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Men in War (Blu-ray Review)

21 Apr, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Robert Keith, Vic Morrow.

Here’s another movie I saw upon its original release in 1957, though it would be a stretch to call this one Gershwin-esque. Gritty and even brutal for its day, it has the feel of an auteur work from a director (Anthony Mann) who occasionally wore that non-scarlet “A” — though this is about as far from Mann’s near-immediately preceding James Stewart Westerns (which were gritty in their own Technicolor way) as you can get. Mann always seems to be getting more on the screen here than is on the printed page, though the credited screenwriter is Philip Yordan, who was no slouch for sure. This said, a possible caveat in the AFI Catalog for the 1950s notes that Yordan might have been fronting for blacklisted Ben Maddow.

As for a fairly bare-bones story, we’re in Korea during the September following June 1950’s launch of the war, and it’s beginning to occur to the lieutenant in charge here (Robert Ryan) that this isn’t going to be the cakewalk some initially thought the once termed “conflict” would be. Ryan’s men are pinned down and sitting targets in hilly terrain, and the jeep they need to hook up with colleagues a few miles away is fatally busted. Suddenly in their sight after a lot of what-the-hell-are-we-gonna-do verbiage is a fresh jeep speeding their way and containing two individuals. One is a burly sarge played in his inimitable burly-sarge way by Aldo Ray, and the other is a colonel (Robert Keith) whose brainpower has been scrambled from a mine that went off near him with the usual carnage.

The movie made a big impression on me at age 10 because it was the first time I’d seen the portrayal of Keith’s brand of shell shock on screen (there’s something very close to this with a character in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 from 1953, but I didn’t catch up to that one until ’59). I think these were the most affecting moments on screen that the senior Keith (real-life father of actor Brian) ever had on screen, and there are moments between him and surrogate-son Ray here that are still touching and help take the movie beyond standard fare.

This is about the only touching aspect of the Ray character we see because he’s one of those primal types who shoots first and asks questions later — as in “were those three guys I just machine-gunned Korean soldiers pretending to be Americans, as thought, or possibly real Americans?” In an oil-water meet-up that goes well beyond the natural conflict between officers and enlisted men, Ray’s hairy-chest attitude doesn’t go down too well with the more cerebral Ryan, who has one of the better good-guy roles of his superlative career (he, of course, had no equals when it came to playing sociopaths). This was the first of two teamings between the actors, preceding 1958’s God’s Little Acre, with which it shared a lot of the same creative personnel. And it’s the better movie even if you factor in the latter’s provocative shots of and healthy approach to living displayed by Tina Louise and Fay Spain (nothing little about them). In contrast, War’s pretty faces are Vic Morrow (could this film have led to his later casting in TV’s “Combat”?), Nehemiah Persoff and James Edwards (whose tally of war movies from Home of the Brave through The Manchurian Candidate was fairly formidable).

I’m reasonably certain that War didn’t fall all the way into public domain, but in my recollection, circulating copies always seemed to be from borderline iffy distributors — the kind you’d see in bargain racks at chain stores. The print here has signs of wear and won’t inspire anyone to write a poem but looks better than anything I’ve seen since ’57 (I’m pretty sure that when I ran War as programmer at the AFI Theater, we always had to show it in 16mm). After a few months’ layoff, Olive Films is getting back into the groove with Blu-ray showcases of films we don’t see shown everyday anymore — not that all that many saw Men in War in ’57. It is, though, one of the better and grownup combat movies of the period — not quite up to Robert Aldrich’s scalding World War II-set Attack!, though one likely to have been made with the same lack of official cooperation from army officials.

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