Image by Christine Renney
‘MEN IN WAR’ – Directed by Anthony Mann (1957)
A man whose politics were left-wing, Mann made some of the most interesting Westerns ever produced, and many with James Stewart who was a renowned believer in hard right politics. Mann is spoken of as the director who endowed his works with psychological insight by not relying on the Hero of the West mythology as mined by people such as John Ford. By turning the ‘charm’ of Stewart on its head in films such as ‘Winchester ‘73’, ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘Naked Spur’ Mann achieved a degree of manic coldness not usually present in Stewart’s past performances.
In ‘Men In War’ set during the Korean engagement Mann achieves the same turnabout with (the personally liberal) Robert Ryan, whose career was founded on his playing characters who were cruel, bullying and prejudiced (see ‘Crossfire‘). This is not the Ryan we see in what could have been a formulaic war film but which in fact, as much due to limited budgets and therefore lack of hardware such as tanks, had to become a study of the interaction between the characters, their varying personalities and the puerile waste of life for a cause which was to repeat itself in the equally brutal conflict in Vietnam some two years after the truce between the North and South Koreans.
The premise of the narrative (officially scripted by Philip Yordan but it is believed he was a front for Ben Maddow who was blacklisted) is that Lieutenant Benson (Ryan) has to lead his Unit to capture Hill 465 but they have become separated from the battalion with whom the radio operator is trying to contact but with no luck. The men are surrounded by the North Koreans who are able to steal up on them – one young soldier is bayoneted to death and no-one is any the wiser until it is his turn to take guard duty. This feeling of being watched but isolated and therefore vulnerable, is something that is beginning to undermine the men who, because of the waiting and not knowing, have begun to lose some faith in themselves. We see Zwickley (Vic Morrow) suffering from shellshock and Killian (James Edwards) encouraging and helping him as a brother or father would. We become family at these times. Further evidence of the need to establish close relationships comes in the form of Seargant “Montana” (Aldo Ray) whose unit has been decimated and who is left alone with his Colonel who is also suffering with shellshock. Montana has become the carer of this man for whom he has the greatest respect and who, it is later revealed, Montana views as the father he never had.
Montana appears to be gung-ho in contrast to Benson but he is an experienced soldier and one who has learnt the way his opponents think, rather than the language, as Benson is doing. Montana’s anger at the effect on the Colonel informs much of his apparent risk-taking, such as when he fires on and kills three G.I.s, which horrifies Benson, until the bodies lay at their feet and are clearly North Koreans. Benson, shocked by this act irrespective of who the dead men are, finds it difficult to relate to Montana and tries to make things as difficult as possible – he views Montana as expendable because he is as dangerous to the unit as the enemy.
This depiction of the differences between the two men, which is at the heart of the film, is well executed and shows how a team or unit needs to build on the strengths of the individual and support the weaknesses. Mann’s experience as a director of film noirs also shows in the photography of Ernest Haller, who had worked with some of the great actresses of Hollywood and was the DP on ‘Mildred Pierce’.
The ending of the film is harrowing and this is where we question whether the capture of what is after all just a hill can be worth the cost in lives and minds. After all, both in ‘Men In War’ (which is an excellent title and holds a significant meaning) and in real battles such as the Somme in WWI, the world forgets in a blink of an eye what it was all for.