RSS Feed

Tag Archives: War Movies

Twelve O’Clock High (Dec. 21, 1949)

Twelve OClock High
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Directed by Henry King
20th Century-Fox

In my review of Battleground (1949) last month, I referred to it as “a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience.”

When I said that, I completely overlooked three studio pictures about air combat in World War II that were released before Battleground — Raoul Walsh’s Fighter Squadron (1948), Sam Wood’s Command Decision (1948), and Delmer Daves’s Task Force (1949).

It just goes to show that you shouldn’t make bold pronouncements about films by using words like “first” and “only” unless you’ve seen every movie ever made, and seeing every movie ever made is impossible.

So I’ll take the hit on that inaccuracy.

Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High was the third in a string of high-profile studio pictures about World War II released toward the end of 1949, all of which received several Oscar nominations. (Battleground and Sands of Iwo Jima were the first two.)

B-17s in flight

Like Sands of Iwo Jima, Twelve O’Clock High features actual combat footage shot during the war, but unlike Sands of Iwo Jima, the footage is used sparingly, only appearing toward the end of the film. For the most part, Twelve O’Clock High is a character-driven drama about men pushed to the limit as they fly one deadly mission after another.

Twelve O’Clock High was directed by Henry King. The screenplay was adapted by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett from their novel of the same name, which was based on their own experiences in World War II. Most of the characters in the book and film are based on real people or are composites of several people.

The film begins in 1949, when Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), who spent most of the war as a Major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, has his memory stimulated by a Toby Jug he finds in a London shop. It’s identical to the one that used to sit in the officer’s club of his old airfield at Archbury. He bicycles out to the site of the airfield, which is now just a field of gently waving grass, and he falls into a reverie.

Dean Jagger

Twelve O’Clock High details the extreme stress suffered by the members of the 918th Bomb Group, who flew daring daylight precision bombing runs and suffered heavy losses to anti-aircraft fire and to the Luftwaffe. When their commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), begins to crack under the strain, he is replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck).

Savage is so hard and unforgiving that for most of the film he doesn’t seem quite human. The men loved Colonel Davenport, but the closeness probably affected his leadership. On the other hand, they hate Brigadier General Savage so much that every man in the 918th applies for a transfer. Savage grants their requests, but ties them up with red tape long enough to whip the men into shape, and eventually their feelings change when their bombing runs become more successful and they suffer fewer casualties.

Early in Twelve O’Clock High there is a spectacular sequence in which a B-17 crash-lands. It was pulled off by stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who took off and crash-landed without any assistance. Most of the film, however, is a portrait of combat stress. Even the most stoic characters in the film eventually crack under the pressure. When the actual combat footage is used toward the end of the film, the audience already has a sense of what the pilots and crewmen are experiencing, and how dangerous their missions are.

Gregory Peck

Twelve O’Clock High is a really good World War II movie, and by all reports an extremely accurate one. I didn’t emotionally connect with it the same way I connected with Battleground, but that’s just a personal preference. If you have any interest in the air war in Europe, particularly how B-17 bombers were used, then Twelve O’Clock High is a must-see film.

It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gregory Peck. It won two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor for Dean Jagger and Best Sound Recording.

Sands of Iwo Jima (Dec. 14, 1949)

Sands of Iwo Jima
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
Directed by Allan Dwan
Republic Pictures

In my recent review of Battleground (1949), I discussed whether or not it should be seen as an “anti-war film.” I absolutely don’t think that it should be, but I do think that it’s a sensitive portrait of the stress and fear that the “battered bastards of Bastogne” experienced during the Battle of the Bulge.

In my review of Battleground I also argued that it was not the first film about World War II to depict soldiers as three-dimensional people who experience fear and doubt, even though plenty of reviews claim that it was. But the depth of the characterizations made Battleground a significant war movie, and the fact that it was the first major war movie released after the end of World War II was significant, too.

However, shortly after the release of Battleground came a movie not about soldiers, but about marines, and it’s exactly the kind of movie people are imagining when they call Battleground a “revisionist” war movie or an anti-war film.

I really enjoyed Sands of Iwo Jima, but with its gung-ho attitude towards war, heroism, manhood, and patriotism, it’s diametrically opposed to Battleground. Just about the only things the two movies have in common are that they’re both about World War II, and both feature Richard Jaeckel in a small role.

John Wayne as Stryker

Sands of Iwo Jima stars John Wayne as the alcoholic, tough-as-nails leatherneck Sgt. John M. Stryker. As his ass-kicking surname implies, Sgt. Stryker is the kind of non-com who doesn’t care if his men like him; he only cares about whipping them into a fighting force that thinks and moves as one man so they can give the Japs hell. During training, one of the marines looks at Stryker and growls, “I don’t know which I hate worse, him or the Nips.”

