Too Late the Hero (film)

Too Late the Hero is a 1970 Anglo-American war film directed by Robert Aldrich, and starring Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Ken Takakura, Denholm Elliott, Ian Bannen, Lance Percival, Ronald Fraser, Harry Andrews and Percy Herbert.

Too Late the Hero
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Aldrich
Produced byRobert Aldrich
Walter Blake
Written byRobert Aldrich
Lukas Heller
Robert Sherman
Based onstory by Aldrich and Robert Sherman
StarringMichael Caine
Cliff Robertson
Ian Bannen
Harry Andrews
Denholm Elliott
Ronald Fraser
Ken Takakura
Henry Fonda
Music byGerald Fried
CinematographyJoseph F. Biroc
Edited byMichael Luciano
Distributed byCinerama Releasing Corporation
Release date
  • May 20, 1970 (1970-05-20)
Running time
144 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
Box office$1,590,000 (rentals)[1]


In the 1942 Pacific War theater of World War II, Lieutenant Sam Lawson, USN, is a Japanese language interpreter who — so far — has avoided combat. His commanding officer, Captain John G. Nolan, unexpectedly cancels his leave and informs Lawson that he is to be assigned to a British infantry commando unit in the New Hebrides Islands for a combat mission.

The British base is in the middle of a large open field, several hundred yards from the edge of the jungle; on the other side of the jungle is a Japanese observation and communications post. Shortly after Lawson's arrival at the base, a patrol of British soldiers sprint out of the jungle and across the open field, pursued by the Japanese. The base commander, Col. Thompson, instructs his men to keep well back, out of enemy range; they watch as the patrol are cut down by Japanese rifle fire.

Lawson's commando group is instructed to destroy the Japanese radio transmitter to prevent them from sounding the alarm about an American naval convoy which is scheduled to appear on the horizon in three days. The post's radio operator transmits an "all's well" signal every night at midnight; it will be Lawson's job to transmit a fake signal (in Japanese) to buy the Allies another 24 hours.

The commando group is led by Captain Hornsby, an upper class officer with a history of foolhardiness. The other members of the squad are draftees from Singapore whose enthusiasm for fighting leaves something to be desired: Pvt. Tosh Hearne, a cynical Cockney who is also the squad's medic; Pvt. Jock Thornton, a lean Scot whom Lawson at first considers slightly cracked for skipping on patrol and singing the "Teddy Bears' Picnic", Pvt. Campbell, a fat Glaswegian; grey-haired Sergeant Johnstone; Signalman Scott the radio operator; Pvt. Griffiths, Pvt. Rogers, Pvt. Currie, Pvt. Connolly, Cpl. McLean, and Pvt. Riddle.

By the time the squad reaches the Japanese post, Riddle, Connolly, and Currie are dead from a botched ambush which, Hearne mutters to Lawson, was entirely due to Hornsby's incompetence: they were positioned on both sides of the trail, and the dead men seem to have been the victims of friendly fire. When Johnstone is wounded in another encounter, Hornsby leaves him behind; shortly thereafter, Johnstone is discovered by the Japanese and his throat slit.

After Scott drops and breaks the radio Lawson was to use, Hornsby decides to use the Japanese radio. Lawson flatly refuses to take part in any such scheme, giving the excuse that Hornsby is disobeying their orders with this extemporization. Nevertheless, Hornsby walks boldly into the Japanese camp and enters the radio hut without being spotted; he knocks out the radio operator and motions to Lawson and Scott. Scott goes to the hut, but despite Hearne's urgings, Lawson refuses to go. The Japanese radio operator comes to, and in the ensuing fracas, both Scott and Hornsby are killed.

Lawson is now the ranking officer, with only Hearne, Campbell, Jock, Griffiths, and McLean left alive and Jock has been wounded in the debacle. Japanese Major Yamaguchi (Takakura) is determined to stop them from reporting the existence of the secret Japanese airfield and planes they have discovered. Through loudspeakers in the trees, Yamaguchi exhorts the men to give themselves up. Lawson and Hearne agree that Yamaguchi is not to be trusted, but Campbell is favour of surrender, and he works at Griffiths as Jock weakens. Finally, while Lawson and Hearne are asleep, Campbell tries to sneak off into the jungle; but Jock spots him and asks where he's going. Campbell strangles Jock, wakes Griffiths and McLean, and the three of them run off.

Yamaguchi attempts to use the lives of Griffiths and McLean as bargaining chips. (Campbell, on the other hand, is killed in gruesome fashion after the Japanese discover he has a ring severed from the finger of one of the officers the patrol ambushed.) As Lawson and Hearne reach the edge of the open field adjacent to the British base, Yamaguchi announces that they have three minutes to surrender; Japanese soldiers have the field covered with rifles and machine guns. Hearne suggests that they give Yamaguchi a taste of his own medicine. They double back and shoot him. They then sprint out across the field. Despite cover fire from the base, first one, then the other is hit.

