Suppose there was a proxy or surrogate war. Instead of nations fighting it out, with escalating stakes, and the possible use of nuclear weapons, two soldiers on one deserted island, winner take all.
That was the premise of The Challenge, a made-for-television film, starring Darren McGavin and Mako as the enemy combatants. For a television film, this was a big concept, particularly as the Vietnam War was going on and on without resolution.
Back in 1970, made-for-television films were in great demand as networks, particularly ABC, sought to feed audiences with original programming made somewhat cheaply. In the 1969-1970 television season, a new weekly series was created especially for these films. The Challenge aired in the first season.
I was very intrigued by this film, the idea was inspiring, that countries might embrace the notion of limited conflicts, but in the end, temptation would keep them from abiding by the rules if the stakes were high.
After this film aired, it bounced around as television content does in reruns and eventually disappeared. There is a poor quality version of the film on YouTube made from a video of a television print. The original master film? Probably lost. The photos used in this blog are from the YouTube video. Sorry.
The film also starts James Whitmore, Broderick Crawford, Skip Homier and Sam Elliott. Yes, that Sam Elliott, in a very early role.
A U.S. military satellite falls out of orbit into the ocean. A small, Asian nation, unfriendly to the United States, moves to retrieve it before the U.S. can mobilize. That nation attempts to pull Communist China into the fray, to balance the force of the United States. A naval stalemate occurs, while the nations attempt to negotiate the path forward. The satellite is a platform that could potentially carry a nuclear weapon anyplace over the Earth, so it is a hot commodity.
A solution is offered. One solider from the United States and one from the Asian nation are put on an island, selected by Switzerland, to battle it out for the rights to the satellite. Whitmore plays Defense Secretary Overman, a pipe-smoking, pragmatist, who must keep in check, General Meyers, played by Broderick Crawford, who wants to take the satellite by force rather than play this game. The country’s leadership does not want to go to war with China, but it believes in a mano a mano fight, America will absolutely win.
All parties agree on the surrogate plan, but the critical element is who the United States selects as its soldier. All active and retired military personnel are considered, but strangely, a court-martialed Vietnam solider named Gallery (Darren McGavin) is selected. Gallery is not a popular choice. In Vietnam, he secretly went on his own missions to hunt the Vietcong, collecting sandals of his “game.” While on a mission, his squad came under attack and were wiped out. Gallery was court-martialed and left in disgrace. He is now a hunter for hire, south of the border, enjoying life on his terms. He was also a mercenary in Africa.
“For an unusual situation, we need an unusual man. One who would probably fail all of your rational tests. Gallery doesn’t follow rules, he acts in his own. A loner, self-taught.”
Gallery takes on the job for a cool million dollars and the satisfaction that his country now can’t live without him. Gallery undergoes three months of training, is outfitted with a two-barrel machine gun and other survival gear.
Gallery is warned that if he suffers a cut or injury, his greatest threat will be fungi will quickly infect any cut. He is given a drug that might help, should he be injured, but it has powerful side effects.
Training as the back-up, Sam Elliott, a square-jawed, no-nonsense Marine Captain waits for Gallery to screw up so he can move to the first team.
Gallery is able to talk with a former inhabitant of the island, who provides him with intel not on the official map, and history of the island. Gallery is angry that the map information is not accurate. Gallery learns that the U.S. military moved residents from the island to Guam, including this man’s family. The island was a battleground during World War II. The island residents did not have a favorable view of the Japanese during the war, or the Americans who came later.
Gallery is to be ferried close to the island by submarine, to wait for the Switzerland moderated official “go” to start the mission. Even while Gallery is sitting in his raft to paddle his way to the island, General Meyers insults him, showing his lack of faith in Gallery.
Gallery gets to the island first, stowing his gear, while his enemy has circled the island and comes in behind Gallery. Yuro, his enemy, taunts Gallery with machine gun fire, calling him by name, and is able to cut him off from his supplies while teasing him for not being much of a contest. Gallery was warned about psychological tactics. Using a smoke grenade to retrieve his gear, Gallery loses his hat during the quick battle. Yuro finds the hat and puts it on his head. Score one for the enemy.
Gallery selects a cave for his base station, then begins to systematically poison the water sources, marking each one on his map with an “X.” Yuro tests the water before he drinks and begins setting his own traps. Gallery discovers some of Yuro’s traps.
