Santiago (DVD Review)20 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Alan Ladd, Rossana Podesta, Lloyd Nolan, Chill Wills.
A couple of the Cuban patriots portrayed or alluded to here apparently died in real life before the movie takes place (1898), which means that this engagingly middling action potboiler whose DVD jacket “just misses” is not the place to go for a history lesson. It is, instead, a reasonably diverting Saturday matinee at the movies, though no one is going to send out the sentries if the pulp adventure nostalgists among us watch it some other time of the week.
The “just misses” part refers to the DVD’s jungle-set cover art featuring leads Alan Ladd and Rossana Podesta, she an actress who was briefly big for the first three or four months of 1956 following her January lead as the title stunner in director Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy. If this follow-up July release were truly the equivalent of cover art for an old men’s magazine copy of Saga or Argosy — which is what it seems to be going for — the conservatively dressed actress would be wearing a lower cut on her blouse, a gun belt covering it and perhaps a large viper of some sort around her neck.
But you get the idea. Released around the time “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” became Elvis’s greatest two-sided single, this CinemaScope/WarnerColor kid’s stuff is from an era when beautiful women were adventuresses and men were gun-running mercenaries with a past. In the Ladd character’s case, this West Point grad was thrown out of the army for protecting a boozy subordinate (Paul Fix, of both a zillion John Wayne movies and Zabriskie Point) who’d made a grievous error in judgment. It’s the kind of thing that limits one’s career options, which is why Ladd finds himself in Tampa as the film begins, and definitely not to see the Rays battle for the AL East title.
Tampa, Haiti and Cuba are the movie’s still familiar stop-offs, with the Cuba portrayed here in an age-old situation as political rebels challenge an oppressor (in this case, it’s still Spain). The rebels need guns, and Ladd has them. So does his perennial professional rival played by Lloyd Nolan — who, every 20 minutes or so, seems to be getting into some sort of widescreen scuffle with Ladd, usually on a ship called the Vicksburg that’s piloted by an old Civil War Rebel played by Chill Wills (an actor then moonlighting as voice of Francis, the Talking Mule). It’s all so benign after seeing Stallone & Co. shooting the heads off deserving South American adversaries in The Expendables.
Nolan has some grungy subordinates, but Podesta (termed by someone here as “the Cuban Joan of Arc”) dresses up the vessel as an intermediary who’s supposed to be getting Nolan and Ladd their funds. Nolan is also interested in something a little more, which means that Ladd always has to intervene and throw a punch or seven in “Joan’s” behalf. By this time in his career, Ladd’s alcoholism had been showing in his face for at least a couple years, but you can see – when this typical Ladd script finds him a few ways to get his shirt off — that this onetime swimming champ appears to be in good physical shape at 42.
The Warner Archive “on-demand” subsidiary could almost consider changing its name to “Gordon Douglas Theater,” given the number of movies it has released from that journeyman filmmaker (So This Is Love, Gold of the Seven Saints, The Sins of Rachel Cade and so on). Just a couple weeks ago, I talked about Clint Walker and Edward Byrnes in Douglas’s Yellowstone Kelly, but this movie is a little better (if less well known) thanks to its exotic subject matter and fewer lumps in its pacing. Ladd, as always, tends to be stoic in his dialogue deliveries, but Nolan is more flamboyant, so it’s a simpatico adversarial mix.
When Santiago played my downtown theater as a child, some typically crazy Central Ohio crazy booker paired it with Britain’s then critically praised Lease on Life, in which Robert Donat played a dying parson trying to wrap up his life on a strong note. This kind of nutty double bill used to be standard issue back when the movies were still movies, and in the long run it was good because it forced both adults and children to expand their viewing horizons and get away from homogenized taste.
But the great women stars like Davis, Dietrich and Crawford were aging, and so-called chick flicks (not that they were ever called that then) must have had a tough time of it. Playing downtown opposite Santiago were Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive, the second week of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in jock-ish Trapeze (held over by popular demand) and Robert Stack in Jacques Tourneur’s peppy Civil War Western Great Day in the Morning. In those days, you asked the concession stand attendant if the box of Jujyfruits contained “red meat” flavor.