Red Ball Express
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (10th May 2020).
The Film

"Red Ball Express" (1952)

Following D-Day and the allied troops making ground in Europe, General Patton is moving forward gaining territory but supplies are fewer and fewer along the way. Lt. Chick Campbell (played by Jeff Chandler) has been made the leader of the Red Ball Express, an army truck convoy with a mission to deliver the necessary supplies to the front lines. Of the men assigned, Sgt. Red Kallek (played by Alex Nicol) is not particularly happy with the decision, as he has a spiteful feel against the lieutenant, who he felt was responsible for his brother's death. The mission is simple with the men having to drive to the destination, unload, drive back and repeat the mission. But with the enemy around each turn through deadly battle grounds, not all will get through the mission alive.

"Red Ball Express" is based on a true story of the men who manned the convoy of supplies, though the men and the subplots have been fictionalized for dramatic effect. Made less than a decade after the war, it is much more of a feelgood film rather than a depiction of the harshness of war. The subplot of Pvt. Ronald Partridge (played by Charles Drake) falling in love with a French girl on the way, the men running into the women of the Red Cross, the patriotic and slightly comical singing for the troops by Pvt. "Taffy" (played by Bubber Johnson) are all on the uplifting and sometimes silly to say the least. Not to say the film doesn't handle anything more serious, as there are social issues like race relations among the men, and violent ambushes of the German soldiers causing trigger happy men are things not to be taken lightly. Drivers due to lack of sleep crash some vehicles. Bad weather causes tires to get stuck. At one point Sidney Poitier's character of Robertson gets into a physical altercation with a white soldier due to racial name calling, and questions whether he should leave the company to avoid further troubles. In one scene where a few soldiers are gunned down, some of the soldiers become more pumped with adrenaline that they forget who or what the enemy is. The film doesn't go out of the way to humanize the enemy soldiers or make them into characters, instead relying on the camaraderie of the men as well as the tension between them.

Though the film shows a company with some black soldiers and mostly white driving the trucks, in reality most of the men of the Red Ball Express were black. Director Budd Boetticher stated that "The army wouldn't let us tell the truth about the black troops because the government figured they were expendable. Our government didn't want to admit they were kamikaze pilots. They figured if one out of ten trucks got through, they'd save Patton and his tanks." Made in cooperation with the armed forced, Universal Pictures were not allowed to depict a more truthful version of the story with a nearly all black cast, in turn making a whitewashed version of the story with a feelgood vibe. Some of the story is seen through the character of Partridge, who also serves as narrator as his character is interested in writing about his experiences in a book. The subplot of him falling in love with Antoinette (played by Jacqueline Duvall) is closer to that of a romantic comedy in its brightness, which is very different in tone from the rest of the movie. Getting left behind, the uncomfortable moments interacting with her family - they might seem out of place in a standard war film. The warm hearted character of Taffy is also a standout, but there is a bit of mystery with the actor Bubber Johnson, who was a musician. Releasing a few records in the 1950s, the film was Johnson's only feature film. A biography of him or an information on him has come up empty in an Internet search unfortunately. Poitier is an obvious standout in his more serious role, and this was one of his earliest film roles in a lengthy and important career on screen.

Boetticher was commissioned as an Ensign in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy, where he was able to make some war documentaries during WWII. In addition he directed and co-directed some war films during the 1940s so the subject matter was not completely foreign, though in later years he was most known for film in the western genre. But whether in war or in the wild west, his works were about the men going through personal grievances and overcoming the odds, and "Red Ball Express" was no different. Though it might be tonally inconsistent in the narrative, the direction is excellent, with the combat scenes, the dialogue scenes, and the confrontations being very well directed. While many of Boetticher's westerns have received excellent DVD and Blu-ray releases in recent years, many of his other works have sadly been neglected. "Red Ball Express" was finally given a DVD release from Universal in 2016, but in a burned DVD-R format with no extras. Umbrella Entertainment presents the film on a pressed DVD format, and to our knowledge the only on available officially.

Note this is a region 0 NTSC DVD

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio (non-anamorphic) in the NTSC format. The transfer comes from Universal Pictures, starting with a modern Universal logo followed by the vintage logo starting the film. The opening shots look extremely rough as they come from WWII stock footage, but once the footage ends, the film actually looks pretty good considering it hasn't received any major restoration. The black and white levels look very well balanced with only minor issues of flickering. dust and speckles can be seen but most have been cleaned with very few instances of damage to be found. Film grain is always visible and there are not digital anomalies to be seen. It has a filmlike transfer, with good detail, though obviously could look better if a newer restoration would be performed. For the meantime, viewers should be very pleased with the transfer.

The film's runtime is 83:46.



















Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
The original mono track is also just as good as the picture, with a cleaned up track eliminating hisses, pops, and cracks for a good listening experience. Dialogue is clear and understandable, with the music and effects also being well balanced. Considering the age of the film, it may be lacking deep bass and having fidelity issues, but again, a pleasing track.

There are no subtitles for the feature. There are a few French portions but they are meant to be left untranslated.

Extras

Unfortunately no extras are offered.

Packaging

This is part of the "Combat Classics" line with the name being on the banner and the spine.
The artwork and some theatrical posters have the title "The Red Ball Express", including this DVD, but the film prints have no "The" for the title.
The back cover mistakenly states "region 4" only, while it is a region 0 disc.

Overall

"Red Ball Express" seems to have been somewhat a forgotten story in WWII with an important, yet sadly expendable mission, and even though the film may not be portraying it completely truthfully, there are many great moments to be had and Bud Boetticher's direction shines greatly. The Umbrella Entertainment DVD has a good transfer for audio and video, but sadly lacking any extras.

The Film: B Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: F- Overall: C

 


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