Monday, February 3, 2020

William Holden Leads the Devil's Brigade

Holden as the brigade commander.
A year after the boxoffice hit The Dirty Dozen (1967), David L. Wolper produced another World War II action film about a band of misfits transformed into an efficient combat unit. The differences are that The Devil's Brigade (1968) was based on fact and paints its story on a larger canvas.

William Holden stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick, who is tasked with forming a special forces brigade consisting of both American and Canadian soldiers. While the Canadian battalion is already combat-ready, the American unit is saddled with former prisoners and AWOL candidates. Plus, friction forms almost immediately between the disciplined Canadians commanded by Major Crown (Cliff Robertson) and the rambunctious Americans led (sort of) by cigar-crunching Major Bricker (Vince Edwards).

Robertson as Major Crown.
To Crown's puzzlement, Frederick encourages the rivalry between the two battalions. Learning that the Canadians were handpicked, one American soldier (Claude Akins) quips: "Where I come from, the only thing we pick by hand is little yellow daffodils."

However, as sometimes happens in action pictures, a barroom brawl--this one started by local lumberjacks--requires the two sides to work together. Having bonded, the men form a cohesive fighting unit. That's a good thing because the Brigade is soon tasked to take a Nazi-occupied mountain in Italy that no one else has been able to capture.

Even with the real-life Robert Frederick (who retired as a Major-General) as a consultant, it's hard to tell what was fact-based and what was created for dramatic intent in The Devil's Brigade. It is worth noting that, according to the book The Devil's Brigade (co-written by one its members), the barroom brawl incident actually took place and did contribute to team-building. The only significant difference is that the instigators were miners and not lumberjacks.

Claude Akins and Andrew Prine as two
of the American soldiers.
The cast is solid, though they are mostly saddled with stereotypical characters (e.g., Carroll O'Connor's blustery general, Jack Watson's straight-arrow corporal). That may be a result of trying to introduce the audience to too many members of the Devil's Brigade. Holden gets the most screen time, which affords him the opportunity to add some nuance to his mission-focused commander.

It's worth noting that Richard Jaeckel appeared in both The Devil's Brigade and The Dirty Dozen. Also, some non-actors of note make brief appearances: Green Bay Packers football star Paul Hornung, champion middleweight boxer Gene Fullmer, and stunt man/future film director Hal Needham.

Veteran director Andrew V. McLaglen (Victor's son) handles the large-scale action scenes with precision. He also make maximum use of the spectacular mountain scenery in Italy and Utah (which stands in for Montana, where the brigade actually trained).

The Devil's Brigade doesn't rank with the best World War II action movies, but it's a respectable effort that won't disappoint fans of this genre. As for the real-life 1st Special Service Force--the official name for the brigade--its surviving members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.


  1. It is always a kick to see Canadians featured in a Hollywood movie.

    1. True, that! I always say, "See that? Canadians!", as though I'm the only person in the room who notices it.

  2. Richard Jaeckel was in every WWII movie ever made.

  3. Great review! Personally, I love this film. It made me discover Cliff Robertson!

  4. I found this movie absorbing and inspiring. It led me to do research into the accomplishments of the 1st Special Service Force and the life of General Robert Frederick.
    A soldier said of Frederick, "His casual indifference to enemy fire is hard to explain, for there were times when barrages of mortar sent us all scurrying for cover, only to come back and find him sitting in the same position and place we had vacated in a hurry."
    He won many awards for his heroic actions in Monte Le Difensa, Anzio, and southern France and was shot up in every part of his body. Churchill himself said tjhat he was the greatest soldier in the Allied army.