“The Naked and the Dead” is the film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s bestseller. Mailer served in the Philippines in WWII and his experiences inspired a 721 page novel. Many thought a novel of that size could not be brought to the screen at a reasonable running time. But you know Hollywood was willing to try. Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the novel for the astronomical sum of $250,000. Raoul Walsh (“They Did With Their Boots On”) was assigned to direct. Screenwriters Denis and Terry Sanders adapted the book and took out all the four-letter words and added “tits” (as studio head Jack Warner demanded) in the form of a strip tease. The Jewish character Roth was downplayed. Some of the deaths were altered. Mailer’s themes of abuse of power and the ideological conflicts in warfare were downplayed.
The movie jumps the shark immediately with the bar scene. It starts promisingly with the appearances of Richard Jaekel (Gallagher) and L.Q. Jones (Woody) and the top-billed Aldo Ray (Sgt. Croft). In case you are wondering if Ray will be stretching, Croft spits beer in the face of a woman. (Later, he bites the cap off a beer bottle and kills a baby bird.) Beware that before the strip teaser can truly tease, the MPs break it up. Boo! Why was this added? To frustrate the males in the audience?
Headlines on newspapers are used for background on the war situation. Incredibly, two of them are: “New Guinea Falls” and “Coral Sea Battle Disastrous”! Christ, the movie was made in 1958. Had people forgotten the basics by then? Croft and his charges are below deck off an unidentified Pacific Island. We get cursory soldier banter and behavior. No cursing, of course. The beach landing is the opposite of “Saving Private Ryan”. They move inland. Croft scouts ahead and spots a mortar. He returns and leads the men forward without bothering to tell them! Croft murders a prisoner even after looking at a picture of his family and is about to kill a bunch more when the bleeding-heart Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson) arrives. Damned liberal! He doesn’t stop Croft from taking gold teeth, however. In his defense, he does not have an ear necklace. After five minutes of combat, the unit is pulled back to a camp (they already have a camp?). We are introduced to the third leg of our character tripod. Gen. Cummings (Raymond Massey) is a tough-love type who sides with the Croft types over the Hearns. Hatred makes men fight harder. If so, Croft is great leader and Hearn is naïve.
The movie settles into a pattern of combat scenes (which are not as often as you would think because they are an intelligence and recon platoon that is not used much), camp life (e.g. building a still), discussions between Hearn and Cummings, and flashbacks to explain Croft and Hearn. This leads to the big mission to go behind enemy lines and set up an observation post. And to get some of them killed. And to play out the command dysfunction between Croft and Hearn. The mission is rife with head-scratching moments. Don’t expect any semblance of realistic tactics. I would think an intelligence and recon unit would be more competent. Veterans must have chuckled.
This is a weird movie. The message is murky. For instance, Cummings is supposed to represent the tendency toward fascism in higher command, but he comes off as insane. He explains that we fight wars because countries have “latent powers” and they may be our allies in the future. Power flows downward. Huh? Neither of the command conflicts (Hearn/Croft and Hearn/Cummings) works well. The characterizations are too stereotypical. Croft is actually more realistic about the war than Hearn and Cummings, but his character is just too bonkers for this to stand out. The movie certainly gives us and his men ample reason to hate him. The acting is average, by an average cast. The script does them no favors. The banter sounds like it was written by a nonveteran. I do not know how much was pulled from the book, but I assume not much. It hurt that the bad language was omitted and thankfully the four-letter words were not substituted for (no “loving” like in “A Walk in the Sun”). The actors do not behave like soldiers. No boot camp for them. Apparently, no technical adviser, either. Hearn carries a carbine, a private carries a Thompson. The combat is underwhelming.
“The Naked and the Dead” is a disservice to the novel, but more importantly, it is a disservice to the men who fought in the Pacific. Even worse, it is inferior to the similar “The Thin Red Line”. It’s good for some unintended laughs. At least its not predictable. Except that it will leave you shaking your head a lot.
GRADE = D