Harry Brown was a poet. His first book was a 156 page poem entitled “The Poem of Bunker Hill”. In January, 1941, he enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers. He did not make it overseas as he was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In 1942, he joined Yank magazine. In 1944, he wrote the book. The book was a hit with readers and critics, but it got engulfed by the spate of epic war novels like Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and is largely forgotten today. The movie germinated when Burgess Meredith (the narrator in the film) encouraged producer Samuel Bronston to turn it into a movie. Bronston ran into financial difficulties and the project fell to Lewis Milestone. Milestone convinced Brown to move to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. He did not write the screenplay for the movie. Robert Rossen, who later wrote “All the King’s Men”, was the screenwriter. As we will see, Rossen did not have to work hard on “A Walk in the Sun”. Brown had a productive career as a screenwriter. He wrote “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Eight Iron Men” (based on his play).
The novel is the opposite of a “big” war novel. It covers only half a day in the war. A platoon lands at Salerno in Italy and has the mission to assault a farm house that is several miles inland. It follows the heterogenous group as it moves down a road to its objective. The men discuss various topics and evidence the black humor, griping, and wistfulness typical of G.I.’s. They lose their commanding officer early and his replacement cracks due to combat fatigue (what we today call “post-traumatic stress disorder”). They carry on because they have a job to do. They are not patriots. There is a limited amount of action leading up to the attack on the farm house and a bridge.
Lewis Milestone brought in Colonel Thomas Drake as technical adviser for the film. Drake had been taken captive at Kasserine Pass and was exchanged due to ill health. He did not have a lot of advising to do as the story is a simple one. The Army did request that the nonuse of bazookas against the farm house be explained by having the bazooka team use up their ammunition (off screen). Milestone ignored the request that a scene be added where the mission is outlined for the platoon. He felt the objective was simply a means to the march.
I would have liked to have Robert Rossen’s job. The screenplay is almost exactly like the book. He borrowed the dialogue almost verbatim. I could find little that the men say that they didn’t say in the novel. To his credit, Rossen was smart enough to realize the dialogue could not be improved on. Brown, although he apparently did not have first-hand experience with combat infantry, had a way with soldier banter. The book is heavily dialogue-oriented and it works because the interchanges between the soldiers are cracking. Much of it is humorous. But the movie is not just a stroll in the Italian countryside with soldiers yammering away. It explores several themes.
One of the themes is comradeship. The platoon is from the Texas Division, but the men are a cross-section of the nation (including Brooklyn, of course). They were clearly thrown together by the war and would not have been comrades otherwise. The dialogue indicates how these veterans of North Africa have evolved their social dynamic, which has a twinge of dysfunction in it. The love is there, but it can’t be stated. This means the dialogue could have come from any American war, up until Vietnam. Watch and listen to “Hamburger Hill” and you will see the difference between G.I.’s and grunts. And the difference between all previous American wars and Vietnam. It also explores leadership, in a realistic way. The green lieutenant dies in a greenish way. He is replaced by Sergeant Porter, who is clearly in over his head. A veteran who has been with the platoon for a while, he should be a good leader, but his wits have been dulled by too much war. Tyne (Dana Andrews in the movie) reluctantly steps up to take command when Porter inevitably cracks. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Tyne makes mistakes reflective of the Army’s tactical doctrine. The men follow him because they respect him and someone has to lead. An unusual theme for a movie made in the 1940s is combat fatigue. Porter suffers from a classic case of it. He has been through so much that he reaches his breaking point. Brown laconically introduces him by saying that “he has a lot on his mind”. Brown conforms to the theory that every WWII infantryman had a certain breaking point directly related to time in combat. He has the other soldiers showing apathy more than sympathy, but they are not critical of Porter either. They understand, but they don’t condone. None take the Patton approach. There is relief that it doesn’t happen in the middle of a fight.
There are slight differences between the book and the movie. While the book expands on the characters’ thoughts, Rossen was able to translate some of those thoughts into dialogue. You still will learn more about the characters from reading the book, but not as much as you would think. One improvement Rossen makes is with Brown’s strange decision to make Tyne a corporal. This means Tyne is advanced over the competent Sgt. Ward (Lloyd Bridges). In the book, Ward has no problem with this, but it’s an oddly unrealistic aspect of the novel. Windy Craven (John Ireland) is bumped up to a major character in the movie. He serves as a secondary narrator as he composes letters in his head. Craven does not appear in the book until page 142. It was a good decision by Rossen, but an odd one considering this was Ireland’s first film and clearly he did not have the clout to enhance his role. The ending in the book takes a minimalist approach. There are no details about the taking of the house or the blowing of the bridge (which in the book is more realistically a pontoon bridge). Tyne, not Windy, gets the last words: “It was so easy. It is so terribly easy.”
Normally, I find that war movies improve upon the novels they are based upon. The screenwriter has the luxury of having the blueprint for the house and then he can make improvements. In this case, the movie is essentially the novel. That is a good thing because the novel is one of the great war novels and was easily adapted to a movie. For people who are more visual than print-oriented, the movie is an outstanding substitute for reading the book. The ensemble cast brings the characters to life perfectly. The action is well-done. I actually used the farm house scenario in my Military History class. Spoiler alert: Tyne could have handled it better. One area where the book is superior is it does not have any ballads in it. The movie has five sappy songs! (Down from twelve due to preview audiences vomiting.) There is another difference from “Hamburger Hill”, by the way.
BOOK = A
MOVIE = A
Here are some of my favorite passages from the book:
There is something about a dead man’s face that cannot be explained. Something has gone from its features. It’s as though life lent an aura, a glow, that unseen, could yet be perceived through some unknown sense.
It was odd how many people you meet in the Army who crossed your path for perhaps only a few seconds and then went on , never to be seen again.
When a man is uncomfortable, through either heat or cold, he finds it hard to think consecutively. He is too conscious of his ever-present discomfort. The body, as always, thwarts the mind.
Every man … had his own thoughts as he walked along, and they hovered unseen over the little group, an indefinable armor, a protection against fate, an indestructible essence.
The men were not even interested in Tinker’s hand, poised above the wall. They had seen such things before. It was very much like going to a bad movie for the second time. It was wonderful what could bore them after a year in battle.