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Though released just after the end of the Korean Conflict in 1953, Paratrooper was set during World War II and so it served up the conventions, clichs, and characters of war films of a decade earlier. The Korean Conflict lacked the clarity of goal of the previous war, and it ended in a frustrating stalemate, making it a difficult subject matter for formulaic war dramas. Few films were generated about the Korean Conflict during the 1950s, but WWII dramas continued to be churned out on both sides of the Atlantic.
Known as The Red Beret in England, where it was shot on location at the RAF Abingdon Paratrooper School, Paratrooper starred Alan Ladd as Steve "Canada" McKendrick, a former officer in the American military who joins Britain's special Parachute Regiment as a private in 1940. McKendrick, who had once been an officer, blames himself for the death of his copilot while on a training mission. Mortified, he had quit the military and moved to Canada, where he enlisted in the armed services to train as a paratrooper in Britain. His exceptional skills, sense of responsibility, and leadership ability make him stand out from the other troops, but he refuses the commission to become an officer. He insists that he doesn't want to give orders, only take them. Haunted by his experience, McKendrick keeps to himself, earning a reputation as a loner. His attitude prevents him from bonding with his fellow soldiers and interferes with his budding romance with Penny Gardner, one of the women who pack the parachutes for the paratroopers.
After training, his unit is sent on a variety of special operations, where they learn to work together. On a dangerous mission to Tunis, North Africa, they are trapped in a mine field while under fire from the Germans. Quick on his feet, McKendrick figures out how the unit can escape their predicament, proving himself a valuable leader.
Competently crafted, Paratrooper offers the familiar conventions of the World War II drama without adding anything innovative or thought-provoking. Ladd's character, Steve McKendrick, is a version of the cynical loner with the bruised soul who has difficulty becoming part of a unit or group. The group dislikes him, and he provokes their disapproval. Gradually, through their experiences, McKendrick and his unit bond, signified by the repeated singing of the folk song "Red River Valley." The unit first sings it in the local canteen, but a fight breaks out between McKendrick and fellow paratrooper Dawes before the song is finished. Later, during one of their first missions, Dawes loses his legs. After McKendrick visits him in the infirmary, he leaves the hospital whistling "Red River Valley," and two other members of the unit step in behind him to join in the whistling, signifying that their bond is strengthening. Like many World War II dramas, the members of McKendrick's Parachute Regiment represent a spectrum of personalities and classes, from the slight, soft-spoken private to the barrel-chested, square-jawed sergeant.
To American audiences, Paratrooper differed from the typical Hollywood WWII drama because the film was set in England before America's entry into the war. The battles fought and referenced were those waged by the British military, and the training procedures for the Parachute Regiment were strictly British, though seen through McKendrick's perspective. One of the Regiment's key missions is a fictionalized version of the Bruneval Raid, also known as Operation Biting, in which combined British forces staged a raid on a German radar installation in Bruneval, France. The names of the British characters are thinly disguised versions of the names of the real participants in the raid. Calm, collected leading man Leo Genn starred as Major Snow, who was based on the real-life Major John Frost, whose paratroopers executed Operation Biting. In a smaller role, John Boxer portrayed Flight Sgt. Box, a reference to Sgt. Cox, and Anthony Bushell appeared as General Whiting, who is supposed to be General Browning. The screenplay was based on The Red Beret, the nonfiction account of Operation Biting by Hillary St. George Saunders.
In contrast, Steven McKendrick is a completely fictional character, but he serves a function in the narrative beyond that of protagonist. American audiences identify with McKendrick not only because he's the main character but also because he is a Yank in a foreign land with unfamiliar customs. Viewers adopt his perspective as he listens to the British soldiers talk about America's position on the war prior to Pearl Harbor. Believing McKendrick to be Canadian, British soldiers freely criticize the United States for not entering the war. While relaxing in the canteen, the paratroopers scoff when they hear on the radio that President Franklin Roosevelt is donating a few planes to the British Navy, suggesting that Roosevelt's gesture is not enough. They wonder why America has not entered the war, complaining that the Yanks talk a good game but are content to let the British do the fighting. Though McKendrick does not allow these comments to go unchallenged, the scene offers American viewers a glimpse into the difficulties the Allies faced prior to Pearl Harbor and some insight into the bitterness toward the U.S. for remaining on the sidelines.
