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The U.S. Army was segregated until 1947, with perhaps the most significant exception being the Army Transportation Corps, which allowed black soldiers to work alongside whites during WWII. (Very few blacks ever fought on the front lines.) Red Ball Express (1952) depicts the most famous Army Transportation Corps mission of the war: an emergency around-the-clock plan to supply Gen. George Patton's tanks with gas and ammo as they raced toward Paris with lightning speed. The tanks moved so quickly, in fact, that they outran their supply lines more than once.
In real life, the so-called "Red Ball Express" was organized by Maj. Gen. Frank Ross. In the movie, for which Ross served as technical advisor, the Red Ball Express' commander is Lt. Chick Campbell, played by Jeff Chandler, and he must whip into shape his mix of jaded veterans and raw recruits as they carry out the operation. As if the job itself isn't difficult enough, Chandler must also deal with a spiteful sergeant (Alex Nicol) and a black corporal who feels he is being discriminated against (Sidney Poitier). This was only Poitier's third film appearance, after No Way Out (1950) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), and he was singled out by critics for his forceful portrayal. ("A standout," Variety declared.)
Red Ball Express may be a routine 'B' programmer, but it adroitly combines action, drama and humor, which is a hallmark of Budd Boetticher, the director. Boetticher had recently made his first personal film, Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), on which he had finally been able to put his own stamp, and now he was churning out a quick run of impersonal though accomplished genre films at Universal. Red Ball Express was one of the few non-westerns of this period, though like all the others it was a male-oriented adventure. Still a few years away were Boetticher's most famous movies (Seven Men from Now  and The Tall T  among them), and they, too, managed a masterful mix of action and humor.
Red Ball Express was one of Alex Nicol's first movies. He'd go on to play more supporting roles as tough guys in television and feature films (most prominently The Man from Laramie, 1955, with James Stewart), and he later directed some television episodes as well for such series as Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West and The D.A..
For Sidney Poitier, Red Ball Express marked a significant turning point in his career even though it was a supporting role. In his biography This Life, he recalled, "When the details of the contract that guaranteed me four weeks of employment were finalized, off I went to Hollywood for the second time. As unbelievable as it seemed to me, there was no escaping the fact that I was even more excited the second time around. I was in Hollywood, and more to the point, I was working in front of a camera. After the assistant director had called for quiet on my first morning of work, I became suddenly aware of something very special happening inside of me. It seemed as if an unknown valve had opened up somewhere down in my gut, sending juices rushing to my brain and from there filling my whole body with an exhilaration that somehow appeared to be completely in sync with the gentle humming sounds coming from the activated cameras. Before that morning was over, I realized how much I have missed acting in the movies; I was hooked deeper than I had allowed myself to admit. By the end of those four weeks there was no denying that I had gotten as used to moviemaking as a duck to water."
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Billy Grady, Jr., John Michael Hayes, Marcy Klauber
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Richard H. Riedel
Music: Milton Rosen, Frank Skinner
Cast: Jeff Chandler (Lt. Chick Campbell), Alex Nicol (Sgt. Kallek), Charles Drake (Pvt. Ronald Partridge), Judith Braun (Joyce McClellan), Sidney Poitier (Cpl. Andrew Robertson), Jacqueline Duval (Antoinette Dubois).
by Jeremy Arnold