Friday, 14 August 2020

Movie Review: Breakthrough (1950)

A World War Two action film, Breakthrough focuses on D-Day then the subsequent push into Normandy, and rises above its humble B-movie status.

It's 1944 in England, and Allied troops are preparing to invade Hitler's Fortress Europe. Straight out of officer training school, Lieutenant Joe Mallory (John Agar) is a rookie leader of a veteran platoon in the First Infantry Division. During training exercises Mallory is error prone and does not impress his jaded Captain Tom Hale (David Brian). Mallory learns his craft and gets better, thanks in large part to support from his Sergeant Pete Bell (Frank Lovejoy).

The other men serving under Mallory include a health nut who loves his muscles, a young soldier too young to vote, a pet lover, a jovial character impersonator, a family man, and a soldier already plotting a career in politics. 

D-Day arrives and Mallory leads his men in landing on Omaha Beach. In the following days the fighting in the Normandy hedgerows is intense, with the Germans dug in within the thick bushes and success measured in yards. Mallory and his platoon gain experience and suffer losses as they slowly advance towards their objective, the town of St. Lô.

The cast is filled with B-movie stalwarts, the characters are stock representations of soldier prototypes, the narration is obvious, the Germans are nothing but mean villains, and the interspersed actual war footage is notably grainy and not always inserted in the correct context. And yet Breakthrough delivers a more than credible recreation of D-Day, including the lead-up and immediate aftermath, with particular emphasis on the often forgotten trudgery of advancing through hedgerow-dominated terrain favouring dogged defenders.

Director Lewis Seiler makes excellent use of the 91 minutes of running time. Character interactions mix at a steady pace with combat scenes, and as cliche as the men are, they become familiar individuals. The sense of pain when soldiers fall in combat is real, and while some acts of heroism are featured, Seiler is more interested in underlining the randomness of war: exactly where a man was standing is often the difference between life and death.

On the action front, the highlights are many. The combat on Omaha Beach is decently handled, Mallory's men having to eliminate a heavily fortified German trench. The hedgerow fighting is filled with the tension of an unseen enemy and risky scouting punctuated by sudden terrifying close-quarters encounters. Finally a small French town abandoned by the Germans becomes a reason to party, but the enemy forces did not go far.

The key personality clash emerges between Captain Hale and Lieutenant Mallory, Hale's leadership toolbox including unrelenting pressure on Mallory, but only because he spots his potential. Hale's refusal to get to know personal details about his men culminates in Breakthrough's best scene.  Scriptwriters Joseph Breen Jr., Bernard Girard and Ted Sherdeman cleverly loop character arcs to demonstrate how the army self-renews by separating officers who survive combat from the dual risks of mounting stress and declining abilities.

The film ends rather abruptly, the low budget finally limiting how far the soldiers can penetrate into France. But while it lasts, Breakthrough overachieves.



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