Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which two blogger friends (that’s me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.
Anthony Mann’s Korean war movie Men in War (1957) has Robert Ryan playing Lieutenant Benson, in charge of a small platoon that includes Vic Morrow, James Edwards, Phillip Pine, Nehemiah Persoff, and L.Q. Jones. They’re totally surrounded by the enemy. They can’t make radio contact, their truck is damaged beyond repair and they have to get a big shipment of supplies to their station, Hill 465. Facing illness, snipers, mine fields, shelling, ambushes, low morale and more, the men get to the hill, but are pinned down and then fight one last brutal battle. Along the way they’re joined by Aldo Ray, a Sergeant whose only goal is to get his shell-shocked Colonel (Robert Keith) to safety; they’re the last survivors out of hundreds in their battalion. Ray’s Jeep is commandeered by Ryan, but Ray’s talents as a soldier prove even more valuable.
In a stark documentary style mixed with some attractive artful shots, you’re shown the tedium, discomfort, stress and panic of battle, as well as little pleasures like hot coffee or fresh flowers. You see the intolerance for any kind of shirking, the need for every hand: “In this war you’re either healthy or you’re dead.” You go along on the long quiet marches, keeping eyes peeled for the enemy, and feel frozen in terror with the troops as they realize that on the forest floor, under all those leaves, are countless mines. Mann shows you Ray’s jeep zigzagging across a field at breakneck speed, or the killing of a soldier from behind, from the enemy’s perspective, with only a shaking foot to show the death.
Robert Ryan is fantastic as a caring, dedicated, responsible but fallible father figure, the first to go into danger, the leader with a cool head and a sensitive side. He’s rattled by an enemy soldier’s family photo; it looks just like the one he keeps in his helmet. He adds the dogtags of the fallen to his clip or drops them in his pocket with little drama, but subtle and very clear pain. He keeps meticulous notes and crosses off the names but loses soldiers so fast he has to be reminded how many remain. He’s so solid that when he loses all his patience, optimism and ideas, or gets disoriented, it’s a tougher sight than the carnage.
Aldo Ray is a brash, battle-hardened rebel; the war is over, he says, and we’ve lost, there’s no point in fighting any more. But he’s got a sixth sense, feels enemy eyes watching, spots snipers in the trees or brush, predicts their next moves. Only he knows a captured enemy soldier has a pistol hidden in his hat and only he could sit still while an enemy gang surrounds him, then gun them all down at once. He’s good and fast and “always right,” which leads Ryan to put him in leadership roles Ray would rather not have. But when Ray guns down enemy soldiers impersonating GIs, when he had no way of knowing they were phony, Ryan is disgusted by him taking that chance. Ray may be a tough warrior but he loves the Colonel like a father and begs him to speak and call him “son” again. And Robert Keith finally does, uttering his only line in a great performance that has him catatonic but increasingly aware and finally heroic. In the end Ryan and Ray are united by their mutual failures to keep their “father” and “boys” safe as promised, and all they have is each other.
The screenplay (by Philip Yordan with a blacklisted Ben Maddow) steers clear of the predictable. For example, when Morrow is repeatedly told to keep his helmet on, you expect it’s foreshadowing for his death, but Morrow and a helmet will figure quite differently. When Ryan sends his men through the shelling, which is timed at three shots and a pause, he calls them out alphabetically. When he comes to Ray, sorted as M for “Montana,” we learn his real name starts with ‘W’ which leaves him to go last with Ryan, Keith and the young inexperienced Zwickley (Morrow). The name is a detail that could have been revealed anytime as a throwaway, but instead becomes a memorable bit to throw together the lead characters and let them further get on each other’s nerves. Men in War shows the soldiers as reluctant and disorganized, some of the deaths as wasteful, and medals as more of a prize or motivation than they really are. But even with the anti-war feel and the confusion over the goals and rewards, the men’s heroism, bravery and the sacrifices are given just as much weight and meaning. Mann takes a low budget and fine actors and makes a very good and layered combat movie: stark, gritty, intense and claustrophobic, with suspenseful action and powerful characters.
Good pick from Mike, and now for a complete switch of genre, head over to his blog to see which Ginger Rogers romantic comedy I picked for him.