The Young Lions (1958): Humanity in Epic Scale

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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.

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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.

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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.

4/5 Stars

“The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.”

Sayonara (1957): Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka

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Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) lands on the airbase in Korea and almost immediately gets assigned leave in Kobe. However, this leave has ulterior motives, signed by General Webster (Kent Smith), a friend of his father’s and the father of the pilot’s sometime girlfriend. It’s meant to be a contrived reunion no doubt so they can consider their wedding plans.

One of Gruver’s men, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) is set to get married himself. Soon they’re showing off cheesecake photos of their girls until it evolves into something far more complicated with more uncomfortable implications. Because Joe is intent on marrying a Japanese gal named Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). If nothing else, you admire the man because he’s totally committed; there’s a complete integrity and personal conviction behind his intentions.

As the film points out later, he wasn’t alone. Lots of servicemen looked to marry Japanese girls after the war, and yet there certainly is something countercultural about him. What becomes immediately evident is this sense of casual (or not so casual) racism. Though hardly a spiteful person, Gruver has some preconceived notions about “slant-eyed runts.”

He has his misgivings about the wedding and yet, as a favor to his subordinate, he agrees to serve as his best man. The pervasive strains of discrimination continue as Gruver makes it to Japan and rendezvous with the Websters and Eileen (Patricia Owen). They attend a club for American personnel only to witness a soldier getting turned away with his Asian girlfriend. The coded language of “fraternization” is really just de facto segregation. For the time being, Gruver has no stake in the matter and so leaves it be.

His first true immersion into Japanese culture, at the behest of his girlfriend, comes from a Japanese kabuki performance put on by a revered actor. Although it’s a bit unfortunate having Ricardo Montalban playing Nakamura, he gives it his best showing, which actually comes off rather sensitive as far as yellowface goes.

While I’m not sure Joshua Logan exactly comprehends Japanese culture aside from its exquisite exoticism, he does take his stage pedigree and proceeds to translate the Japanese arts into flat two-dimensional showings mirroring their inherent performance elements. At the very least he understands their use of space and augments them within the framework of the broader film.

Owen is intriguing because she has all the attributes of a beautiful American girl: well-groomed and fit to be a 1950s housewife, but she has enough wherewithal to think for herself and not to be a “type” for her man to return home to. It forces Brando to make some kind of commitment. Currently, he’s not in a place where he feels that he can. If the movie were to continue down this commonplace path it would be dull going.

Instead, the camaraderie between Brando and a marine, Mike Baile (James Garner), is born. The other actor doesn’t have much to do except act as a cultural guide; still, Garner takes to his role genially and with his unadulterated charms no one could ever fault him. He’s another agreeable face, and he also knows a good deal more about Japanese culture…

Miiko Taka literally stops Brando cold (and the movie with it). The film turns on a new axis as Gruver becomes infatuated with the preeminent dancer, Hana-ogi-san, who can be found crossing the bridge to the theater every day before and after her daily performances. The outmatched pilot finally plucks up enough acumen to find himself a pocket Japanese dictionary only to toss it away.

It’s like a new pastime as he waits to catch a glimpse of her and get a chance to interact. He finally gets his chance — a meeting with her in person — though this is normally totally forbidden for someone in her position. The added grievance is the death of her father who perished at the hands of an American bomb.

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Even though the preamble has some rumblings of discord, there’s something about Brando’s introduction to the Japanese household that’s warm and affecting because in it some cultural understanding is made — appreciation of customs and how our differences somehow lead us to a place of mutual respect.

Amid gags of him continually bumping his on on doorways, there are far more tender moments that never feel like they’re reaching toward didacticism. Joe has him remove his shoes before entering the home, and he learns about sake (fermented rice wine) and how to pour for others.

If this scene tickles the heart, it doesn’t last long. The accompanying moment with Brando and Taka’s first time reclining at table alone together is imbued with a sinking feeling of discomfort. He’s so lax and culturally unfamiliar, making a go of it the best way he knows how. There’s a sense he is sunk even before he’s begun. What words will come out of her mouth in response?

Far from being dismissive, she’s gracious and tender speaking of her life and her desires for love and some far-off dream amounting to something more than her extravagant life of a dancer on the stage. She craves something deep-seated, a longing inside of her.

Although they come from two distinctly different worlds, their lives are similarly planned. Either by the strict confines of her theatrical tradition or the regimens of the military. And yet against this backdrop, they find happiness together watching fireworks, being in each other’s company, and generally filling up their days with romantic contentment. What’s refreshing is how none of this feels self-serving or staged. We willingly believe there is something tangible between them.

