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In 1950, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard hit the screens and William Holden, struggling for years to find stardom after a high profile start in Golden Boy (1939) and Our Town (1940), finally hit the big time for good. The important relationship in Sunset Boulevard was between Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The love interest was Nancy Olson. Within a year, the two were cast together again, first in Union Station (1950), and then a year later in a love story that takes place in the middle of war, Force of Arms (1951).
The movie opens inside a battle tent in Italy during World War II. Sgt Joe "Pete" Peterson (William Holden) is talking with Sgt Smiley "Mac" McFee (Gene Evans) about taking the platoon out on a mission. Their Lieutenant was killed and Pete's now in charge. The men rally around him as he leads them into battle, a firefight that takes up most of the first twenty minutes of film. Along the way, their Captain gets killed too and Pete ends up with a field promotion to lieutenant.
Back in safe territory the night after the battle, Pete wanders around a military cemetery until he's startled by someone else there, Lieutenant Eleanor MacKay (Nancy Olson). He tells her it's been a while since he's seen a woman and doesn't know how to act around them. As he relaxes, he invites her out only to be rebuked. He chalks it up to his being a Sergeant (she doesn't yet know he's now a Lieutenant) to which she takes offense.
The next day they meet again as Pete tries to find a letter for Mac at the mail center where Eleanor works. Seeing his Lieutenant bars, she apologizes and asks him if she could buy him a drink, as an apology. The two go out and get to know each other well, opening up for the first time during the war. Later, when they get caught in an air raid, they kiss and admit their love for each other. Eventually, Pete has to go back into battle but now that he has an emotional connection to hold on to, will he have the same bravery in battle or be over-cautious and get himself and his men killed?
Michael Curtiz had the rare ability to make any movie work, up to a point. He was a strong director who kept action moving even if there was no action to move. From his earliest works in horror (Doctor X , The Mystery of the Wax Museum ) and adventure (Captain Blood , The Adventures of Robin Hood ) to biography (Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942) and all-time classic romances (Casablanca, 1942), he made sure that pacing and editing made even the talkiest scenes move briskly. He doesn't falter here either but is saddled with a problem that he had little power to control. The studios threw Nancy Olson and William Holden together four times in the hopes that lightning would strike twice after the success of Sunset Boulevard. The problem was, the relationship of Holden and Olson had almost nothing to do with the success of Sunset Boulevard. Actually, scratch the "almost."
Force of Arms is part war movie, part romance movie but it's the war story, and William Holden leading it, that carries the film. The relationship between Holden and Olson doesn't hold up nearly as well. In fact, it could've been cut back a bit more and made into more of a side story that affects Holden's character in battle, much like their relationship in Sunset Boulevard was a side story that affected the main story but had no burden of carrying it.
The movie is populated with reliable character actors known to most fans of Hollywood in the forties and fifties. Dick Wesson, best known as the engineer in Destination Moon (1950) joins Frank Lovejoy (I Was a Communist for the FBI , The Sound of Fury ) and Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet , Ace in the Hole ) to round out the cast.
In the end, Force of Arms works because the war movie works. William Holden carries the film and keeps the audience interested in the romance if only to see how the romance affects him in battle. It's an interesting story and told with the usual finesse by Curtiz and possessing some terrific camera work by Ted McCord. Nancy Olson and William Holden work well together, and the studios would give the couple one more pairing in Submarine Command a year later, but they never quite clicked as a great onscreen couple. Fortunately, Curtiz, Holden and the war story more than make up for it.
By Greg Ferrara