Wednesday, October 14, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Men in War (1957)

                “Men in War” is a gritty Korean War movie directed by Anthony Mann (“Heroes of Telemark”).  This was Mann’s first war movie.  He was famous for his Westerns.  The story was based on a novel entitled Day Without End by Van Van Praag.  He set his story in the Normandy campaign of WWII and from what I have read the movie is significantly different from the book.  It takes place on one day in the Korean War in 1950.  The Pentagon pulled its cooperation when it realized the movie highlighted insubordination and indiscipline.

                A title card opens the movie.  “Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars.”  A platoon from the 24th Infantry Division is surrounded and out of contact with the main force.  The camera introduces the members, but we don’t find out much about each.  This is not going to be “Platoon”.  The men are basically homogeneous.  They have one common trait – they are all suffering from combat fatigue.  The man attempting to hold the unit together and get them back to friendly lines is a Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan).  He keeps collecting dog tags as the men keep getting picked off by sneaky North Koreans and Chinese.  Suddenly a jeep shows up driven by a sergeant called Montana (Aldo Ray!).  Montana is transporting his colonel who is shell-shocked.  Benson commandeers the jeep to the displeasure of Montana who is not interested in hooking up with these pansies.  Montana and Benson should be on a submarine where their command dysfunction would be normal.  Benson is a tough, but empathetic leader who wants to get as many of his men to safety as possible.  Montana is a warrior who does not care much for the rules of warfare or chain of command.  He has a knack for Korean War combat.  For instance, he shoots a surrendering prisoner because he just knows the guy has a pistol hidden in his hat. 
If you don't want to see the movie after
seeing this picture, you are not a war movie lover

                The dwindling platoon is moving through hostile territory.  They have to withstand an artillery barrage and a minefield.  Meanwhile, Benson and Montana are butting heads.  That’s what helmets are for, I guess.  When they reach the hill, Benson ( who is having some of Montana rub off on him – “God help us, it takes your kind to win this war”) sends forward a prisoner who gets shot by North Koreans masquerading as Americans.  Benson decides they will have to take the two machine gun nests dominating the hill.  He excuses Montana because he is only interested in protecting the colonel.  Benson eschews creativity (and Army tactical doctrine) and orders a frontal attack which does some more whittling.  Guess who’s left to make the final assault?  With a flamethrower that had been overlooked before then.
Why does Aldo Ray need a gun?

                “Men in War” starts out intriguing, but has a hard time sustaining the vibe.  It is a different type of war movie from the usual Old School films made in the 1950s.  You might even argue that Montana is an anti-hero before that type of character became de riguer in the 1960s.  Benson is one of Aldo Ray’s best roles.  Ray (who was frogman at Normandy) is perfect as the wiseass, insubordinate loner.  He reminds of Gene Evans in “The Steel Helmet” as the movie is also reminiscent of that earlier film’s gritty style.  Robert Ryan is also strong.  This was not his first rodeo, as they say about actors who made a lot of war movies.  The rest of the cast is noteworthy.  It includes a pre-“Combat” Vic Morrow, Nehemiah Persoff as a panicky veteran who runs away like a girl, James Edwards as the clicheish minority “dead meat” who dies with a helmet full of flowers (don’t ask), and L.Q. Jones.  Unfortunately, the movie is not big on character development.  It’s pretty much a two man show.  Mann gets the most out of his cast and although the movie was low budget, it has the feel of a movie made by a big time director.  This is partly due to the cinematography of Ernest Haller.  The movie is very micro with lots of close-ups and a seldom seen, menacing enemy.  It has the unusual theme of the one and the many.  The one is the colonel and the many are the platoon.   The platoon, not the army.  At one point Benson states “the regiment doesn’t exist.  Battalion doesn’t exist.  The USA doesn’t exist.  We’re the only ones left to fight this war.”  It is definitely not a flag-waver.  This sincerity is marred by two weaknesses.  One, the movie has some extended stretches of boredom.  The running through the artillery barrage scene lasts an incredible fifteen minutes!  Second, there are several silly developments that are laughable in a movie that is supposed to be bereft of humor.  I know the black guy has to die, but killed by a sniper while picking flowers?  Give me a break! 

                “Men in War” is in the upper half of Korean War movies, but I do not think I would label it as a gem.  It’s worth a look just for the teaming of Ryan and Ray.  It also flouts most Old School conventions.

GRADE  =  B-


  1. Not really a fan of this one, though it's been awhile since I've seen it.

  2. Ever seen a Saturday Evening Post article of March 30, 1963 by James Jones titled "Phony War Films?"

    "Men in War" was one if them, but Jones praised it for the Aldo Ray character, who Jones said was what a real-life superior combat soldier is like. Jones wrote he could pick it apart in numerous ways but it was interesting for what it did with its story.

  3. James Jones: "The true test of an antiwar film is whether or not it shows that modern war destroys human character."

    I dug out James Jones' 1963 Saturday Evening Post article. Of "Men In War, he wrote:

    "The second Korean film which employed the Infallible Father theme (Men in War) and in which in its own way is probably the best of the films I saw, tries in a lugubrious fashion to deal with just this problem. It fails, and in the end all is wrapped up in that lachrymose sentimentality which American film makers and American audiences demand, but at least it tries. I could take it apart on any number of minor points (such as the Eternal Colored Guy, now appearing in all war films, who when serving as rear point in enemy territory, sits down with his back to the bush to rest his feet, tucks some pretty flowers in his helmet and is therefore caught off guard and knifed) but I won't, because the film is interesting for what it tries to do with its story."

    "In 'Men in War' Robert Ryan is the conventional Infallible Father figure, leader of a 'Lost Platoon' caught out and cut off by the Chinese push. His outfit runs into and ties up with a tough, combat wise killer of a sergeant in the person of Aldo Ray. Ray has a jeep which Ryan needs, and in the jeep is Ray's shell shocked colonel who can no longer speak and whom Ray is trying to save. Ray treats him with great gentleness and looks after him because, as it turns out, the colonel is the only man who ever called him 'son' and treated him fairly, but other than this Ray has no loyalty to anything. Notice the interesting switch on the Infallible Father theme. Ray is kept with the outfit almost at gunpoint and through a series of combat incidents, his cynical, vicious killer hatred of the Chinese proves consistently to be more right in handling these situations than the original Infallible Father Ryan's more kindly, humane reactions. Ray is indeed the Man who had grown up and become an Animal, a vicious, cruel, shrewdly functioning Animal who saves the outfit time and again. And this, of course, is your really superior combat soldier. However Ryan accosts him and delivers what is, I guess, the writer's moral of the film: 'If we have to win our wars with people like you,' he says, 'God help us!"

    "But of course, we do have to win our wars with people like him, and always have had. And every high-ranking soldier--and I suspect most politicians--knows it. And it is in fact their job to find them, or create them--no matter what their speeches say. At this point the whole thing breaks down in an effort to to wind up with a properly moral American ending. The colonel gets his voice back, tells Ray they must help Ryan, is killed, and Ryan and Ray together save the rest of the platoon. A pretty sorry ending to an interesting beginning."

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    2. That is an excellent follow-up to your previous comment. Thank you so much..

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  4. Yes, the Pentagon didn't cooperate because the Aldo Ray NCO character seemed to be refusing to accept the Robert Ryan officer character's authority.

    However, if you watch closely, Ray does not actually disobey Ryan. He makes wisecracks and talks back, but does obey the order, turning off the jeep's ignition and not driving away, for example.

    Or taking rear point when ordered to.

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