The seeds of bigotry have already been planted early and so they eventually germinate. The military cracks down calling for all military personnel to stop seeing Japanese women and those who are married, like, Joe are given especially harsh treatment. They’re effectively forced into subordination on the threat of court-martial and deportation.

Sayonara has successfully put its flag in the ground when you know what’s happening and yet the events unfold and you cannot look away. Because the mantle of the story has been passed onto the characters whom we now care for. What follows has legitimate consequences for us.

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Thus, their friend’s fate is swiftly decided and yet Ace and Hana-ogi’s roads look to be diverging. There is no other way through unless one of them intercedes and gives up everything they have already built. It’s a point of no return.

To Brando’s credit, he sells the transformation from blundering ignorance to genuine care for this woman who has so enchanted him. Mikko Taki, who is still with us, far from simply being gorgeous, brings a quiet understanding and gentility that stays the course of the movie. In no way does it feel like she’s totally overwhelmed or upstaged by Brando. They make the romance a union between two people bridging two cultures in the face of adversity.

The final delight comes with Brando sticking it to all the naysayers and wishing a “Sayonara” to everyone who would stand in their way. It leads to warm feelings not least of all because the picture is finally done.

All said, the Technicolor scenery and scenario are noteworthy, even cutting edge for the time period, but with the loose threads and lumbering running time, the movie could spare to lose a few scenes. Although admittedly obligatory, it’s the scenes of mechanized conflict and dialogue between Brando and the military that feel rote and uninteresting.

The main players are the ones making waiting through the dross worth it thanks to their candor and agreeable charisma. What a lovely screen couple Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki make. Above all, it gladdens me, in all her humility, Audrey Hepburn turned down the role hoisted on her at the behest of Joshua Logan. She graciously declined and instead, we were blessed by a performance by Miiko Taka.

Although she, like Shirley Yamaguchi in House of Bamboo or even Umeki Miyoshi, is cast as the delicate Japanese beauty, this only becomes a stereotype if it is never replaced with other roles. For what it is, the part balances several traits, including a degree of independence and familial duty. Thus, any lasting criticisms for Sayonara in this area feel more indicative of the industry now 60 years on than a single performance decades ago.

If Sayonara is rife with stereotypes in its honest attempts, then not enough has been done to build on its legacy to bring us even further in the present. Because, amid the flaws, there were some exquisite touches, from the gorgeous imagery to little accents like the neighborhood cherry shop on the corner or the Japanese conversations shared between a husband and wife. They elicit something genuine and emotionally sincere.

3.5/5 Stars

The Long Gray Line (1955) and Martin Maher

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There’s no other way to put it. The West Point imagery of The Long Gray Line is smart from the outset, and if nothing else, it instills this sense of admiration in the military sharpness of this storied institution. However, although this is a hagiography from John Ford, it feels more full-bodied than a typically blase biopic.

For one thing Tyrone Power, more so than an Eroll Flynn or some of the other earlier idols, proved his candor for meatier roles that might showcase what he could do. And between the likes of Nightmare Alley and Witness to the Prosecution is a picture that probably gets less fanfare written about it. His portrayal of Martin Maher, a lifelong West Point man, is both endearing and surprisingly comic even as his brogue is quick to take over the picture.

Because it is a biography as only John Ford could manage it. He employs broad humor from fisticuffs to falling plates to brawls in the manure pile while assembling all his surrogate screen family together — paying his usual homage to his Irish roots in the process. If none of this particularly piques your interest, it’s probably not for you. Because if we can say anything about The Long Gray Line, there’s no doubt about it. This is another quintessential John Ford picture.

West Point is fit for Ford because you have this underlying sense of tradition, honor, and camaraderie. The drills, men dressed in their uniforms, and the very architecture produces wonderful elements for Ford to exercise his glorious stationary wide shots. However, it’s not merely about composition but motion and people being galvanized together through shared experience, be it song, dance, or the rigors of military drills.

Moreover, it covers such an expansive time frame and yet it feels free from a lot of the typical narrative pitfalls. There’s a general sense it’s more content with the details and observations of life than stringing together a story of dramatic event after dramatic event each comprised of their own life-altering meaning.

Instead, what we see is totally fluid without needing to explain itself, and as we’re not dealing in huge historical events, but one man’s extraordinary life, this lassitude works quite well.

It considers time, acknowledges how life is ordered by time but is never a slave to it.  The guiding light is a meditation on tradition more than a pure devotion to realism. Mind you, there are a few winks with the camera to Pershing, Knute Rockne out on the football field, even Harry Carey Jr. portraying a young version of incumbent president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

We also methodically follow the train of Marty’s life from a “fresh of the boat” Irish immigrant to a bumbling waiter, an up-and-coming athletic coach, and then a corporal training up the youthful cadets and helping instill in them the pride and responsibility of their station.

