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Kings Go Forth

Kings Go Forth(1958)

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teaser Kings Go Forth (1958)

The first of two films Sinatra made in 1958, Kings Go Forth might be seen as an attempt to capture some of the glory of From Here to Eternity (1953). Both are set during World War II and feature some morally dubious characters, but beyond that, there's not much to link the two.

Sinatra isn't playing a supporting character in Kings Go Forth. Instead he's front and center as Sam Loggins, a lieutenant fighting the Germans in southern France late in the war. With his radio operator buddy Britt Harris (played by Tony Curtis), Loggins makes time for a little high life along the Riviera where he meets and falls in love with French resident Monique (Natalie Wood). Loggins is surprised to learn that Monique is actually a mulatto, even more surprised when she falls in love with Britt. Of course Loggins isn't going to give up so easily, even for a buddy.

Sinatra enlisted several jazz musicians to make appearances in Kings Go Forth, including Red Norvo, Pete Candoli and Mel Lewis. Sinatra himself sang on the soundtrack album but not in the film. Kings Go Forth had something of a literary background since it was based on a novel by Joe David Brown, the author of Paper Moon. The actual screenplay was by Merle Miller, whose biography of Harry S. Truman would become a bestseller in the 1970's. In case you're curious, that's mostly Monterey County, California filling in for France.

Director: Delmer Daves
Producer: Frank Ross
Screenplay: Merle Miller, based on the book by Joe David Brown
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Editor: William Murphy
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Lt. Sam Loggins), Tony Curtis (Britt Harris), Natalie Wood (Monique Blair), Leora Dana (Mrs. Blair), Karl Swenson (Colonel).
BW-111m.

by Lang Thompson

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teaser Kings Go Forth (1958)

Kings Go Forth (1958) is a war film, a buddy movie, and a love story, but more important, it's a sincere and sober entry in the problem-picture genre, looking at issues of sexism and racism through a tale of three Americans caught in a complicated emotional web. It's also an interesting showcase for the versatility of style and appearance that made Natalie Wood a unique presence in Hollywood films. Frank Sinatra gets a good deal more screen time than either Wood or Tony Curtis, who share top billing with him, but all three stars make solid impressions even when the movie sags.

The story takes place in France during the "champagne campaign" of World War II, which got its name from the supposedly high living available to American troops who could scoot off to the Riviera and quaff fine wines during breaks in the fighting, assuming they could foot their bar bills on military pay. Sinatra plays Sam Loggins, a first lieutenant who commands a reconnaissance unit near a provincial village where the Germans have stashed large amounts of munitions and supplies. Curtis plays Britt Harris, a corporal with a questionable past and a wise-guy attitude. Sam recruits Britt to replace a radioman killed in battle, and while the men have certain things in common - they both hail from the New York area, and they have the same jaundiced view of army efficiency - the gap between Sam's essential seriousness and Britt's nonstop irreverence keeps their friendship from going beyond a superficial level.

The plot's first major twist happens when Sam meets beautiful Monique Blair, played by Wood with considerable delicacy and restraint. Although she was born to American parents, Monique has lived in France all her life, and now shares a home in the village with her widowed mother. She and Sam have a lovely evening of quiet conversation, but when it's time to say goodnight and make another date, Monique tells Sam she can't see him again. Sam is disappointed and puzzled by her behavior, and he's even more perplexed when a much older woman approaches him in the caf a week later, introducing herself as Monique's mother and then taking him to their home, where the young folks have another splendid evening.

It's impossible to discuss Kings Go Forth further without a couple of spoilers, but I'll touch on them as lightly as I can. Sam and Monique continue to see each other, and Sam reaches the point of proposing marriage. Instead of rushing into his arms, however, Monique reluctantly tells him a secret that prevents her from saying yes: Her father was a black man, and she believes that racism is implanted into every white American from an early age. Confused about Monique's declaration and his own feelings, Sam stays away from her for several days before realizing that his affection is too strong for skin-deep differences to obstruct. He returns to her house, she joyfully embraces him, and their troubles appear to be over.

