Friday, February 19, 2010


Former stuntman George Montgomery (no relation to Robert and Elizabeth) is star, producer, co-writer and first-time director of this colorful B-adventure set during some of the darkest days of World War II. He's Capt. John Larsen, a frustrated, alcoholic soldier whose leave is interrupted by the Americans' need to evacuate the Philippines. No one seems very bugged by the idea, however. The opening scenes have no sense of urgency whatsoever. "Say, I hear they're going to declare Manila an open city." "Yeah, I guess so." If Larsen is angry, it's because the withdrawal disrupts a good drunk he had going on at his favorite nightclub.

We get the idea that Larsen drinks because he's pissed off about not being able to fight with a hand missing. We learn later that he lost it fairly recently in an alcohol-induced accident. When he's sober he's out to redeem himself, and when he hears that an American general is lost in the countryside, he volunteers to get him out before the Japs find him. The tip is that a Filipino guerrilla (a "half-bandit," one officer says) has the general, but wants $5,000 for him. Larsen takes the mission and the money. In good time he finds the guerrilla/bandit Santana, or if you prefer, Santana finds him. He also finds a new love, Lolita, who is not underage but almost childlike if not doglike in her devotion to the American. She's also incredibly hapless, always wandering into the path of snakes, getting in the way of Japanese bullets, etc. Larsen's the sort of guy who doesn't care too much for clinging women unless he wants to cling to them. He warns her not to follow him and Santana's gang but along she comes. When he jokes that he's no longer interested, she tells him to go to hell and heads off in a huff. That turns him on. He chases her down and practically rapes her in a stream, but she seems to like it, and they cuddle afterwards.

Talk to the hand... If only he could.

Larsen and Santana have to travel because Santana neglected to mention one detail about the general: he doesn't have the guy. Oh, he had him once, but they had to leave him behind when the Japs closed in. So our heroes have to liberate the general from the enemy, and for the occasion Larsen forges ... the Steel Claw... which just happens to be a hook. This disappointed me a bit. I was hoping for a whole metal hand, maybe with different weapons in each finger, or at least something Larsen could punch through walls or people with. But it's just a hook.

Lots of things don't live up to expectations in this movie. Worst of all, once they rescue the general with the help of a competent female guerrilla leader, he turns out not to be a general. In a twist probably inspired by William Holden's role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, the liberated American is a sergeant who grabbed the general's uniform after the superior officer broke his neck in a parachute drop. When Larsen finds this out, he's not appreciative of the sarge's survival skills, but beats the snot out of him. That's just round one of the battle with the increasingly crazy soldier, who finally ends up killed by Japanese before the big finale.

Friend or foe: Carmen Austin as guerrilla leader Rosa (above) and Paul Sorenson as an American soldier of questionable rank (below).

The Steel Claw looks like one of the "sweats," the lurid men's-adventure magazines that succeeded the pulps in the Fifties and Sixties, come to life. What it lacks in dramatic momentum, it makes up for in vibrant atmosphere. Even in a degraded copy in Mill Creek Entertainment's Combat Classics box set, it's pretty vivid, and the Philippine locations give Montgomery natural production values he probably couldn't afford otherwise. He's not much as an actor but he does put his character over as dissolute at first, self-pitying later, and man's man when it counts. Doing most if not all of his own stunts certainly helps his cause. Ultimately, The Steel Claw is more interesting as a cultural artifact, a period piece of macho fantasy, than as a work of cinematic art. If the men's-adventure and its aesthetic sense interest you, then in all likelihood so will this film.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I knew nothing about this film but found the review very interesting... from your reaction, it sounds like one that would be intriguing to watch if the opportunity arises, but not necessarily one to seek out. Good review here.