John Irvin’s The Dogs of War (1980) is everything one might hope for in an action picture. More than that; it is exceptional film-making. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to stop myself from gushing in my unbridled praise for this picture; an extraordinary adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel. Whether considering the riveting, steely-eyed performance given by Christopher Walken (perhaps his finest piece of screen acting to date), the powerhouse ensemble cast, including Tom Berenger (as the butch, yet playful, Drew), Colin Blakely (a superb English actor as the probing/ill-fated journalist, North) and Hugh Millais (the disreputable politico, Endean) or Jack Cardiff’s exquisite cinematography, The Dogs of War remains a proficiently gripping and woefully underrated masterpiece. We don’t get movies like this every day and lesser still since the dawn of the new millennium. Is it just me, or is anybody else tired of the cookie-cutter disposable sci-fi/superhero junk that’s being peddled as art these days? But I digress. The Dogs of War is a reminder why I fell in love with the movies in the first place.
Jack Cardiff’s contribution, in particular, deserves high-water marks. Cardiff is one of the movies’ irrefutable artists, a technical master craftsman in understanding the cinema secrets of painting with light. His work here is nothing short of splendid; the moody magnificence he brings to every frame revealing an essential quality of foreboding, instantly searing itself into our collective consciousness. Cardiff’s images are like fine works of art to be freeze-framed and then hung in a gallery. Yet, his painterly approach to virtually every movie he’s ever photographed is always in service to the story being told. In The Dogs of War, Cardiff juxtaposes the sweaty South African backwater of Zangaro, its limpid palms restlessly caught in a stiff ocean breeze, with the steely blue-gray stillness of a typical New York dawn; his depictions of a postmodern Europe, lazily caught in a sort of perpetually rain-soaked and out of season display of sad urban decay. Cardiff’s interiors are almost as compelling as these establishing shots. Far from providing us with mere visual suggestions and/or signifiers as to where we are, there is never anything pedestrian about Cardiff’s meticulously composed visuals. Each tells its’ own individual story. Cumulatively, they weave a tapestry of an alternate reality in which the movie and its characters not only exist, but thrive as otherwise they might not.
Unlike most action pictures today, The Dogs of War takes its time to unravel its story; the action in service to the story instead of the other way around. Yes! Finally, a director who understands action as more than a handheld, nauseatingly bobbing around to screw with an audiences’ equilibrium; also, to distract us with unsteady movement from the fact their actors can’t sustain a scene. Badly done is badly done – period. However, the marriage between Cardiff’s images, Irvin’s direction and the exemplars of acting put forth by all concerned in The Dogs of War ought to be textbook and studied today. We might get better movies this way. Again, I digress.
The plot, involving a sect of mercenaries for hire, invading a small South African backwater to put into place another puppet regime, meant to replace the despot already in power, is, perhaps pure pulp – or rather, so overused since The Dogs of War it seems old hat and convivial even to mention. But director, Irvin isn’t particularly interested in getting to the blood and guts of all-out combat that bookend this movie as he is in finding those hidden nuggets of truth to make these characters live as people for the audience, rather than cardboard cutouts or variations on an archetype all too oft and easily exploited in such movies, merely for the purpose of advancing the plot. Mercifully, The Dogs of War takes its time to appeal to the audience on a more cerebral level, its bittersweet finale very David Lean-esque in illustrating the shallowness of victory and the scouring of a man’s heart, unhappily to be replaced with the vacuity of life without hope, or even a reprieve in the arms of an ex (JoBeth Williams, briefly glimpsed as Jessie); trapped by those burnished memories, destined to haunt for all eternity the intangible fibers of his very soul. So the Mafia was right: revenge is a dish best served cold.
Better than any actor I know or could recommend, Christopher Walken allows us to burrow deep within his character’s motivations. Here is an actor of such rich and varied qualities it is astonishing how limited Walken’s appearances have been in good – nee, ‘great’ movies befitting his extraordinary talents. Walken has always elevated the tenor of any movie he has appeared in – even the bad ones. But given a rare opportunity like The Dogs of War, he unequivocally illustrates the intuitiveness – nee, intensity – of his craft; a shockingly honest, incurably unromantic, yet queerly sentimental strain running through his cortex. Walken can let the light shine in or show us the pain. Frequently, he does both. This feeling of being a chronic outsider, unloved and undervalued is set up right from the beginning when the widow of an old war buddy, killed in action, rather cruelly informs Walken’s Jamie Shannon he is the godfather of their newly born child in name only, and only because her late husband would have wanted it that way… “now, please don’t come back”.
