Starring Steve Cochran, Philip Carey, Mari Aldon, Paul Picerni, Harry Bellaver, James Dobson, George O’Hanlon, John McGuire
Directed by Lewis Seiler
The Tanks are Coming is the epitome of a middle-of-the-road film (and no, that’s not intended as some dumb attempt at a tank pun… although if you laughed, I’ll take it!). This is a shame because there are a lot of great scenes of tank action that really deserve to be in a better movie. Many of the characters also show potential, but none of them ever fully realize it. So when it’s all over, and you realize that the whole she-bang is kinda mediocre, it’s more disappointing than it would normally be because you can almost see the better movie it could have been.
The plot is one of the film’s main issues, because there really isn’t one. OK, there is one, but it’s incredibly brief. Here it is… ready? A few tanks from the Army’s 3rd Armored Division (nicknamed Spearhead) attempt to bust through Germany’s Siegfried Line and into Germany. As you can see, that’s more of a general goal than it is a plot. The Tanks are Coming is largely episodic in nature, but because of the clearly defined end-goal, the episodes feel more directly connected than in a traditional episodic film. In this way it’s kinda like an adventure across the countryside in tanks (not that war should ever be considered an adventure). Anyway, this episodic structure has been done effectively in war films, but in The Tanks are Coming the elements never congeal. We’re watching these guys go through many different situations, yet everything still feels somewhat disjointed and glossed-over. For me, this frustration is further compounded by the fact that the film’s story is credited to Sam Fuller, the man I consider to be not only the master of the realistic war film, but also the episodic, survival-based war film.
Fuller doesn’t mention The Tanks are Coming at all in his memoir A Third Face, so I’m on my own this time. My guess is that whatever Fuller’s original story consisted of was one of his many attempts to sell the studios on his idea for The Big Red One. Both films are episodic and focused on the survival of a small group of GIs, so this assumption seems like something of a given — especially since the gruff, no-nonsense, seemingly indestructible Sergeant character is also present in both films (as well as other Fuller war pictures).
In the same way The Tanks are Coming also resembles another Fuller film, Merrill’s Marauders, and in comparing these two films it’s easy to see another issue with The Tanks are Coming: the tone of the film is just all wrong for a war film. I’m sure there are lots of war films with a similar light tone, and maybe this is just my relatively young age talking, but I have an incredibly hard time getting behind an upbeat war movie. I understand that they were made as a form of propaganda to inspire young people to join the armed forces, but that doesn’t make it any better. Can you imagine if we still made films like this about the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq?
Anyway, while Merrill’s Marauders takes on a tone of drudgery to evoke the slow death of surviving through war, The Tanks are Coming plays overly sweet music more at home in a western love story while the tanks make their slow, painful, death-filled ride to blast their way into Germany. And that sentence pays more mind to the horrors of war than the entire film does. I know this is cutting down a movie for what it’s not, but when films like Fuller’s own The Steel Helmet & Fixed Bayonets! were released the same year I know that better representation of war was a possibility. This is where studio meddling — or at least assumed studio meddling — comes in to sweeten something up in order to make more money. Whatever, if I let go of stuff like this maybe I’d lengthen my life by a few years, so I should probably figure out how to do that. I don’t think this whole “writing about old movies” thing is helping, though. 🙂
The other thing that really bothered me — No, I haven’t learned anything since last paragraph — was the film’s narration. Like all film narration, it’s there to fill in gaps and help further along the story, but in The Tanks are Coming it almost fills in the narrative completely. The narration also takes the tone of someone telling us of great heroic deeds, amping up the propaganda vibe that’s already relatively thick. Are the deeds ultimately heroic? Sure, of course they are, but the difference between telling us and showing us is where the propaganda feeling creeps in.
Considering all these things that bothered me, I’m surprised to say that I actually did enjoy watching The Tanks are Coming. Taken for what it is, it delivers a lot of tanks doing tank stuff, which definitely feels like a sub-genre of war film that’s not as overflowing as the dogface infantry films. I mean, there’s a new tank movie out, Fury, and everyone’s all “It’s a tank movie!!!” like it’s something they’ve dreamed of since their days in Osh Kosh and Velcro shoes. You definitely don’t see that reaction to the latest infantry film!
So just for that, The Tanks are Coming is something fairly interesting and worth tracking down if you’re into tanks. It’s also very well shot and the action is really well done. There are tons of actual WWII stock footage cut into it, too, which bolsters the already solid scenes of action with a reality that 1950s FX work could not achieve. One of the characters is a young Dwight Eisenhower, too, and while I have no clue how accurate this portrayal of him is, I’m sure history buffs interested in the president’s war days would find this at least somewhat entertaining.
As I mentioned at the beginning, The Tanks are Coming is a fairly average film, but it’s one that works well as simple entertainment if you’re in the right frame of mind. Sam Fuller fans looking for something of his spark should be cautious, although there are slight bits of Army detail throughout that scream of Fuller’s expertise in that regard. Recommended to the right people, and by this point, I’m sure you know who you are.