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Long before he won Pulitzer Prizes for such universally acclaimed literary works asArmies of the Night (1969) and The Executioner's Song (1980), Norman Mailer spent two years serving in the Philippines as a rifleman for the Marines during World War II. His tough, gritty experiences there were later transformed into his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), generally considered to be one of the finest American novels ever written about World War II. RKO Pictures took on the enormous task of bringing the prestigious book to the big screen in 1958 and with an expert craftsman like Raoul Walsh (Objective, Burma! (1945), Battle Cry, 1955) at the helm things looked promising. The real challenge, however, was how to remain true to Mailer's artistic vision and literary masterwork.
The biggest obstacle was adapting the lengthy novel - 721 pages! - into a commercial film with an acceptable running time. The essential storyline from Mailer's book remained intact: Marines stationed in the South Pacific struggle for survival against the enemy as well as their own platoon leader, a sadistic sergeant named Croft (the underrated Aldo Ray plays the menacing Sergeant Croft with gusto). Croft's abusive nature toward his men is at odds with the command of the highly moralistic Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson) who tries to reason with Croft; however, his efforts are undermined by General Cummings (Raymond Massey), who is convinced that soldiers will fight harder if they hate their superiors. Despite the strong premise, the truncation of the novel to fit a two-hour film sadly compromised Mailer's ideological portrayal of war and the abuse of power. Another problem was that the book's rough but realistic language had to be diluted considerably (four-letter words simply werent allowed by Hollywood's Production Code at the time) and this robbed the film of the rawness that made Mailer's work so celebrated. Worst of all, the studio tried to make the screen adaptation more commercially appealing by adding a few ill-conceived slapstick set pieces (including an obligatory barroom brawl) and some unnecessary romantic subplots involving a striptease artist Lily (Lili St. Cyr) and a prostitute named Mildred (Barbara Nichols).
Still, if one is willing to adjust their perspective, The Naked and the Dead has its merits. If you view it as a war drama, and not an adaptation of a major literary work, it works splendidly on a pure action level. The major sequences, such as the open beach landing on a Japanese-held bay, the field of high grass burning during an attack, or the intense hand-to-hand combat scenes, are all spectacularly staged by Walsh. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle perfectly captures the seductive but deadly jungle atmosphere, complete with sweeping vistas of lianas, orchids and elephant ears, all presented in vivid color.
Originally Producer Paul Gregory was going to use first the Philippines, then Hawaii, and finally a Hollywood set for exterior scenes until he discovered a more cost effective location while peering out the window of a DC-6 in a flight en route from Jamaica to California - the Panama Canal. Not only was the lush, mountainous terrain ideal, but stationed at Fort Kobbe on Panama were 250 troops, many of whom were Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and Guam. For the film, many of these soldiers were recruited as extras to play the "enemy".
Producer: Paul Gregory
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Denis Sanders, Terry Sanders, based on the novel by Norman Mailer
Art Direction: Edward S. Haworth
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Editing: Arthur P. Schmidt
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Aldo Ray (Sgt. Croft), Cliff Robertson (Lt. Hearn), Raymond Massey (Gen. Cummings), Barbara Nichols (Mildred), William Campbell (Brown), Richard Jaeckel (Gallagher), James Best (Rhidges), Joey Bishop (Roth), Lili St. Cyr (Lily), Jerry Paris (Goldstein), L.Q. Jones (Wilson).
C-132m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Michael T. Toole