War Movie Mondays: ‘Men In War’

Director Anthony Mann helmed this somewhat forgotten Korean War film which pits a small platoon of American soldiers against unseen North Korean snipers and combatants as U.N. forces are pushed further back across the 38th Parallel in September, 1950. The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 as communist insurgents attempted to overthrow the democratic government of the south. The Korean peninsula became divided by the victors after the end of World War II.

The North embraced Chinese communism, while the south became democratic. The U.S. was the first major power to send in an expeditionary force to help its South Korean allies stem the communist invasion. Within a few short months, the U.N. forces were fighting with their backs against the sea and it looked like the war was about to be lost.

Men in War‘ (1957) was originally conceived as a World War II story set during the D-Day invasion. Screenwriter Philip Yordan adapted Van Van Praag’s novel “Day Without End” to be set during Korea instead. Robert Ryan (Lt. Benson), Aldo Ray (Sgt. Montana), Robert Keith (The Colonel), Nehemiah Persoff (SSgt. Lewis), Vic Morrow (Cpl. Zwickley), James Edwards (Sgt Killian), L.Q. Jones (Sgt Davis) are among the Hollywood greats who comprise the cast of ‘Men in War‘.

What makes this film so wonderful is the fact that it received no technical support from the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army throughout filming. Mann assembles some of the greatest character actors of all time to lend their talents as the hardened platoon which faces uncertainty as they try to rejoin with their unit after being separated during the American withdrawal towards Pusan (the South Korean capitol).

The movie uses typical cliches as most war films of the time did e.g. (the farm boy who always has a piece of straw hanging from his mouth, the veteran sergeant who is ready to crack under the strain of combat, and the cynic who refuses to be involved in combat). The majority of grunts are either Italian, Irish, or African Americans from all walks of life.

The film does a somewhat decent job by avoiding that quintessential dialogue of that one character known by the rest as “Brooklyn” who only talks about his mother’s cooking, or going back home to see his beloved Dodgers when all of a sudden, a bullet pierces through his helmet and he drops dead before a fire fight ensues. For the most, the film conveys total isolation, and fear of an unseen enemy which can strike in an instant. The film shows the viewer that the “Korean conflict” was a new war that American troops were unprepared to fight.

Lt. Benson (Ryan) is the platoon commander attached to the 24th U.S. Infantry Division who were sent in along with U.N. forces to stop the North Korean advance. During the battle at the Nakdong River, Benson retreats with a handful of his men, weapons, and provisions in order to link up with others in order to make a stand against the North Korean forces. Sgt. Montana (Ray) and his catatonic Colonel (Keith) have commandeered a jeep which Lt. Benson then uses for all of the supplies. Sgt. Montana and the Col. are veterans with the soldier patches of the 1st Calvary Division which fought many campaigns throughout the Pacific in World War II (both were the first units to see combat in the opening stages of Korea).

Montana cares very deeply for his Colonel who he regards as a father figure. Benson and Montana feud on a constant basis and Montana disregards Benson’s rank with statements like “I’m not in your army and you’re not in mine Lieutenant”.  Benson sees Montana as an undisciplined, insubordinate, who just happens to be a first rate soldier and understands the tactics of the enemy they are fighting. In every situation, Montana challenges Benson’s seniority and his inability to think as their enemies do.

The remainder of the film is that of the platoon trying to make it back to a hill which is within the American lines. Artillery barrages, sniper fire, and mines are among the many obstacles the men face. By film’s end, only a handful remain to defeat the enemy only in time for the calvary to come to the rescue.

I first saw this film several years ago on tv. I was impressed that the cast was made up of some of my favorite character actors including Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, L.Q. Jones, and Vic Morrow who my father loved on the old t.v. series ‘Combat‘ which he said was the most realistic portrayal of infantry life in the army. Its a film that is shot very well and almost has a feel of a stage play to it. An exceptional score from legendary composer Elmer Bernstein makes ‘Men in War‘ a truly underrated and forgotten film about one of America’s forgotten wars.

Look for the DVD on Netflix, Best Buy.Com, or Amazon.

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