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A tribute to the hard-loving, hard-fighting men of the U.S. military, William A Wellman's Darby's Rangers (1958) stars James Garner (TV's The Rockford Files) as William Orlando Darby, the true-life army colonel who put together an elite commando force during World War II -- "the darkest hour of our history, when the enemy held half the civilized world and no man could foretell the future."
A student of history's greatest warriors, Darby (Garner) convinces a general to let him organize, "guerilla fighters [to fight] the little war -- slash, bleed 'em, and run." Permission is granted and the call goes out to death-defying servicemen to join him in what could be a series of suicide missions. The respondents are a cross-section of the red-blooded American male. There is a fighter, a gambler, a lover, a kid, and a "shavetail" West Point officer. There's an Irish-American, a Jew, a Southerner; men from Texas, Arkansas, New Jersey. Tried by fire, the melting pot of American males must put aside their individuality and learn to function as a homogenous unit -- a brilliant theme, but one that runs through many a classic war movie, including Howard Hawks's Air Force (1943), Carol Reed's The Way Ahead (aka The Immortal Battalion, 1944), and Allan Dwan's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
The unit undergoes rigorous training in northern Scotland, and are allowed to mingle with the locals. Just about all of the woman-starved G.I.'s in Darby's command find themselves a love interest, and thereby illuminate the character of the two-fisted American soldier: loud and abrasive on the outside, gallant and kind on the inside.
Reno card sharp Hank Bishop (Stuart Whitman) hooks up with a London bus conductor (Joan Elan); innocent Private Rollo Burns (Peter Brown) falls for a nineteen-year-old Scottish girl (Venetia Stevenson); and wet-behind-the-ears officer Arnold Dittman (Edd Byrnes) is love-struck by an impoverished Italian woman (Etchika Choureau). Only one of the soldiers conducts himself dishonorably -- Tony Sutherland (Corey Allen), who seduces a Scottish housewife (Andrea King) -- but he is summarily punished by fate for his transgression.
The New York Times quipped, "You might gather from Darby's Rangers...that the major interest and pursuit of the special combat force of American soldiers that bore that tag in World War II was chasing after women. Virtually every conspicuous Ranger in this film, with the exception of the stalwart commander, runs down and catches himself a dame."
Once their training is complete, the "mustang outfit" is dispatched to Northern Africa, and then shipped out to "tear up a little real estate" in Sicily, Naples, and a fog-shrouded battleground in Anzio, where the Rangers face their first heavy losses.
While Darby's Rangers appears to the casual viewer a state-of-the-art war picture, it was already something of a relic at the time of its release. In the wake of the Korean War, as America slid deeper into the Cold War, the propagandistic war picture was supplanted by more cynical and violent pictures such as Robert Aldrich's Attack (1956) and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). By 1958, a film such as Darby's Rangers seemed positively old-fashioned. Even though Warner Brothers tried to contemporize the drama with all the romantic entanglements (after the pattern of From Here to Eternity, 1953), Darby's Rangers truly belongs in the 1940s, alongside Wellman's other WWII classics: Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949).
Darby's Rangers is anything but cynical. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "The adventures presented in this war film constitute a recruiting officer's dream."
The film's gung-ho outlook is reflected in the painted slogans that adorn Darby's offices. These hard-boiled platitudes include, "Danger to a Ranger is no stranger," "If troops are fit, they can endure any kind of hardship," "The surprise night attack is our greatest secret weapon," and the most poetic: "Surprise the enemy, then butcher and bolt." There is no sense of irony in the motivational placards, so rigid they allow no room for introspection on the part of Darby or, for that matter, the audience. They are as unequivocal as the film itself.
The film was based on the 1945 book Darby's Rangers: An Illustrated Portrayal of the Original Rangers by James J. Altieri, himself a veteran of Darby's troupe. This was not Altieri's first brush with Hollywood. He served as technical consultant on Michael Curtiz's Force of Arms (1951, starring William Holden).
Nor was it Wellman's first encounter with the elite special forces. Three former Darby's Rangers -- Roy Murray, Walter Nye, and Chuck Shunstrom -- served as advisors on Story of G.I. Joe, and no doubt regaled the director with stories of their adventures, fueling his interest in a film devoted to the subject. Darby himself died on April 30, 1945 while forcing the German retreat from Italy.
The adaptation of Altieri's book was first announced in 1950, with Rudi Fehr slated to produce. For reasons unknown, the project was shelved. The editor of more then 30 films (including Dial M for Murder  and Key Largo ), Fehr produced only one film in his career, 1953's The Desert Song.
The project was taken off the shelf after the success of Warner Brothers' Battle Cry (1955). In fact, the studio overtly pitched Darby's Rangers to that film's viewership, proclaiming in its ads, "Nothing like it since Battle Cry!" and "The big Battle Cry story of the American Commandos!"
In March, 1957, Warner Brothers announced that Charlton Heston was cast as William Darby. On April 26, just prior to the start of production, Warner Bros. balked at Heston's demand for 5% of the profits, and cast Garner instead, which incited Heston to file a $250,000 lawsuit against the studio for breach of contract. Garner was already part of the outfit -- slated to play Hank Bishop, a role that later went to Whitman.
Another almost-cast member was Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees! ), who was assigned the role of Lt. Dittman. When Hunter dropped out of the project, Dennis Hopper expressed interest in the role, but it was instead awarded to Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, who had yet to achieve TV superstardom on 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1963), and who is exquisitely pompadoured in Darby's Rangers, even though he is playing a WWII combat soldier.
Darby's Rangers was given a wider-than-normal release, playing in an estimated 70 theatres in the New York City area alone. It was also released in the UK as The Young Invaders.
To promote the film, Warner Brothers organized a tour in which Garner presided over dinners in various major cities alongside the highest-ranking Darby Ranger of that locality.
Upon the film's release, The New York Times complained about the excessive attention it paid to the soldiers' amorous exploits. "The conduct of military affairs, including training and combat encounters, is given secondary emphasis in this film. The founding and the fighting of the Rangers are sketched along the way, but even those are described in such fashions as to cloak them in an aura of romance."
The film did not prove particularly resonant for Garner, who in a 1964 interview in The New York Times, called it a "worthless studio picture."
After achieving some notoriety through the release of the film, Altieri returned to the topic for a second book: The Spearheaders: A Personal History of Darby's Rangers (1960), which replaced the narrowly-circulated Darby's Rangers as the definitive book on the subject.
It has been suggested that Wellman agreed to direct Darby's Rangers under the condition that Warner Brothers back Lafayette Escadrille (1958). This film was based on Wellman's own experiences as a pilot in World War I, and would be his final film as director.
Producer: Martin Rackin
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Guy Trosper
Cinematography: William Clothier
Art Direction: William Campbell
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Cast: James Garner (Col. William Orlando Darby), Etchika Choureau (Angelina De Lotta/Dittmann), Jack Warden (MSgt. Saul Rosen/Narrator), Edward Byrnes (Lt. Arnold Dittman), Venetia Stevenson (Peggy McTavish), Torin Thatcher (Sgt. McTavish), Peter Brown (Pvt./Cpl. Rollo Burns), Joan Elan (Wendy Hollister, Bishop's girl in London), Corey Allen (Pvt. Pittsburgh Tony Sutherland), Stuart Whitman (Sgt./SSgt./Sfc. Hank Bishop).
by Bret Wood