“Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I’ll tell you the story of all wars.”
The date might seem arbitrary but we are told that this story takes place over the course of one day: Sept 6, 1950. Robert Ryan might as well be the stand-in for a Bill Mauldin G.I. as he leads a battalion cut off and deep in enemy territory. He’s got the 5 o’clock shadow and most other prerequisites. There’s a sense that he’s just trying to live through the day and keep his men alive for as long as possible — hopefully to see their way back home or at least to their brethren on the other side of the next hill.
But in order to get there, they must survive a line of snipers, a hailstorm of enemy artillery, and terrain laced with mines. If I had never seen The Steel Helmet (1951), Men in War would easily become one of the most crucial war movies for me. Because it dares to tell a narrative of war that rings fiercely resonant not simply because of cynicism or even pure authenticity. It has to do with a story stripped down to its bare essentials. Men in War is just that. It comes down to the semantics of what you think that actually means. But for the average soldier, it’s a moment by moment struggle to survive. It’s not about heroics at all. Instead, it entails methodical and level-headed action in the face of constant stressors verging on the absurd.
Though Hollywood might have suggested otherwise on various occasions, war was never about the glut of combat. It’s always lean and mean — proving to be disillusioning even to the victors and far more so to those who must stand defeated or draw a truce.
The best way I can find to describe this particular experience is through the influence of negative space. Because Mann’s film, in showing us less manages to evoke the exact inverse, suggesting what is not shown to be as vitally important as what is left in the frame. Far from lowering the tension, it only succeeds in making it all the more unnerving. There’s an ongoing sense of isolation and the enemy is left all but unseen.
Then, in a single moment, we realize they’re as afraid of us as we are of them. Actually, the adversary is only shown on a couple of brief occasions, most visibly with a surrendering Korean Soldier (played by Bonanza support Victor Sen Yung).
Aldo Ray is a soldier at his most cynical and insubordinate. The only thing more exasperating about him for Ryan is the fact that in most cases he’s right and more important still, he’s too ornery to be knocked off. But it’s almost odd how fiercely loyal he is the catatonic colonel (Robert Keith) who made it away from the lines with him.
James Edwards offers another obvious link to Fuller’s Korean War picture while serving up his usual foray in minor though intelligent portrayals of African-American soldiers. Men in War is devastating in how unsentimental and unsensational it is. The scenes with machine guns, flamethrowers, bazooka, and grenades feel palpably real. These are not infallible killing machines. Just men who are doing their best to stay alive and fight another day. Again, it’s about mere survival.
Here we have Mann’s earlier explorations in noir more fully externalized with a sense of psychological torment made visible in an environment of continuous unease. The action is taken outdoors while maintaining what we might call even an intimate interaction with its characters if it weren’t so harrowing. It’s likewise an extension of the director’s Western landscapes, though the palette is muted, it consequently plays a crucial role in shaping the drama as Mann usually takes particular care with his atmosphere.
Phillip Yordan’s involvement, whether the true author or only a frontman, might be slightly up for debate but what’s not is the fact that the script keeps the action clean and unfettered by strains of patriotism or similar endeavors. Elmer Bernstein, best remembered for his western scores of resplendent glory, nevertheless, delivers a piece with the right amount of understatement to compliment such a picture as this.
Again, Men in War is unassuming, even unspectacular, but that’s what makes it all the more deserving of discovery. By going against the grain with a few similarly formidable titles, it gave us a far more mystifying portrait of The Korean War. Because reconciling with that conflict is far from a straightforward task — as it is with most any war.