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The Young Lions (1958) started life in book form as a bestseller by Irwin Shaw in 1948, telling the stories of three men, one German and two Americans, who go through World War II searching for meaning in both their lives and the war. Just three years after the end of the war, with the horrors of the Holocaust still preeminent in most people's minds, and the evil of Nazism still so fresh, the book had the courage to focus on a German character who joins up with the Nazi party for the sincerely good intentions of improving his country. Slowly, he comes to realize that no good can come of Nazism and his own struggles with conscience threaten to defeat him both mentally and physically before the war is even over.
Getting The Young Lions to the screen took almost ten years and the talents involved each had their own reasons for wanting it to be a success but, in the end, only one enjoyed such luck, Dean Martin. For the others, it proved a disappointment and for one, Montgomery Clift, it became impossible to overcome.
Its director, Edward Dmytryk, wanted the film to be a success after the relative failure of his previous effort, Raintree County (1957), which had brought in decent box office but suffered from tepid to bad reviews. Dmytryk's career was broken up into two halves, one before the Red Scare and Congressional hearings on communism, and one after. He had been a member of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors sent to jail for contempt of congress for failing to comply with the requests of the hearings. After a few months in jail, Dmytryk went to England and continued directing but longed to return to studio backing in America. In the early fifties, he got his chance. He returned to the states and got his old job back by going before congress and naming over twenty names of suspected Hollywood communists. It didn't make him very popular in the movie community but he got his old directing job back.
What's interesting with the casting of The Young Lions is that it seems everyone was in one form of transition or another. Marlon Brando had won Oscar gold four years earlier for On the Waterfront (1954) but had seen his box office success drop as well as his nominations for Best Actor (from 1951 to 1954, Brando was nominated four out of four years but from 1955 to 1958, he had but one, for Sayonara, 1957). The Young Lions might revive an already lagging career, he hoped, but, alas, it did not. Brando would then move into the second part of his career, drifting through the sixties until cementing his reputation as an actor once again in 1972 with The Godfather.
Montgomery Clift was also in transition and it was, indeed, the most painful of all. In the middle of filming Raintree County with Dmytryk at the helm, he suffered terrible injuries to his face in a car accident. After extensive reconstructive surgery, he went back to filming but at the premiere, audience members could tell which scenes were filmed before the crash and which were filmed after and Clift knew it. He even remarked to Dmytryk that his facial reconstruction would be the whole reason people would come see the movie. With The Young Lions, Clift was hoping for a major comeback. In fact, he talked among friends of possibly winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Noah Ackerman, one of the two American soldiers in the story, a Jew fighting anti-Semitism in his army unit. He was proud of his performance and the movie as well but when it opened, people were shocked to see Clift. Emaciated and gaunt, he looked like a shadow of his former self. Addiction to alcohol and pain killers were mainly responsible for his appearance.
Dean Martin played the second American, Michael Whiteacre, a pampered Broadway star who tries to avoid the draft, finally accepting defeat and fighting with the Army. Martin was entering a second phase of his career as well. After splitting from Jerry Lewis and their skit show, Martin was thrilled to get a chance with a straight dramatic part to show what he could do (and he only got it because the studio changed its mind and decided their first choice, Tony Randall, wasn't right for the part after all). It worked and Dean Martin went on to many more successful films, including an important role in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959) which, it turns out, was turned down by Montgomery Clift.
The film adaptation of The Young Lions turned out very well and both critics and audience generally liked it. Still, it didn't bring back Dmytryk, Brando or Clift from the increasingly uneventful second half of their respective careers. Dmytryk had a few more hits, including the excellent Mirage with Gregory Peck in 1965, but never fully produced movies as good as his pre-Hollywood Ten years. Brando and Clift were no longer big box office draws, though Brando would get a third act and a second Oscar thanks to The Godfather fourteen years later. Only Martin seemed to walk away with a net gain from the experience. Clift was depressed and reminded friends of his bitter disappointment with the outcome. Eight years later, he died of a heart attack but left behind a vast resource of excellent films from which to view his talents, including The Young Lions. It may not have worked out the way Clift wanted it to but, in the end, the legacy remains and The Young Lions holds up. It contains excellent performances and a well-crafted, intelligent and moving story. What more can one ask of a movie?
By Greg Ferrara
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Producer: Al LichtmanDirector: Edward DmytrykWriter: Edward AnhaltOriginal Music: Hugo FriedhoferCinematography: Joseph MacDonald Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer Art Direction: Addison Hehr, Lyle R. WheelerCostume Design: Adele Balkan Cast: Marlon Brando (Lt. Christian Diestl), Montgomery Clift (Noah Ackerman), Dean Martin (Michael Whiteacre), Hope Lange (Hope Plowman), Barbara Rush (Margaret Freemantle), May Britt (Gretchen Hardenberg), Maximilian Schell (Capt. Hardenberg), Dora Doll (Simone), Lee Van Cleef (1st Sgt. Rickett)
SOURCES:WikipediaIMDBThe Independent. July 03, 1999. p. 1, Arts and EntertainmentThe New York Times. July 24, 1966. p. 61, Sunday Page.