This week’s pick is Lewis Milestone’s classic A Walk in the Sun (1945) that tells the story of a hardened platoon that hits the beaches of Salerno, Italy in World War II. The film stars Dana Andrews (Sgt. Bill Tyne), Richard Conte (Pvt. Rivera), John Ireland (PFC. Windy Craven), George Tyne (Pvt. Jake Friedman), Lloyd Bridges (SSgt. Ward) and Richard Benedict (Pvt. Tranella).
A Walk in the Sun was one of the first post war films that showed the audience the myriad complexities of combat and its effects on the morale of soldiers that had already been fighting under the harsh conditions of North Africa, and the Sicilian campaign. Issues like “combat fatigue” or what was called “shell shock” in the first war were not widely known, or were not considered a major issue like it is today with returning veterans.
The focal point of the film is on the fifty-three men of Lee Platoon of the Texas Division, which is made up of men from all walks of American life. Sgt Tyne (Andrews) is a native of Rhode Island, privates Friedman and Rivera (Tyne and Conte) are New York natives who can only talk about getting home to the Big Apple, and Sgt. Ward (Bridges) is a Midwest farmer who wants nothing more than to return home and resume his previous occupation before the war.
In the early morning hours, American landing craft head for the shore at Salerno. Each man tries to take his mind off of the inevitable and deals with the fear in their own way. Pvt. Craven (Ireland) asks a fellow soldier how to spell “Mare Nostrum” which he says refers to the Mediterranean Sea. The frightened soldier replies that he doesn’t know how to spell the word. Pvt. Craven also passes the time by writing a letter to his wife in his mind and remembering it so he can write it down when there is light to see. The hum of the landing craft engines and the score from Freddie Efrem Rich provide the viewer with an eerie sense that something horrible is about to go wrong. The Platoon’s Lieutenant, Lt. Rand tells the men to douse out any light so that enemy artillery can’t spot them from the beach. Pvt. Craven watches the Lt. as he sticks his head up over the side of the landing craft, muttering to himself that the Lt. should get down. All of a sudden, an artillery burst takes off half the Lieutenant’s face and he dies shortly after the men hit the beach unopposed.
The men of the Texas division establish a beachhead and are ordered to move into the woods to avoid being strafed by enemy planes that are attacking the American ships that are providing support for the landing forces. After the death of their CO, Sgt. Halverson (Willis) takes command and tries to find their company commander to tell them that Lt. Rand is dead. Halverson places the platoon under Sgt. Porter’s (Rudley) command until he returns with orders from their Captain about their objective. Sgt. Tyne is a cautious and experienced soldier who know begins to wonder what will happen if Halverson doesn’t return. If so, the fate of the platoon then moves to Sgt. Porter, then to Tyne himself.
Medic McWilliams (Holloway) comes over a sand dune to find Sgt. Tyne waiting for Sgt. Halverson to return. McWilliams tells Tyne that Rand and Halverson are both dead. A sense of disillusionment comes across Tyne’s face as he realizes that the operation has not gone according to plan. McWilliams asks the Sergeant if he can go over the dune and observe if enemy planes have threatened the support ships or if there is a second wave of troops arriving. Tyne initially refuses, but allows McWilliams to go an see. An enemy fighter swoops down and strafes the dunes. Tyne is spared, but McWilliams is hit and killed. Tyne moves into the woods to find that several other men have been hit as well, including Sgt. Hoskins (Cardwell). Tyne, Porter, and Ward form three squads and head the men out on a six mile trek to a farm house which is also the site of a bridge head which is a vital military artery for tanks and other heavy ordinance.
The dialogue in the film is wonderfully written. Pvt. Archimbeau (Lloyd) is a cynical soldier who tells the rest of the men that they’ll still be fighting this war fifteen years from now during “the battle of Tibet”. In one scene while talking to another soldier, Archimbeau says that in the last war you were sent to France to fight the Germans, yet in this war you’re sent to Africa, Sicily, now Italy. He says that by next year they may be in France. Archimbeau would prove to be absolutely correct. Both Friedman and Rivera talk about going home to New York, walking on the boardwalk at Coney Island, and going for a ride on the subway. As Friedman and Rivera are marching with the platoon towards their objective, Friedman tells Rivera that he’s traveling salesman who is “selling democracy to the natives”. In one scene Sgt. Ward runs his hand through the dirt and says to the others that nothing can grow in such tired dirt. One soldier remarks that the dirt is like that due to the many soldiers who have been walking all over it. It was a profound statement in which the battle for Italy was about to begin and would be a very hard fought campaign.
After a mental breakdown from Sgt. Porter, Tyne takes command and continues the men on the march to the enemy farmhouse. The last half of the film is the taking of the farmhouse and the sacrifices these men perform for one another and to meet that objective. The men co-ordinate with one another after PFC. Craven comes up with the idea of flanking the farmhouse by using the river as a way to get around, and to also to blow up the bridgehead there. Tyne and Ward think it’s a great idea and the mission is a success.
A Walk in the Sun was a huge commercial hit and was shown to members of the United States Army who asked Milestone to add a few things into the film for some better continuity like the objective and the location in Italy. The film’s narration was performed by Hollywood legend Burgess Meredith who read the novel and pushed for the film to be made. The film was eventually picked up after a licensing feud between studios to produce it. 20th Century Fox eventually picked up the film and Milestone was slated as the director due to his success with such war films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Darryl F. Zanuck (the head of Fox studios at that time) wasn’t sure if the public wanted to see another war picture, especially shortly after Japan had surrendered. The film debuted in December 1945 and was a smash hit. World War II veteran and up & coming Hollywood director Samuel Fuller wrote a letter to Milestone congratulating him on a fine picture, but with some strong critique as well.
A Walk in the Sun is available in its original un-cut version on a newly re-issued DVD through VCI Entertainment and can be rented through Netflix.