up in the cellar. It seems the musicians have escaped and are undoubtedly blabbing to the authorities right now. Maschik isn’t worried, though. They still hold Hitler. Our Hero wants to be sure, though, and proceeds to shave off Hitler’s mustache. Sure enough, he bears the telltale scar. Meyer is able to identify that this is indeed the one and only Adolph Hitler.
Maschik isn’t done yet, though. Taking the straight razor, he hacks off Hitler’s trademark forelock for a "souvenir." During this symbolic, if rather obvious, castration, Hitler continues to mewl and plead for his life. I’m not sure how bizarre this all sounds in print, but I’m sure it doesn’t compare to watching it. And the film continues getting weirder here in its final minutes.
The Germans show up and bombard the cellar with gas grenades. Incapacitated, Maschik and the others are easily captured. They are hauled back outside, where shimmering flames indicate that the threatened purge has begun. In one of the more ludicrous Twist of Fate deals I’ve seen, Hecht fails to recognize Hitler now that he’s shorn of his mustache and forelock. Thinking the blubbering little coward another traitor, Hecht slaps him and orders him to be executed with the others. Then, when the frightened Hitler tries to ‘escape,’ Hecht shoots him down. (!!) This is pretty outrageous stuff, although our surprise in undercut by the film’s framing device. After all, Thornton wouldn’t be using the million bucks to buy the bombers if Hitler hadn’t been offed.
Following is a bit that had my mouth falling open. After all these nutty hijinx, we now see children lined up against a wall and shot down as part of the purge. This might be the most radically weird shift in tone I’ve ever seen in a film. Then it’s time for Maschik, Meyer and Greta to be executed. (A pretty light punishment, considering.) Meyer and Greta suddenly turn out to be lovers, something not even vaguely hinted at before. Whatever. Maschik, unsurprisingly, has time for a speech about child-killers before he goes, promising that others will follow him to finish the job. What is surprising in that the Nazis stand around letting him curse them out before shooting him.
Back to Thornton and the reporters. "And so Steve died," he finishes, "voicing in his own crude way the convictions of millions of us." Which brings up an obvious point. How would Thornton know any of this? After Johnny and Elsa fled there were no eyewitnesses to these events left alive, except for the very Nazis who were killing everyone. Unsurprisingly this point is glossed over, with the reporters somehow failing to raise it.
They do ask who the guy currently running Germany is if Hitler was killed. "Who knows?" Thornton replies. "Who cares?" Yes, I guess that really does answer it. Again, though, the point is that it’s not Hitler himself who’s the problem, it’s the whole German war machine. It must be stopped for humanity’s sake, Thornton muses, including all the "honest" Germans like Elsa and Meyer and the others who are struggling against their government.
"I want you to tell the world how wrong I was," Thornton concludes, "in thinking that by killing Hitler I would end war. Our enemies are the warlords and their followers. Not just one person or one group. We must shatter the mailed fist forever, and silence their cry of blood and iron, with blood, and iron!" Then, after they all three pronounce Maschik a great American, the film ends.
Boy, this is a weird-ass movie.
First of all, there’s the nearly insane mixing of tones throughout the movie. On the one hand, most of the film is played for laughs. The three hoodlums are basically happy-go-lucky toughs, more East Side Boys grown up than your Edward G. Robinsons or James Cagneys. There’s a history of comical and basically harmless ‘mugs’ in the movies, and these guys definitely fall into that tradition. It also furthers the archetype of the gangster who might be a crook but is also ultimately a loyal American. Said mobster, confronted with true Evil (generally in the form of the Nazis), will opt to oppose it. This cliché was archly used recently in The Rocketeer.
Comedy remains the main thrust of the film until Hitler shows up (although he’s introduced with comedy music, too). Sort of. Hitler, as noted, is also played for laughs. The idea that Hitler was ultimately just part of the war machine is a bit deeper than I’d expect from this film. Even so, the music hall portrayal of the comically pompous, lecherous and cowardly Fuehrer remains a tad bizarre. Especially when all of the sudden they’re lining children up against a wall to be shot. All these sudden shifts in emotional tenor create an almost queasy effect and ultimately make the film a bit surreal to the modern viewer.
The film also falls strongly into the second, more disturbing sort of propaganda as defined in Apostic’s review. Again, though, not always. The film mostly shows the Nazis to be, in Apostic’s terms, "evil, ugly, stupid, and easily defeated." Yet it’s also predicated on the idea that the removal of any one man, even Hitler, won’t be enough to stop the war. There’s a massive war machine behind him that will take the efforts of every American to defeat. The film further goes out of its way to praise the "thousands" of "honest Germans" resisting Hitler’s regime. And while Maschik comes to passionately hate everything the Nazis stand for -- that he knew of, anyway -- the film also carefully explains (via Thornton’s speech in the beginning of the film) that hatred against an individual, even Hitler, is "bitter" and "thoughtless."
