In his book of collected film criticism, Ghosts in the Machine, Michael Atkinson makes a convincing argument that actor/director Cornel Wilde is more of a maverick filmmaker than the much more celebrated Sam Fuller. To be fair, Wilde has far fewer directorial efforts than Fuller – only nine – but each one attempts to push the boundaries of genre and audience expectations. This is certainly true of Beach Red (1967), an adaptation of Peter Bowman’s 1945 novella of the same name, which is a visceral, unsentimental look a group of United States Marines that land on an unnamed Japanese fortified island in the Pacific during World War II. The film features the occasional surreal imagery that anticipates Apocalypse Now (1979), harrowing battle scenes that likely inspired the ones in Saving Private Ryan (1998), and voiceover narration of various soldiers’ thoughts coupled with flashbacks of their lives back home done years before Terrence Malick would do the same in The Thin Red Line (1998).
To wit, the film’s first image is that of a jungle a split second before it is blown up – one that Francis Ford Coppola would steal outright and use for even more dramatic effect in the aforementioned Apocalypse Now. The opening credits play over paintings of battle scenes depicting Japanese and American pastoral settings while Jean Wallace (Wilde's wife) sings the mournful title song, establishing the anti-war stance this film takes.
In an audacious move, the last painting morphs into the first scene as we meet the tough-talking Marines en route to a Japanese island. They gripe amongst each other while Captain MacDonald (Cornel Wilde) looks over his men and shares his thoughts about war via voiceover narration, anticipating a similar technique employed by Malick in his own World War II epic. However, Wilde is not the thoughtful philosopher Malick is and MacDonald’s musings definitely skew closer to the no-nonsense prose of Sam Fuller. We also get the inner thoughts of soldiers scared of dying, which is quite effective as they sit in a boat headed for the island and an uncertain fate.
The beach landing is rendered in brutal fashion as men are shot and killed before they reach the beach. Wilde does an excellent job of giving a sense of scale with long shots of hundreds of men wading through the water while explosions go off around them and bullets whiz by dangerously. He doesn’t shy away from the horrors as soldiers wade past severed limbs and a young man, paralyzed by fear, gets an arm blown off by mortar fire in a scene later recycled in Saving Private Ryan. There is a refreshing lack of sentimentality as Wilde grimly depicts the brutality of war and arbitrary nature of death. Why do some men die while others are spared? Beach Red suggests that is random and many survive by sheer luck.
While Wilde and co-star Rip Torn get significant screen-time, no one character is fully developed – the filmmaker has bigger fish to fry. He’s more interested in depicting the horrors of war in unflinching detail. The refusal to focus on one or two characters puts the viewer off balance because they don’t know who to identify with and this adds to the unpredictable nature of Beach Red.
Wilde also gives significant screen-time to the Japanese, showing one of its commanders thinking about his wife and life at home. He also shows some of their devious tactics, like putting a decoy up in a tree for the Marines to shoot at and then kill them, or Japanese soldiers dressing up like American ones in order to get close enough to kill them. He also attempts to humanize the Japanese by presenting a scene where we see foot soldiers getting ready for the advancing Marines and they joke and talk amongst themselves – one guy even sketches a flower to the pass the time. This prevents them from being rendered as merely anonymous monsters.
Wilde employs all sorts of ballsy techniques for the time, like briefly adopting a first person point-of-view of a Marine making his way through tall grass en route to stopping a Japanese machine gun nest. The filmmaker also uses freeze frames to capture a soldier’s fear of stabbing himself with his own bayonet in jarringly effective fashion. In another scene, MacDonald’s flashback about his wife back home is rendered via a montage of still images while she laughs about something, which is followed by footage of her embracing him as she gets upset that he is going to war. These broad strokes succinctly show what’s at stake for him. Wilde doesn’t telegraph these techniques but rather crudely inserts them for maximum effect. The unconventional way he uses these techniques keeps us constantly on edge and adds to the unpredictable nature of the film.
It is interesting to note that Beach Red came out when the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War was heating up and one can’t help but wonder if Wilde meant his film to be a warning, of sorts, about the brutality of such conflict. This is particularly apparent when the Marines make their way through dense jungle not unlike the ones in ‘Nam.
For a film made in the late 1960s, the depiction of violence is surprisingly graphic, anticipating Sam Peckinpah’s orgy of carnage in The Wild Bunch (1969). Beach Red certainly lives up to its name as men have limbs blown off, are shot in the neck, are brutally stabbed, and have arms broken with sickening snaps. Wilde’s lack of polish as a filmmaker actually works in the film’s favor as it reinforces the visceral depiction of war in a way that more sophisticated films do not. He manages to eschew the two-fisted heroics of some of Fuller’s war films in favor of gritty realism mixed with experimental techniques. Beach Red doesn’t really say anything new about war but does find new ways of depicting its hellish nature.