However, Walken’s Jamie Shannon ought never to be underestimated. He’s one tough hombre, if with a decidedly tender underbelly. But Walken is an actor of extremes. He can turn his performance on a dime from sad-eyed strain, as he does in the moments immediately after his iconic visage is beaten to a bloody pulp, to calculating, heartless intensity during the penultimate confrontation inside the despotic stronghold of President Kimba (Ilarrio Bisi Pedro). Walken’s performances are never cut and dry. There’s always an element of conflict brewing from within. After all, Walken is a thinking man’s actor; delicious in his observations on humanity and more than capable of finding this elemental quality in his characterizations, even when circumstances dictate a complete surrender of such compassions.
Look into Walken’s eyes; those piercing orbs he manages to use like a pair of blinding x-ray searchlights capable of seeing right through any hypocrisy at a glance. At once, we sense the animal in Walken’s physicality; the man too, and never the twain of their incongruity, forcibly melded together, shall they meet in this lanky, lurching presence from Astoria, Queens. Walken moves with an internal fire and music. It’s a lyrical experience simply to watch him take a stroll barefoot to open the front door of Jamie Shannon’s apartment. But Walken gives us so much pleasure in his performance; so rich and appetizing to digest every nuance beyond the obviousness of his own physicality, peeling away the layers of the inner workings of his mind becomes a fascinating character study, befitting a Shakespearean tragic hero whatever his artistic milieu.
The Dogs of War would already be an extraordinary experience because of Walken’s participation. But director John Irvin isn’t content to let his movie become just another one man show – even if the individual is as brilliantly conceived and put together as Christopher Walken. So we get an outstanding ensemble of very fine actors to back him up. Colin Blakely is one of these standouts, though by no means singular in this distinction. Another is Winston Ntshona, as Dr. Okoye; the empathetic physician newly crowned by Walken’s mercenary, partly as remuneration for kindnesses shown him in a time of need, but also to exact his penultimate revenge on Endean, whom he likely holds personally responsible for Drew’s murder. Neither is on the screen for very long; Blakley marginally chewing up the scenery with a tad more screen time. And yet, each actor manages to carve his niche, enough for the audience to absolutely invest and care about what becomes of their characters later on.
Herein, we must pause to give credit where credit is due; to an exceptionally fine piece of writing by Gary DeVore and George Malko; one of the most astutely observed page to screen adaptations. The Dogs of War is the beneficiary of their careful construction, a collaborative ability to provide every actor with memorable dialogue and at least one scene that speaks to their motivations, though never grows preachy, tiresome or obvious in its exposition; advancing the plot at a breakneck pace, while elevating both suspense and drama, making neither seem rushed, perfunctory or improbable. Think it easy? Try it sometime. At 118 minutes (102 in North America) The Dogs of War condenses what was a monumental work of cloak and dagger fiction into equally as compelling an exemplar of movie magic. We get characters that live and breathe, slickly packaged and neatly fitted into exhilarating action sequences, compelling drama and the ethereal satisfaction for having our thirst for good solid entertainment amply quenched before the bittersweet finale. In the immortal words of George and Ira Gershwin; ‘who could ask for anything more?’
Perhaps to foreshadow the direction the movie is headed The Dogs of War opens with a harrowing escape aboard a DC-3; American mercenaries, Jamie Shannon, Drew, Derek (Paul Freeman), Michel (Jean François Stevenin), Terry (Ed O'Neill) and Richard (Harlan Cary Poe) barely making it out alive as civil war erupts all around them. Part of a reconnaissance mission into a nondescript Central American hellhole, their mission hasn’t been a success. In fact, the boys are lucky to escape with their lives. Some do not. Richard, in fact, is DOA in his window seat before the plane even lifts off the ground; Jamie insisting his friend’s body be allowed to make the trip back home for a proper burial. Richard’s widow (Isabel Grandin) is not as accepting of his valor, informing Jamie the only reason he has been asked to be their newborn son’s godfather is because Richard had wished it.