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Soon after Marty’s arrival, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara) arrives from the old country to serve as a cook for a local family. Ford delivers their so-called meet-cute in such a curious manner it could be out of a silent movie. For someone known for talking so passionately, O’Hara nary utters a word, instead, punting one of Marty’s boxing gloves while he trains up the lads in the art. Of course, he can’t help but keep sneaking glances back at her. It’s the beginning of a lifelong love story.

With John Wayne not attached to the picture (Ford wanted him), some of Ford’s other usual suspects get their due chance to shine. Ward Bond is a fitting embodiment of the gruff but effectual Master of the Sword, Captain Koehler, who invests in Marty. The classes of cadets are sprinkled with the likes of Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne. While Old Man Martin (Donald Crisp) arrives from Tipperary soon thereafter.

Although not a Ford regular, the cast includes Robert Francis, who was Harry Cohn’s answer to the new rebellious class of actors, the antithesis of James Dean and his ilk. Sadly Francis’s career was no less tragic. The rising actor only appeared in 4 movies before dying in a plane crash in 1955. This would prove to be his last project.

The last impression of The Long Gray Line suggests how Martin is as much an institution as the institution itself. In this regard, one’s memories are quickly drawn to Mr. Chips because Marty Maher feels like an analogous figure for the halls of West Point. Ford shows his knack for visual articulation in how he instills similar themes.

Instead of a deathbed pronouncement of a life well-lived, we see it all in action. Marty is older now, white-haired, and coming up on 50 years with the school. He has old friends doting over him, and new ones helping set up the Christmas tree. They put up the decorations and busy themselves in the kitchen

Again, it’s this constant motion and movement leading us toward greater communal well-being. Where we are reminded how much stronger we are together and how much comfort can be gleaned in time spent with others doing all manner of things.

Surely Ford could not have meant any of this and yet that’s the beauty of it because it all feels very organic in nature — organic to how we live as human beings — and bearing the truth of real life. It’s not just the momentary yuletide cheer that draws me back to It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s the community and Ford gives Marty a hero’s send-off full of poignancy (and “Auld Lang Syne”).

Although he’s come a long way from Tipperary, the verdant greens of the landscape feel like an immigrant’s reminiscence of The Quiet Man now on opposite shores, but no less resplendent. His roots and the aspects of his character and the family he holds dear are never far away.

Watching the ending, as a grand exhibition is put on in Marty’s honor, is spectacular unto itself. There is this gravitas similar to The Quiet Man or even the final parasol twirls of Rio Grande where we feel like we have taken part in something substantial just in studying the faces of our leads from their regal posts. They feel like giants on the screen.

After all, we’ve been privy to an entire lifetime and The Long Gray Line keeps on going. True, there’s a temptation to see this as a monotonous even a depressing thing — how time marches on and how there will always be new recruits to replace the old. People leave. Even Marty Martin was buried on the grounds after his 50 years of service.

However, in the hands of Ford, these genuine realities of life somehow have a definitive meaning that feels worthwhile and grand. It’s by no means naive in its perspective, and yet it seems to grasp the meaning, even the goodness, and the dignity, in such a place. It’s made up of the people as much as any kind of ideals.

What makes the film stick for me is how it is not a true cradle-to-grave epic nor is it a war picture. Ford had been in combat and had seen the Battle of Midway for goodness sakes. He wasn’t some wide-eyed idealist high on the glories of war. And yet his penchant is to still memorialize them in some manner through a lens he can understand, namely, the man, the myth, the legend: Marty Maher.

4/5 Stars

Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

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“Arise, my fair love and come away” – Song of Solomon 2:13

The screenplays of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are often literal master classes in hooking the audience. They understand intuitively the construction necessary to bring us into a story so we’re invested. Take the opening of Arise, My Love. Yes, there’s some throw-away text about the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1939. It’s in the aftermath, but then we’re introduced to a telling scene.

One of these soldiers of fortune, American Tom Martin (Ray Milland) sits in confinement as a father (Frank Puglia) from the local monastery pays him a visit. The firing squads right outside his annex make it painfully clear the hour of his own execution is imminent. Those aren’t rubber bullets. The man of faith feels some urgency to ask the prisoner if he even feels penitent — if he needs to clear his chest of anything.

All this sounds rote so far. Anyone could write this scene like so. Then, individuality sets in. Instead of contrition, he bemoans the fact he didn’t get into the action with Chamberlain and Hitler nor has he gotten a chance to take potshots at Nazis. It has the vitriolic gallows wit of Wilder setting up the gag.

