Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: The Love War (1970)

Producer Aaron Spelling and director George McCowan presented this sci-fi "ABC Movie of the Week" on March 10, 1970...nearly forty years ago now. Since that time, The Love War has remained an affectionate favorite for some; a little-remembered oddity for others.

Penned by David Kidd and Guerdon Trueblood, The Love War follows a reserved, emotionless alien warrior from the distant planet Argon, a "man" named Kyle (Lloyd Bridges).

Kyle and his lieutenant (a very young, pre-Hill Street Blues Daniel J. Travanti...) have traveled to Earth to play a most serious sort of "game." The outcome of that game could spell salvation or destruction for all of us.

Some background: Our happy little green planet rests between the "overlap" of two cosmic Empires. Both Argon (Kyle's world) and hostile Zenon claim that our world belongs to them.

But, to avoid use of "the bomb," a weapon which has all-but destroyed both alien civilizations, the two empires have agreed on a new kind of warfare. Monitored by the impartial "War Arbitration Control," each side sends three of their best warriors to Earth.

There, in human form, these representatives will wage a war according to "rules." They must abide by a "schedule" -- "the clock by which our lives run," according to Kyle. And "any change in the schedule will be dealt with harshly," according to War Arbitration.

The aliens also battle in designated "Skirmish Zones," and make certain that their enemies, once destroyed, are disintegrated, leaving no trace of their presence. Throughout the course of the film, we see several alien corpses glow green and then burn up in orange puffs of smoke.

Most importantly, the aliens choose to fight in a peculiar manner: in "the way man does on Earth." This description means one-on-one gunfights or shoot-outs, specifically.

The alien enemy combatants can detect each other only by two means, since they are hidden inside human bodies. The first way involves the use of a small hand-held scanner. It beeps white when enemies are near; red when they are within shooting range. And secondly -- and forecasting John Carpenter's They Live (1988) -- the aliens can only see each other for their true form when they adorn glasses. Dorky, silver glasses...

If Argon wins the war, Earth will become part of "The Federation." If Zenon wins, however, the human population will be destroyed and Zenon's people will be "substituted." In the event of a total draw, Earth will be "bypassed forever," according to Kyle.

Things don't go according to plan, for Kyle anyway, because this world-weary alien has begun -- for the first time in his 150 year lifespan -- to experience emotions. This development is anathema to him at first. Between "the effects of the bomb" and Argon's "relentless drive for intellectual superiority," all emotions, and all physical needs have been sublimated.

Until Kyle meets a hot fellow traveler named Sandy (Angie Dickinson), that is.

They meet, apparently by accident, on a bus bound for Fresno, where the next skirmish is scheduled to occur. Sandy is friendly, funny, sexy and a free spirit...all the things Kyle -- bearing the weight of two worlds -- can never be. She is also vulnerable, stoking his protective nature. "I ran out of destinations a long time ago," Sandy says cryptically at one point, like a little girl lost.

When Kyle informs Sandy he has had no "contact" with women for some time, Sandy then launches into an entertaining meditation on the various meanings of the word "contact," which is really an excuse to slip her hand over onto Kyle's leg.

In short order, Kyle and Sandy are hiding out at the Majestic Hotel in Fresno together. Kyle reveals his true alien identity to Sandy, and after some apparent difficulty, she accepts his story of interplanetary war and alien combatants. A love affair between Kyle and Sandy blossoms, even as the final battle between Argon and Zenon nears. "I've never felt this close to anything in my whole life," Kyle tells Sandy, as their bond seems to grow.

Unfortunately for Kyle, he has permitted his new-found emotions to blunt his warrior's instincts and in The Love War's shattering finale, he pays the price for his folly. The Argon makes a terrible - and pretty damn basic - mistake. And it is here, in this surprising and effective coda, that The Love War truly becomes memorable (perhaps even a 1970s TV-movie classic).

