What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The 5th Golden Boy Blog-A-Thon: A William Holden Celebration being hosted By The Wonderful World Of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, and Love Letters To Old Hollywood. It was four years ago to the day when another installment of this very event served as my introduction to the film blogging community and the concept of the blog-a-thon. and like that stray cat you fed, I’ve been coming back ever since!
Not to mention, if you’re familiar with this film, our three amazing hosts are the blogging equivalent of “O’Neill” (played by Jeremy Slate) to my “Rocky” (played by Claude Akins). They are polished and professional syntactical butt-kickers…I’m just a “great powerful beast.”
If you aren’t familiar with The Devil’s Brigade, you should fix that…and you should checkout all the solid reads in this event. You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
The Devil’s Brigade is a film based on a 1966 book of the same name which was written by author/historian Robert H. Adleman and Colonel George Walton, who actually was a member of the brigade. For all intents and purposes, this film is a dramatization of an actual event, the formation, training, and deployment of the 1st Special Service Force.
The brain-child of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (played by Patrick Knowles), the 1st Special Service Force is to be a commando unit comprised of American and Canadian soldiers. The film itself begins with a voice-over from U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick (played by William Holden). He’s narrating his own disapproval of the plan and his disdain for being summoned to England to explain his position to Mountbatten personally. After hearing Frederick’s impassioned rejection of the plan, Mountbatten selects Frederick as the man to lead what will become the “Devil’s Brigade.”
The scene then shifts to the dilapidated Fort William Henry Harrison somewhere in remote Montana. Frederick arrives to meet his new second in command, Major Cliff Bricker (played by Vince Edwards). The initial impression is Bricker may be an officer, but he’s certainly no gentleman. This seems fitting as a train arrives and disembarks the American contingent to this project; basically a collect culled from the finest stockades the army has to offer.
As the newly-arrived Americans are showing themselves to be quite the collection of rabble, the Canadians arrive; led by Major Alan Crown (played by Cliff Robertson) and marching smartly to the bagpipe standard Scotland the Brave. The Canadians are everything the Americans are not; they are disciplined, professional soldiers.
The differences between the Canadians and the Americans take no time to generate much antagonism amongst the men, and this is also reflected between their respective leaders, Majors Bricker and Crown. Initially, the viewer is left with the impression these two groups will never be able to co-exist, let alone form an elite fighting force. However, Lieutenant Colonel Bricker sees this as an opportunity to use the developing rivalry as a means for fostering a union of the two groups.
Shortly before they are scheduled for deployment to Europe, the Canadians are provoked into bar fight by some local lumberjacks. But since they are under orders not to fight, the Americans come to their defense. A huge brawl ensues, soldiers (regardless of uniform) versus the lumberjacks. Later, during a ceremony for the brigade’s graduation from training, it’s is clear there is now a strong “comrades-in-arms” feeling amongst all the men.
All throughout their training, the idea was they would be deployed for a special mission in Norway. However, once Frederick feels his men are ready for combat, he receives word that the Norway operation has been awarded to a British unit, and that his unit is to be disbanded. Incensed, Frederick heads to Washington to appeal.
Just when it looks like all is lost, Frederick gets a new assignment; he and his brigade are sent to the mountains of southern Italy under Lieutenant General Mark Clark (played by Michael Rennie). However, Clark’s deputy commander Major General Maxwell Hunter (played by Carroll O’Connor) is highly skeptical of Frederick’s bunch of “foul-ups.” He gives the 1st Special Service Force orders to reconnoiter a Wehrmacht garrison in a nearby Italian town. Frederick questions Hunter’s plan and proposes one of his own. Hunter snaps back, citing Frederick’s lack of combat experience.
Frederick essentially ignores Hunter; the 1st Special Service Force goes on the mission, but instead of gathering simple reconnaissance, they capture the entire town. When the German garrison commander is interrogated by Major Crown, he gives the units it’s nickname: “Die Teufelsbrigade” which translates from German as “The Devil’s Brigade.”
With Hunter’s criticisms now silenced, Clark promotes Frederick to Colonel and gives the 1st Special Service Force a task no other Allied troops have managed to accomplish; capturing a German mountain fortress known as Monte la Difensa. Frederick proposes a plan which involves attacking the Germans from a direction they won’t expect as they believe the cliffs at their back cannot be scaled.
Hunter says the plan is impossible, to which Frederick says he hopes the Germans think that as well; the brigsde needs it for the element of surprise. Frederick’s men pull off the plan; they scale the cliffs under the cover of a diversionary artillery barrage.
Once the shelling from the Allied guns stops, the “Devil’s Brigade” launch their assault on the Germans holding Monte la Difensa. A fearsome battle ensues, and be warned up front…several characters that have endeared themselves to you over the past two hours won’t survive. But the Devil’s Brigade prevails at the end, which allows the Allies to continue their advance north through Italy against the southern flank of the Third Reich.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
An easy (and somewhat lazy) way to look at The Devil’s Brigade is that it’s a derivative of 1965’s The Dirty Dozen. Feel free to debate that amongst yourself; I’m here to tell you this movie is a cleverly-disguised treatise on race relations. By making it about Canadians and Americans rather than race, it cloaks the message while still delivering it.