Here’s the kicker. The inevitable is whisked right out from under Martin by the most unexpected of Providences. He’s been granted a pardon! It came through the pleading of his wife! It’s an obvious punchline if I know Wilder (and Brackett): he has no wife!

This plucky mystery woman (Claudette Colbert) is a reporter out for a story and boy does she has a way of making a doozy of a spread. They get out of the scenario thanks to her charm, his flying, and a bit of luck.

We are reminded the movie is planted squarely in its moment from the headlines about the Yankees in the World Series and the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara finally being over. Tom was among three American flyboys, who are a group of idealistic interventionists siding with the little guys against the big boys.

Paris, the city of amour, is still free from Nazi influence, and the pilot does his best to channel what’s already in the air. “Gusto” rebuffs him — albeit good-naturedly — because she’s an all-or-nothing gal. She knows if she says “yes” she’ll be head over heels. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But she’s a career woman.

Now Claudette Colbert doesn’t quite strike me as a typewriter-plunking type like Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck — one of the boys as it were — but she comes off as deliriously happy. Because it feels like she’s in her element again in this world, whether or not it’s totally manufactured by Hollywood. As her slighted suitor sits in the Cafe Magenta just betting she’ll walk over from her hotel, she looks to climb the journalistic ladder.

She’s dropped with quite the gig: Special Berlin Correspondent. The previous correspondent was kindly asked to leave by the Nazis. Among other infractions, he went to a reception for Herr von Ribbentropp and yelled “Gefilte Fish!”

The agitated editor (Walter Abel) is a long-running trope, but here it works as well as it did anywhere else in that he provides yet another antagonistic force to push against our heroine. Although, given the state of the world, she hardly needs it. He more likely serves as a bit of comic relief.

Because while Tom decides to go off to Warsaw, Poland to fly with his buddies (“I’ve always wanted to drop something on Hamburg after I got ptomaine from that hamburger”), while simultaneously stealing a few more hours with Gusto, Hitler rudely kicks off WWII. They plan to get out of town on the fated S.S. Athenia. No one told them the battle for the Atlantic has already geared up. Though hit hard, they are luckier than most. At the end of the day, Tom and Gusto are still together (and alive)…

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If you humor me for only a moment, there is a habit that can get me into trouble. Reading other people’s reviews. I’m as insecure as the next fellow about my writing. I could never do it as good as so-and-so or why didn’t think of that! That’s all that comparison gets you. Worse yet it can start infecting your own point of view if you consider other voices. Usually, I hold off until after my words are set in cement.

However, in a rare instance, I happen upon a contemporary review of Bosley Crowther, and it gave birth to some thoughts. He ends his piece on Arise, My Love in this manner:

“It is simply a synthetic picture which attempts to give consequence to a pleasant April-in-Paris romance by involving it in the realities of war — but a war which is patently conceived by someone who has been reading headlines in California. Miss Colbert and Mr. Milland are very charming when tête-tête. But, with Europe going up in flames around them, they are, paradoxically, not so hot. Same goes for the film.”

While I understand where Crowther is coming from, I will politely dissent, armed with hindsight as I most conveniently am. I’m often of the mind Hollywood folks are too self-important. How much influence do they really have? And yet even to look back at cinema in 1940 there is a sense there was real social importance in the movies being made — at least the ones that were truly aware of the cultural moment.

I am reminded Hitler was a cinema nut and Goebbels (derided briefly in this film) was deeply engaged in harnessing film for propagandistic purposes. Hitler even had a special prize for capturing Clark Gable. They really could be taken down a few pegs by the medium they too seemed to admire in spite of all their dementedness, and it’s quite a fitting mode of attack.

Think of Chaplin’s lampoon. Think of the various contours of Nazi menace explored in the likes of The Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, and The Mortal Storm from both inside and out. Hold Back The Dawn shows the implications on the American homefront. Even the passing remark from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday to stick Hitler on the funny pages brandishes something momentarily powerful.

If Billy Wilder is not considered to be an integral part of this company, he deserves to be. Because Arise, My Love taps into the same immediacy available only in those uncertain months. He gladly sticks his nose out to be bitten and whether it was from the relative comfort of California, Wilder was not a stranger to personal heartache. He lost loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a personal context I doubt Crowther could have been aware of. Arise, My Love was promoted as a romance that could only happen in 1940, which is a key to its resonance; it’s effectively encased in the amber of the times.

