(This is a follow-up to my review of The Sand Pebbles and a contribution to the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon over at Jason Bellamy's The Cooler.)
Especially during the 1960s, the heyday of the widescreen historical epic, battle scenes were everywhere. But this one stands out. I like how it uses extreme long shots to establish the setting and the situation the San Pablo is in, and when it comes to the battle, close-ups are used sparingly for dramatic effect, and loosely framed medium to long shots capture the hand-to-hand combat, making the action clearer, unlike the claustrophobic, in-your-face framing of much of the battle action in films these days.
Let’s take a look –
The opening shot for this sequence is tremendous. The ship's bow slicing through the water suggests speed and purpose. The snags in the water suggest danger ahead.
I need to know where I am at all times in a movie. This long shot clearly presents the situation: an American gunboat alone in a vast country.
Here is a beautifully composed shot: river, hills, sky.
The camera moves with the boat as the barrier blocking the river is revealed.
The iris through the binoculars clearly sets up the conflict. The boat has to break through this barricade.
Now that the situation has been established, the camera takes us in closer to the men preparing for battle. They uncover the gun. They place axes, fire buckets, and weapons where they can be reached easily. I like the establishing of props used later in the action.
Again, this beautiful long shot clearly locates the action.
Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) mans the Browning automatic. Of course he does! I love the cool way McQueen picks up the gun and cocks it. This macho handling of the weapon is juxtaposed with his ambivalence about his part in this battle. Snapping down the sight suggests his turmoil over his place here. He wants to do the Farewell to Arms thing.
Pointing out the enemy by sighting down a cannon barrel - a classic battle scene technique.
Another extreme long shot! Love it! The action is never claustrophobic. The filmmakers make the most of this wonderful exterior location.
Opening shots are exchanged, and the battle begins.
A good shot - in more ways than one!
A little patriotism - or the suggestion that our flag is going where it shouldn't necessarily be going.
Long shot establishes the proximity of the enemy.
The first boarding party gets ready.
Jake Holman, in the second boarding party, looks on.
First boarding party away! And a very nice stunt as the first American is killed and falls into the water.
And here's what I love so much about the hand-to-hand combat shots in this sequence: they are medium to long and loose, never cluttered. The action is clear and always watchable - never a mere impression of noise and motion.
Second boarding party away! Jake Holman leading. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Close shots of the effects of war ...
... fill Jake with turmoil. He doesn't want this!
Jake takes the axe, determined to end the carnage by cutting through the boom as quickly as possible.
An adversary creeps up behind him - and what a beautifully composed shot with the flames on the right and the smoke on the left.
Then comes one of those little surprises that make cinema such a thrilling experience. The Chinese soldier swings his sword ...
... but Jake ducks, and the sword glances off his helmet.
Then, as the soldier cocks back his sword again, Jake swings.
Jake is devastated by the killing of this young man.
God's lonely man, Jake walks back to the gunboat, a solitary figure damned by war.
The gunboat breaks through the boom ...
... at a huge cost.
In the last image in the battle sequence, McQueen as Jake Holman shows his remorse for his actions and his resolve to "make no war no more." When he makes his decision to stay with Shirley and the missionaries and not go back to the ship, we do not take this as an act of cowardice. His decision is a judgment of the futility of war and the injustice of imperialism. We have no doubt that Jake is a hero.