Men in War

(USA - 1957)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Robert Keith, Phillip Pine, Vic Morrow, James Edwards, L.Q. Jones
Genre: War/Drama/Action
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Philip Yordan from Van Van Praag's novel Day Without End (aka Combat)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Composer: Elmer Bernstein

“Before you fight you gotta think, and I can't think anymore.” - Lt. Benson

Men in War theoretically belongs to the basic process of elimination genre of war film where a the platoon is slowly reduced to the last few members, who either succeed or die valiantly in the final frames. These films that focused on the soldiers tended to be annoying because they always reverted to the same stock ideas, the soldiers are ordinary men made exceptional by rising to the call of duty even though they wish they were back home in the states with their girlfriend and family. The soldiers tended to be real characters, funny, distinct, and somehow unique individuals despite being just like your neighbor and of the same type that you saw in every other war movie. These movies tended to be very unoriginal, and thus rather mediocre.

Early in his career, Anthony Mann was one of the greats at finding ways to elevate the ordinary – standard film noir scripts - to the memorable. Here, after having made his name for himself with his series of James Stewart westerns, Mann has attained the clout to alter the ordinary into a rejection of the standard filler, retaining only the essential details. Mann doesn't care about making you want to have a beer with the soldiers. He doesn't care about life before war, and there is no life after it. He doesn't care if it was a just war, because it's just war, war like any other where the men die.

Mann and screenwriter Philip Yordan boil war down to the bare essentials, war is war and war sucks for the soldiers because there's nothing but danger present, and danger future if you live that long. If you aren't trying to protect yourself from the former, you are lamenting the inevitability of the latter. Like being on the run in his film noirs or chasing an unredeeming notion of revenge in his westerns, War slowly drains the life right out of his protagonists. In this case, it's because they are constantly afraid, perpetually on edge. The physical rigors wear you down too, obviously, and all these and many other aspects combine to make you act in a manner you know isn't right, even if, perhaps, it is given the circumstances.

It seems Mann made this film at the right time in his career. He spent the first portion of his career making film noirs that were partially effective due to the characters interaction with the sets and the second making westerns that were partially effective due to the characters interaction with diverse landscapes. Men in War is a kind of combination of these backgrounds, as the film is essentially a daylight film noir where a few increasingly isolated and mentally and emotionally depleted American soldiers fight a hopeless battle with the trees, the ground, the mountains, and whatever pops or explodes out of them because there's nowhere to hide and nothing else to do.

Nature isn't the soldiers best friend. In fact, it's their worst enemy because there's no refuge from it. Yes, you can try to use it to hide yourself, but with every step you are risking a bomb exploding underneath you or a man popping out of a bush or a gun hidden by the flora and fauna blowing you away. In a sense, the horror of war is that friend and foe, salvation and death are almost impossible to identify before it's too late.

Mann strips all the beauty away from nature in one powerful early scene where nature's enchantments cause the token black soldier (James Edwards), Truman integrating the Army for the Korean War, to get diverted from his lookout duty. He picks a few flowers and sticks them in the netting of his steel helmet, smiling as if this is the only pleasure he's had in months. But his moment of relaxation, as well as his life, is interrupted by two Koreans crawling through the plain with thistle attached to their helmet taking him out.

The exceptional point of the cinematography lies in it's dislocation. Ernest Haller constantly denies the audience any sense of bearing and any possibility of a safe haven. The scenery changes, but the threats remain the same, for guns and bombs are hiding everywhere. It might just be wind that's shaking the barley, but it's probably a machine gun. All we can do is wait, helplessly, for the eventuality of yet another casualty.

The conflict in the film, beyond with the scenery, is not so much between the American soldiers and the Koreans. They, of course, shoot at each other on sight, but really it's about living with the aftermath of violence. The two main characters have opposing point of views, Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan) wants to do the right or at least responsible thing, while Sergeant Montana (Aldo Ray) wants to survive at all costs. Montana is always right, but he violates every level of decency, gunning down everyone they come into contact with because they could be the enemy, could be concealing a weapon. Ultimately, even if they could be US troops, there's always a better chance they could be a threat. Benson doesn't have it in him to want to win or survive bad enough to be an animal, lamenting the fact that cold-hearted killers like Montana are needed to win the war, and, although unstated, keep saving his life.

