Anthony Mann was certainly much better known for his fine westerns than his war films which were as rare as hens teeth. This one made in 1957 was his first and it was followed by his second and last "The Heroes of Telemark" in 1965. This modest production clearly had a much smaller budget than that better known film. But big of course does not always mean better! Mann's film oeuvre is mostly well known to film buffs, but this one seems to have slipped under the radar. In a year that included Kubrick's masterpiece "Paths of Glory" and Lean's memorable "Bridge Over the River Kwai", it is little wonder. A pity because this is not a bad film.
Filmed in stark black and white this film is set in the Korean war. The talented Robert Ryan, who Mann used to great effect in "The Naked Spur", plays Lieutenant Benson a platoon commander whose men are cut off behind enemy lines. He attempts to lead them back to safety through the mostly unseen enemy. Not only does he fight with the North Koreans but he also has a battle on his hands with Sergeant `Montana' played by Aldo Ray. The publicity blurb screamed out "One more step and I'll fill your guts with lead". This is not aimed at the Korean enemy and is an indicator that all is not exactly well between the two men.
Mann uses the western skills he developed over the years to good effect in this film. The sioldiers cut off behind enemy lines could just as easily be the Cavalry stuck deep in Indian country. It's all the same really! After the understandably jingoistic and patriotic films made during the Second World War, films started to toughen up a lot. As the fifties ground on it culminated in Robert Aldrich's "Attack"(56), which took gritty realism in war films to new levels. This one takes up the baton and Ryan and Ray go head to head in the same visceral way that Jack Palance and Eddie Albert did. As they do so the platoon is picked off by the faceless enemy.
Although this would probably be classed as a B movie it certainly boasts an A cast. Robert Ryan gives a big hitting performance and Aldo Ray is at his belligerent best. Robert Keith stands out as a shell shocked Colonel picked up along the way. There are other solid performances from L Q Jones, Nehemiah Persoff, Vic Morrow and James Edwards, all decent actors. The prolific Elmer Bernstein provided the films track. With clever use of camera angles you are sometimes made to feel as if you are in the line of fire in the same way that Terence Malick did in "The Thin Red Line". Bronson Canyon provided the suitably barren moonscape exteriors that accentuates the stark feeling. In looks it is very similar to Lewis Milestone's Korean War film "Pork Chop Hill"(59). The film conveys a good sense of the wastefulness and sad loss during combat. The scene with a soldier filling his helmet with flowers reminded me strongly of "All Quiet on the Western Front", the daddy of all anti war films. It is no surprise that the US army disliked it for its depiction of an army unit where discipline has broken down. Sadly however history shows us that this is not uncommon in difficult circumstances. Whilst it is certainly no "Paths of Glory" or "King and Country" it is a powerful anti war film that deserves to be better known. Well done to Renown for making this one more widely available!
on 23 January 2012
Men in War is yet another example of a great America film that is currently unavailable on DVD in the UK. And up until today there was not a review for the film either. It's sad times when such a film gets neglected.
Director Anthony Mann is known mainly for a series of psychological westerns - Man of the West, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie. Yet he was just as capable of applying the same understanding and sensitivity of the man of action to other genres, such as El Cid and this forgotten war film from 1957. The film chronicles 24 hours - from one dawn through to the next - in the lives of a small detachment of American soldiers in the Korean war. Robert Ryan and his men are stranded behind enemy lines with a broken truck, cut-off from communication, and left with little option but to carry their ammunition and supplies to the army base a day away. With the unseen enemy all around they have little hope of surviving the journey. Before long, they encounter Aldo Ray (who played a similar character in the Naked and the Dead) driving a jeep with his shell-shocked colonel as passenger - who he is dedicated to protecting at all cost. The jeep is commandeered by Ryan to carry his outfit's supplies, and the movie then centres on the psychological struggle between these two very different men - Robert Ryan's weary, tough and humane lieutenant who wants to lead his platoon to safety, and Aldo Ray's cynical sergeant who believes the end justify the means, that violence must be total, and whose instincts about the North Korean enemy prove repeatedly to be right, to the frustration of Ryan.
Anthony Mann was one of the greatest directors of action, maybe only Mizoguchi could show violence or the threat of violence with such restraint. As the soldiers travel by foot, there is a constant sense of danger with every step, through landmines or the unseen enemy who is killing them off one-by-one. Mann loves to pull his camera back and show men juxtaposed against the landscape.
When the soldiers get to their destination, Hill 465, they discover that it's no longer occupied by U.S. forces, culminating in a bleak and fatalistic ending which has few equals in war movies. The film is based on a WW2 novel by Van Van Praag which was adapted to screenplay by Philip Yordan, in collaboration with his blacklisted friend Ben Maddow. The Pentagon refused any cooperation with the producer and condemned the film, which tells you how good it is, and perhaps helps account for why the film is almost forgotten today. It's bleak portrayal of war is anti-heroic and almost film noir. One of the great anti-war movies.