Saturday, January 31, 2015

HUK! (1956)

In 1944 the United States liberated the Philippines, two years after the Japanese liberated the archipelago from nearly 50 years of American rule, the U.S. having liberated the islands from centuries of Spanish rule back in 1898. The liberation stuck the last time, more or less; the U.S. granted the islands independence in 1946. But a peasant guerrilla army formed to fight the Japanese continued its fight against the new Philippine government and the Americans who still dominated much of the economy. These were the Huks, would-be agrarian reformers who predictably were dubbed communists by the Philippine government and the Americans. Sterling Silliphant wrote a novel about the uprising and adapted it into the screenplay for John Barnwell's film. In the film the Huks are plain and simple terrorists, though contemporaries would more likely call savages. When they attack American-run plantations they may as well be Native Americans raiding a pioneer home. It seems natural that they meet their nemesis in George Montgomery, a veteran of B westerns who worked frequently in the Philippines from this point forward. He and the producers of Huk! recognized that the islands gave you extra value for your B-movie dollar. They're able to stage some epic action scenes that play to Montgomery's strength as a do-your-own-stunts action hero.

In Huk! Montgomery is a Bogart-type reluctant hero, the estranged heir to a Philippine plantation who returns to the islands after the Huks kill his father. He reunites with his old buddy Bart Rogers (John Baer), who's been running the plantation with his wife Cindy (Mona Freeman). Greg Dickson (Montgomery) wants to sell out as soon as possible and resume his peripatetic lifestyle, but the Rogerses see his attitude as a betrayal of his father, if not of them. It doesn't help that Greg can't help flirting with Cindy. If she seems slightly more receptive toward that flirtation than she should, there's a reason for that. Bart was a POW for much of the war and was, how shall we say, damaged by the experience. There's a terribly uncomfortable scene as Mr. and Mrs. Rogers prepare for bed. They have separate beds, of course, but here that's a damning fact rather than a Code convention. Cindy torments herself and Bart by playing a lullaby on a music box that is clearly designed for children's use. Husband and wife both stare grimly at the ceiling before going to sleep.

Once you realize that Bart can't function fully as a man and a husband you know he's doomed. It doesn't help that he's gung ho about taking the fight to the Huks. The danger the Huks represent is really driven home to Greg for the first time when he and Cindy are attacked by one while they're out swimming. As he sees the destruction wrought on innocent civilians and childhood friends by the rebels he gains a sense of responsibility for the islands and his father's heritage, while Bart courts death on an escalating scale.


Huk! is above all an action movie and two big set pieces are its highlights. In the first, Bart powers a locomotive through a Huk blockade, with Greg joining the ride just in time to catch hell. The train must run a mad gauntlet through a man-made canyon of hay bales as Huks open fire from above. A cascade of bales rains down to block the track, some of them clobbering Greg as he tries to keep balance between cars and fire at the enemy. The train finally plows through a final barrier and derails, but the Philippine Army arrives to save our heroes. All along, Huk! has benefited from location photography, and the great thing about this scene, well-staged by Barnwell or his second unit, is that what you see is what you get. Everything is real but the death.


The true climax of the film doesn't quite top the train scene but starts promisingly with the Huks swarming onto the water in outriggers to attack a ship carrying refugees out of the hot zone. The Huks have infiltrated a man onto the ship who sets off bombs in the boiler room, crippling the vessel as the rebels close in. Greg, Bart and a group of Filipino sailors have to fight off a boarding party as Cindy cowers with the women and children. There's plenty of good action here, but I couldn't help wondering what the ship's strategic value was to the Huks, given its mostly civilian passenger list. We see the Huk leader telling his men they need a victory after the debacle with the train, but the choice of target makes them look like no more than bloodthirsty terrorists rather than the land reformers they claim to be. But this is definitely the wrong place to learn about the motivations of the actual Huks, who here only play the role that quickly would be taken up by the Mau-Mau of Kenya: the spectre of Third World revolt and the revenge of the dark-skinned peoples. But leaving politics out of it, Huk! is the sort of film George Montgomery seems to have made a specialty of: a live-action realization of the violent exoticism of the period's men's-adventure magazines. On that he-man camp level, Huk! is grand undemanding entertainment.

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