challenge tvmTHE CHALLENGE aka Surrogate (1970) – This made for tv movie aired in February 1970. The storyline involves a downed satellite that contains American national defense technology. It landed near a fictional Asian nation which is closely allied with Communist China.

The fictional nation’s navy recovered the downed satellite, but the U.S. navy blockaded them and, as this telefilm opens, is preventing the other nation from taking the satellite anywhere. The smaller nation is a client state of Communist China, as stated above, and China intervenes on their behalf.

darren in challengeNeither the U.S. nor Red China want to see this incident escalate into an all-out war, so they agree to a solution. Each side will send one man to a small nearby island. Whichever surrogate manages to kill the other within five days will have “won” the downed satellite for its side.

Yes, that’s a silly premise from a real-world angle, but this first aired in a less cynical time, so the fact that the story is obviously an allegory for proxy conflicts like the Vietnam War was considered daring for the period. Original director Joseph Sargent quit the film over creative differences, and replacement director George McCowan insisted on using the Director’s Guild pseudonym Allen Smithee.

The venerable Mako portrayed Yuro, the champion for the Asian nation, while a mustache-sporting Darren McGavin played the American champion, Jacob Gallery. Jacob is a former U.S. soldier turned mercenary after getting court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

the challenge title screenThe reason for his discharge? He was gung-ho while serving in Vietnam and eventually took to entering the jungle by night on his own personal hunt for Viet Cong guerillas. He would kill at least one per hunt and hang one of their sandals from pegs on a trophy board he made for himself.

One night on one of his personal hunts, his unit got attacked and he was not on hand, leading to the exposure of his trophy board and his extracurricular “hunts.” Hence the court-martial and the dishonorable discharge.

Since then, Gallery had been making a living as a mercenary soldier and as a jungle guide for Big Game Hunters. The State Department and the president insist on using Gallery as America’s champion because they expect the opposing side’s champion to fight dirty. The administration feels an unorthodox, ruthless figure like Gallery could “out-dirty” anyone.

broderick crawfordThe military brass, led here by General Meyers (THE Broderick Crawford), prefer by-the-book fighting man Major Bryant, played by THE Sam Elliott.


Furthering the Vietnam War parallel, BOTH sides cheat. They do this by covertly sending in a backup man for their official surrogate. Jacob Gallery and Yuro are depicted as being “honorable” enough that they each kill off their own backup man once the cheating is exposed.

Gallery and Yuro are both barely alive from the damage they’ve taken by the time they have their final confrontation. The American wins, but as his dying act he begins to use his portable communication device to let the U.S. know he emerged triumphant, only to throw it to the ground without saying anything.

NOTE: A few erroneous reviews out there – including, of course, at IMDb – mistakenly claim that what McGavin’s character is throwing away at the end is the piece of satellite technology being fought over. No, it’s just his radio transmitter, hence the antenna he extends.

galleryDarren McGavin carries the film, but it’s lucky this aired before he became synonymous with his later Carl Kolchak character from The Night Stalker. Otherwise, viewers may have had a hard time accepting him as a cavalier, hard-drinking, good-timing mercenary killer.

Plenty of other recognizable faces show up in the cast, too, like James Whitmore, Byron Morrow, Adolph Caesar, Bill Zuckert, Garry Walberg, and Paul Lukas in his final film role.

The Challenge is, unfortunately, tough to sit through. Even the deadly cat-and-mouse game played between Gallery and Yuro has more dull patches than lively ones. Since 1970 many more works of fiction have more successfully dealt with the themes being addressed in this movie.

It’s certainly not a bad film, mind you, but it’s mostly for when you’re in the mood for a soldiers in combat flick.




Filed under Forgotten Television

4 responses to “THE CHALLENGE (1970) AKA SURROGATE

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