One of them rises and staggers to safety. It is Hearne. When Colonel Thompson asks who the other man was, Hearne replies, "A hero. He killed fifteen Japs single-handed thirty, if you like."




Aldrich later said he first wrote the story in 1959 with Robert Sherman.[3]That year, when he was making films in Europe, he said he was going to scout locations in Burma and wanted Laurence Olivier and Trevor Howard to play the leads.[4]

In 1963 Aldrich was going to make a $14 million slate of eight feature films and one TV series for his production company, The Associates and Aldrich Company, using the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Sodom and Gomorrah and 4 For Texas to raise finance. The film projects were Cross of Iron by Lukas Heller, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Tsar's Bride by Robert Sherman, Brouhaha by George Tabori, The Legend of Lylah Clare, Paper Eagle, There Really was a Gold Mine (a sequel to Vera Cruz), and Genghis Khan's Bicycle with the TV series being The Man by Heller. Screenplays had also been completed on Now We Know by John O'Hara and Halstead Welles, Vengeance is Mine, Potluck for Pomeroy and Too Late the Hero by Robert Sherman.[5]

Aldrich later said he did the original draft then had it rewritten by Lukas Heller, who "made it a much better script."[3] However the film was not made until after Aldrich had a big success with The Dirty Dozen.

Robert Aldrich recalled that the production company ABC Films, wanted another version of his The Dirty Dozen and that Too Late the Hero, a property that could use some of the same elements, had been languishing in studio drawers for over a decade.[6] The idea of the film came from an unpublished novel called Don't Die Mad by Robert Sherman who had worked on several films with Aldrich.[7]

Aldrich later reflected, "When you've had a big, big success, people who should know better lose their perspective about your infallibility. Right away it's "Let's make another one!" Let's go back and buy the first novel of some guy who, ten novels later, wrote a hit. That's ludicrous. You may have better projects, but you can't sell the better projects, you really can't."[3] Aldrich said the only other "Dirty Dozen" he had in his drawer was Too Late the Hero. MGM wanted to make it but "they wanted a budget of nine million seven to make it, which was too high."[3] He ended up selling The Legend of Lylah Clare to MGM and setting up Hero at ABC where it was made for $6 million.[8]

In October 1967 Aldrich announced he would make the film as part of a four picture deal he had with Palomar ABC, the others being The Killing of Sister George, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? and The Greatest Mother of Them All. In November Michael Caine signed to star.[9][10]

In October 1968 Cliff Robertson signed to co star.[11] Aldrich said he wanted "anyone but Cliff Robertson" for the lead role but he was overruled by the studio.[6]

Denholm Elliot joined the cast shortly after Robertson.[12]

Historical Accuracy

In actuality, the Japanese never were in the New Hebrides in World War II; the American forces arrived in May 1942.[13]

The attitudes depicted in the World War II film--made during the Vietnam War era--reflected the 1960s, with one character talking about "long haired conscientious objectors". The poster advertising the film showed a fallen soldier dressed in a 1960s American uniform and holding an M16 rifle.


Filming started in February 1969.

The bulk of the film was made on Boracay Island in the Philippines[14] by the same crew and using many of the same sets as Jack Starrett's The Losers.[15] The opening and closing segments were filmed outside the Subic Bay Naval Base using sailors and American civilians as extras.[16]

During filming, Robertson found out he won the Best Actor Oscar for Charly.[17] He had not insisted contractually that he could return for the Oscar ceremony so Frank Sinatra accepted it for him. "There was no flap," he said later. "If the absence was anybody's fault it was my own.":[18] However he did complain a year later, saying that it only would have taken two days out of the production schedule and that he had offered to pay production costs but was refused as "a matter of ego".[19]

Aldrich was requested to film two separate endings for the American and British audiences, one with Robertson surviving.[20]

Filming finished by April 1969. Relations between Aldrich and Robertson deteriorated so much that Aldrich reportedly left the film early leaving Oscar Rudolph to finish it.[21] However in June 1969 Aldrich attended a presentation at Aldrich's studios in Los Angeles were a plaque in Robertson's name was unveiled.[22]

Aldrich later said if Robertson's character had been played "as I wanted it" his character "would have won, even though he is killed and Michael Caine lives."[23]

Shortly after filming Robertson optioned the rights to Death of a Legend, the story of Blanche Walker Jurika, executed for fighting the Japanese in World War Two. He optioned them from Michael Parsons, who was in the cast.[24] Parsons was arrested for possession of hashish in May 1969.[25]


Critical response

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 62%, based on 13 retrospectively collected reviews with an average rating of 6/10.[26]

Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, "Although committed to the notion that war is an inclusive system of betrayals, the film subverts that notion and settles instead for some fashionable ironies and remarkably conventional jungle war displays."[27] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called it "an okay World War II melodrama ... the net result is not very much at all, except for a pervading load of bland competence, under the overall supervision of auteur Aldrich."[28] Gene Siskel gave the film one star out of four and wrote, "The essence of an action film is action, and that's precisely what's missing in Robert Aldrich's 'Too Late the Hero.' Oddly enough, Aldrich, who directed 'The Dirty Dozen,' substitutes boredom in the form of an annoyingly long prolog, repititious scenes, and combat in a closed space."[29] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "a war movie at its most routine. Indeed, it's depressing to consider how much effort and expense were expended with so little to show for it."[30]