Gallery and Yuro taunt each other with ambushes and explosives set. It’s more harassment than inflicting any serious damage. Strangely, Gallery is always smoking a cigar, which would seemingly give a clue to his whereabouts. Yuro is constantly harassing Gallery, calling him out in English, playing mind games with him. Gallery never answers, which frustrates Yuro.
We see Gallery constantly having flashbacks to his meeting with Overman, his life before this mission, and playing back moments from his mission training. Gallery seemingly does not taking Yuro seriously, this soldier from a backwater Asian country, not on par with Americans. Gallery diligently goes about fouling the water sources and setting boobie traps, as his military training guides him. If Gallery was really paying attention, he would understand that like the Vietcong, Yuro is fighting like a guerrilla, using methods unlike a predictable soldier.
At one of the water sources, Gallery is able to corner Yuro, setting off multiple explosions, wounding Yuro. Using a sound monitor, Yuro detected Gallery cocking his gun, which allows Yuro’s escape from perhaps certain death. This device is like the one Gallery refused when he was outfitted with equipment.
Gallery follows footprints and finds Yuro’s hidden cache of supplies in a tree. He climbs up there and leaves an explosive for Yuro. On the way down the tree, Gallery cuts his leg on a hidden razor blade, and begins bleeding. It isn’t long before he begins to feel the effect of the cut, the infection already making his sick.
In the meantime, General Meyers, on-board the submarine, activates his own plan. He sends the Marine Captain to lend Gallery a hand, clearly against the rules, but with these stakes, he cannot afford to leave the future of the country in Gallery’s hands.
Gallery finds the deserted village and sets several explosive traps. By this time, he is becoming sick and hallucinating. Gallery takes his emergency medicine but it may be too late.
Yuro creeps into the village and fires on Gallery, who takes refuge in a hut. Gallery is wounded in the arm. Yuro knows Gallery is sick, he saw the blood on the razor blade and tells Gallery it is killing him. In his head, Gallery replays what he was told by Overman about being defeated by magic and cunning.
Gallery sets off the explosives, blowing up several huts and escaping into the jungle. The Marine Captain has already landed on the beach and is on the trail.
Gallery, very sick and disoriented by now, makes his way to the beach, stripping off heavy gear, and sits down behind a rock. He hears his name called. Standing up, wobbly, but leveling his gun, Gallery finds Yuro, being held at gunpoint by the Marine Captain, who yells for Gallery to kill Yuro. Instead, Gallery has enough honor that he shoots and kills the Marine Captain. Yuro escapes into the jungle.
Gallery returns to his cave hideout. On the way, he finds a dead soldier, one of Yuro’s countrymen. Both countries have cheated. Gallery, hiding in the cave, is found by Yuro, who tries to convince him to come out. Yuro says it is the only way for Gallery to survive. Yuro appeals to Gallery’s honor, saying that both countries have betrayed them. This all a ploy to get Gallery to come out of the cave and be shot dead.
Gallery instead, fires his full machine gun clip in the direction of Yuro’s voice. In the smoke from the gun, Yuro collapses, dead.
Gallery exits the cave to find Yuro’s body. Taking a transmitter from his pocket, Gallery extends the antenna, but does not talk into it. On board the submarine, and in Overman’s office, they hear the static of the signal, but Gallery still does not say anything. Instead, he throws the transmitter against a rock, where it instantly goes silent. Gallery collapses, dead.
The film was mostly directed by Joseph Sargent, who directed some of the best television films of the era, and several fine theatrical films like White Lightning, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and MacArthur. Sargent reportedly disagreed with the producer on the direction of the film and left, being replaced by George McCowan to finish shooting. Sargent even took his name off the film, using the director guild pseudonym Allen Smithee. Ironically, Sargent would also direct McGavin in his other phenomenal television film that season, Tribes.
I once wrote to Sargent and told him how much I liked The Challenge, Tribes and White Lightning. He answered, writing me a letter, where he talked about Tribes, and called White Lightning Burt Reynold’s best film because it showed a textured character performance unlike the bulk of Reynold’s other films. Interestingly, Sargent’s action work in films was very effective, even though he was more known for his character-driven stories. One of his other impressive television films in this series was Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring, with Sally Field, in one of her best early performances.
The Challenge deserves a better legacy than to be lost to pop culture history.