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A Walk in the Sun (Dec. 25, 1945)

A Walk in the Sun had its premiere on Monday, December 3, 1945, and went into wide release on Christmas day. Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone, the director of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Walk in the Sun tells the story of the ordinary men who serve in the infantry. Long stretches of the film are filled with the men’s meandering thoughts (both in voiceover and spoken aloud) and their circuitous conversations. When violence occurs, it comes suddenly, and its larger significance is unknown. The film’s exploration of the infantryman’s P.O.V. is similar to William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, released earlier the same year. (Burgess Meredith, who played Ernie Pyle in that film, narrates A Walk in the Sun, although he is not listed in the film’s credits. When I first watched this film I was sure it was Henry Fonda’s voice I was hearing. I was surprised when I looked it up and found out it was Meredith.) Unlike The Story of G.I. Joe, however, A Walk in the Sun covers a much briefer period of time (from a pre-dawn landing to noon the same day), and its ending is more heroic, with little sense of loss or tragedy.

Based on the novel by Harry Brown, A Walk in the Sun takes place in 1943, and tells the story of the lead platoon of the Texas division, and their landing on the beach in Salerno, Italy. Square-jawed Dana Andrews plays Staff Sgt. Bill Tyne, a simple man who never had much desire to travel outside of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Richard Conte plays the Italian-American Pvt. Rivera, a tough soldier who loves opera and wants a wife and lots of children some day. George Tyne plays Pvt. Jake Friedman, a born-and-bred New Yorker. John Ireland plays PFC Windy Craven, a minister’s son from Canton, Ohio, who writes letters to his sister in his head, speaking the words aloud. Lloyd Bridges plays Staff Sgt. Ward, a baby-faced, pipe-smoking farmer. Sterling Holloway plays McWilliams, the platoon’s medic, who is Southern, speaks very slowly, and just might be a little touched. Norman Lloyd plays Pvt. Archimbeau, “platoon scout and prophet,” as Meredith describes him in the opening narration; Archimbeau talks incessantly of the war in Tibet he theorizes will occur in the ’50s. Herbert Rudley plays Staff Sgt. Eddie Porter, an opinionated guy who’s always looking for an argument (Normal Rockwell’s wasting his time painting photo-realistic covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Porter says. He should use a camera. Some day magazine covers will have moving pictures on them anyway.) Richard Benedict plays Pvt. Tranella, who “speaks two languages, Italian and Brooklyn,” and whose fluency in the former will prove useful when the platoon runs across two Italian deserters.

All of these “types” seem clichéd now, but they’re probably not unrealistic characters for the time. The only really dated thing about A Walk in the Sun is the song that appears throughout the film, and helps to narrate the action. “It Was Just a Little Walk in the Sun,” with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Millard Lampell, is sung by Kenneth Spencer in the deep, mournful style of a spiritual. I didn’t dislike the song, but its frequent appearance as a kind of Greek chorus felt intrusive.

One thing that really impressed me about A Walk in the Sun was the cinematography by Russell Harlan. While A Walk in the Sun is clearly filmed in California, Harlan makes the most of starkly contrasted black and white shots that could have been shot anywhere. One of the film’s motifs is black figures against a white sky. There are a couple of scenes that reminded me of the famous final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) in which death leads a procession of people down a hill. Several times in A Walk in the Sun, the platoon is depicted as groups of indistinguishable black figures walking down a black hillside, silhouetted against a completely white sky. And in keeping with the infantryman’s P.O.V., when the platoon lies down to rest there are a couple of shots from the ground, looking up at the sky, while arms reach up across the frame and exchange cigarettes.

A Walk in the Sun is one of the better World War II films I’ve seen, and it’s generally well-regarded, but not everyone liked it. Samuel Fuller, who saw combat in World War II as a rifleman in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and would go on to direct many cult favorites, wrote a letter to Milestone complaining about the film. “Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out,” he wrote. “When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.”

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8 responses »

  1. Pingback: 40’s movies marathon – part 73 « Bjørn Stærk's Max 256 Blog

  2. Pingback: The 10 Best Films of 1945 « OCD Viewer

  3. Before you wipe all those wonderful 1945 movies off the slate, I want to be on record as having watched A Walk in the Sun. Normally I wouldn’t go out of my way for a war movie, especially when something like Spellbound is calling me, but I had seen The Hurt Locker two weeks before and wondered if depictions of war had changed much over the past 64 years. Being hard pressed to remember even one other war movie I’ve seen, I’m clearly no expert, but here are a couple of random thoughts anyway. I certainly agree with your comment about the cinematography in A Walk in the Sun, those artsy shots are really great. And I did think both movies were excellent in their own ways, taking account their respective eras. Both are constantly right down there on the ground with the guys doing the dirty work. But it actually seems more difficult in a way to relate to the horrors of war when we’re only seeing it from the perspective of the war arena. The camaraderie among soldiers has a certain appeal, and these days, without the draft, we know most soldiers are there by choice. At the end of The Hurt Locker, while it’s over for the three main characters, the war continues and no matter how heroic their individual efforts might have been, they leave for home knowing they were just drops in the bucket of that endless conflict. In no way can it be called heroic, as you described in A Walk in the Sun, where there was a sense of completion, satisfaction that it was all worth it, and never mind those bodies lying in the field since we didn’t get to know them anyway. That romantic view contrasts with The Hurt Locker’s “war is a drug” theme, although in retrospect, I can’t say I find that all that enlightening either. Let’s check in on this again in another 64 years. I look forward to reading your review of the top war movie of 2073.

