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In Eight Iron Men (1952), Lee Marvin made his eighth feature film appearance (though only third credited) and got his most substantial role yet. He plays the line sergeant of an eight-man squad holed up in a house in a bombed-out town during WWII. One of their buddies is trapped outside, pinned down by a German machine gun, and the group debates risking their necks to try to save him. It's essentially a one-set story, belying its theatrical origins. The script was adapted from Harry Brown's play A Sound of Hunting, which had been mounted on Broadway in 1945 with Burt Lancaster and Frank Lovejoy. (That play, in fact, had a lot to do with Lancaster getting his first movie role in The Killers, 1946.)
The exact time and place of this story is not defined - it's an unspecified location in war-torn Europe - and the result is a film more focused on philosophical and moral issues than combat. As producer Stanley Kramer wrote in his memoirs years later, "What made Eight Iron Men attractive to me, what made it more than a war picture, was the undercurrent of a search for such elusive qualities as right and wrong, loyalty and honor." The movie furthermore tries to make the audience sense the day-to-day banality and tedium of war - always a tricky subject in the movies because the last thing anyone wants is for the audience to simply be bored.
Casting was a big problem for Kramer. He had assurances that Lancaster and Lovejoy would be willing to reprise their stage roles for the movie. "What I didn't anticipate," he later wrote, "was that by the time I was able to get a shooting date and hire a cast, both Lovejoy and Lancaster were committed to other projects. There went my chance to make a picture with a certifiable star, Lancaster, and an excellent, well-known costar."
Director Edward Dmytryk was also none too thrilled at having a cast of essentially unknowns, but Lee Marvin made up for a lot - in front of and behind the camera. Dmytryk wrote in his autobiography, "Lee was fresh from the Marine Corps - almost. He [had] a highly developed observational ability. He re-dressed our entire squad until it really looked like a group of working GIs. He could imitate the sound of every type and caliber of shell, and he showed me the way men really died on the battlefield and how their bodies looked in death."
The machine gun, Dmytryk continued, "was authentically German, and...it always jammed when we needed it most. The gun experts who had rented it to us could do little with it. After two or three frustrating days, Lee, who had served only in the Pacific, said, 'Let me take a look at it.' He spread out a sheet, took the gun completely apart in a few minutes, then reassembled it. It never jammed again. Some men have a way with dogs, some with kids. Lee had a way with war."
Taking on another main role was Bonar Colleano, a U.S.-born actor who grew up in England and spent almost his entire career there. Traveling to Hollywood for this movie, he did not make a dent and returned to the U.K. He made more British movies and died in a car accident six years later. He was popular enough in England that his death was front-page news.
Much to Kramer's and Dmytryk's disappointment, Eight Iron Men never found an audience. Dmytryk noted wryly, "[It] was well liked by the critics. Unfortunately, they get in free."
Some final notes: Lee Marvin would make four more movies for Stanley Kramer. Weirdly enough, Eight Iron Men's working title was The Dirty Dozen. Look for former child actor Dickie Moore as one of the soldiers.
Producer: Edna Anhalt, Stanley Kramer
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Harry Brown
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Music: Leith Stevens
Cast: Bonar Colleano (Pvt. Collucci), Arthur Franz (Carter), Lee Marvin (Sgt. Joe Mooney), Richard Kiley (Pvt. Coke), Nick Dennis (Pvt. Sapiros), James Griffith (Pvt. Ferguson).
by Jeremy Arnold