In Praise of Andrew V. McLaglen and His Washed-Up A-List Casts
With The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone once again puts his sexagenarian body through the action-movie paces. Except, this time, he's joined by AARP-eligible colleagues Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis in a waxworks tableau of retro explosions, cigar toasts, and cock-rock anthems. Although there's a long and quite reputable tradition of ensemble action-adventure films, from The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven to The Wild Bunch, Stallone's eldercare variant is most reminiscent of the unsung work of one Andrew V. McLaglen. Director of dozens of features and hundreds of TV episodes, workhorse McLaglen made mainly proficient, keep-the-shots-coming genre pictures from the late 1950s through the 1980s, including a string of films that showcased packs of old-dog A-list actors chewing away at the B-movie scenery. Budgets were smaller and Botox was unavailable, but then, as now, the thrill was in watching faded stars play versions of themselves, and imagining the professional drinking that commenced when the cameras stopped. Here, five McLaglen films starring anachronistic throwbacks: macho male expendables with nothing left to lose.
The Devil's Brigade (1968)
Starring: William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Vince Edwards
Macho Checklist: Stogies—yes; heavy drinking—yes; women—nope; poorly explained mission—yes; racist undertones—no.
A rather straightforward World War II sausage fest in The Dirty Dozen mold, McLaglen's film stars a tanned and leathered Holden as a colonel charged with leading a joint company of rivaling American misfits and crack Canadians into battle. A year before his even wearier turn in The Wild Bunch, the 50-year-old Holden's already playing against time: He has the same dimpled chin and old Hollywood cadence that he'd brought to the war heroes of his prime, except this character secretly soaks his feet after training exercises.
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch
Macho Checklist: Stogies—yes; heavy drinking—yes; women—va-voom; poorly explained mission—no; racist undertones—yes.
Having helmed several John Wayne vehicles and 96 episodes of Gunsmoke, McLaglen was on familiar ground with this story of outlaw brothers hiding out in the Mexican borderlands. Stewart and Martin aren't remotely convincing as siblings, but they're compelling as wrinkly-eyed movie stars angling for grace. They rob a bank but feel bad about it, kidnap Welch only to fall in love with her, and run from the arm of the law before dying beside it. As in The Devil's Brigade, two sparring forces bring their pistols together to fight a common enemy—in this case, snarling Mexican marauders.
The Wild Geese (1978)
Starring: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore
Macho Checklist: Stogies—yes; heavy drinking—hell, yes; women—begrudgingly; poorly explained mission—yes; racist undertones—yes.
A dream team of slummed-out, fuck-this-shit, decadent English thespians, Burton, Harris, and Moore play mercenaries hired to rescue the kidnapped leader of a fictional African country. A box-office event at the time, The Wild Geese helped set the action-movie trend of hyperbolic machine-gun warfare and false political consciousness that crested with Stallone's own Rambo (and foamed into parody with The A-Team). But the toxic trio is the ticket: Burton always looks freshly roused, poorly lit, and lost behind a tractor-tilled face; Harris comes briefly to life when two-fisting a revolver and grenade; and Moore, midway through his James Bond tenure, is a thick slice of honey-glazed ham.
Starring: Roger Moore, Anthony Perkins, James Mason
Macho Checklist: Stogies—yes; heavy drinking—yes; women—why?; poorly explained mission—yes; racist undertones—no.
Floating somewhere between thriller and comedy, ffolkes reunites McLaglen with a very game Moore, who plays a frizzy-goateed, deep-sea saboteur hired to save an English oil rig threatened by a terrorist plot, masterminded by Perkins, and attended to by an ornamental Mason. Moore has a blast torpedoing his own persona, swigging freely from gin bottles, flaunting misogyny, and sausaging his middle-aged body into a tomato-red wetsuit.
The Sea Wolves (1981)
Starring: Gregory Peck, David Niven, Roger Moore
Macho Checklist: Stogies—yes; heavy drinking—yes; women—sure; poorly explained mission—of course; racist undertones—no.
One last splash for august men, this meandering adventure tells a true story of long-retired English cavalrymen recruited to infiltrate a German vessel off the coast of India. Led by an energized, raven-stached Peck, skeletal Niven, and mainstay Moore, the group accepts their dangerous mission with unqualified relish. Thus The Sea Wolves overtly declaims what all of McLaglen's films imply: that for these men, the greatest threat isn't death, but inaction.
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