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A middling-to-fair screen performer, Cornel Wilde's films include A Song To Remember
(1945), for which he got an Oscar nomination playing Chopin, as well as a sprawling
circus drama The Greatest Show On Earth (1952). He also occasionally appeared
in more interesting fare, such as the cult B-noir The Big Combo (1955), a title
held today in greater esteem these days than those contemporary, well received mainstream
successes. Of greater interest still is Wilde's career as a director that, with the tense
drama of Storm Fear, started the same year as his appearance in Big Combo.
Although not a fully mature work, his debut never the less suggested some of the themes
that would inform Wilde's later work, notably a concern with man confronting the elemental,
both externally and internally, and a fondness for extreme situations.
After three rather conventional films, from the mid 1960s onwards Wilde made a remarkable trilogy of work in quick succession: The Naked Prey (1966), Beach Red, and No Blade Of Grass (1970), and these are the films upon which his creative reputation rests principally today. Each of them concerns a journey of one sort or another, in which men in different ways must face up to the primitive impulse within themselves as the comforting supports of civilised society are removed. Thus in The Naked Prey - a European is pursued by relentless natives across a bleak African wilderness; in No Blade Of Grass - a party of English refugees and survivors have to navigate a post-catastrophic country; while in Beach Red soldiers face up to their innermost fears and regrets during the bloody battle for a Pacific island. Typically in Wilde's work a stricken or unforgiving landscape reflects back the straits in which the main characters find themselves whilst any final resolution is, at best, ambivalent. In Beach Red this environment is lush and dangerous, full of both natural and human perils (at one point the director gives a litany of killer flora and fauna) but one where the greatest threat to man is Man himself.
Some critics have compared Wilde's cinema to that of Sam Fuller. Both directors, in their own way, forge personal cinema with their own urgent vision. Fuller is the more assured stylist, as he extracts via his tabloid-inspired contemplation of events a 'poetry' of his own. Wilde often wears his message unashamedly on his sleeve too - most obviously in No Blade Of Grass, or in some of the regretful soliloquising of Beach Red, to no less powerful effect. Like Fuller, Wilde produced and directed, but also scored and acted in two out three of his best works. (He is also heard as the narrator in the present film and performs a similar function as a radio voice in No Blade Of Grass). Beach Red was the only one he also co-wrote, which leads one to think it had particular interest for the director. Unlike Fuller, Wilde never served in the armed forces. And unlike Fuller's war movies, Wilde's single martial opus is distinguished by its even-handedness. While the gritty realism and hard-wrought bravery of Wilde's soldiery is never in doubt, he applies the same eye to both sides of the war.
Beach Red represents humans in uniform on both sides, placing the blame for the ensuing cruelty and pain not as a rule on individuals, but on a wider commitment to duty, outside of any immediate questioning. When a soldier is guilty of any unnecessary cruelty, such as the Sergeant who breaks both the arms of a dangerous Japanese prisoner to subdue him, Wilde's Captain MacDonald condemns the action outright. "We must never forget why we are killing..." In all of his major films Wilde's world is often cruel and hard - but never sadistic, his main characters determined, never cynical. His heroes, whether MacDonald, John Custance, or the unnamed runner of The Naked Prey, do not manipulate others, but only try and survive, making the best of a bad world. It's a difference in worldview that explains why Fuller made a string of excellent noir films while Wilde only made one.
Those who have seen Saving Private Ryan will feel right at home with Beach Red, and not just with the painful introspection of the lead as he struggles with duty. (Others have felt the flashbacks and narration anticipate Malick's The Thin Red Line, 1998.) Although necessarily not so violent as the much-praised opening battle scenes of Spielberg's film, Beach Red's opening assault can still pack a punch. Here, too, we see men dying in the water during a vicious landing on enemy beaches, pinned down beneath murderous machine gunfire, bleeding from punctured guts or half burnt by flame throwers. There are pieces of limbs in the water, while the young warrior 'Mouse' stands in horror, his arm ripped from his side. This is no romanticised version of war and, if anything, the ending of Beach Red is less compromising than that of Spielberg's film, catering to different tastes perhaps, felt compelled to offer. Even more than in No Blade Of Grass, Wilde feels free to indulge in stylistic tricks and methods to achieve the peculiar dream-like intensity which accompanies combat experience: moments such as stills, visual distortions, voiceovers and flashbacks, which highlight the interior life of his characters. Some of these 'internalised' moments are almost as explicit and as powerful as dynamic scenes elsewhere: for instance during one of MacDonald's sensual reveries about his wife, when we see her presumably on the point of orgasm. There's more sexual content too in the conversations between Private Egan (Burr de Benning) and minister's son Private Cliff (Patrick Wolfe), which includes at one point a fantasising over a woman's torso fashioned from coconut shells and soil.
Memories of sensuality offer a form of nostalgia for the soldiers. But Beach Red offers no real solutions to the horrors of war, just looks at what they entail unflinchingly. If MacDonald's narration during combat is sometimes a little too matter of fact ("Only man, among living things says prayers, or needs to") then this can be ascribed to Wilde's naiveté, in the best sense, as a director, an ongoing quality which informs his best work. MacDonald, a lawyer by profession, is just a man who wants to get back to his wife. John Custance just wants to reach his brother's refuge in Scotland. 'The Man' in The Naked Prey just wants to elude his dogged pursuers. Wilde's characters are boiled down to essentials in their desires and offer us their simple focus on key, almost primitive, issues in times of great adversity, with no need to embroider great rationales for thinking and acting. When we need to be told, then Wilde the narrator can provide the hand-on-heart commentary. This honesty means that we can overlook the odd clichés in his Beach Red, and enjoy it as one of the best war films.
The region 1 DVD release offers an excellent transfer but with just a trailer as the only extra.