First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged "The Hunt for Osama bin Laden." Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers'—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal's heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.
Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she's ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.
While waiting to follow along, let's beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.
Missions don't come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford's decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen's brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford's movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff's posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford's doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.
Director J. Lee Thompson was determined—or so screenwriter-producer Carl Foreman claimed—that The Guns of Navarone (1961) should be "the greatest high adventure of all time." More accurate to say it's the summation of a cycle of stiff-upper-lip wartime mission movies that were a mainstay of English cinema throughout the Fifties, albeit imbued with popular novelist Alistair MacLean's zest for Boy's Own Adventure derring-do. Here the formula thrives on cross-pollination with the caper movie, in which specialists in various exotic arts join forces for a spectacular coup. And so mountaineer Gregory Peck, explosives expert David Niven, Greek partisan Anthony Quinn, and several other worthy chaps—not to omit local Resistance fighter Irene Papas—must knock out two massive, radar-controlled artillery pieces sheltered in a cave under the cliffs of Navarone, guns that control the wine-dark Aegean Sea and menace 2,000 brave British troops on the island of Keros. James Robertson Justice's inimitable reading of the movie's prologue is so flavorful that the ensuing high adventure almost seems anticlimactic. MacLean owned this territory (Peck's character, we are told, "speaks Greek like a Greek and German like a German"), and eventually he was commissioned to write an original screenplay. The result, Where Eagles Dare (1968), became a cult favorite. By the way, David Niven actually served as a commando in World War II; whether his technical advice was sought on The Guns of Navarone is not a matter of record.
A village of farmers in the backcountry, vulnerable to periodic depredation by bandits, pools its meager resources to hire mercenaries to defend them. In 1954 such a synopsis fit a world-class Japanese film, Seven Samurai. By 1960 it also applied to John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, a Western set in Mexico and based on Akira Kurosawa's movie. One of them can claim a place on cinema's All-Time Ten Best List. That film is not Sturges' Western, but once we get past the disparity in ambition and achievement between the two pictures, Sturges' movie deserves the affection audiences have lavished on it for half a century and counting. Few movies from any nation, any genre, have come near being as sheerly cool. Yul Brynner has the lead, the peak moment of his exotic, semi-alien stardom before starting the irreversible slide to self-parody; and early in, or just prior to, their own stardom we get Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn—Coburn coolest of all, so balletically self-contained that only one of his lines is longer than five words. The other, slightly less magnificent two are Germany's Horst Buchholz as a kid who would be a warrior (the Toshiro Mifune part!) and Brad Dexter, locating a certain nobility in being a schmuck. Eli Wallach played the bandit leader—a distinct upgrade in entertainment value, if not in the terror inspired by Kurosawa's anonymous chieftain. The music is Elmer Bernstein's; you know how it goes.
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