Box office

The film earned rentals of $615,000 in North America and $975,000 in other countries (it had admissions of 294,232 in France).[31] The film was one of the most popular movies in 1971 at the British box office.[32]

However, after all costs were deducted, the film made an overall loss of $6,765,000, making it one of the biggest money losers in the history of ABC Films.[1]

Aldrich said in 1972 that because the film "was less than successful, so now all our properties are scrutinized at a whole other level. It can get terribly sad, but it's true that your opinion is only as good as your last picture."[3]

Aldrich later listed as one of his movies where he "never understood" why it was not a success because they were "marvelous movies" (the others being The Flight of the Phoenix and The Grissom Gang).[33]

Home release

Too Late the Hero was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on May 25, 2004 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD.


  1. "ABC's 5 Years of Film Production Profits & Losses". Variety. Penske Business Media. 31 May 1973. p. 3.
  2. Silver, Alain; Ursini, James (1995). Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films. New York: Limelight. p. 279. ISBN 9780879101855.
  3. mr. film noir stays at the table Silver, Alain. Film Comment; New York Vol. 8, Iss. 1, (Spring 1972): 14-23.
  4. Luciano Influence Will Affect Brazzi: Aldrich to Direct 'Deportee'; Welles Joins Marlene on TV Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 3 Dec 1959: C11.
  5. Aldrich Film Program to Cost $14 Million Los Angeles Times 30 Oct 1963: E11.
  6. Arnold, Edward T.; Miller, Eugene L. (2004). Robert Aldrich: Interviews. Conversations with Filmmakers. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi. p. 68, 74. ISBN 9781578066032.
  7. "Robert Sherman". IMDb. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  8. Movies: Aldrich Weighs Hollywood's Future Champlin, Charles. Los Angeles Times 24 Aug 1969: o18.
  9. MOVIE CALL SHEET: Poitier Stars in 'Lost Man' Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 3 Nov 1967: c15.
  10. MOVIE CALL SHEET: Four-Picture Pact Signed Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 6 Oct 1967: d13.
  11. Robertson Signed for Hero Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]14 Oct 1968: f26.
  12. `Topaz' Role for Dany Robin Los Angeles Times 9 Oct 1968: 17.
  13. "Colonial History Of Vanatu : World War II". Vanatu Tourism Office. Archived from the original on 27 September 2005. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  14. Hemley, Robin (2006). Invented Eden: The Elusive Disputed History of the Tasaday. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780803273634.
  15. McCarthy, Todd; Flynn, Charles (1975). Kings of the B's: Working Within the Hollywood System. Boston: E.P. Dutton. p. 139. ISBN 9780525140900.
  16. Vietnam Pilots Signed for Film Los Angeles Times 21 Mar 1969: h21.
  17. It's a long way from J.F.K. Newquist, Roy; Taylor, C H. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Chicago, Ill. [Chicago, Ill]19 Oct 1969: j58.
  18. No Flap Over Oscar Absence--Robertson Loynd, Ray. Los Angeles Times 25 Apr 1969: i10.
  19. HEIR BLUE HEAVEN Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times 22 Feb 1970: o18.
  20. Field, Matthew (2004). Michael Caine: 'You're a Big Man': The Performances that Made the Icon. London: Batsford. p. 142. ISBN 9780713488760.
  21. Warhol Making 1st 'Hollywood' Movie Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 8 Apr 1969: g12.
  22. Cliff Robertson and Ruth Gordon Honored Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times11 June 1969: e12.
  23. Robert Aldrich: Interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippiyear= 2004. p. 77-78.
  24. Cliff Robertson Options Filipino Guerrilla Story Los Angeles Times 9 May 1969: d13.
  25. Actor Freed on Drug Charge By Maurine McLaughlin Washington Post Staff Writer. The Washington Post, Times Herald2 May 1969: C7.
  26. "Too Late the Hero (1970)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 14 December 2018.
  27. Greenspun, Roger (May 21, 1970). "Too Late the Hero,' Film of War in Pacific, Opens". The New York Times. p. 46.
  28. Murphy, Arthur D. (May 6, 1970). "Film Reviews: Too Late The Hero". Variety. 15.
  29. Siskel, Gene (June 18, 1970). "Too Late the Hero". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 16.
  30. Thomas, Kevin (May 20, 1970). "'Too Late the Hero' Features War Theme". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 10.
  31. Soyer, Renaud (14 July 2013). "Robert Aldrich Box Office". Box Office Story (in French). Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  32. Harper, Sue (2011). British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure: The Boundaries of Pleasure. Edinburgh University Press. p. 269.
  33. Up to Date with Robert Aldrich Ringel, Harry. Sight and Sound; London Vol. 43, Iss. 3, (Summer 1974): 166.
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