The Love War's finale, which I speak of here only in generalities, suggests something about the nature of men and women; about love; and even, in some fashion, about warring. These were timely topics during the original broadcast. In 1970, America was still bogged down in Vietnam (the My Lai Massacre occurred just seven days after The Love War aired...), while Second Wave Feminism and Écriture Féminine were also on blazing ascent.

The proverb "man proposes and God disposes" could have been re-purposed here to substitute "woman" for God, because of the role Sandy ultimately plays in the warfare. She serves as "the sum total of every woman who ever lived," according to her own dialogue.

Some viewers may argue that Sandy's final act is one of betrayal and treachery, or even callous. But one thing is definitive: she has ended a war run by -- and played exclusively by -- men. When she alone is left standing at the film's denouement, the result is deliberately ambiguous: are the Zenon attack craft now ready to launch? Or has Sandy -- by her rule-breaking appearance in the arena of combat -- rendered the final battle a draw, thus saving us all? Thus ending all wars, forever?

Food for thought in a strange, intimate-little TV movie, I suppose. Given a bit of deep interpretation, it's not difficult to detect how The Love War actually follows in the footsteps of such anti-war (and feminist) texts like Lysistrata. Here, the indictment of men, and men's warring nature is clear. At one point, Sandy comments on succinctly on men and their desires: "you want what you want when you want it." Kyle responds, emptily: "what's wrong with that?"

To be blunt, The Love War features no exceptional locations or incredible special effects. It boasts not even a single interesting action scene. The style of the film is rudimentary, to put the matter politely. Even the battle royale is shot in hackneyed fashion, from a cockeyed 45 degree angle (what is this, Batman?). And director George Cowan turns the (over)use of the zoom into -- if not an art - at least a bad habit.

And yet, some unexcavated quality of The Love War resonates. The story feels...intimate. The focus is on what it means to be human, and Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson are a pretty compelling couple. When the film revolves around these two secretive, emotionally-battered characters falling in love and looking for a way to survive, you can't help but like The Love War. All the other bells and whistles don't matter. It's almost like a play or something. If it's not quite Death in Venice, it's Death in Fresno. With aliens.

Otherwise, The Love War is relatively efficient the manner in which it co-opts the Frederic Brown "Arena"-story template (already recruited by The Outer Limits and Star Trek...) to make a case about the personal cost of war.

And I must say, I admired the setting of the film's last shoot-out far more than I did the execution of the scene. The duel is set in an abandoned ghost town. It is here that the future is decided; but that choice about all our tomorrows is rendered by the rules of man's violent yesterdays; in a historical, not futuristic venue. There's just something inherently cool and meaningful about the presentation: two humanoid aliens with ray guns quick-drawing in an Old West street, deciding the fate of a planet.

The best gets saved for last, however. After the final duel, we're granted a quick, haunting glimpse of the only surviving alien. The mask of humanity is gone, and in its place is something glowing and gorgeous...something powerful and yet delicate. Not the monster we were led to expect.

The Love War's big surprise is likely telegraphed in the title, but if you do take a gander at this old TV-movie, try to forget that you know the destination, and simply enjoy the journey. By my reckoning, the best love stories are always tragic ones, and The Love War certainly fits the bill.

4 comments:

  1. Dark Lord Rob6:12 PM

    Count me as one who was deeply affected by this movie; saw it when I was 8 and it still resonates, though I remember very little about it.

    I wonder if people ever will feel the same way about Sci-Fi channel originals?

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  2. Hey Rob,

    Awesome that you remember this...and it struck a nerve. The Love War -- for those who saw it a long time ago (and when they were young...) seems quite powerful.

    You make a good point about the Sci Fi Originals. Will I be waxing poeting about Mansquito in 40 years?

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  3. For a very, very different view of this movie, see Harlan Ellison's The Other Glass Teat.

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  4. I was a teenager when i first saw this movie and still remember every detail, very thought provoking plus i fell in love with Angie Dickinson.


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