The Devil’s Brigade (1968) is the story of the military unit known as the 1st Special Service Force, a unit comprised of American and Canadian commandos which fought throughout Europe and the Aleutian islands during World War II. Director Andrew V. McLaglen brings this story to the big screen about the men known to their enemies as “The Black Devils”, a unit which suffered tremendous casualties in just only two short years of bloody combat (1942-44).
William Holden (Col. Robert Frederick), Cliff Robertson (Maj. Alan Crown), Vince Edwards (Maj. Cliff Bricker), Andrew Prine (Pvt. Theodore Ransom), Claude Atkins (Pvt. Rockwell “Rocky” Rockman), Jack Watson (Cpl. Wilfred Peacock), Richard Jaeckel (Pvt. Omar Greco), Richard Dawson (Pvt. Hugh MacDonald), Carroll O’ Connor (Maj. Gen. Maxwell Hunter), Michael Rennie (Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark), and Dana Andrews (Brig. Gen. Walter Naylor) make up the cast of American misfits and their clean-cut Canadian counterparts.
Col. Frederick (Holden) is chosen as the commanding officer of this unit which was created by Lord Louis Mountbatten as an American/Canadian unit which was to conduct secret commando operations against the Germans in occupied Norway. Having little combat experience and this being his first command, Frederick is concerned with such a bold plan which fails to mention how such a force can be extracted from occupied Norway once the mission is completed.
Frederick is well liked by Mountbatten who gives him just four months to equip, train, and send his force to meet the Germans in combat. The 1st Special Service Force is stationed at the dilapidated Fort William Henry Harrison just outside of Helena, Montana. Frederick has just only one week along with his hustling, scrounging, adjutant Maj. Bricker (Edwards) to get the camp squared away in preparation for the force’s arrival at the camp.
The American half of the brigade arrives by rail and are the rowdiest bunch that were ever chosen for the force. Many are transfers from other units, while others are criminals who were given an option to join the unit, or go to a military stockade for the duration of the war. One such draftee is former airman Ransom (Prine) who escaped a military jail cell in order to fight with the unit.
Frederick gives Ransom the chance to join but if he fouls up, he’ll be sent back to prison. At first the Americans fight amongst each other with racial slurs, insults, and fists but once the Canadians march into camp to the tune of Scotland the Brave on bagpipes, the Americans turn their aggression and begin to clash with their new allies who are everything they are not, professional soldiers with combat experience.
The movie does a fantastic job of showing the intensive training that the members of the force went through in order to fight, and it shows just how combative the Americans and Canadians were with one another. In one scene, Maj. Crown (Robertson) asks Col. Frederick why he is pitting the men against one another and that they hate each other more than the enemy they are suppose to fight. Like all films which show intense rivalry and blind hatred, there is a scene which unites both Americans and Canadians together as one military unit ready for the chance to prove themselves in actual combat.
The duration of the film chronicles the force’s first major engagement where they fought the Germans in the mountains of central Italy in 1943. The attack on the German stronghold Monte La Difensa causes massive casualties to the brigade, which far exceeded their projections for such a mission.
Despite criticism from Gen. Clark’s adjutant Gen. Hunter (O’ Connor), the unit won the battle and achieved the impossible with such an attack on an impregnable mountain stronghold. The force was considered a ragtag unit comprised of men which were unwanted and untrustworthy but in its history the 1st Special Service Force never lost a battle, never retreated, and was feared and respected by its enemies.
The Devil’s Brigade achieved decent critical success for MGM/UA in Spring, 1968 as a tough, well acted war drama with an impressive cast. Cinematographer William H. Clothier (Merrill’s Marauders) adds his unique touch to a wonderfully shot picture. Holden, Robertson, Edwards, Prine, Jaeckel, Atkins, Watson, and O’ Connor play absolutely fantastic characters who you cheer for throughout the entire film. It is a film which is never short on action and plays out perfectly from start to finish.
My favorite part of the film has always been where the force is chosen for a recon mission to gather intelligence on a town which is the German’s key supply point for their forces in the mountains. Frederick supersedes his orders and isn’t interested in gathering intelligence, but wants to capture the town instead to prove to Gen. Hunter and his superiors that the force is able to handle any job they’re given. In just a short time, Frederick, Crown and the whole brigade capture the German garrison before its commanding officer knows what has happened to his men. A truly classic scene with a lot of humor as well as action for the audience.
The Devil’s Brigade is available on DVD through MGM/UA and can be rented through Netflix.