In the 1942 Pacific War theater of World War II, Lieutenant Sam Lawson, USN (Robertson), is a Japanese language interpreter who — so far — has avoided combat. His commanding officer (Henry Fonda in a cameo role) 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 (Harry Andrews), 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 (Elliott), an upper class officer who apparently has a history of foolhardiness. The other members of the squad are draftees from Singapore whose enthusiasm for fighting leaves something to be desired: Tosh (Caine), a cynical Cockney who is also the squad's medic; Jock (Bannen), a lean Scot whom Lawson at first considers slightly cracked for skipping on patrol and singing the "Teddy Bears' Picnic", Campbell (Ronald Fraser), a fat Glaswegian; grey-haired Sergeant Johnstone (Percy Herbert); Scott the radio operator (Harvey Jason); Griffiths, Rogers, Currie, Connolly, McLean, and Riddle.
By the time the squad reaches the Japanese post, Riddle, Connolly, and Currie are dead from a botched ambush — which, Tosh 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 Tosh'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 Tosh, 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 Tosh 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 Tosh 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 Tosh 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. Tosh 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 Tosh. When Colonel Thompson asks who the other man was, Tosh replies, "A hero. He killed fifteen Japs single-handed — thirty, if you like."Michael Caine as Pte. Tosh Hearne
Cliff Robertson as Lt. Sam Lawson
Ian Bannen as Pte. Jock Thornton
Harry Andrews as Colonel Thompson
Ronald Fraser as Pvt. Campbell
Denholm Elliott as Capt. Hornsby
Lance Percival as Cpl. McLean
Percy Herbert as Sgt. Johnstone
Patrick Jordan as Sgt. Major
Sam Kydd as C/Sgt.
William Beckley as Pvt. Currie
Martin Horsey as Pte. Griffiths
Harvey Jason as Pte. Scott
Don Knight as Pte. Connolly
Roger Newman as Pte. Riddle
Michael Parsons as Pte. Rafferty
Sean MacDuff as Pte. Rogers
Frank Webb as Ensign
Henry Fonda as Capt. John G. Nolan
Ken Takakura as Major Yamaguchi
Critical response was moderate. This includes praise for decent acting in a tense thriller, though feelings are inconclusive about the overall impact and significance.
In actuality, the Japanese never were in the New Hebrides in World War II; the American forces arrived in May 1942. The bulk of the film was made on Boracay Island in the Philippines by the same crew and using many of the same sets as Jack Starrett's The Losers. The opening and closing segments were filmed outside the Subic Bay Naval Base using sailors and American civilians as extras.
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. 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.
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.
Aldrich was requested to film two separate endings for the American and British audiences, one with Robertson surviving.
ABC Pictures first release was Charly, for which Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award for Best Actor. However Aldrich would not let Robertson leave the Philippine set to attend the ceremony. Aldrich said he wanted "anyone but Cliff Robertson" for the lead role but he was overruled by the studio.
The film earned rentals of $615,000 in North America and $975,000 in other countries (it had admissions of 294,232 in France).
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.
Too Late the Hero was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on May 25, 2004 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD.