The opening of Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions, based on Irvin Shaw’s titular novel, could be plucked out of an earlier picture like The Mortal Storm. It’s New Year’s Eve 1938 in Bavaria, Germany. Young lovers ski and frolic in the snow as locals make merry indoors.
Marlon Brando is a sympathetic German or closer still a principled man named Christian, currently sharing the company of a beautiful American — one Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush). For her, the evening is quashed with the word of Hitler. However misguided it might be, he has a genuine optimism about what Hitler can and will do for his country. Christian is not a monster. Likewise, he believes if lives have to be sacrificed for the sake of peace, he will gladly go to war.
Although these two people will never share the screen again, this is the beginning of everything. Because of course, we know what happened next in the history books. War did come. First in Europe, making its way to France, then Britain, and finally, the U.S. got involved. Christian gets his start policing the streets of France, upending their derogatory view of the enemy, even as he struggles with the perils of radical ideology.
It occurs to me, part of Brando’s success comes with how his social consciousness paired with his acting prowess. Because when he still seemed thoroughly engaged with his career, he sought out parts of such diversity, bringing humanity to all sorts of disparate people. They didn’t always hit the mark (I think of Viva Zapata and Tea House of The August Moon), and yet during this same period, he played an informant, a southern ace who falls for a Japanese girl, and here a sympathetic German during WWII.
There’s a calculated empathy to the adaptation, casting a German and a Jewish man as two of our most prominent protagonists. It’s difficult to begrudge The Young Lions its inclinations because they seem genuine and earnest, especially in the capable hands of Brando and Montgomery Clift. Yes, we must take a moment to mention Clift now.
The older actor is sometimes clumped with Brando, but even in the context of this movie, it’s fascinating to begin comparing them. Brando burst onto the scene and ultimately let himself go — becoming disinterested and disaffected by his screen career. Clift, likewise, was an incandescent talent transplanted from the stage, but he was totally engaged in his craft.
His own setbacks were initially out of his control: a car accident that left him dependent on drink and pain killers. He considered Brando a squandered talent for all of his abilities, but if anything, it shows how devoted Clift was to his art, doubling his efforts even after his injury.
While they’re not exactly “young” lions, Dean Martin and Clift are a pair of compelling ones as they are drafted to be sent out overseas. You would never think of putting them together. Their personalities seem so adverse to one another, and yet there is a component of loyalty found in their performances bleeding out into real life. They were there for each other, forged by fire as they were.
Dean Martin was two years removed from his split with Jerry Lewis, and The Young Lions was his first big chance to redefine his image as an actor. He gives it a valiant go in a performance that maintains shades of his persona. In this case, Michael is a stage entertainer hesitant about going off to war and looking to dodge culpability any way he possibly can. He jousts with his girlfriend Margaret (Rush), who simultaneously doesn’t want him to die even as she disapproves of his dereliction of duty. When the time comes, he proves his mettle and his steadfastness.
Maximillian Schell was a revelation to me quite a number of years ago when I first saw Judgement at Nuremberg. Because in a picture with such contentious stakes and with so many prominent acting powerhouses, for me, he is the film’s standout with the most spectacular stand. In The Young Lions, he plays Brando’s superior espousing the typical rhetoric: The German army is invincible because it obeys orders and it harbors no sentimentality, moralists, or individualists.
In one sense, he constantly castigates Christian for his lapses in judgment, for this softness he has, but for all his perniciousness, Captain Hardenberg still comes off as a human being. He has a flirtatious wife (May Britt) waiting back home and a life ultimately crippled by injury. If Martin holds his own up against Clift, then Schell — learning his lines phonetically no less — certainly proves himself a compelling presence opposite Brando.
They get reassigned to Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa working behind enemy lines. It’s in these moments, in particular, as they bomb and mow down their unsuspecting enemy, we get a gutting portrait of how merciless the world can be, but that lets people off the hook too easily.
Human beings — myself included — can be petty, mean-spirited, and cruel to one another, and The Young Lions is not only about this global scale of war between nations. It’s about the conflicts and schisms formed in what’s supposed to be a united front — a shared cultural identity. Whether it’s a German with a heart and soul or a Jewish man who is ridiculed and discriminated against in his own country for something that is out of his control.
The onslaught of Allied forces sweeping across North Africa — the Brits with their bagpipes and Patton with his tanks — is a force to be reckoned with even as the homefront is ripe with the division. Even as Noah (Clift) finds himself a lovely small-town girl (Hope Lange) to wed, the systematic bigotry of his barracks-mates and his superior officer is crippling. He faces it with a lion-hearted resolve as Michael does his best to back him up.
The tide of the war finds Brando and Schell fleeing on a motorcycle to escape the steadily advancing enemy forces. Christian eventually loses his commander and must face the man’s wife with a renewed disillusionment. Even a return to Paris and greetings from old friends (Parley Baer and Liliane Montevecchi), show him the world has changed dramatically. He has as well.
On the Allied front, Michael finally asks to be sent to Normandy, and there reunites with Ackerman to liberate a concentration camp. It is the same camp that has opened Christian’s eyes about what the Germans have been perpetrating for the past 5 years under the guise of Nazism. While not a totally graphic scene, it’s no less of a gut punch as each character is forced to meditate on what is before them.
There’s this driving sense of fate as The Young Lions mounts to highlight one of the monumental absurdities of war. Here we have spent an entire film — through all its peaks and valleys, heartbreaks and reveries — and we finally bring together our three primary leads.
They are on opposites sides of the conflict though they are all men of a certain stock and decency. And yet because of war and how factions are aligned, they are meant to kill one another. They will never have a chance to sit down at a table together and know how similar they really were. This is the great tragedy The Young Lions underlines.
Not only does it exhume the hidden evils of the human heart, but it also annihilates all sense of common humanity, forcing us to only see a demonized enemy opposed to men and women who are not unlike ourselves.
In a better world or even in a world before the war, these three men could have been friends or compatriots. Alas, it was never to be and what’s crueler still, they will never know what they have missed out on. They already have so many traumas; it’s difficult to discern if these thoughts will plague them. But that is not the purpose. The film is constructed in such a way, it’s meant to commend us to cast off war altogether and this is far more telling.
The impression I am left with has magnitude. It’s a minor miracle how the grandiose scale of a cinemascope epic, backed by performances from such renowned talents, somehow still manages an immediacy and intimacy. The Young Lions might be lengthy, but it never loses its protagonists in a mass of humanity. Instead, it highlights the humanity of a few to illuminate a whole society.
“The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.”