I’m not a big fan of war movies, but two that I really enjoy are Lewis Milestone’s “A Walk in the Sun” (1945) and Edward Dmytryk’s “Eight Iron Men” (1952). Both have a common denominator in author Harry Brown. Robert Rossen adapted Brown’s fine novel of the same name for Milestone, while Brown adapted his own stage play “A Sound of Hunting” for Dmytryk. In both films we follow a group of G.I.s and listen as they talk and talk. Each film has its prize motor-mouth, Richard Conte’s Pvt. Rivera in the first, and Bonar Colleano’s Pvt. Carlucci in the second. Each has its doughty sergeant who finds himself forced to make command decisions when the officer is killed. Dana Andrews was a bit more buttoned down as Sgt. Tyne, but a young actor named Lee Marvin seemed to be already dreaming of “The Dirty Dozen” with his tough, profane Sgt. Mooney who swears by the book but must finally discard it.
Both films have an overpowering sense of place. In the first, Andrews must lead his men from a beachhead at Salerno to a farmhouse several miles inland, which may or may not be abandoned. In the second, Marvin’s squad is holed-up in a rain-soaked ruin of a village, their lives being made more difficult by the presence of a clever sniper and a newly-installed and fortified machine-gun. Milestone’s G.I.s talk as they march, arguing over everything from whether or not a photograph is better than a painting, to whether they will be fighting The Battle of Tibet in 1958. Dmytryk’s G.I.s, as befit they origins as characters in a play, spend most of their time in the basement they call home as they discuss how best to rescue a member of their squad who has been pinned down by the machine-gun. Side-issues arise like the quality of their K-rations and who should get the missing man’s slice of fruitcake. While “A Walk in the Sun” remains a study in Naturalism, “Eight Iron Men” dives deliriously into Surrealism as the dream-lives of the girl-crazy Pvt. Carlucci and James Griffith’s more repressed Pvt. Ferguson are explored.
In spite of its surrealistic asides, “Eight Iron Men” is the more fraught piece with Richard Kiley’s angry Pvt. Coke continuously goading Mooney to toss out the book and rescue their man. “A Walk in the Sun” is almost placid until they reach that farmhouse and then some of the men we’ve enjoyed spending time with must die, despite Pvt. Rivera’s oft-repeated mantra “Nobody dies.”