The final interludes are in a forest, a pasture, as Colbert stands on her soapbox, as it were, in a lasting embrace with her love. It’s not as stunning as Joel McCrea’s delivery of Ben Hecht’s prose in Foreign Correspondent, nor is it Wilder/Brackett’s finest hour. But that’s just it.

For an effort that’s not even that well-remembered in Classic movie circles, Arise, My Love is a charming picture. The word proves apt for much of Mitchell Leisen’s filmography. And yet there is the undeniable wit and sophistication of its writers. Right down to its title. The full passage reads like this:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

So you see, it’s not only an inflection of passionate love but also naturalistic hope.

3.5/5 Stars

Till We Meet Again (1944): Directed by Frank Borzage

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This is my entry in the CMBA’s Hidden Classics Blogathon!

The movie is built out of the opening juxtaposition. A youthful nun with an angelic countenance (Barbara Britton) lifts up supplications to her triune God asking for prayers on their behalf — herself and the host of children and other sisters around them.

Their daily discipline is disrupted by a commotion down the road — Nazi soldiers firing after fleeing prisoners. It’s a signifier of tense times, but very real and pertinent ones in a French village plunged deep into Nazi occupation.

One of the girls asks Sister Clothhilde, “What happened outside?” All she can manage in response is that she doesn’t know, nor does she want to know. It suggests the core tenets of her character, maintaining all levels of religious piety, even her own serenity, above all else. She’s cloistered from the outside world.

Because it’s true the convent walls provide a buffer — a peaceful asylum — and for someone like the young sister it’s all she’s ever known and all she’s ever loved. Sister Clothilde is generally content with the amiable life of a nun, taking care of the young children in her dormitory with warmth and diligence. That could be the end of it right there, but as this is a movie, of course, there must be more.

The Reverend Mother has a rather pointed distaste for the Germans (enduring three wars will do that to even the most generous of spirits), but she and the local Major Krupp maintain their etiquette amid obdurate conflict. He has orders to make a search for runaway prisoners, and she is adamant about not opening her doors. For a time they can play the game easily enough, and Sister Clothilde can remain equally ignorant of the world outside.

However, all of this changes with the appearance of a wanted American pilot carrying vital information for the local underground. He all but appears out of nowhere, happening upon the sister quite by accident. In the darkness and the solitude, there is something strange outlined around them. It’s not menace nor romantic melodrama exactly but a yet to be discovered facet in their relationship.

Milland, terse and paranoid, wants to get to his contact and the sister wants nothing of his world. Ultimately, she has no choice but to become a part of it. There is no one else and so she instantly finds herself giving up her small comforts for a mission of immense peril that, coincidentally, takes her outside the walls she’s grown so accustomed to. She goes from a woman of faith to a full-fledged civilian on the outside, given a new name — that of Louise Dupree — and betrothed in marriage.

If there are all the nuts and bolts of a cloak and dagger thriller, these are never a part of Frank Borzage’s primary agenda. After all, he is a far cry from a Friz Lang or an Alfred Hitchcock. I’m thinking of Ministry of Fear or even Foreign Correspondent in particular. Also, although it’s not as robust as The Mortal Storm, Till We Meet Again becomes both an extension of that world and its themes courtesy of screenwriter Lenore Coffee.

What’s evident is Borzage’s forever visible sense of this kind of high-minded naturalism. Where they can momentarily forget the task at hand, that is getting to a distant airbase and freedom, so they can help return a wayward baby bird back to its mother. Is there a need for such a scene? In a word, no, but in Borzage’s conception, this is the more crucial matter because it denotes something elemental.

Man’s duty is not only to his fellow man but to the creatures on God’s green earth. The director gravitates toward acts of care and goodness as opposed to the needless destruction as represented by the Nazis in their brutish, insensitive clumsiness.

Even as they travel together and “Louise” comes to know John as a most intimate friend, she learns a great deal from his assertions. That God is everywhere: reflected in acts of beauty, nature, the vows of marriage, and the goodness that crops up in any person who lives in this world.

It comes through thanks to Milland gushing affection about the marvelous intricacies of marriage between two human beings in intimate union, babies, jam in the morning newspapers, and tripping over the slippers. To her own astonishment, he speaks the words with a kind of devoted reverence. “You say it like a litany — a kind of prayer.”

But to those who think of Borzage as merely a starry-eyed dreamer, the movie is still compelling when they are forced to evade the Nazis, now trailing them with ill-intent and more precise intel. The sense of dread is immediate, and there are stakes.

In another key scene, after she’s done so much on this treacherous journey, the sister makes one false step. Smoke billows out from a dimly lit room, and she rushes toward it to sound the alarm for John to make his getaway. Instead, out steps an old adversary showing himself from under the shroud of darkness.

