Opening as it does with the cover of its source material, A Walk in The Sun makes itself out to be a bit grand and simultaneously undermines a certain amount of its ethos as a gritty war picture. Is it a fallacy to think a book can never capture all the textures of life? Does the same hold true with film? I’m not sure.
Regardless, the story is set in 1943 in Salerno, and, keeping with this novelistic form, an all-knowing narrator (voicework provided by Burgess Meredith) gives a brief word on each of the soldiers who will walk through the frames of the film. Some of them are quite familiar.
The real opening of the action feels a bit like further delay tactics. We are on the loading dock of a troop transport. The side has yet to go down, and the assault has not started. We are forced to wait in this pervasive dourness fashioned for the soldiers out of the cinematic mise en scene.
It’s our first indication of what this film will be about, and yet it concerns itself with the interims and the in-between-times when men wait for what’s next. The nervous chatter of the men matches the nervous new sergeant who is meant to lead them. Already we have some internal conflict with everyone unsure of what is ahead.
It feels a bit like D-Day, but this is Italy. Instead of meeting steep opposition, they take the beach relatively easily, entrenching themselves and waiting. Their most mettlesome member (Dana Andrews) never said a truer word when he notes, “you can’t fight a vacuum.” All there is to do, for the time being, is dig in.
Their subsequent mission is to blow up a bridge and take a farmhouse. Simple enough. For the conventions of a movie narrative, it makes following the action lines quite efficient. Except, A Walk in The Sun is rarely about its objective, until it finally is. In other words, it takes so many meandering trails and paths, riding conversations to the eventual outcomes.
Robert Rossen’s script is probably too self-aware and witty for a fox hole, but this is Hollywood, after all. At any rate, it ably captures the nervous ticks — the repetitions making up human speech patterns. We have catchphrases. Norman Lloyd comes to mind (“You guys kill me”) as the company’s wry misanthrope, observing the world around him, drolling on about some future battle in Tibet to end all wars.
A jocular Richard Conte seems to relish the chance to run off his mouth as the talkative Italian-American, Private Rivera, always up for razzing his buddy and touting his own exploits as a gunner. There’s the ubiquitous nature of cigarettes or “butts” on the warpath, looking particularly anachronistic in the hands of a G.I. played by Sterling Holloway. Lloyd Bridges is one of the staff sergeants and an imposing fellow but the real center, equal parts cynical and indomitable, is Andrews as Sergeant Tyne.
Of course, in the army, it’s not always the most capable soldiers who are calling the shots. Between wounded superiors and casualties, this mantle falls on Sergeant Eddie Porter (Herbert Rudley), an indecisive brain with little practical military experience. The prevailing question remains, is he going to crack under pressure?
Certainly, a lot happens in the ensuing scenes, however, what feels most pertinent are the aforementioned lulls because a majority of our time is spent passing time with the soldiers. In these interludes, the narrative is intercut with song and score while being lent an introspective edge thanks to Meredith’s constant omniscient input. Here again, is this trace of self-importance cropping up.
However, A Walk in The Sun settles into something genuinely compelling as we realize we are getting the alternate portrait of war. Lewis Milestone chooses the theatrical nature of all the G.I.s crammed together in the frame just as his lateral shots capture the minimal action setpieces at their most dynamic.
We observe the shades of insubordination and passive aggression in the chain of command, a result of the lack of confidence in superiors. This is further compounded by lapses in judgment and real-world miscues, like forgetting your only pair of field glasses back down the road. It’s not so much atmospheric or authentic as it gives a sense of the personal truths of war. It brings the war picture down to ground-level, to its most intimate and idiosyncratic. In other words, it’s the epitome of human.
They must leave their wounded along the road to be picked up later. The sound of planes overhead is an infantryman’s worst nightmare. And still, they bide their time. Each man’s mind becomes distracted by anything but the war. They reminisce about Norman Rockwell’s paintings and the future of the covers of Time magazine.
Maybe it’s someone recalling their favorite records from Russ Colombo or Bing Crosby. The fat life would be getting The Andrew Sisters autographs and playing music all day long. For his part, Sergeant Ward, a farmer by trade, can’t stop thinking of nice, juicy apples, nowhere to be found in an arid environment like Italy.
During one telling interaction between an Italian-American soldier and two native Italians straggling through the countryside, I couldn’t help thinking this would have never happened with Japanese-Americans in Japan. In fact, the irony is that the all-Nisei 442nd Unit was also stationed in Italy on their way to rescuing The Lost Battalion in 1944.
There might be a single instance of heightened conflict in A Walk in The Sun; it’s when they come upon an Axis armored car and proceed to blow it up. But these types of moments are dealt with quickly, and the film sinks back into tentative homeostasis.
We can easily condense the narrative by jumping to the final push in realizing their mission. It’s relatively straightforward. We know what they need to accomplish, but the execution and the synchronization are key. It feels unnecessary to expound upon the results in great length. It’s about what you’d expect from an all-out ground assault. Of course, there’s a cost.
More intriguing is a fabled backstory to A Walk in The Sun. Fresh off his own military service and already a prolific journalist and screenwriter in his own right, Sam Fuller brazenly lambasted Milestones’ picture for its fictions even as he praised the earlier All Quiet All The Western Front. Because it is true the film from 1930 is a crowning achievement in pacifist cinema and a tour de force for the director.
Certainly, juxtaposing the final images alone, All Quiet on The Western Front goes out unsparingly. The full brunt of the gut-punch is felt as we see how much war has ravaged humanity. Its successor does not elicit the same guttural response. Then again, to parry Fuller’s point, it might be safe to concede its primary intentions were of a different nature altogether.
It becomes even more compelling to consider a brash young Fuller’s statements in lieu of his own forays into war pictures. He had several actioners of note including The Steel Helmet, which is easy to tie to A Walk in The Sun.
This earlier film perhaps is wordier — the characters mouths are filled with plenty to go on about. However, where I feel they can be linked together is through this sense of utter disillusionment with war. These are not career soldiers driven by dreams of valor and accolades in the service of their country.
Certainly, they are human. They have these kinds of thoughts too. Most of the time it’s idle chatter. It’s the mundane moments in-between where they are just people in a soldier’s uniform. What becomes apparent are their preoccupations, fears, and foibles, cutting through their daily existence. It comes down to survival.
Again, A Walk in The Sun might be a tad verbose and a bit too manicured and manufactured for a wheeling-dealing future maverick like Fuller. What it doesn’t sell us short on is the reality of wartime conflict. It’s not a pretty or mythic business between the gods. It’s brought down to earth into all our messy human concerns.
The message it preaches implicitly feels sharply antithetical to typical propaganda pics. It lives out apathy and levity as much as bare-knuckled heroics. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we’re provided some essence of what war truly is.