McKendrick is alienated from his unit not only because of his loner personality but also because he's an American in an unfamiliar country and culture. At one point, he wryly notes, "Everything starts with tea in England," and in an argument with Penny, he admits, "I don't understand you people." The point in which the cynical Yank turns into a patriotic Brit is triggered by a confrontation with a group of American pilots who make fun of the red beret worn by the Paratrooper Regiment. McKendrick decks the mouthy American, who mistakenly refers to Steven as a Limey. Not only does McKendrick defend his red beret against his own countryman, he also does not correct him regarding the "limey" remark.
McKendrick's gradual understanding of his comrades and bonding with his unit represent more than just the change-of-heart of a loner, they signify the way the various Allies put aside their superficial differences to fight the war and defeat a common enemy. The point is driven home near the end of Paratrooper after the unit escapes the mine field in North Africa. A well-respected sergeant major from Scotland, who was fond of saying, "Pity the man who wasn't born in the Highlands and hears the pipes," dies in battle, prompting McKendrick to repeat the line as both an epithet and an acknowledgement that he will carry on in the same valiant spirit as the sergeant major. Major Snow caps the scene with, "It's all the same war," meaning the Allies are now all united in the same just cause.
Paratrooper represented the first film for producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli, better known as the man behind the long-running James Bond series. The Bronx-born Broccoli worked his way up in the Hollywood film industry, beginning as a messenger boy at Twentieth Century Fox. Through connections, he met Howard Hughes and wormed his way onto the set of The Outlaw (1943), where he became assistant director. Military service during World War II disrupted his career just as it began, but he returned to Hollywood after the war, eager to pick up where he had left off. In 1946, Broccoli served as a production manager on Avalanche. The action drama was directed for tiny Imperial Productions by Irving Allen, and Broccoli and Allen became friends during the shooting. After floundering around town in low-level jobs, Broccoli was persuaded to become an agent-producer by Charles Feldman, which gave him a taste for deal-making.
Though Broccoli had his problems getting his foot in the big door, changes in the industry during the early 1950s would prove advantageous. In 1948, the Supreme Court declared that the major studios held an oligopoly on the film industry, forcing the majors to sell their theaters and to cease certain other business practices. This weakened the hold of the majors on the industry, allowing small production companies to step in and produce motion pictures. Throughout the 1950s, producers, directors, and even movie stars began forming their own companies to make films, often with small budgets and a minimal crew. During this heady time, Broccoli and Allen formed Warwick Productions, named for the New York hotel where they secured their deal. The pair opted to produce their films in England, where companies were promised subsidy money if they used crews that were 80% British.
Warwick, which specialized in low-budget action flicks and costume films, was one of the first companies to specialize in Anglo-American productions. Broccoli understood the value of using a charismatic movie star to mask the low-budget production values and to carry the formulaic storyline. He snagged Alan Ladd to star in three Warwick films just after the shooting of Shane (1953), when the actor was at his peak but unhappy with his studio, Paramount. The British press was cool to Ladd for two reasons: He was an American playing a member of the country's beloved Parachute Regiment, and he stood to benefit from a tax loophole that allowed American actors to keep most of the money they made in other countries. Fans welcomed Ladd and seemed to have no problems with either issue. Warwick released films throughout the 1950s, but the company had exhausted itself by the beginning of the new decade. Broccoli and Allen ended their business relationship around the time of their last film, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960).
Of the 20 or so films produced by Warwick, only a handful are memorable, including Paratrooper, The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), Fire Down Below (1957), and perhaps The Trials of Oscar Wilde. And, none of them were major successes at the box office. But, Broccoli benefitted from his Warwick experiences. He found a solid, reliable crew, including director Terence Young, with whom he worked repeatedly over the years. And, the Warwick years gave him insight into British popular culture and a feel for the British archetypes and myths that might catch on with American audiences. All of this proved invaluable for his next cinematic venture, the adaptation of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels to the big screen.
Producer: Albert R. Broccoli and Irving Allen with Anthony Bushell
Director: Terence Young
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, Frank Nugent, and Sy Bartlett based on the book The Red Beret by Hillary St. George Saunders
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Editor: Gordon Pilkington
Art Director: Edward Carrick
Music: John Addison, conducted by Muir Mathieson
Cast: Steven "Canada" McKendrick (Alan Ladd), Major J. Snow (Leo Genn), Penny Gardner (Susan Stephen), R.S.M. Cameron (Harry Andrews), Taffy Evans (Donald Houston), Major General A.B.C. Whiting (Anthony Bushell), Sgt. Breton (Stanley Baker), Flight Sgt. Box (John Boxer).
by Susan Doll