Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Walk In The Sun

Rivera: Nobody dies

Just in time for Memorial Day. Last night I indulged my recent World War II obsession with a little TCM festival. Most war movies, particularly from the 40's, are little more than propoganda pieces or pathos-laden drivel. They are cliched, inane, and smirk-worthy. Occasionally, there are a few that pass muster as intelligent or interesting - Wellman's, The Story of GI Joe, comes to mind, but those are rare indeed. That said, I will still watch them of late. I can't explain it - even to myself.

So for last night's viewing I curled up with some watemelon chunks and my Tivo remote to sink into the morass that I can't escape, but something wonderful happened. I was sucked into the best World War II movie from that period that I have ever seen - I mean ever.

A Walk in The Sun was shot in 1945 and released the following year. It took a special effort on the part of Burgess Meredith (who also dryly narrates the picture) to get it made and was shot on a small budget. Though the Army helped in its production it is so unlike other films of the time that you doubt that it could have been made at the beginning of the war rather than at its end.

Based on the novel of the same name by Harry Brown, it follows a platoon of soldiers as they land on the coast of Salerno, Italy and make their way inland to a farmhouse. Their vaguely described (to us and to them) objective is to take the farmhouse and hold it - a pretty simple plot. The brilliance of the film lies not in its plot or its climax, but in its examination of the mental anatomy of men at war - through the long, sometimes tense, but usually mundane, trek they make to get to their destination. They walk and talk, sit and talk, eat and talk, they talk endlessly - but oh, what talk. Screenwriter Richard Rossen's dialog rivets you with wit, intelligence and honesty:

Rivera: Good thing they invented trains for travelling salesmen.
Friedman: OK, kill me: what's the gag?
Rivera: No gag. But if they didn't have trains, all the travelling salesmen would have to walk.
Friedman: "You're" a travelling salesman; you ain't been taking any trains lately.
Rivera: Whaddaya mean, "I'm" a travelling salesman? I'm a murderer!
Friedman: You're a travelling salesmen. You're selling democracy to the natives.
Rivera: So that's what I am, huh? Whaddaya know. Where'd you get that malarkey, Jake?
Friedman: Out of a book.
Rivera: A book!
Friedman: You're a decadent democrat, Rivera.


Sgt. Ward: Apples.
Windy: What'd you say, Sergeant?
Sgt. Ward: [surprised] Guess I said 'apples.'
Windy: Why?
Sgt. Ward: Just thinkin' of 'em.
Windy: Oh.
Riddle: What kind of apples, sergeant?
Sgt. Ward: All kinds. Baldwins, McIntosh, Reds, Pippins, Russets... I was thinkin' I'd like to be cuttin' one open, right now. And lickin' that juice off the knife.
Riddle: Cut it out, willya, Sarge?
Riddle: Now ya got me thinking about something juicy.


Friedman: You ever think you'll live to make corporal?
Rivera: Baby, I just want to live long enough to make civilian


Rivera: It could've been something else. It could've been the engineers or the tanks. It could even have been the Navy. They looked at me and said, "Here's a guy that can walk." They finished me, all right.
Friedman: Everybody walks. Even monkeys. Where are we going, Rivera?
Rivera: I am going someplace where I can set up this weapon. Then I am going to shoot this weapon. I am not gonna walk any more!

And the dark...

Sergeant Tyne: Wonder what it'll be like when we hit France, Mac.
McWilliams: I don't know. I never seen France.
Sergeant Tyne: I bet its just a long concrete wall with a gun every yard. Maybe they'll set the water on fire with oil, too. Boy, when that day comes I wanna be somewhere else.

These are not heroes. These men can think of nothing but where else they would rather be.

The performances of the ensemble are amazing. Norman Lloyd, Richard Conte, Lloyd Bridges, Huntz Hall (yes, of the Bowery Boys), George Tyne, Dana Andrews, John Ireland, Sterling Holloway and a host of others. There are no real starring roles; just a brilliant group of actors working at their peaks with a script that is rich beyond imagination.

There's no pathos, no heroics, almost no action. Men die suddenly and without histrionics. That tone is set at the beginning of the film as they await the invasion in their landing barge. The men banter and chat as they try to distract themselves. Their new Lieutenant stands with binoculars looking out across the sea at the night. Enemy shells occasionally splash nearby. Suddenly a shell goes off and the Lieutenant crumples to the deck moaning. Another man feels for his wound in the dark before announcing that the man's face is gone. The men are reluctant to help - no one wants to see someone with their face blown off and he's going to die anyway. They aren't so much heartless as resigned. As some finally try to tend to him the others' chat resumes just as before but with a sense of doomed resignation. It is horrifying, sadly touching, and unlike anything I have ever seen in a war movie of the time.

Lewis Milestone directed the picture with the same resolve with which he directed All Quiet On The Western Front 16 years earlier. Both films pointedly see war as lacking glory or any semblance of heroism other than simply doing your job and living through it. Neither film ever demonizes the enemy - they are just other guys stuck in this mess too, as in this one when a dead German soldier is revealed only by his hand hanging limply, a wedding band glittering on his finger.

Though the men in A Walk are not heroes in the classic mythical sense and would rather be anywhere than there, they still do their tasks with workman-like efficiency. The deaths and wounds that surround them must be ignored if they are to escape with their minds intact. But when a sergeant succumbs finally to the mental onslaught and breaks down completely, he is treated in a more understanding way than he would have been in any other film of the period. As the platoon looks on sympathetically, another sergeant speaks to him:

Windy: [looking at Sergeant Porter, sobbing face down on the ground] Keep crying, Porter. You're crying because you're wounded. You don't have to be bleeding to be wounded; you just had one battle too many. Yeah, you're out of it now. No more guesswork, waiting and wondering, for you. You've built yourself a foxhole
[taps his own helmet]
Windy: - up there. Nothing in the world that can make you come out of it. Go ahead, Porter; keep crying - we understand

This is a stunning portrait of men in conditions they neither control nor desire. By turns tense, confusing, funny, wry, and uncomfortable it stands above not just the films of its own time but most contemporary pictures as well. Clifford McCarty called it "the most lyrical war movie ever made," and he's right (though The Thin Red Line surpasses it in many respects), but it's also one of the finest pictures I have seen in a long time and can not recommend it enough.

Windy: A man's hands never seem to get clean, even if he don't touch nothing. They just stay dirty. Sort of a special kind of dirt. G.I. dirt. I bet one of those criminologists could take a sample out of a guy's fingernail, put it under a microscope, and say, "That's G.I. dirt." The dirt's always the same color, no matter what country you're fighting in.

Fortunately for you, it can be watched gratis at Free Movies Online. The quality is a little subpar, but it's the entire picture and it's free. How often do you get a masterpiece like this with no strings attached? Find the time.

Windy: Dear Frances, we just blew a bridge and took a farmhouse. It was so easy... so terribly easy.

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