BR: Dogs of War, The (1980)

October 22, 2014 | By


DogsOfWar_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 9, 2014

Genre:  War

Synopsis: A mercenary’s attempt to rebuild his marriage is superceded by a contract to lead a team and replace a despotic African leader with a lesser evil.

Special Features:  118 min. European Cut + 104 min. U.S. Cut / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





After his novels The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File were turned into films during the early seventies, author Frederick Forsyth became a brand name for tales of deeply flawed heroes who at one point in their lives may have lost their sense of humanity and are driven by goals mandated by official orders, or personal crusades which ultimately pit them against a skilled challenger operating on the dark side of humanity.

The cat-and-mouse aspect of his tales – in the aforementioned, as well as The Fourth Protocol – are part of what make his novels translate so well to film: they’re lean narratives with driven figures which ultimately collide in a finale that may be victorious for the morally right, but with generally grim conclusions.

The Dogs of War may not have a matching villainous foe for ex-Vietnam vet / mercenary Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken), but then Shannon is leader of a team, making any group of thugs and despots ideal for his skilled men. In this case, the villains include the corporate scumbag (ever sour-faced Hugh Millais) who pays Shannon to extricate or kill a despotic African leader and insert a lesser evil in his place.

Gary DeVore and George Malko’s screenplay doesn’t subjugate obvious allusions to known CIA-orchestrated coups designed to benefit the interests of future U.S. economic and military interests, and it’s a jab that probably makes the story timeless, especially since both military campaigns in the two Gulf Wars were about oil control rather than ridding a region of an out of control dictator. The fictional country of Zangaro is clearly a microcosm for any nation struggling to survive under the control of a scumbag, and the potential for ignoble western intervention.

Where the film has a dated feel is in the very 1980s ‘high concept’ plot of a team assembling, training, and waging war on a despot, to the extent where less than 50 well-trained men can aide a coup and enable a leadership switcheroo with minimal casualties on their end, but the drama works because Shannon is a career mercenary who can’t step away because of the cash and an addiction to high risk work. He also recognizes that coordinating a coup is what he does best; the fact he’s unable to restart a faltered relationship with ex-wife Jessie (played by then-newcomer JoBeth Williams) proves there’s no point in attempting to erect a normal civilian life.

With his doctor (veteran character actor Shane Rimmer) making it clear Shannon’s battered body won’t last into old age, the stage is set for Shannon’s return to combat after laying low for a few years. The outcome of Forsyth’s story isn’t unexpected, but it’s that last shot in the film which encapsulates Shannon’s existentialist mindset which keeps him sane, but ensures he’ll be back for another job.

Director John Irvin (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), here making his feature film debut, keeps thing moving without resorting to fast edits, and it’s no surprise the longer European version adds more details that don’t necessarily deepen characters, but reinforce their mindsets. Irvin’s action scenes are meticulously choreographed, and in editor Antony Gibbs’ hands, taut without being showy. The production design and location work (in London, the U.S., and Belize) is excellent, and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography adds some elegance to this otherwise gritty film: in the rare scenes between Shannon and Jessie, the colours in the set and lighting designs provide a needed calm before Shannon reassembles his reliable team (which includes a pre-Platoon Tom Berenger) from their own banal civilian lives.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray includes both the 118 min. European and 104 min. U.S. cuts, and both transfers make use of decent prints. (The longer cut has some spots during a scene transition from a plane takeoff and a baptism scene, but otherwise looks fine.)

Geoffrey Burgon’s orchestral score (previously unreleased, and presented isolated in stereo on a separate track) is sparse yet effective in not making Shannon’s exploits fully heroic; there’s some jingoism to the main theme, but its classical structure almost enhances Shannon’s surreal and violent lifestyle.

Forsyth’s story doesn’t play up the camaraderie between the mercenaries – they’re disparate personalities whose bonds are rooted in excitement and saving each others’ lives rather than genuine friendship – and there’s fine details in the assembling, plotting, and execution of the switcheroo, much in the way the prior adaptations of Forsyth’s work celebrated the procedural details of his characters. (The only characters who fail to become significant are women: frustratingly, they remain mistresses, chatterboxes, complainers, or ex-wives.)

The Dogs of War is a rather classy drama with a strategic makeup of U.S. and British talent (Walken and Berenger get the only billing in the U.S. trailer), especially the many character actors that fill out quite smaller roles. In addition to JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist), there’s small parts for Pedro Armendariz Jr. (The Mask of Zorro), Ed O’Neill (Married with Children), Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and tiny roles for Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy) and Victoria Tennant (L.A. Story).

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes pretty much nail the first impressions most viewers will have of this underrated film – its classy production, its cast (Broadbent, as a cameraman,really does look exactly like Randy Quaid), Walken’s always believable portrayal of a career mercenary, and the genre itself which extended to westerns, war films, and contemporary homages.

(In addition to perfectly assessing Walken’s unique physical performance style – a swaying dancer trapped in a compelling tough-guy shell – she also cites the forgotten mercenary film Dark of the Sun, which Cardiff directed in 1968, and is similarly imbued with a sense of nihilism, especially the finale which has the hero involved in a deadly hand-to-hand fight.)

Films based on Frederick Forsyth novels include The Day of the Jackal (1973) and its wretched remake The Jackal (1997), The Odessa File (1974), The Fourth Protocol (1987), and Rooze-e sheytan / The Day of the Devil (1994).

Director John Irvin also directed the flawed shocker Ghost Story (1981), the soccer drama Champions (1984), the Arnold Schwarzenegger silly Raw Deal (1986), and the graphic war film Hamburger Hill (1987).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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