She is from thenceforward intimidated and threatened in a way that feels so real you can just imagine have it was used against so many victims before her. She has committed an act of treason, put herself beyond the protection of her church, and acted as an enemy of the German Reich. Under such duress, she has every right to feel hopeless.

Instead, she makes a personal judgment, a double sacrifice out of this transcendental love of hers. It’s not simply romantic love but love wrapped up with ideals and goodness that must be shielded from the Nazis at all cost.

They escape to England with Milland, and she lets him go gladly. But the second sacrifice is the Christ-like one. If I have to spell it out for you then the allusion means nothing nor the cross she holds in her grasp. You have to see it for yourself.

Although it’s sublimely sentimental and swelling with angel’s song, this simply means Till We Meet Again is yet another definitive Borzage picture. It’s somehow fitting he would trace the line of religious iconography all throughout the picture even as a woman learns what her faith means in all walks of life.

Far from trivializing it, her vocation feels richer, bolder, and freer than it ever was before. And yet with Borzage, he’s not so much a champion of religious ardor as he is a believer in the grandeur available in life for those who readily embrace it.

These large, esoteric, unsearchable concepts whether they be spiritual, transcendent, or in other ways ethereal are there for the taking. For a humble movie, Till We Meet Again gets swept up with the same scope. Importantly, it’s kept accessible by the candor of Milland and the vestal warmth of Barbara Britton. Because it is once and for all a litany — a kind of layman’s prayer.

4/5 Stars

Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one figurehead emblematic of the proud foe is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edward’s Cheeky Service Sit-Com

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“On a sub you have to operate in close quarters.”

Operation Petticoat positions itself as an easy film to enjoy and a difficult one to love. It’s true Blake Edwards was capable of stirring up breezy even wacky entertainment, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to The Great Race. Even this is only acknowledging a very small subset of his filmography without consideration of the several exemplary dramas he directed.

He was usually aided by fine casts, who could carry the material smartly, and it’s little different here. Cary Grant was hardly ever ruffled nor stretched in his later career, and Operation Petticoat could hardly be considered more than a lark for him. He plays his quietly bemused self — this time a submarine Lt. Commander, who must make the most of a wonky situation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For his part, Tony Curtis is all but at ease as the wheeler-dealer with a touch of sleazy class. Let’s just say he’s got an affinity for the finer things in life and the ladies who can give it to him. It’s generally a delight to see Cary Grant return to a sub after Destination Tokyo, this time joined by Curtis, who looks to be relishing going toe-to-toe and rustling the feathers of his boyhood idol.

Forgiving the shameless pun, without its two stars, the movie would be sunk by mediocrity. If we want to give a slightly backhanded compliment, Operation Petticoat is a fitting precursor to some of the popular sitcoms of the ’60s.

Helping the argument are the presence of Gavin MacLeod, Marian Ross, and Dick Sargent representing, of all things, McHale’s Navy, Happy Days, and Bewitched. And of course, although it transposed the action of a submarine crew to a rural locale, one cannot forget Petticoat Junction.

Like McHale’s Navy, it would be all but impossible to pull off the wartime comedy set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor if we hadn’t at least won the war. This gives freedom for some creative license and a bit of zaniness sprinkled in with the typical military fare. One must only remember one gag recycled in the TV show, namely, sinking a truck with a torpedo.

Before they can even get afloat, they have to put their belching sub back into working order. The man up for the task is their latest addition Lt. Holden. Though the commander doesn’t relish the idea, he turns the other way and lets his junkman get to work pilfering everything he can get his grubby hands on. He’s able to do what no one else could, securing all the parts (by dubious means) to get them back in commission.

If we want to point out the film’s flaws, it takes about an hour to really churn up some steam by entering the waters of a 50s era rom-com afloat in awkward waters. Because once they get past the fear that the Sea Tiger will fall apart around them, they find their newest conundrum. They are being tasked with accommodating a batch of stranded nurses. It just isn’t done. It isn’t decent. And yet somehow in this film it happens and, subsequently, becomes the source for most of the comedy.

Quite mysteriously, all the shipmen aboard fall ill and need medical attention from the nursing staff. Their commanding officer all but scares them back to perfect health. Holden is all but smitten by bodacious blonde, Dina Merrill, who has the ill-fortune for always falling in love with Mr. Wrong. He’s not exactly the prototypical image of the upstanding, clean-cut boy next door.

Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg) strikes up a boiler room romance with the local fix-it man (Arthur O’Connell) because she proves just as resourceful as he is. He’s forced to mince every small-minded word he ever said about women and washing in his workspace. Commander Sherman is hardly on the lookout for such flings, simply trying to navigate their highly irregular and awkward situation and the perpetual clumsiness of Nurse Crandall (Joan O’Brien).

Between designated shower times for the ladies, the sharing of pajamas between co-eds, and allowing for Lt. Crandall’s curvaceous figure in the tight quarters of the submarine, he gets more than he bargained for, all played for wry comic effect, of course. It’s these later interludes milking the sheer awkwardness that exhibit touches of redolence on par with Pillow Talk or any such brethren. It’s a reason to miss the films of old. Cheeky and more brazen than expected, but mostly good-natured, especially compared to the hypersexualized culture we now live in.

operation petticoat 2.pngVarious scenarios spring to mind of farcical hijinks worthy of McHale’s band of Eight Balls. Prime examples are Holden setting up a supply depot casino to wrangle parts and even resorting to pig-napping to augment their New Year’s festivities. Seaman Hornsby causes quite the stir and in order to hold onto the plump porker, Commander Sherman generously opens up his subordinate’s quarters so a disgruntled native can raid them in recompense. He comes away with a golf bag, tennis rackets, and all the doodads you can imagine.

In another stroke of brilliance, some Einstein has the foresight to mix white paint with the red so they have enough for a new coat. For any of those who passed preschool, that makes — not gray — but pink. When they’re not picking up more passengers and wayward goats, babies are being born in the makeshift ward.

 The most cringe-worthy moment comes when they get caught in the crosshairs of a friendly battleship looking to sink the unidentified, highly irregular submarine. As one last resort, they signal their allies with a trail of women’s undergarments. Surely the Japanese would not resort to the same tactics. 

The resolution to the story is fit for the crowd-pleasing, sunshiny rom-com we’ve been offered. Cary and Tony say a cheering goodbye to their old friend The Sea Tiger, and we get some novel if unsurprising exposition about their love lives. In case you didn’t guess as much, a movie about a pink co-ed submarine is not going to push your brain or the envelope. For the generous viewer, it’s intermittently mirthful and relatively harmless amusement not to be taken too seriously.

3/5 Stars

Battleground (1949): Bastogne and The Screaming Eagles

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“We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race or a super-idea, or super-anything become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning to put out the fire before it starts spreading.”  ~ Leon Ames as the Chaplain

This is the story of Bastogne in 1944 and the renowned Screaming Eagles. Admittedly, if you’re like me, this means very little, but fortunately, we are in good company because the men we get to know over the course of two hours didn’t know anything about the city either when they first arrived. This was not the Battle of the Bulge; it was simply a stepping stone or a weigh station on the road to their future destination. That is until it became, you guessed it, a battleground in its own right.

For the time being, they can be found drilling in smartly executed formations and getting ready for an unnamed assignment ahead. This is our chance to feel them out before they get in the thick of everything.

Director William A. Wellman does them a service in the first full scene together spread out in their cots. There’s barely enough room for the dust to settle but within the close confines, camaraderie is immediately palpable as is each man’s personality.

What a great group of guys they are covering a lot of the bases of humanity. Van Johnson and even a Don Taylor are easy to pin down because of their broad appeal and charm. They make most any armed forces picture a little more affable. Among their finest traits is exuding good old-fashioned Americanism.

There’s old college grad Jarves (John Hodiak), who gets jeered for his presumed stuffiness. There’s the gruff cynic (Douglas Fowley) always playing around with his set of false chompers like his most prized possession. (They kind of are because without them he can’t eat). Squished in with them is the gangly and drawling southern boy (Jerome Courtland), who feels like an easy trope to target in these pictures. The new recruit (Marshall Thompson) can be found nervously bed-hopping from cot to cot trying to find one he can take.

In something genuinely unusual for the period, even a Latino from L.A. (Ricardo Montalban) is represented. His best bud Pops (George Murphy) all but has a ticket home on a hardship discharge. A young Richard Jaeckel rounds out the band along with a chaw chewing James Whitmore, acting as their weathered drill sergeant.

What is meaningful about these relationships is how they reach outside the confines of the film with this inferred history we don’t know explicitly, and yet we can read into it. We know what guys have a bone to pick with the army and the ones who are trying to make the best of it.

The perilous journey ahead is riddled with enemy planes overhead, and the fog of war is quite literally laid on thick, complimenting the mud the army trucks slog through on the road. One minute they’re diving into ditches at the sound of sniper fire, and the next they are tasked with the backbreaking toil that goes with digging in for the evening, only to be pulled away on revised orders.

