Sunday, September 13, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Red Ball Express (1952) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Late last month Kino Lorber released a pair of World War II movies: Paramount's WAKE ISLAND (1942), made during the war, and Universal Pictures' RED BALL EXPRESS (1952), filmed several years after the war ended.

First up for review is RED BALL EXPRESS, which I found highly enjoyable. Director Budd Boetticher did a lot with a little, using a strong cast, a few trucks, and some dirt roads to tell an engaging, well-paced story.

Those of us who love Westerns sometimes refer to films which aren't classics, but are solidly entertaining and satisfying, as "darn good Westerns." Perhaps that term could be used here -- RED BALL EXPRESS is a "darn good war movie."

Jeff Chandler plays Lt. Chick Campbell, a former trucker from Colorado put in charge of the Army's "Red Ball Express," a truck convoy designated to relentlessly run supplies through France to Patton's troops. As soon as they unload at the front, they turn around and head roughly 240 miles back to the port in Cherbourg and start the drive all over again.

Alex Nicol, who seemed to perennially play angry types (i.e., THE MAN FROM LARAMIE), here plays Sgt. Red Kallek, who knew Campbell in Colorado and resents him, believing Campbell was responsible for his brother's death.

The other soldiers in the convoy are played by an interesting group including Charles Drake, Sidney Poitier, Jack Kelly, Robert Davis, Hugh O'Brian, Frank Chase, and Bubber Johnson. Howard Petrie plays the Patton-esque Major General Lee Gordon.

The movie doesn't feature anything especially unusual or unpredictable, yet I found it a pleasure start to finish. As mentioned above, I was impressed with what the director accomplished with a fairly bare bones story and setting, maintaining interest for all of the film's 82 minutes and leaving me with a big sentimental smile on my face at the finish.

Jeff Chandler is perfectly cast as the authoritative commander of a rag-tag bunch of men desperately rounded up from military kitchens, offices, and anywhere else an extra man could be found to take the wheel of a truck. He's on screen much of the time and is always compelling.

I also especially enjoyed Charles Drake as the big-talking soldier with a heart of gold. He regales his fellow soldiers with tales of trucking adventures in the U.S., then has to admit to his co-driver that he doesn't even know how to turn on the truck! But he's really a nice guy underneath and has a sweet romance with Antoinette (Jacqueline Duval), a French girl he chances to meet at the side of a road.

Poitier, Davis, and Johnson have good parts as black drivers in the unit. The film addresses racism, in a positive way which finds the characters working past issues and building a rapport and mutual respect.

I was particularly on the lookout for Kelly, a favorite from MAVERICK, but he tends to come and go from the scenes more than the other actors. He vanishes for long stretches of time, then shows up among the soldiers in other scenes.

I'm not sure where the movie was filmed -- by Maury Gertsman -- but the setting didn't look like the usual boring San Fernando Valley scenery which is so prevalent in both lower-budget Westerns and war films. IMDb indicates some filming was done in Virginia but I don't know if the driving scenes where shot there.

This was the first screenplay by John Michael Hayes, who would go on to write REAR WINDOW (1954), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), and several other good films.

As a side note, some of the promotional materials for the film refer to the title as THE RED BALL EXPRESS; I'm basing the slightly shorter title used here on the opening credits which I consider the "final word" on a title.

The print is a typically good-looking Kino Lorber Blu-ray. Extras including a commentary track by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin along with a half dozen trailers for additional films available from Kino Lorber.

Fans of Jeff Chandler, Budd Boetticher, and WWII films should enjoy this one. Recommended.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


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