Men, The (Blu-ray Review)20 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95
Marlon Brando, Teresa Wright, Everett Sloane, Jack Webb.
Given the rebellious streak that his personal and professional image would soon come to convey, it has always struck me that the first shot of Marlon Brando that anyone ever saw on screen was as an Army infantry lieutenant about to take a sniper’s shot that would result in (permanently, of course) paraplegia. And when I say “always,” I mean from maybe early adolescence through my mid-20s, when I used to watch The Men every time it aired on TV — which was frequently enough to give it far more exposure than it ever got in theaters.
By this time in the early 1960s, Brando was a superstar — in the minds of some, the superstar — and occasionally, the picture would show up as Battle Stripe, which I seem to recall was the re-issue title when it was given renewed theatrical engagements sometime in the mid-to-late 1950s. Also by that time, featured player Jack Webb was a dominant enough TV star to have long ago made the cover of Time, and it’s one of The Men’s joys (and despite the honestly treated subject matter, there are some) that this frequent on-screen reactionary gets to play a paraplegic cynic who, for a while, even sports a beard. Once, in amazement, a 1970s friend asked me of the film, “Can you believe Jack Webb playing a hippie?” Well, not a hippie, naturally, in 1950 — but definitely some kind of neo-bohemian and they type who likely would have dug jazz, as Webb did in real life.
To deal with the challenges of credibly playing a therapy-bound paraplegic in his screen debut, Brando spent two weeks living in a ward at Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, Calif., getting to know the men (45 of whom appeared in the film) and taking part in recreational endeavors that included an intense athletic regimen to strengthen the top half of the men’s bodies. Writer Carl Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann do a good job of delineating the various ward personalities, who include a couple of what the lead physician played beautifully by Everett Sloane calls “bench jockeys” (these would be Webb and reliably wisecracking Richard Erdman). Sloane wants them to get to work on Brando, a former jock who’s initially sullen and disagreeable as he rejects the onetime fiancée (Teresa Wright) who wants to continue the relationship. When Brando finally cracks and breaks into that sparingly displayed but famously patented smile of his, it’s a punchy moment.
My favorite actress of the 1940s, Wright was, for starters, five-plus years older than her co-star — and also seemed to age faster in a shorter period than any actress I can think of besides Miriam Hopkins. As a result, she seems a little mature for Brando in that brief career window where he still had those boyish looks — though it can also be argued that she conveys the grown-up, head-on-straight type someone suffering from a permanent affliction would need as a partner. For its day, the movie is very up-front about the challenges (even sexual) these men and mates are going to face, and one of the best scenes deals with Webb’s humiliation at the hands of a flighty woman who doesn’t seem to “get it” even before she rolls him for 900 bucks.
With the contributions of Foreman, Zinnemann, producer Stanley Kramer, composer Dimitri Tiomkin and production designer Rudolph Sternad, The Men further can be seen as a kind of primer for High Noon — though it’s also true that the same creative quintet had already worked on Champion (also just out from Olive Films on DVD and Blu-ray) and Home of the Brave, which dealt with another type of World War II adjustment (racial). What made Tiomkin’s scoring so ideal for epics, Westerns and white-hot melodramas (think The High and the Mighty) is also what worked against him in smaller films. The music, or at least the orchestration, is mighty overbearing and works against the picture — though in occasional moments where he tones it down, the effect can have subliminal power, as in the very final shot of the movie, which, even by itself, is a good one. The Olive print is nothing special, and I suspect the Blu-ray version (which is how I saw it) brings little to the experience. But the movie still kind of is special, both for history and for subject matter, and it’s just more ammo to convince me that 1950 (with Sunset Boulevard, The Third Man, The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve and several classic Westerns at the top) was at least as great a year as the blown-out-of-proportion 1939.