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Occassionally ambitious but often timid would-be blockbuster
on 9 November 2007
Heavily diluting Irwin Shaw's doorstop novel about two American soldiers and one Nazi whose paths gradually converge over the years from 1939-45 into an expensive but mostly not very good, often surprisingly studiobound CinemaScope soap opera, 1958's The Young Lions delivers a lot less dramatic weight than you'd expect from a film featuring both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.
The two stars only encounter each other in the film's last couple of minutes and don't even share a scene, but there's little doubt that if they did it would have been Brando who would have walked away with it, and not just because he has the most interesting character. Despite looking every inch the blonde Aryan ubermensch, his Christian is a much more sympathetic creation than the character in Shaw's novel, here a somewhat naïve believer in the Nazi Party who is gradually disillusioned and destroyed by the brutality he sees in service that takes him from Paris to North Africa and, ultimately, a near-abandoned concentration camp. In the novel Christian remained an unrepentant Nazi to the end, killing Clift's Jewish soldier before being killed himself, but the novel changes him from bully into victim in what would become the clichéd screen image of `the good German' who doesn't realise what the Nazis really are until it's too late (a change that infuriated Clift). Yet Brando, playing his part softly, manages to convince in a way his co-star never does, especially in his early scene when he tries inarticulately to explain to an American girl why he thinks the Nazi Party is a good thing for Germany.
Sadly there's no doubting that the film's biggest liability as far as casting goes is Montgomery Clift, delivering one of the worst and most inappropriately amateurish performances you'll ever see from a great actor. Even allowing for the effects of the accident that left half his face paralysed, he's hopelessly miscast despite the role being reduced to little more than a variation of his From Here to Eternity persona: looking much older and frailer than his years, it's impossible to believe he's the young A-1 soldier other characters talk about. It's hard to tell whether he genuinely improves in the second half of the film or you just get used to the array of clumsy mannerism and inflections he adopts: certainly his last big speech is a painful bit of curiously underpowered overacting. Knowing that Clift felt it was his finest screen work and was certain it would land him an Oscar only makes it seem all the more painful. By contrast, Dean Martin's less prominent role as a Broadway star pulling strings to stay out of the front line who befriends him is much more convincing. Maximilian Schell, sounding curiously like a young Alan Arkin, also makes an impression as Brando's ruthless immediate superior, as does Parley Baer as Christian's bon vivant friend.
George Stevens had tried to make the film years earlier, and he'd probably have done a better job of it than Edward Dmytryk who, post-blacklist, directs like a man who isn't taking any chances and who doesn't want any trouble. It's very much an old-school, rather stolid production for much of the running time, with limited location work in Europe and stock newsreel footage mixing less than convincingly with overfamiliar standing sets on the 20th Century Fox backlot.
There are moments when the picture briefly sputters into life: a sequence of triumphant Nazi soldiers swarming over the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris like flies on a sugarlump as they take tourist photos of each other; an uncomfortable walk through a small town as Clift's prospective father-in-law who has never even met a Jew is forced to face his own anti-Semitism; Brando walking through the decimated streets of a blitzed Berlin; and an encounter with a self-justifying concentration camp commander who prides himself on being a good soldier (a scene somewhat compromised by half of his dialogue being dubbed by a French actor and the rest played in his own thick German accent). Certainly there is enough to make the film worth watching despite the not always convincing romantic subplots - Dean Martin and Barbara Rush's being particularly confused and underwhelming - but nowhere near enough to make the film live up to its potential, let alone become the `most revered film of this generation' that the film's laughably hype-heavy trailer promised.
Aside from trailers for other Fox war films (including a bizarre DVD trailer for Tora! Tora! Tora! designed to make it look like Pearl Harbor!) the only extra on the Region 1 NTSC DVD is that over the top original trailer for the film, which spends almost as much time promoting producer Al Lichtman as it does the cast or the film!