Men In War, 1957. 8/10

Very suspenseful war movie. Robert Ryan has to lead a cut-off platoon back to friendly lines. The mens’ quest is endangered by a continuous hazard of snipers, mines, remote gun fire, and a culminating attack on an enemy stronghold. The Lieutenant (Ryan) also faces an insubordinate sergeant (Aldo Ray), and his own doubts about their mission.

For most of the movie we’re stuck on the road with the platoon, where every tree and bush could hide a potential threat. The hyper-reality is palpable, but at the same time surreal. A good war movie is somewhat like a convincing horror movie. The victims (the soldiers in this case) are intensely aware that they’re immersed in a incomprehensible world.

I don’t think the scene with the soldier who’s ambushed while he relaxes among the wildflowers was out of place; he’s trying to experience something familiar and comforting. The men are distinct characters, not predictable types.

Fortunately, like horror movie heros with their silver spikes and crucifixes, the men can fight back. The result is a sort of Pyhrric victory: the Lieutenant, Montana (the rebellious sergeant), and one other man survive, out of seventeen. The fighting sequences are masterfully done; both the on-going ambushes when the platoon is on the march, and the more set-piece battles at the end. Both sides take losses, no one is lucky or invincible.

Montana’s obsessive focus on the shell-shocked colonel plausibly shows the loyalty and devotion of soldier to commander; but his insubordination to the lieutenant is unrealistic. They really only cooperate when they think that they’re the only two guys left. I’m not saying that this sort of thing couldn’t have happened, but, unless everyone were killed, the sergeant would’ve faced consequences.

The Colonel’s character is interesting. He’s more or less checked-out. In a more complex way, Montana’s focus on his commander’s well-being is similar to the soldier wanting to indulge in the safe world of the wildflowers. Both he and Montana try to preserve a semblance of decency and feeling.

Another problem involves Ryans character. The Lieutenant is definitely an interesting guy; an able and decisive leader, he doesn’t really believe in what he’s doing. That makes sense–he takes a sort of existentialist stance, stoically putting up with the cards he’s been dealt, while really not wanting to be in the game. The problem is actually telling the other guys about his ambivalence. He’s endangering the mission, that is, their lives, by down-playing their hopes.

That’s why I don’t think that the movie needs the serious distraction that Montana brings. This sort of sabotage-from-within theme was more deftly-handled in The Naked And The Dead. Maybe if Montana and his Colonel blend in better with the other guys, and the focus had remained squarely on the mission, Men in War would’ve been just about perfect.

Nonetheless, it’s a very compelling drama on many levels. Well worth watching, especially for those who appreciate a good war movie. 8/10.

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