Time passes. Director, Irvin gives us a portrait of God’s lonely man; Jamie Shannon, left to a roomful of haunted memories and a fuzzy TV perpetually left on to keep him company. Jamie is contacted by Endean, a corrupt British businessman with ‘interests’ in certain natural resources richly on tap in the forgotten African nation of Zangaro. “We’re depleting ourselves,” he coldly informs Jamie, “One day we’ll all go to war over rice.” Jamie resists the offer at first, but comes around to Endean’s way of thinking – especially for $15,000. He confronts an urchin in the streets (Kelvin Thomas) begging for change, electing to make the child his beneficiary should anything go wrong. But even Jamie cannot fathom the brutalities he is about to endure. Arriving in Zangaro’s capital, Clarence, and taking up temporary residency at the ironically named Independence Hotel, Jamie uses the disguise of being a professional birdwatcher, on assignment for an American naturalist magazine. Jamie is befriended by North; a British documentary filmmaker who, at present and along with his crew, are persona non grata. In fact, Kimba is keeping a very watchful eye on these foreigners in his midst.
The next day, Jamie is given a driver, Geoffrey (Gyearbuor Asante) to take him into the woods for his photographs; Jamie eluding this arrogant guide momentarily. Later, he casually meets the exotic Gabrielle (Maggie Scott), who offers to show him the town on a walking tour. Unaware she is Kimba’s lover, Jamie poses Gabrielle in front of the military barracks, thus garnering unwanted notoriety from Kimba’s guards. Kimba orders the nosy American tortured. His thug muscle apprehends Jamie from his bed at the Independence, brutally beating him to a pulp and leaving him horribly disfigured to rot in a prison cell until he is barely recognizable – even to himself. At some point, Kimba thinks better of his decision, allowing empathetic Dr. Okoye to tend to Jamie’s wounds and broken bones before shipping him back home. It seems Okoye used to be Zangaro’s moderate leader, later imprisoned by the coup that placed Kimba in power. Okoye has spent the last four years in prison.
Time, again, passes. Jamie’s own doctor, Oaks (Shane Rimmer) advises him to seek another line of work. It sounds like good advice to Jamie too, who was once married, and now decides to make a half-hearted attempt to get back with his ex – Jessie. She is immediately receptive; her stuffy father, less so. Nevertheless, Jamie and Jessie meet at an out-of-the-way motel for old time’s sake, he suggesting perhaps they could both make a fresh start in Montana. His pitch is shot down, Jessie admonishing Jamie for not having changed a bit since their split. Arriving back at his apartment, Jamie is once again approached by Endean – this time with a $100,000 offer to put together a small commando unit to overthrow Kimba and install yet another corrupt politico, Colonel Bobi (George W. Harris) in his stead who promises to be more receptive to Endean’s demands.
Jamie explains the futility of an internal coup. But Endean is only interested in acquiring the country’s platinum resources from Bobi, who has already agreed to sign away the mineral rights provided he is installed as the country’s president. Frustrated and edgy, Jamie agrees to Endean’s proposal. To keep an eye on developments as Jamie reassembles his team from the good ole days, Endean puts a tail (David Schofield) on him. Jamie knows this, but tolerates the intrusion as he gets in contact with Terry, Derek and Drew. While Derek and Drew sign on, Terry declines the offer. North resurfaces. Accidentally/on purpose bumping into Jamie at a local pub, he attempts to probe Jamie for answers, but to no avail. Afterward, Jamie asks Drew to rough North up – just a little – enough to throw him off their scent. Regrettably, the ruse turns deadly when Endean’s man plots to run the pair down in the street, successful only at killing North and severely injuring himself when he loses control of his car, slamming into another vehicle. Drew and Jamie torture the man into divulging Endean’s entire scheme, Jamie force-feeding him a piece of broken glass. Later, Jamie dumps the man’s body in Endean’s study as an ominous warning, that when it comes to political espionage, he is not playing any games.