1968 in America was an exceptionally racially-charged time; the hallmark issue of the day being integration. If you think about it, that’s really what The Devil’s Brigade is all about…two different groups of people brought together by circumstances which drive them to overcome their differences.
Hollywood has gone straight at the theme of race and college basketball; Glory Road is the tale of the 1966 NCAA championship game between Don Haskins’ all-black Texas Western team and the segregated Kentucky Wildcats led by legendary coach Adolph Rupp. But four years later, the world of college hoops brought us a true tale of integration.
This brings us to the 1970 Jacksonville University Dolphins, who literally changed the face of college basketball. Despite what Don Haskins did with Texas Western in 1966, the world of college basketball was one of big schools and white players. The story of the team that changed all that also has it’s roots in the mid 1960s. At the time, Jacksonville University seemed the most unlikely of places to be home to a “David” ready to take on the “Goliaths” of college basketball. JU had a student body barely over 2,000. The Dolphin basketball team played to crowds of less than 1,000 and had a annual recruiting budget of $250.
That was the lay of the land when Joe Williams took Jacksonville’s head coaching job in 1964. Given those constraints, Williams had little at his disposal to change JU’s lot in the world of college basketball. That was until one day in 1968 when Williams made the decision to do the unthinkable in the heart of the American south at the time. He recruited black players.
One could say he was inspired by the aforementioned Don Haskins and his 1966 Texas Western Miners, but that’s the easy (and exceptionally lazy) way to view what Williams did. Williams never really gave a reason why he made that risky decision; instead he took the far more courageous position. By never offering explanations, he allowed what his players could do be all that needed to be said.
But before this story goes any further, we have to address the “not-so-feel” good aspect here. Given the racial attitudes prevalent at the time, you know there were some “growing pains.” You know there was some antagonism. You know there were some harsh words. But the way that team played, it was clear like “The Devil’s Brigade,” all the differences were overcome. Whatever that team’s “bar fight with the lumberjacks” moment was, coach Joe Williams kept all the ugly business behind closed doors in practice. That was probably the most important aspect of letting the Dolphins’ play on the basketball floor speak for itself.
Not to mention, Williams picked three pretty good guys to start doing the talking. Chip Dublin was a prototypical point guard; he wasn’t going to light up the score board or the stat sheet, but he “quarterbacked” an offense which was on it’s way to some serious “lighting.”
It was hard to miss Pembroke Burrows. A seven feet tall, he cut an imposing figure in a Jacksonville Dolphins uniform. The “imposing” factor only increased when Brooks traded in his basketball uniform for that of a Florida Highway Patrolman.
But the unquestioned star of the show was Artis Gilmore. At 7’2″, 250 pounds, Gilmore was a giant among giants. But his size wasn’t what set Gilmore apart. Any basketball fan can tell you most of the guys who have the height of an oak tree also share the same level of mobility. But Gilmore was a specimen; an athletic freak. He ran the floor like a track star and could take flight like nobody who wasn’t wearing a cape.
Behind the coaching of Joe Williams and led by Gilmore’s “Superman”-like 23.2 points per game and 22.2 rebounds per game, the Jacksonville Dolphins set several NCAA basketball records such as Field Goals Made In A Single Season (1,118), Most 100-Point Games In A Single-Season (20), Most Points In A Single-Season (2,811), Scoring Average (100.4), Rebounds In A Single-Season (1,561), Rebounds Per Game (55.8), and Total Assists In A Single-Season (699).
All this led to the Dolphins ending the 1970 season ranked 4th in the final Associated Press poll; their highest finish ever. This also meant the tiny Jacksonville University earned a trip to the “Big Dance;” the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Jacksonville dispatched Western Kentucky and Iowa on their way to a date with the aforementioned Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats in the Mideast Regional Finals. William’s Dolphins took down Rupp’s Wildcats 106-100, setting a date with the unquestioned king of college basketball.
Standing in the way of destiny for Joe Williams and his Jacksonville Dolphins was John Wooden and his UCLA Bruins…smack-dab in the middle of their run of 10 championships in 11 seasons. In the Bible, David beats Goliath, but college basketball is anything but holy.
What matters is win or lose, the “Devil’s Brigade” created by Joe Williams carved out it’s place in basketball history.
The Moral of the Story:
The whole point of a team is the color of the uniforms matters more than that of the skin inside them.
P.S. – Since this movie is installment in a sports-related series, keep your eyes open for “real” sports stars – Green Bay Packer Hall-of-Famer Paul Hornung (also known as “The Golden Boy”) as one of “the lumberjacks” and World Middleweight Boxing Champion Gene Fullmer as “The Bartender.”
P.P.S. – If game shows were more your “thing,” you’re going to recognize Private Hugh MacDonald (played by Richard Dawson) who would go on to be a staple on The Match Game and the first host of Family Feud.
P.P.P.S. – Another fun thing about blog-a-thons is you discover people whose works you didn’t realize you were a such of an of; in this case I had no idea this was the third Andrew V. MacLaglen film to be included in this series, You can see the other two here and here.
P.P.P.P.S. You can see from some of the photos of Artis Gilmore in this piece why there’s a Dubsy award in his honor…
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