The bland and the beautiful

Such a study in contrasts! On TCM the other night there were a few William Holden movies running. I tuned in as they were running the marvelous Sunset Boulevard, one of my favourite movies. It was followed by the movie below and … oh my!

Force of Arms (1951)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Starring William Holden, 1951’s Force of Arms stands out simply because it doesn’t stand out at all. It is singularly bland, being neither a bit good nor a bit bad but just a whole lot of just okay.

In that sense it is “bad,” though I think that term should be used more judiciously. Here, we have a movie with a number of good elements but when they come together they don’t cohere into anything interesting. I suspect it is the kind of movie that was dreamt up to satisfy some studio goals but had no dramatic reason to be. So it feels uninspired.

And it didn’t help that just prior to seeing it I saw the movie’s two stars, William Holden and Nancy Olson, in another movie they made, the magnificent Sunset Boulevard.

Force of Arms is a movie that bounces between a war drama and a romance. Holden plays the hero with obstacles to overcome in both.

The war scenes (the battles) are well done though standard stuff. The romance scenes are … well, annoying at best. They don’t play well at all.

Nancy Olson as Lt. Eleanor MacKay and William Holden as Sgt. Joe 'Pete' Peterson.

They are weak primarily because Olson’s character, Lt. Eleanor MacKay, is weak and Olson is forced to play most of her scenes with a hang dog look or the look of someone on an interminable crying jag. You really just want her to shut up and go away. In the final scenes in particular her faced seemed etched in granite with the look of emotional devastation.

By contrast, in Sunset Boulevard she plays a character with both strength and determination, for the most part. Force of Arms doesn’t grant her this.

William Holden, on the other hand, is William Holden and essentially carries the movie. His presence is probably why the movie doesn’t come off as being awful; his performance tempers things making it at least somewhat palatable. Although it should also be said he, too, is forced to play a character that love turns into an emotional basket case.

Scene from Force of Arms (1951).

I think part of the movie’s intent was to show how war disrupts romance and life plans but what results is a movie that seems to be about how love makes people idiots and makes the horrors of war even worse.

As I write this and think of the movie, the more inclined I am to contradict what I began saying about the move: it is bad. It’s not bad in the unwatchable sense but it is in the wasted potential and in the fact that it ends up being nothing more than time wasted.

It is, however, visually good. The war scenes work well mixing scenes shot for the film with documentary footage and everything is well staged. It looks good in black and white with very nice cinematography by Ted McCord.

But in the end it winds up as wasted effort. It is an uninspired film rooted in a bland story.

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