    Reply
    • Just for the record (and I realize you may not have meant it this way), I’m not wiping any 1945 movies off the slate. The reviews will still be here, and–me being me–I will continue to fuss with them in little ways whenever I notice a typo or a point that needs clarification. And I’ll still respond to comments.

      Anyway, I’m glad you brought up “The Hurt Locker.” I saw it late last year, and thought it was really good. I also thought that it was a type of war movie that hadn’t been made in a long time–maybe not even since the ’40s–a movie about a current conflict that explored (and celebrated) individual servicemen without an overt political message. Although every war movie is implicitly political, I suppose. The fact that Abu Ghraib or anything like it is not a part of “The Hurt Locker” is a statement in and of itself, but for the most part the film sidesteps politics. (“Black Hawk Down” tried to do the same thing, but with much less success. It attempted to show how politics goes out the window for the guys on the ground when the shooting starts, but it did it in such a heavy-handed way that it became didactic. The book by Mark Bowden is much better and highly recommended if you want a sense of modern warfare. But I digress.) Anyway, I think that both “The Hurt Locker” and “A Walk in the Sun” are in some ways the cinematic equivalent of those bumper stickers that say “Support the Troops.” It’s a sentiment that most Americans get behind, whether or not they support the war, but what is its larger significance?

      I’m intrigued by your statement that “it actually seems more difficult in a way to relate to the horrors of war when we’re only seeing it from the perspective of the war arena.” What do you mean by that? Do you mean that without a certain distance, the viewer is caught up in the thrill of combat? Or that by focusing on a few sympathetic characters who never commit atrocities that we’re lulled into thinking such things don’t happen in war? Or something else?

      Samuel Fuller, the director I quoted at the end of this review, once said, “To make a real war movie would be to fire at the audience from behind a screen.” I think that’s an important thing to remember, especially when viewing something purportedly very realistic, like the D-Day opening of “Saving Private Ryan.” No matter how awful it looks, and how many bodies you see blown apart, it’s still just a movie, and it won’t give you the real experience of combat.

      Which brings us back to the way war is depicted in “A Walk in the Sun.” Maybe what you said above was that being embedded with the troops gives the viewer a lack of perspective? I’m reminded of a great line from “The Story of G.I. Joe.” One of the characters says, “When this war’s over, I’m gonna buy me a map and find out where I’ve been.”

      Reply
  4. I apologize for this late follow-up! I wasn’t trying to avoid answering your questions, it’s only that I just now discovered you had left a response to my February 17 comments. Here is what I originally had written (then deleted) to help explain what I meant by its being harder to relate to the horrors of war when we’re only seeing it from the perspective of the war arena.

    Many years ago, I saw The Fighting Sullivans and remember only two scenes from it. In the first one, the mother is proudly hanging a square with 5 stars in a circle (signifying that five members of the family are serving in the armed services) in the front window of their home. It’s a quick scene with no dialogue, probably some light music, everyone’s happy. In a later scene, the front door is opened and an army official is standing there while the parents, sister and fiance/wife of one of the brothers gather around, clearly aware that bad news is coming. Someone asks, “Which one?” and the fiance quickly adds, “Is it Joe?” Then the awful truth comes out simply, “All five.” Most viewers probably knew the ending already, but not me and I’m not even sure I knew it was a true story. So, like the Sullivans, I wasn’t expecting it and the shock of something so horrible has stayed with me to this day. Replacing that scene with the combat scene where they died (which may or may not have been part of the movie) couldn’t have compared with the impact of the unbelievable news to the family.

    That seems closest to your asking if I meant that a certain distance was needed so the viewer does not get “caught up in the thrill of the combat.” While that can be the case, and it is partly what I meant by the appeal of the camaraderie among soldiers, I was actually referring more to extending the range of horrors to the way in which most of us relate best. For some soldiers, trying to get back into their former lives if they survive — or if they die, the effect their death has on their loved ones — can be the ultimate horror. In The Hurt Locker, the scene where Jeremy Renner’s character is communing with his baby before he voluntarily returns to Iraq, is about the only time the movie shows any soldier’s ties back home. And that leads into another point I didn’t really explain, that the “war is a drug” theme didn’t seem as enlightening to me as I had hoped when it was first quoted at the beginning of the movie. While there is a kind of universal truth to that, addiction only seemed clear in Jeremy Renner’s character. But that was because of his personality, not something that was caused by the war. He’s a person who thrives on risk and he’s going to go wherever the action is, no matter what, war or no war.

    Like you said, no matter how realistically awful a war picture might be, it’s still just a movie and can never fully get across what it’s like to be there yourself. But still, I would love to see one movie that sets everyone straight on the futility of war and begins a new era of unending world peace. Just one is all that’s needed. Is that asking too much?

    Reply
  5. How do I get a copy of the song’s lyrics. please e-mail me

    Reply
    • I don’t know about getting printed lyrics or sheet music, but if all you want are the lyrics, here they are:

      IT WAS JUST A LITTLE WALK IN THE SUN

      Title ballad from the film “A Walk In The Sun” (1945)
      Music: Earl Robinson / Lyrics: Millard Lampell
      Sung by: Kenneth Spencer (1945)

      It was just a little walk
      In the warm Italian sun
      But it wasn’t an easy thing

      And poets are writing
      The tale of that fight
      And songs for children to sing

      Let them sing of the men of a fighting platoon
      Let them sing of the job they’ve done
      How they came across the sea to sunny Italy
      And took a little walk in the sun

      It’s that walk that leads down
      Through a Phillipine town
      And it hits Highway Seven, north of Rome

      It’s the same road they had
      Coming out of Stalingrad
      It’s that old Lincoln Highway back home
      It’s wherever men fight to be free

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Red River (Aug. 26, 1948) | OCD Viewer

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