CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
Anthony Mann’s “Men in War” appeared a mere four years after the conflict had ground to an inconclusive halt. Its extremely compressed time-frame (the script is adapted from a novel by Van Van Praag titled “Day Without End”) offers a snapshot of the conflict at an especially dicey moment. A super-imposed title informs us that this is Korea, 6 September, 1950. Two days earlier, North Korean forces had successfully occupied the city of Inchon. The first thing that we see is a wrecked U.S. Army vehicle. We learn in short order that an already-depleted infantry platoon has been ordered to occupied a site known as Hill 465. We also learn that they are unable to contact their headquarters and we soon learn what we have thus far only inferred–that this army has suffered a defeat on a grand scale. On a lesser scale, we learn that Sgt. Killian, “best mechanic west of the Mississippi” can’t repair the platoon’s truck and that Sgt. Riordan no sooner manages to raise headquarters on his radio when a sniper blows the handset to smithereens. No transport, a long march, through territory alive with enemy snipers–this is the hand that director Mann and his scriptwriters, Philip Yordan and Ben Maddow, have dealt Lt. Benson and his men. More than a blow-’em-up war movie, “Men in War” will be an exercise in sustained suspense.
Two of the film’s strong points are its black-and-white photography by Ernest Haller and the ensemble acting of its cast. As was amply demonstrated by his westerns, Mann was a director with a strong regard for the physicality of his locations. The mountains and rivers that tested the men and women of his westerns are here replaced by gentler hills and plains of rolling grass. Haller and Mann convince you that you are seeing Korea. Here, the graceful swaying trees conceal snipers or give shade to mine-fields. When a footsore Sgt. Killian sits by the roadside to massage his aching feet, that gently waving grass that serves as a visual backdrop conceals from Killian, but not from the audience, a pair of Korean soldiers stealthily advancing on him. Mann does need to show us Killian’s actual demise–a shot of his foot twitching convulsively is enough to tell the tale.
Killian, played by James Edwards, was probably the nicest guy in the platoon and his pausing to appreciate the beauties of nature becomes his undoing. This is certainly a mistake that the meanest man in the platoon, Aldo Ray’s battle-hardened Sgt. Wilamette wouldn’t make. In fact he later deliberately repeats Killian’s actions to lure those same assassins out of hiding, the better to cut loose on them with his Thompson. The remaining sergeants, Riordan, Lewis and Davis were played by Philip Pine, Nehemiah Persoff and future Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones. Interestingly the film pays more attention to the non-coms than to the enlisted men, most of whom remain faceless, although Vic Morrow’s atypically weak Pvt. Zwickley, befriended by Killian but ignored by everyone else, and Anthony Ray’s numerology-obsessed Pvt. Pinelli stand out from the rest. I suspect that the reason Mann pays more attention to his non-coms is because in a way the film is a study of leadership. Robert Ryans’s Lt. Benson gave the actor a rare chance to play something other than a tough guy. His Benson feels the burden of command. He collects the dog-tags of his dead with a weary fatalism and confides to Riordan–the one man in the platoon who is closest to being a friend–that he doesn’t think much of their chances to successfully occupy Hill 465, but he just wants to keep at least one of his men alive to get there. In route to their objective, Benson and his men, all from the 24th Infantry Division, encounter a pair of 1st Cavalry Division survivors from that unseen defeat. Robert Keith’s unnamed colonel is an officer who has collapsed beneath the twin burdens of command and seeing his “boys” annihilated. His Riordan is the afore-mentioned Sgt. Wilamette, a hard man who seems to care for nothing and no one except his colonel. When Benson and Wilamette meet, it’s hate-at-first-sight. Benson see his Korean enemies as people, Wilamette sees them as targets in a shooting gallery. Yet time and again, Wilamette is proven to be brutal but correct in his assessments, while Benson is seen as inept–trying to survive by the book which Wilamette has already found to be meaningless. Benson wants prisoners taken alive for interrogation, as the book states, Wilamette knows that the prisoners will lie and mislead their captors. Benson is ready to court-martial Wilamette for shooting a man with his hands over his head, but Wilamette knows that many Korean troops have small pistols hidden in their caps–as this one did. But far from depicting Ryan’s Benson as a simple fool, Mann allows us to see that Benson searches the dead man’s body and finds a photograph of his wife and child–not much different from the one that Benson keeps in the liner of his helmet. Ray’s Wilamette (usually addressed simply as “Montana”) only has the army. And for him, the army is his catatonic colonel–it’s not to much of a stretch to imagine that they went through WW II together–not the new-boy Benson, fresh from the States, who doesn’t know the score.
Interestingly, when the rag-tag band of survivors reach Hill 465, it is the sound of combat that finally shocks the colonel out of his stupor, and his futile death, charging up the hillside, finally makes Benson’s mission, Wilamette’s mission. A climactic assault with a flame-thrower finally secures the hill for Benson, Wilamette and Riordan. Wilamette sardonically points out that Benson managed to get one of his men through it alive, while Benson, holding a bag of Silver Star decorations that the colonel had intended to award his men, calls out the names of his own dead as he tosses each star onto the Korean earth.
Korean War films were being made even as the war raged, most followed the template of World War II-era films by being patriotic flag-wavers, but a few talked about the human cost of the conflict, although they tended to play up the notion of individual heroism. This film, succinctly titled “Men in War” as if it is a sociological study rather than a drama, offers little heroism. The film carries the motto, “Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars.” The sensitive (Killian) the weak (Zwickley) the high-strung (Lewis) all fall by the wayside. Even the ones who just “do their jobs” (Riordan, Davis) are not seen as exceptional. Wilamette is exceptional only to the extent that he has managed to subsume his humanity. Woody Guthrie’s guitar carried the inscription, “This machine kills fascists.” Wilamette could carry the message, “This machine kills Koreans.” Only he wouldn’t call them that. A couple of years down the road, Lewis Milestone would direct what to many is the quintessential Koran War movie, “Pork Chop Hill.” But “Men in War” is a lot closer in outlook and tone to an earlier Milestone film, “A Walk in the Sun.” Both follow an infantry platoon on a dicey mission. Both talk about the pressures of command. Both are refreshingly short on gung-ho attitude, but while Milestone’s WW II GIs joke and daydream while they march, Mann’s GIs keep their heads down–just trying to reach Hill 465 alive.