J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

The Devil’s Brigade

Posted by J on February 15, 2011

We thought there was a rule that no WWII mission movie could be unwatchable.  No such movie can go wrong, theoretically.  The premise promises adventure — a team of soldiers or commandos goes on an impossible mission in exotic territory.  The setting is wartime, and the good guys and bad guys are obvious and without ambiguity.

Yet The Devil’s Brigade is one of the lesser of WWII mission movies, unwatchable in parts, and trite in every way.  Here the mission is for a band of misfits to get in shape, then storm a mountain where unreachable Nazis fire artillery guns at will.  But the movie sucks the life out of this mission, meandering whenever it needs to move forward.

There is a standard formula for movies like this.  It goes according to this plan:

1) Commanding officer gets a special assignment, then assembles group of outcasts and criminals to prepare to perform special assignment.  Each outcast has his own wacky, distinctive personality.

2) The group of outcasts doesn’t gel at first.  There will be a fistfight or two, but then an incident occurs that unites them as a group.  Usually this incident involves fistfights, too.

3) The group of outcasts get a special assignment, but something goes wrong, except team spirit and willpower overcome whatever went wrong.  In the end, the commanding officer will survive, as will a few of the outcasts, but many of them will die and each will get his own special moment where he dies gloriously in battle.

While The Devil’s Brigade follows this generic formula, it goes wrong in a number of ways.  The first is that none of the individual members of the brigade are all that interesting.  None is a colorful character.  Even near the end of the movie, it’s hard to distinguish one guy from another, even though the movie has tried very hard to establish its characters as likeable and unique.

The second way it goes wrong is that it gives the brigade two special assignments, thereby limiting the screen time spent on each assignment.  As a result, the brigade’s first mission is incredibly dull — sneaking into a base and catching a few German officers showering.  The movie does promise that the brigade will go to Norway, which would’ve been the best route for the plot to take, except the brigade gets shipped off to Italy instead.  While this may be historically accurate, the movie does little justice to the real Devil’s Brigade anyway, so why not have a cool snow battle in Norway involving skiing and crossbows?

The movie was released in 1968, in the opening years of the Vietnam war, which means it’s really about Vietnam and not WWII.  It argues for an military alliance with Canada, a signifier for any potential foreign ally that we might not like (the Americans harbor antipathy for the Canadians in the movie) but that would be useful anyway.  It’s hard to watch this now and not think that the outcasts, criminals, and rapscallions who comprise the brigade are representative of wayward youths in the late ’60s, the kinds of guys needed in 1968 for the U.S. Army.  The movie shows us that we can trust these wayward youths, who can be turned into a valiant fighting force for good, if only we give some courageous leader like William Holden a chance.  Fortunately, the ending to The Devil’s Brigade isn’t all that happy, but any WWII mission movie like this inherently praises modern war as the pinnacle for the exhibition of several male virtues, such as courage, endurance, and toughness.  Unfortunately, to get through this movie without falling asleep, you too will need these virtues.

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