We haven't seen much of Britt during all this, but that changes when Sam takes Monique to a nightclub where Britt wows the crowd by blowing a hot trumpet with the jazz combo onstage. Sam introduces him to Monique and the two of them hit it off instantly, turning Sam into a third wheel - a very worried third wheel, since he knows Monique is emotionally fragile and Britt has no morals where women are concerned. Told about Monique's mixed-race parentage, Britt reacts with bemusement and doesn't refer to it again. When it becomes clear that he and Monique are sexual partners, Britt fends off Sam's objections by announcing that they're engaged. Discovering this is a lie, Sam wrathfully confronts Britt, who breaks off with Monique in an appallingly cruel way. This happens at the very moment when headquarters finally approves a high-risk mission that Sam and Britt planned before they became enemies instead of friends. Soon the men are alone together behind enemy lines, seething with anger and anxiety about each other as well as their German foes.

Kings Go Forth opened in 1958, almost a decade after Elia Kazan's Pinky and Mark Robson's Home of the Brave (both 1949) put racial issues front and center. Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, with Curtis and Sidney Poitier, also opened in 1958, and such racially progressive films as Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) and Hubert Cornfield's Pressure Point (1962) were just around the corner. Like many such pictures, Kings Go Forth now seems a tad backward in some respects, particularly in its casting of a white star - Wood had Russian ancestry and spoke Russian fluently - as a woman profoundly self-conscious about her mixed-race background. Hollywood censorship was still hanging on in 1958, however, and the notorious Production Code banned sex or even romance between the races unless at least one party was punished for it. Kings Go Forth follows that pernicious rule, but it deserves credit for taking on sensitive racial issues in a calm, responsible manner.

Sinatra doesn't sing in Kings Go Forth, although his song "Monique" is woven into Elmer Bernstein's surprisingly tepid score. Yet of the many virtues that made him one of the great American vocalists, none was more important than his ability to put across high degrees of emotion with a minimum of fuss, and the same quality graces his best work as an actor; good examples from the 1950s include his roles in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953) and Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). If his approach in Kings Go Forth is too understated to be fully effective, it's probably because the intensity of the movie's theme led Delmer Daves to direct him and the others more cautiously than necessary. Curtis was an expert at characters who know all the angles (see George Marshall's 1953 Houdini) or think they do (see Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 Sweet Smell of Success), and he conveys Britt's smart-alecky nature with a spunkiness that brings the movie to life whenever he's on screen. By taking a middle road, more extroverted than Sinatra's nice guy and more introspective than Curtis's rogue, Wood embodies the spirit of the film more memorably than either of her costars.

Variety called Kings Go Forth a "simple, rather straightforward action-romance" in which the racial issue is "played to the hilt" and Wood "looks pretty." New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was less generous, deeming the picture "juvenile twaddle" in which Curtis is "bumptious and boorish" and Wood is "affected up to here." I agree with Crowther that Leora Dana's monotonous acting makes Monique's mother seem "like something arisen from a grave," but he misunderstands the critique of American racism at the movie's core, and no review I've seen notices how intelligently the theme of race intersects with that of gender - it is not a man but a woman, after all, who feels the weight of prejudice so acutely that her love life suffers drastically as a result. Anticipating the contrast between American and European racial attitudes that would be explored so crisply in Martin Ritt's underrated Paris Blues (1961) just three years later, Kings Go Forth is a quietly insightful film, if not an exciting or engrossing one.

Director: Delmer Daves
Producer: Frank Ross
Screenplay: Merle Miller, from the novel by Joe David Brown
Cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp
Editorial Supervision: William B. Murphy
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Elmer Bernstein
With: Frank Sinatra (1st Lt. Sam Loggins), Tony Curtis (Cpl. Britt Harris), Natalie Wood (Monique Blair), Leora Dana (Mrs. Blair), Karl Swenson (Colonel), Ann Codee (Madame Brieux), Edward Ryder (Cpl. Lindsay), Jacques Berthe (Jean-Franois Dauvah)
BW-110m.

by David Sterritt

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