Having laid the ground rules for the planned invasion, director Irving now gives us the fascinating machinations of an old-time palace coup as Jamie and his men amass their small arsenal of weaponry; Michel welding the guns into a series of metal drums disguised to contain common motor oil. Momentarily, Michel is stopped at the French border by the sortie in a casual roadside inspection that nearly turns deadly. Meeting at the Liverpool Street Station to outline their final plans, Michel proposes a toast for everyone to come home safe and sound. Strictly under the radar, Jamie manages to procure Uzis, ammunition, rocket launchers, mines and other weapons from illegal arms dealers. He also arranges for their transport via a rusted out freighter, the Toscana; its captain (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) very reluctantly sailing the mercenaries into port. At sea, the Toscana is intercepted by black mercenaries trained by a former colleague, Jinja (Eddie Tagoe). Throwing in their lot, this small battalion makes landfall under the cover of night. Together, they launch a full scale attack on Kimba’s presidential compound with the element of surprise in their favor. Alas, during this skirmish Drew takes pity on a woman, presumably hiding under a bed inside the barracks. She turns out to be a soldier, however, and promptly murders him in cold blood.
Jamie is relentless in inflicting his reprisals on the men who beat and tortured him, showing no mercy as he invades and wipes out virtually every last remnant of the old regime, including Kimba, who pathetically quivers, his hands outstretched with bundles of horded cash, begging for his life before being shot at close range in the chest. Arriving late to this post-battle carnage with Bobi in tow, Endean is shocked to discover Jamie with Dr. Okoye in Kimba’s throne room. Asked to explain who this man is, Jamie coolly remakes it is Zangaro’s next president, before shooting Bobi in the head; thus ending Endean’s plans to manipulate the new government to his own advantage. When Endean cruelly informs Jamie, “This country was bought and paid for!” Jamie callously replies, “So buy it again,” before marching from the compound to collect Drew’s body. In the final moments, we see Jamie navigating a jeep through Clarence’s deserted streets; Derek and Michel silent while flanking Drew’s cold remains. After all, what is there left to be said amongst this batter comrades that they have not already begrudgingly reconsidered for themselves?
The Dogs of War is an exhilarating action/drama with a genuine flair for the thinking man’s perspective on the real human cost involved in combat. Few movies ever bother with this elemental fallout. After all, its’ much easier to begin a war story with a blaze of gunfire and rockets hurling through the air and end it on some trumped up high note with Old Glory gallantly waving in the background. Director, John Irvin doesn’t allow himself to succumb to these clichés, however, and the picture is stronger, bolder and more clearly delineated because of his restraint. In preparing this review I’ve read some fairly abrasive condemnations of this picture as not nearly bloody enough to hold the viewer’s attention. How sad…and how extremely telling of the attention span of today’s average (and thoroughly misguided) movie goer, who can think of no better way to occupy his/her time or enrich the palette of their own imagination.
The Dogs of War is a testament to some superior craftsmanship put forth by all involved. I’ll let the naysayers have their nay - and bray. All of the pistons are firing here, and to exceptional effect. Again, the most compelling reasons to see the picture are Christopher Walken’s magnetic and riveting performance, John Irving’s deft direction and Jack Cardiff’s luminous cinematography. A better reason would be to expand one’s mind and perspectives, investing in some intelligent and stylish film-making; filling the recesses between the ears with more quality than compost. I rest my case: The Dogs of War gets my sincerest vote for an exceptionally fine way to spend a couple of hours.
If only I could say the same about MGM/Fox Home Video’s 1080p transfer, courtesy of Twilight Time. It isn’t awful, per say, but it sports some fairly obvious damage between transitions and some heavy scratches and water damage sporadically scattered throughout. Color fidelity is exceptional, although there is one or two scenes that look a tad washed out. Film grain is mostly consistent and looking fairly natural. Flesh tones look great and fine detail, particularly in close-up will leave you breathless. Again, I cannot understand MGM/Fox not taking the necessary time to clean up the age-related damage before scanning these elements to Blu-ray. We’re not talking about minimal damage here either, but some fairly heavy and obvious anomalies that truly distract from this presentation. TT gives us both cuts of the movie. The 118 min. international cut is preferred to the 102 min. theatrical version. Sure, it’s only 16 minutes we’re talking about, but they are of vital importance to our appreciation of the story. Evidently, someone else agrees because only the international cut comes with chapter stops. The DTS 2.0 stereo is fairly aggressive; dialogue mostly sounding natural and SFX giving the speakers an uncommon workout. Alas, apart from TT’s usual commitment to an isolated score, we get nothing more than a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: this film is a rare gemstone among early 80’s action movies. Very highly recommended for content. Generally recommended for the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)