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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
"We have no right to do what we're doing, unless we're prepared to answer with our lives."
DVD ReviewAs America tries to thwart attacks by Al-Qaeda and beat back the Iraqi resistance, it seems unpatriotic—and a little surreal—to watch a film that depicts terrorists as heroes. But We Were Strangers does just that as it chronicles the efforts of a small group of insurrectionists to violently overthrow the totalitarian regime of President Gerardo Machado in early 1930s Cuba. Of course, ridding underdeveloped countries of sadistic despots is a favorite American theme, and director John Huston tries to tap into our liberal ideals and inherent hatred of dictatorial governments to win sympathy for his characters. He succeeds in part, but We Were Strangers possesses only mild political tension. The minutia of the terrorists' plan stalls the narrative, and though first-rate acting punches up many scenes, the turgid drama fails to stir our emotions.
The film begins with a powerful quote from Thomas Jefferson: "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God." In a Cold War climate, such words carry additional weight, and the connection between the White Terror in 1930s Cuba and the winds of Communism sweeping through Eastern Europe in 1949 (the year of the film's release) is difficult to miss. Ditto the link between the movie's anti-socialist slant and Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings on "un-American activities," which dominated the headlines of the day. Both issues lend We Were Strangers topical relevance, but can't compensate for its talky script and sluggish pacing.
Jennifer Jones portrays China (pronounced Chee-na) Valdes, a young Cuban bank officer who becomes politically aware after her brother (Tito Renaldo) is murdered for distributing subversive leaflets. Determined to avenge his death and bring down the tyrants who ordered it, she joins an elite group of revolutionaries led by expatriate Tony Fenner (John Garfield). Tony plans to orchestrate the assassination of a top-ranking official in Machado's government, then detonate a massive bomb at the ensuing state funeral that he hopes will kill Machado and most of his cabinet. The scheme's complicated logistics require the group to dig a lengthy tunnel from China's home to the burial site, and though the work is tedious, exhausting, and risky (and the resulting explosion might kill dozens of innocent people), the rebels forge ahead, even as they arouse the suspicions of the police.
One of Huston's most obscure (and offbeat) efforts, We Were Strangers pales when compared to the director's previous two films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, and is rightfully overshadowed by the trio of Huston productions that followed it—The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Badge of Courage, and The African Queen. Choppy editing and too much rear projection work lend We Were Strangers an artificial look that detracts from the gritty subject matter, while the addition of a perfunctory—and passionless—romance between Jones and Garfield muddies the film's waters. Huston (who co-wrote the screenplay) never seems to fully embrace his material, and his direction seems uncharacteristically flat.
Still, he draws fine work from a top-flight cast. At first glance, the fresh-faced Jones seems an unlikely choice to play a gutsy, vengeful Cuban revolutionary, but the actress adopts a convincing accent and sulky attitude that helps submerge her Hollywood persona. (Huston reportedly wanted a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe for the role, but producer S.P. Eagle—better known as Sam Spiegel—vetoed the idea.) Garfield, as a tough/tender, socially conscious guy with a prominent chip on his shoulder, acts with customary conviction, but his effort here lacks the smoldering intensity that distinguishes many of his more famous portrayals. Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz impresses as a corrupt and lascivious police officer, but Gilbert Roland, as a dedicated freedom-fighter, movingly embodies the Cuban struggle and steals the film with a quiet yet impassioned performance.
We Were Strangers builds slowly to an exciting climax, but a ridiculously ironic denouement does its best to sabotage any emotional impact. As a whole, the film fails to grip us like we hope it will, but many individual moments make notable impressions, and Huston deserves credit for dramatizing a minor yet intriguing historical episode.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Sony has remastered We Were Strangers in high definition, and the clarity is often stunning. The transfer nicely renders the stark, noir-ish cinematography of Russell Metty (Spartacus), and though some scenes exhibit a noticeable softness and possess more grain than others, most of the picture looks sharp and maintains a film-like feel. The deep blacks and lush shadows produce marvelous contrast and make even the murkiest details discernible, and no edge enhancement could be detected. Despite the remastering, a number of specks and scratches still remain, and a few white vertical lines creep into the image toward the end, but the defects rarely distract. All in all, a good effort on a tough film.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: By and large, the two-channel mono track sounds rich and full, with only sporadic patches of surface noise cluttering the audio. Dialogue is quite clear and always easy to understand, and the climactic gunfight possesses fine sonic accents.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Japanese, Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Castle Keep, Behold A Pale Horse, Lawrence of Arabia
Extras Review: A few trailers for other Columbia classics are the only extras offered. Chaptering is far too thin for a film of this length.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsThough it possesses some potent elements and several fine performances, We Were Strangers remains one of John Huston's rare misfires. Fans of the director (and political history) will surely welcome its DVD release, but others should check out Huston's more acclaimed works before tackling this noble yet uneven experiment.
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