The aftermath of violence is also the theme of Mann's most underrated film, Man of the West. Both deal with the need for redemption, and the impossibility of truly achieving it. In Man of the West, Gary Cooper's character can only cement the sense of redemption he achieved away from his outlaw brethren by killing his father. In Men in War, Montana must save his shell shocked father figure, the only man who ever called him son, The Colonel (Robert Keith). Of course, The Colonel is way too far gone to be saved, he can barely even get a word out or keep a cigarette placed in his mouth from falling out, but Colonel is Montana's only possible salvation, his only reason to live. In a way, Mann suggests it's a good thing the soldiers don't last that long because it's eventually harder to live with themselves than to die. Benson's only hope for redemption lies in the survival of one of his soldiers, any one of them, and that requires the impossible task of the much too small group taking Hill 465. Benson is beyond caring about the hill from a military standpoint, at one point he says, "Battalion doesn't exist. Regiment doesn't exist. Command Headquarters doesn't exist. The U.S.A. doesn't exist. They don't exist, Reardon, we'll never see them again. We're the only ones left to fight this war." However, they are boxed in by the landscapes, so he's stuck trying to take a hill with 12 men.

Men in War is decidedly an action film. It features realistic battle scenes, though captured from odd angles and heavily edited, as per Mann's noir background, with dislocating jump cuts that enhance our unease about the safety of any of the terrain. Though the technical expertise lends a more than semblance of excitement to the otherwise purposely downbeat film, it's not really comparable to an action movie such as Robert Aldrich's Attack, a quite good WWII infantry film released the previous year. The crucial difference is Mann doesn't find war to be exciting like Aldrich does. Where Aldrich is always revving up for the next thrilling battle, Mann's film quietly laments it, his characters contemplating more of the usual fear and dread that rules the soldiers lives rather than looking forward to testing themselves against the opposition.

Much of the success in this end is due to Elmer Bernstein's exceptional subtle and restrained score, which helps convey the soldier's hopelessness and lack of enthusiasm about their mysterious, unforgiving surroundings and the dangers they harbor. Utilizing less of the requisite US military percussion and more somewhat sour strings and traditional Korean music such as woodwinds, it combines with the ominous off-screen sounds to enhance the constant apprehension and lack of excitement in the soldier's endless traipsing.

Another huge plus is the entire cast of Men in War, who show equal restraint and don't fall into the usual traps that make it impossible for the audience to dislocate them from their pampered, pretty boy Hollywood originals. Robert Ryan was probably the best of the classic American actors at playing frazzled. He always looks like he's under such strain and has so much pent up tension that he can't help but snap or crack at any moment. We feel it's only a matter of time before he becomes Robert Keith, so traumatized he's practically a vegetable, and that is hinted at toward the end of the film. Both do excellent jobs, conveying their advanced states of physical, mental, and emotional deterioration without resorting to the usual array of false props and phony ticks.

The final scene of Benson giving out medals can seem hollow and somewhat corny. However, looking at it within the context of the redemption theme, the closing segment allows Benson & Montana to come to grips with their losses and find a reason to go on, even if, in all likelihood, that just means making one last charge up the hill. Their initial push resulted in the loss of their sole goal, as The Colonel came back to life enough to pick up a weapon and get gunned down going toe to toe with the enemy and Benson believes he lost every man in his platoon (Montana and The Colonel were the lone survivors of another outfit). Benson suggests Montana get his revenge by killing him, satisfying Montana's lust to kill and Benson's wish to just be done with this hopeless life, but both quickly see it'd be meaningless, and Benson caves in, reverting back to the original mission because, again, it remains the only option beyond dying right there.

Montana finds his way to continue, transferring his adulation for his deceased father figure to his rival Benson, suddenly calling him Colonel. Benson is so far gone he and Montana almost both blow Reardon away when he reappears after they take the hill, and Benson doesn't even recognize him, as if he couldn't bring himself to believe they'd succeed in their mission and now can't bring himself to even hope one of his men is still living. He has seemingly been awake the entire movie, but immediately goes to sleep, almost as if he's so tired Reardon must be a hallucination, and snoozing will allow him to keep the dream alive for a little longer, as well as proving his defeatist self wrong that he and Montana won't see the morning.

When Benson wakes up, finding Reardon still there and hearing reinforcements on the way, his isolation is broken and he experiences a temporary relief from the ever building exhaustion. Momentarily returning to some sense of normalcy and realizing they aren't simply a few men trapped on a hostile island, but rather they are just a small part of a big cause, he awards the Silver Stars The Colonel gave Montana just before he died to all the men in his platoon that died in the taking of the hill so their contribution to the cause will be recorded. If there's falseness in the finish, it's that it fits more closely into the usual American flag waving than the relentlessly downbeat film that precedes it, but despite the hokey patriotic music there's still the sense that they are once again deluding themselves into finding a reason to face another day.



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