One thing we should keep in mind is that when this was made the true scope of the Nazi’s evil was unknown. As noted, the film contains scenes supposedly set in Dachau. This was a Death Camp, but such an idea was literally beyond the scope of most people’s imaginations back then. So much so that an entirely new word, ‘genocide,’ subsequently had to be coined to encompass what occurred there and at similar camps.
There’s also the issue of Hitler being the "only guy" who would order the deaths of women and children, i.e., non-combatants. Of course, everyone in the War, the Allies included, did this. Saturation bombings of strategic cities were committed by both sides. Even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in fire-bombings of such cities as Dresden and Tokyo. These deaths were surely as horrible, and even more numerous, than those caused by our later A-Bomb attacks.
(Which is why I’ve never understood why those attacks continue to be considered so uniquely horrible. In other words, why were killing masses of civilians with one bomb more morally repugnant than killing an even greater number with gigantic amounts of conventional bombs? When I ask people about this, they generally have proved to be under the mistaken idea that the A-Bomb attacks killed more civilians than any other raids. Some have even refused to believe that this wasn’t the case.)
Moreover, the Allied democratic countries themselves had only recently given up massacring indigenous peoples, including, of course, women and children. I’m not only talking the American Indians of the 19th century here, but also the slaughter of possibly millions in the Philippines undertaken by the U.S. military in the 1910’s. (Philipino warriors, although armed only with crude weapons, proved so difficult to bring down that they caused our Armed Forces to switch from the then standard .38 revolver to the .45 Colt semi-automatic that became the official military sidearm for the next eighty years or so.)
That said, the democratic nations had, in a short time historically speaking, quickly lost the stomach for such behavior with the end of the Imperialist, empire-building phase of history. Say, more or less after WWI. As an obvious example, Ghandi’s non-violent protests in India worked because they were used against the British. When English newspapers reported that their troops had massacred several hundred Indians at Amritsar in 1919, the British public exploded with outrage. One rather doubts, however, that the German public would have likewise pressured Hitler’s government to pull out of a profitable colony upon learning that their soldiers were using force against non-violent protesters.
So while the Allies continued to accept killing civilians in wartime, it was the totalitarian governments that would as policy murder immense numbers of (largely their own) civilians throughout the rest of the century. So though the film’s statements regarding national tendencies to murder women and children weren’t factually accurate, even past the point that they ignore Stalin and Mao and other examples of that breed, there is a kernel of truth there.
After all, this very film is a propaganda piece where the horror is that Hitler is killing hundreds of his own people. (If the film had dared suggest that Hitler was killing millions of his own people no one would have believed it.) It’s difficult to imagine a German film of the period that would expect their populace to care about what the American government did to its own people. Indeed, German propaganda tended to focus on the horrors of genetic ‘inferiors,’ like Jews and blacks, ‘polluting’ the purity of the Aryan peoples. (See The Sorrow and the Pity for examples of German propaganda that associated ‘mongrelizing’ blacks with the Allies. In fact, just see The Sorrow and the Pity. It’s available on tape and will be coming out on DVD soon.)
All in all, I can’t really think of anything to compare this film to. Those looking for a better example of something vaguely similar are advised to keep on eye out for Man Hunt (1941). (I should probably point out, although I wish I didn’t have to, that this was made before America entered the war.) I don’t think it’s available on video, but the film probably pops up on TV occasionally. Set prior to the war, Walter Pidgeon plays an English big game hunter. Hunting in Bavaria, he decides as a test of skill to see if he can get the drop on Hitler. He does, but is captured. Of course, they don’t believe his story that he never intended to actually shoot. Furthermore, they want a confession that he was an assassin sent by the British government, which will allow Germany to declare war on England. Pidgeon escapes but is hunted as he desperately tries to get out of Germany.
Adding kick to Man Hunt is the direction of the great Fritz Lang, helmer of M and Metropolis. Lang had fled Hitler’s Germany in the mid-‘30s, and was presumably pleased to direct this neatly done propaganda picture. Meanwhile, movie buffs will slaver over a cast that includes Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine and a young Roddy McDowall.
-by Ken Begg
Greywizard, the sage proprietor of the spectacular Unknown Movies Page, sent in the following:
During my break from work, I popped over to the local library to dig up a [New York Times] review of the movie, to get a sample of the critical view at the time. Here's some of what the review had to say:
"A cheap little independent thriller...fatuous fiction...folks who read the comics should recognize the style - and should be the most (if not the only) appreciative audience for this film....Cut-rate wishful thinking - that's about all it is."