John Wayne received his first Oscar nomination for best actor for this film. I’ve heard that Wayne felt he should have been nominated for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) instead, but I thought his performance in that film was overly affected. His role in Sands of Iwo Jima played much better to his strengths.

The human drama in the film focuses on PFC Peter Conway (John Agar), whose father served under Sgt. Stryker. Conway comes from a family with a long tradition of service in the US Marine Corps, and when Stryker talks, all Conway can hear is his father.

Jaekel Wayne and Agar

There’s humor in Sands of Iwo Jima, but most of it comes in the form of macho posturing. There are the Flynn brothers (played by Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy), two PFCs who can’t go a day without getting in a fistfight. And there’s a scene where a sailor tries to cut in on Conway’s slow dance with a pretty blonde named Allison Bromley (Adele Mara), and he snaps, “Shove off, Mac.” (Take that, US Navy! You can give the USMC a ride to the battle, but don’t step on their toes, punks.)

But the high point of Sands of Iwo Jima are the elaborate battle scenes, which take place in two sections; first the assault on Tarawa and then the assault on Iwo Jima.

BAR

When an officer is showing the men a map of an island that is part of the Tarawa atoll, he says, “Don’t ask me how you spell it. You’ll have to stick your faces into it, but you don’t have to spell it.” He goes on to tell them that the Japanese troops are dug in pretty deep. “They’d just as soon die as stick a nickel in a jukebox. But that’s all right. Let the other guy die for his country. You live for yours!”

The action is fast and furious, which is appropriate, since this film depicts some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II.

Flamethrower

Sands of Iwo Jima was produced by Republic Pictures, which mostly made lower-budgeted films, so it doesn’t have the high production values that MGM brought to Battleground. The battle scenes in Sands of Iwo Jima incorporate a good deal of newsreel footage, which adds some authenticity to the film, but occasionally makes the newly filmed segments look a little fake. The filmmakers did as well as they could. The special effects were by Waldo and Theodore Lydecker, who did fantastic work in numerous Republic serials, and the demolition effects were carried out by the USMC. But the newsreel footage of actual fighting occasionally took me out of the picture by reminding me that most of what I was seeing was a Hollywood recreation.

Not long after Sands of Iwo Jima was released, Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) hit theaters. It was the third major film about World War II released in 1949, several years after the war had ended. Battleground was significant for being the first, but three makes a pattern, and shows that after a few years of tranquility on the silver screen, audiences were once again hungry for simulated wartime mayhem. (A more cynical view might be that Hollywood was ginning up support for the coming conflict in Korea.)

Battleground (Nov. 9, 1949)

Battleground
Battleground (1949)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.

Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.

During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.

I think the most significant antecedents to Battleground were two other films about men in the infantry: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.

The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.

Johnson and Hodiak

The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.

Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)

As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.

One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)

SPAM

The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)

Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.

I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”

I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.

But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.

Paisà (Dec. 10, 1946)

Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) is the follow-up to his wildly successful 1945 film Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City).

Roma, Città Aperta is one of the most famous examples of Italian neorealist cinema, and is better known than Paisà, but I think that Paisà stands head and shoulders above Roma, Città Aperta as an artistic achievement. It’s a sprawling, chaotic picture of life in Italy during the last days of World War II. The title of the film comes from the word that American soldiers called Italians — “paisan,” or “buddy” — and over the course of six vignettes the film explores a variety of Italian characters’ attempts to communicate with and understand their occupiers.

Rod Geiger, the American G.I. who carried Roma, Città Aperta back to the United States, worked closely with Rossellini on Paisà, and is listed in the credits as a producer. Most of the Americans in the film were played by off-Broadway actors cast by Geiger’s father, who ran a theater in New York. Depictions of foreigners and foreign cultures in movies are tricky to get right. Usually there are at least a few things that just don’t ring true, but there were times while I was watching Paisà that I forgot that I was watching a “foreign” film featuring American characters. The American actors play their parts in a naturalistic, unaffected fashion, and their dialogue often seem ad-libbed. There are even aspects of the film that ring more true than anything coming out of Hollywood at the time, like an extremely drunk African-American soldier (played by Dots Johnson) who is full of anger and resentment.

Many writers contributed to the film, including Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas Mann), who wrote a treatment. A few of the six episodes that comprise the film function as parables, and have endings that border on being trite, but the overall effect of Paisà is an overwhelming panorama of violence, yearning, friendship, misunderstanding, and horror.

The film is a journey from the south of Italy to the north, and the segments take place in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, a monastery in the Apennine mountains, and in a partison hideout in Porto Tolle. Unlike the American characters, the Italians mostly play themselves. The Sicilians are all played by Sicilian non-actors. The partisans in Porto Tolle are played by real partisans. A street urchin in Naples named Pasquale is played by a real street urchin named Alfonsino Pasca. The monks in the Apennines were really monks, but they were dubbed by different actors, since their accents would have made it clear that they were from the south of Naples, not to the north.

Most of the segments of Paisà end tragically, with characters the audience has grown to care about killed in combat. The deaths are senseless and sudden, and the feeling that no one is safe makes Paisà one of the most affecting and least cliched war films I’ve ever seen.

Henry V (June 17, 1946)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).

The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.

The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.

Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.

When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.

It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.

La Bataille du Rail (Feb. 27, 1946)

About five years ago I saw a fantastic World War II movie from 1964 called The Train. Directed by John Frankenheimer, The Train stars Burt Lancaster as a French resistance member who has to stop a train bound for Germany that is carrying priceless art treasures. Filmed in grimy black and white, the film eschews any silliness like having Lancaster put on a fake French accent, and scores high marks as both a drama and an action film.

The reason I bring up The Train is because I couldn’t get it out of my mind while watching René Clément’s film La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails). If Frankenheimer and his crew didn’t study La Bataille du Rail when they were making The Train, I would be surprised, since Clément’s film is a landmark of vérité war action, and some of its action sequences are very similar to ones found in The Train. The gritty look of the picture also seems to have influenced Frankenheimer. Unfortunately, La Bataille du Rail doesn’t score as highly as a dramatic film, which would be fine if it were a documentary, but it’s not. It only looks like one.

The film opens with the following preamble: “This picture, which recalls actual scenes of the Resistance, was produced in cooperation with the Military Commission of the Resistance National Council.” How accurately any of the action reflects what actually went on during the war, however, I don’t know, but they unquestionably derailed an actual train during the climax, which was impressive.

There are many characters La Bataille du Rail, but they are played by unprofessional actors (who are listed in the opening credits only by surname), and they are never really allowed to develop personalities. The structure of the film is episodic, and depicts an escalating war of attrition. The resistance sabotages trains necessary to the German war effort, and the Germans respond by executing members of the resistance and increasing their military presence on the tracks.

At points, the film reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Stachka (Strike) in the way that it placed its numerous human characters against an enormous backdrop of industry. The smoke and grime from the trains covers everything, and the machinery dwarfs the people fighting and dying all around it. There’s an impressive nighttime battle sequence that ends with a resistance member being run over by the treads of a tank. It viscerally drove home the message that while the spirit of a collective can accomplish remarkable things, the integument of a single human body can be crushed by the machinery of war as easily as a person can step on a grape.

Most of the visuals in La Bataille du Rail are impressive because of their scale, but there’s one memorable scene that achieves its impact more subtly. A group of resistance members are lined up against a wall by the Germans and shot one by one. The camera lingers on a single man’s face. He grimaces as each shot is fired. The shot then cuts to what he is seeing; a spider spinning its web along the wall. It’s the last thing he will ever see. It’s a remarkable sequence, and one that makes its point without any dialogue.

I watched La Bataille du Rail immediately after watching Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), another film about resistance under the Nazis that is shot in a semi-documentary style. In my review of Roma, città aperta I complained about some of the characters and the melodramatic storyline, which I felt undercut the impact of the more vérité material. La Bataille du Rail went completely in the other direction, and never developed its human characters at all. It’s effective in the context of the film, but keeps the viewer at a distance. It’s an impressive film, and I’m glad I saw it, but I’d sooner watch The Train again than La Bataille du Rail. It probably didn’t help that the DVD I watched, from Facets, looked like crap. The film could do with a restoration. The print was fuzzy, and the nighttime scenes looked muddy and were occasionally confusing because of it.

A Walk in the Sun (Dec. 25, 1945)

A Walk in the Sun
A Walk in the Sun (1945)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

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.”

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.

The True Glory (Aug. 27, 1945)

TrueGloryThe True Glory, which was released on August 27, 1945 in the United Kingdom and on October 4, 1945 in the United States, is the granddaddy of every World War II documentary you’ve ever seen on the History Channel. Introduced by the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, The True Glory tells the story of America and Great Britain’s war against Germany and Italy, starting with the D-Day invasions of June 6, 1944 and ending with V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

The documentary, which won an Academy Award, was pieced together from hundreds of different war photographers’ footage. Several directors worked on the film, but the most commonly credited are Carol Reed and Garson Kanin.

There is some narration, but the majority of the film is told through first-person accounts in voiceover. There are a myriad of British and American soldiers who tell their stories, but there are also the voices of a Parisian family, nurses, clerical staff, an African-American tank gunner, and a member of the French resistance. If you know your World War II history and keep your eyes peeled, you’ll recognize many prominent figures in the footage, including Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. George S. Patton.

Produced by the British Ministry of Information and the U.S. Office of War Information, The True Glory lacks a certain degree of perspective, coming so soon after the end of the war, and is primarily made to celebrate the accomplishments of the Allied forces, but that doesn’t change the fact that the footage is absolutely stunning, and occasionally horrific. The True Glory is a must-see for even the most casual of history buffs.

Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” (July 13, 1945)

StoryGIJoe
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Directed by William A. Wellman
United Artists

Ernie Pyle was a journalist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Long before the term “embedded journalist” entered the national consciousness, Pyle traveled with servicemen, writing about the war from their perspective. He had a conversational writing style, and attracted a huge following during World War II. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his work as a war correspondent. He was killed in combat in 1945.

William A. Wellman’s film Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” stars Burgess Meredith as Pyle, and co-stars Robert Mitchum as Lt. (later Capt.) Bill Walker and Freddie Steele as Sgt. Steve Warnicki.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was the finest war film he had ever seen, and I tend to agree with him. Wellman is a superior craftsman. Not only is The Story of G.I. Joe one of the best war movies I’ve seen, its gripping scenes of combat have yet to be improved upon. For all the credit that Saving Private Ryan (1998) got for ushering in a new era of realism to the World War II film, watching this film reminded me that the horrors of war don’t necessarily need to be depicted in gruesome detail to be affecting. The first combat scene comes early in the film, when a German plane attacks the company on the ground, strafing them as they return fire with mounted machine guns and BARs. After the dust has cleared, there’s a low-angle shot of the men looking down, dejected and stunned, followed by Walker brusquely saying, “All right men, in the truck. Come on, make it snappy, the medics’ll take care of him.” As the men disperse, he says to Pyle, “First death’s always the worst.” The corpse is never even shown on the screen, but the impact is huge.

The battle scenes in the film are gripping. Walker and his men fight amidst bombed-out rubble, in close quarters, in the destroyed towns and cities of Italy. But the focus of the film is on the day-to-day lives of the men in the infantry. For most of the film, Warnicki carries a phonograph recording of his baby boy’s voice that he received in the mail, but he can’t ever seem to find a record player. The living conditions of infantrymen are unglamorous. The men are nearly always unshaven, wet, filthy, tired, and underfed. Mud, rain, and fatigue are a few of the running themes. Pvt. Robert “Wingless” Murphy (played by Jack Reilly) is constantly falling asleep on his feet. His sleepiness provides a few comic moments, but not without some sadness. When he marries a WAC and they go the “bridal suite” (a truck), he passes out immediately.

Meredith is the first actor billed, and a large part of the film is about Pyle’s relationship with the men he writes about. When a G.I. asks Pyle his age, he says, “Forty-three,” and crosses himself. The G.I. responds, “I’m twenty-six. If I knew I’d live to be forty-three, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world.” Pyle says, “Oh yes you would. You’d be just like me. Worrying about whether you’d get to be forty-four.” Meredith was actually 37 years old when he made this picture, but with his dyed white hair and bald pate, he looks older. He has a natural rapport with the men, but he doesn’t try too hard to be anyone’s buddy. In fact, in most scenes, he’s almost aloof. He’s also more soft-spoken than the real Pyle, who had a blunt, straightforward style, at least in the single piece of newsreel footage I’ve seen of him.

Pyle’s ordinariness is stressed. He learns that he has been awarded the Pulitzer from a couple of servicemen during mail call. He shrugs off their praise, then sits down at his typewriter to eulogize a man who has just died, and whom he thought of as a friend. “He was just a plain Hoosier boy,” Pyle writes. “You couldn’t imagine him ever killing anybody.”

I liked Mitchum in his supporting role in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (another excellent World War II film), but he’s even better here. The Story of G.I. Joe received four Oscar nominations, including one for Mitchum for best supporting actor. It was the only Academy Award nomination he would ever receive. He never won an Oscar. In The Story of G.I. Joe he displays effortless star power, even though the film is not a star vehicle for him.

Director Wellman was a fighter pilot in World War I, where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill.” Like many pilots, he had no use for the infantry, and originally had no interest in making this film. Producer Lester Cowan went to great lengths to cajole Wellman into being his director, but Wellman only agreed to take on the job after meeting Pyle and spending time with him.

An aura of tragedy and sadness pervades the film. Pyle acted as technical advisor on the film. The extras were all American combat veterans of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Most of them were in the process of being transferred from active duty in the war in Europe to the war in the Pacific. And many of them were killed fighting in Okinawa, the battle in which Pyle himself was killed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 363 other followers