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There’s absolutely nothing permanent aside from the constant patrolling, lack of sleep, and perpetual snow. Battleground is one of the snowiest war movies I can recall, at times, deeply striking and equally relentless

Private Holley scores quite a cache of eggs, dreaming of the scramble he’s whisking up in his helmet time and time again — only to get pulled off for another assignment. Watching the yolk drip from his helmet is one of the defining images of the film for me as is his utter indifference. You’re never clean so why even bother.

As a fitting inflection of the Cold War, we have Germans in G.I. uniforms sneaking behind Allied lines to wreak havoc and sabotage important strategic assets like bridges. More than anything, it continually triggers this terrifying threat of infiltration. Thus, one cannot help but draw a connection to the Chaplain’s stirring speech later on (reference at the top of this page).

Amid the paranoia, it’s almost hilarious to think that the best way of telling friend from foe is baseball terms, idioms, Terry and the Pirates references, and the relationship status of the war’s favorite pinup Betty Grable (Note: Cesar Romero is out for Harry James).

When they do come upon the Krauts, Wellman captures the firefight and the subsequent hand-to-hand combat in a stylized manner to conform to the Hollywood production codes. Regardless, he manages to accentuate the rough-and-tumble brutality through boots pounding on the snow and violent inferences.

Battleground leaves unabashed sentimentality behind and it is not squeamish about death. People get picked off one by one leaving a trail of dead and wounded in their plucky company. This carnage hurts because of the rapport we build up. But even in the face of these micro-tragedies, there is no time to mourn, and their stand against the Germans proves a gutsy one. There’s no other alternative in their minds.

As we bunker down, it’s true the ensemble melds together nicely with no one actor totally upstaging the others. Certainly, Van Johnson is just left of center, if not the undisputed headliner, but even he has to navigate conventional feelings of fear and loathing when it comes to military service. He is by no means impervious to the toils of war.

In a moment of duress, Holly looks all but ready to turn tail ignominiously, but he finds his courage in the urging of another man who looks up to him — as they double back on the German lines and catch them off guard. They’ve girded their loins about them now and when ceasefire agreements and surrender are suggested by the enemy, they unceremoniously scoff at the very idea.

As alluded to already, in the thick of the hard pelting enemy artillery fire, the Chaplain holds an impromptu service. He’s of a certain denomination, but a very succinct point is made of the fact his service and his message is all-inclusive. In fact, it’s hardly a spiritual homily at all but a candid rallying cry against the forces of evil. It’s one of the most blatant examples of the film getting on any sort of didactic soapbox.

In response, each man kneels down to pray in his own way the enemy artillery fire still bursting in the background. The results are a stirring image of solidarity. They have not yet begun to fight.

Even in the simulated soundstage action, there is a compelling commitment to the atmosphere, which aids rather than hinders the story being told. It brims with the elements and forces of nature on all sides. In a last-ditch effort, all the terminally ill are moved out of the makeshift hospital, and the walking wounded are brought in for one final stand of desperation.

There is a slight sense Robert Pirosh’s script skipped over what might have been the most rousing scene. Wellman tackles the counterattack from the rallied forces with their new batch of airlifted ammunition, gasoline, and K rations in only an extended montage.

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Although the ending of the war is a foregone conclusion, it very nearly could have been a letdown that we don’t get a more pronounced action scene. However, it’s quickly salvaged by the effectiveness of the final scene. It says all the same things and exudes all the same battered but resolute emotion with one simple drill, leading them off toward the rear. The men sound off with a renewed vigor knowing theirs was a job well done.

In my book, James Whitmore is the unsung hero of the picture because his grizzled mug brings so much understood texture to the world of the movie. Van Johnson is the vision of what an idealized American G.I. is and Whitmore is the more likely reality. And in the final minutes, he’s the one who leads them to the finish line. He maintains an unswerving grit and pride as tenacious as anyone.

Battleground is quite the sensational war picture while also holding the distinction of being one of the most high profile WWII films following the conflict’s cessation. It allows for this strange limbo of sorts where the war is still fresh and within grasp of the collective consciousness, but there is enough wiggle room to begin looking back in hindsight.

Surely it’s not a complete portrait, but it does well to blend shades of action with the everyday gumption needed to make it through such a conflict. What a pleasure it is to be reminded each of these soldiers is a singular human being.

It’s refreshing to have their warmth and their fears in plain view along with their courage. It feels like we can look them in the eyes and truly marvel because they are not a whole lot different than us in many ways. Their courage is extraordinary in just how ordinary it appears.

4/5 Stars

A Walk in The Sun (1945) with Dana Andrews and Company

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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.

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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.

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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.

3.5/5 Stars