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Men in War

Men in War(1957)

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teaser Men in War (1957)

"Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars." This quote opens the only war film by Anthony Mann, one of the great American directors of westerns and helmer of the most muscular epics of the 1960s. In contrast to his expansive costume epics, with their lavish historical recreations and grand presentations of armies of men battling on massive battlefields, or the more personal conflicts of the westerns played out against the majestic landscapes of the American West, Men in War (1957) is combat in close-up. While the story of a band of American soldiers trying to survive a mission behind enemy lines belongs to the familiar platoon genre of war movies, it is a maverick film in all other respects. Like Sam Fuller's equally provocative 1951 Korean War drama The Steel Helmet, it eschews patriotism and sentimentality for a portrait of war from the grunt's-eye view: the harrowing, grueling experience of survival in the hostile landscape of an enemy battlefield.

The camera rises from behind a wrecked jeep to survey the smoking aftermath of a battlefield, identified only as: "Korea, September 6, 1950." A radioman whispers into a handset, trying to reach an American authority that isn't there. The platoon is exhausted, men reaching the breaking point or already broken, and the unseen enemy surrounds them, sneaking through their makeshift perimeter to kill them in their sleep or picking them off one by one as they trudge through the countryside. It's only the strength and certainty of their commanding officer, Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan), that holds them together in this no man's land. With no contact with command, they are left only with their last orders: get to Hill 465, an abstract location some fifteen miles away which may or may not be held by American troops. It's a mission embarked upon on faith but Benson doesn't allow doubt to creep into his command. They haven't any other options so they haul all the ammunition they can carry and hike out through enemy territory.

When an American jeep speeds through their procession, driven like a madman by a gruff sergeant who identifies himself only as Montana (Aldo Ray) and ferrying a shell-shocked Colonel (Robert Keith) strapped helplessly into the passenger seat, Benson commandeers the vehicle and drafts the insolent, insubordinate Montana into helping them. Montana is attuned to his environment in a way no one in Benson's company even approaches, his battlefield-honed training and instincts picking out enemies sneaking in the field and snipers hidden in the trees. "You don't have to see them to kill them," he remarks to Benson with a cold smile. They are contrasts in soldiering. Ryan delivers one of his most understated portraits of strength and experience as the commanding officer dedicated to protecting his men while fulfilling his duty, bringing warm but firm leadership and maintaining a front of confidence and calm authority in a desperate situation to keep his men from unraveling in panic. Ray, a real-life World War II veteran who saw action on Iwo Jima, is completely convincing as the brutally effective soldier whose deep devotion to his Colonel has overwhelmed his sense of military duty but whose superior skills and soldiering instincts are essential to keeping Benson's platoon alive. Robert Keith gives a powerful and affecting performance as a career officer locked in a state of near paralysis, communicating his vulnerability, his fear and his slow awakening almost entirely through his eyes and the slightest gestures of body language. Mann never resorts to putting the wordless communication between this spiritual father and son into dialogue. Keith's eyes and Ray's actions speak for themselves.

Anthony Mann sets it all in an almost abstract landscape of dry woods and scrub hills (this Korea has an unmistakable resemblance to Southern California, thanks to location shooting around Bronson Canyon, Malibu Canyon and the Hill Ranch at Thousand Oaks). He offers no sense of their place in the larger picture-no establishing shots, no scenes of high command discussing the campaign, no maps. The enemy is seen mostly as disembodied weapons poking out from the brush or camouflaged shapes crawling through the foliage. This is war in microcosm, seen from the inside out. Mann favors close-ups to wide shots, focusing largely on the men between skirmishes, waiting in the silence and tension for the next attack out of nowhere. The anxiety takes its toll, especially on the jangled nerves of one veteran soldier (Nehemiah Persoff) who begins to unravel in the opening scene and ultimately falls into sheer panic.

Philip Yordan is credited with the screenplay of Men in War, though this prolific screenwriter was also a very busy "front" for blacklisted screenwriters throughout the fifties and early sixties and many contemporary film historians attribute the adaptation of Van Van Praag's novel "Day Without End (Combat)" to Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950). Whoever is responsible, it is an intelligent script that avoids the familiar tropes of the platoon drama. There is no cross-section of American culture on display here, no roll call of familiar G.I. types, no patriotic speeches or political justifications for the war. The dialogue is stripped down yet evocative and the characters simply but effectively sketched without resorting to sentimental stories of life back home or dreams of the future after the war is over. As Ryan explains to his men: "Regiment doesn't exist. Battalion doesn't exist. The U.S.A. doesn't exist. We're the only ones left to fight this war." He might as well have said that past and future don't exist. They are focused on surviving now.

Men in War was a low budget film by Mann's usual standards, produced by the ambitious independent Security Pictures for about $1 million, but he carved out his vision with a solid cast and high production values. Oscar®-winning cinematographer Ernest Haller keeps the film intimate, despite the fact it's entirely shot outdoors, and the music by rising star composer Elmer Bernstein maintains the intimate feel with an understated score. The U.S. Army initially cooperated with the film but, according to The Hollywood Reporter, objected to the finished film and refused to participate in the premiere because of scenes that offended "the dignity of commissioned and non-commissioned officers." It's hard to understand such objections today. Not only one of Mann's best films, it remains one of the greatest, and most stark, war movies ever made.

Producer: Sidney Harmon; Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Philip Yordan (writer); Van Van Praag (novel "Day Without End {Combat}")
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art Direction: Frank Paul Sylos (uncredited)
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: Richard C. Meyer
Cast: Robert Ryan (Lt. Benson), Aldo Ray (Montana Willomet), Robert Keith (The Colonel), Phillip Pine (Sgt. Riordan), Nehemiah Persoff (Sgt. Lewis), Vic Morrow (Cpl. Zwickley), James Edwards (Sgt. Killian), L.Q. Jones (Sgt. Davis), Scott Marlowe (Pvt. Meredith).
BW-102m.

by Sean Axmaker

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