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"MGM's great drama of desire under fire!"
Tagline for Battle Circus
Desire bit the dust when Humphrey Bogart teamed with one of his unlikeliest co-stars, June Allyson, for his only MGM film. It's not that Battle Circus was a complete failure but the trailers for the 1953 film inadvertently described two films, sending mixed signals with the line "Allyson in love; Bogart in action."
Hollywood didn't make many films about the Korean War during that conflict, and the best contemporary treatment of it was probably Samuel Fuller's low-budget The Steel Helmet (1951), released through independent Lippert Pictures. Clearly, the war was ripe for big-budget Hollywood treatment when MGM green lighted this production, written and directed by Richard Brooks. Brooks had befriended Bogart while co-writing the screenplay to Key Largo (1948) and later had directed him in the newspaper drama Deadline - U.S.A. (1952). With the leading role a cynical Army surgeon trying to protect his patients from both sides of the war while being forced to move his MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit with each change in the front line, he naturally turned to the star, who was intrigued by the script's mordant humor.
When it came time to choose the actress to play his love interest, an idealistic nurse who quickly develops the stamina to survive in war and win the cagy surgeon's heart, something went wrong. Bogie's wife, Lauren Bacall, might have been a great choice. Her throaty voice matched well with his cynical growl, and the two had struck sparks together in To Have and Have Not (1944), the film that made her a star. But she was pregnant at the time with their second child and involved in a series of battles with her studio, Warner Bros., so she was most likely unavailable. MGM may have hoped to make lightning strike twice by casting Allyson, another husky-voiced star, in the lead. She would later claim the studio wasn't choosing her vehicles well because they thought her name would be enough to sell anything. Actually, her career needed a boost as the maturing actress was trying to replace her "girl next door" image. But playing unconvincing love scenes with Bogart and talking a hysterical enemy soldier into handing over a hand grenade proved to be far out of her range.
For the military scenes, however, the studio did everything right. They hired Col. K.E. Van Buskirk, commander of one of the first MASH units, as technical advisor. In addition to location shooting in Calabasas, California, the studio arranged to shoot at Camp Pickett in Virginia, where the MASH units trained. As an added bonus, Camp Pickett had several helicopters they could lend the studio for the shoot. They were also probably the source of the "enemy" planes that strafe the medical encampment, planes clearly labeled "USAF" on screen.
The completed movie was rather a mess. Critics praised the military scenes, with the New York Times hailing "a commendably graphic tribute to American combat valor. For, in depicting the hairbreadth, makeshift operations of one of these heroic units, channeling its precious cargo to safety under constant exposure to the enemy, director Richard Brooks has done a dandy job. Indeed, some of these scenes of frenzied mechanization, detailing the picturesque and the authentic, deserve a straight documentary packaging." Most, however, lambasted the love story as a concession to standard Hollywood filmmaking that killed the film's pace.
Bogart's consolation for the botched mash-up of romance and war drama was his $250,000 fee. That more than compensated him for setting his thumb on fire, an accident easy to spot in the film and its trailer when he's forced to burn his papers during a hasty retreat. Besides, he got better reviews than his co-star, so Battle Circus did little to detract from the string of inspired characterizations that marked much of his work in the 1950s, including his Oscar®-winning performance in The African Queen (1951) and his Oscar®-nominated work in The Caine Mutiny (1954). For Allyson, the reviews were more disheartening. She would only make one more film under her MGM contract before leaving, disappointed that promised roles in The Long, Long Trailer (1953) and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) were being given to other actresses.
Hollywood's major studios would rarely return to the Korean War as viable subject matter until 1970, when Robert Altman's M*A*S*H captured some of the insanity of running a surgical unit so close to the battlefield. The two films have an ironic connection. MGM's publicists announced that the title Battle Circus was chosen to refer to the circus-like tents the troops had to hastily move during the war. Before that, however, they made Brooks change his original title, claiming that if the film were called MASH 66, it would make audiences think not of wartime romance, but of potatoes.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director-Screenplay: Richard Brooks
Based on a story by Allen Rivkin, Laura Kerr
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Direction: James Basevi, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Maj. Jed Webbe), June Allyson (Lt. Ruth McGara), Keenan Wynn (Sgt. Orvil Statt), Robert Keith (Lt. Col. Hilary Walters), William Campbell (Capt. John Rustford), Philip Ahn (Korean Prisoner), Steve Forrest (Sergeant), Jeff Richards (Lieutenant), Alvy Moore (Runnker).
BW-90m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller