If you’re in the mood for an excellent, fascinating 1950s movie about the Korean War, with African-American actor James Edwards (Home of the Brave) in a memorable supporting role, then look for Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a film directed by Anthony Mann and scripted by Philip Yordan for their own production company, and co-starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray—then look for God’s Little Acre. If you can’t find either of these first choices, a distant second is the movie just released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Olive Films, Mann’s Men in War.
Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan) leads the weary, jittery, unshaven survivors of his platoon on a 15-mile trek to Hill 245, where American reinforcements supposedly wait. He encounters a jeep driven by rock-jawed Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray), an insubordinate cuss who devotes his loyalty and love to a shell-shocked archetype called the Colonel (Robert Keith). Montana announces that they’ve decided to drop out of the war.
Benson commandeers their vehicle, and much of the story is about the heated, uneasy Benson/Montana alliance. Maybe they’re the duality of good and bad brothers, or else Montana is the unruly son to Benson’s decent, agonized mother hen with the Colonel as the silent father. Montana’s monologues to the Colonel are some of the tenderest moments, reflecting both love (filial? physical?) and the blind faith of the devout before their idol. Some of the interchangeable crew, such as Nehemiah Persoff, lose their heads on their rendezvous with destiny, and we receive a general impression of people making the wrong decisions in a contextual vaccuum, making it up as they go along.
The action takes place on one day, September 6, 1950, somewhere in Korea during America’s conflict there. However, it was filmed in the California hills near Los Angeles, a very familiar location to movie watchers, and this is one reason the dangers never feel authentic. Nor, for that matter, do most of the incidents. Mann and brilliant black-and-white photographer Daniel Haller make up for it by being arty, with many careful close-ups juxtaposed against each other amid waving brush and branches. They must have been especially proud of the opening shot, which travels from a wrecked jeep upwards and across a foggy landscape.
Elmer Bernstein’s spare, moody music mixes moments of martial color with lyricism, such as the scene where Edwards weaves flowers into the netting of his helmet. It’s a striking, rich composition as the dark face under a flowered helmet looks toward the camera, though you just know such a prettily contrived incident won’t end well. In the movie’s final moments, the soundtrack pumps a flag-waving chorus without irony (aside from the obvious), as though to make things more “affirmative”. Other soldiers are played by Vic Morrow, Phillip Pine, Scott Marlowe, and L.Q. Jones, with busy Chinese-American actor Victor Sen Yung as one of the anonymous “gooks” (the dialogue’s term).
Based on Van Van Praag’s 1949 novel Day Without End, reissued in 1951 paperback as Combat, the screenplay evidently changes many details—such as which war it is, for the book is set after the Normandy invasion of WWII. Apparently the ambiguous Montana was a Latino called Montoya, and Lt. Benson was Lt. Roth. The review of the novel in Saturday Review singles out such details as the men being strafed and shelled by their own forces, which doesn’t occur in the film, and we naturally wonder what else is different.
The day-long infantry schedule must remind war buffs of Harry Brown’s A Walk in the Sun, which was also filmed; the Kirkus reviewer felt Van Praag’s novel seemed more real than Brown’s, though I have no doubt which made the stronger movie. Still, this one looks lovely, and Aldo Ray is excellent.