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With: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Robert Keith, Phillip Pine, Nehemiah Persoff, Vic Morrow, James Edwards, L. Q. Jones, Scott Marlowe, Adam Kennedy
Written by: Philip Yordan and/or Ben Maddow, based on a novel by Van Van Praag
Directed by: Anthony Mann
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 102
Date: 03/19/1957

Men in War (1957)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm a huge fan of director Anthony Mann, but not a huge fan of war films, so Mann's Men in War (1957) was a movie I wasn't exactly looking forward to, but knew I'd have to tackle someday, for better or for worse. Thankfully, it turns out to be a very good film, pure Mann, and I'm glad I saw it.

As it opens the black-and-white cinematography by Ernest Haller immediately sets it up as something different. It's gritty and realistic, but also highly cinematic, with jarring close-ups helping to capture the mixed-up feelings of these men in war.

The screenplay was adapted from a novel by Van Van Praag; Philip Yordan is the credited writer, but some sources claim that Yordan was the front for the blacklisted Ben Maddow. Mann's direction ranks with his finest; it's tight and tense, with a razor-sharp use of environment. Though the territory is wild and unknown, Mann still emphasizes clarity of action over chaos.

The movie is set during the Korean War, over the course of one day. One of the first images is the radio operator desperately trying to raise help, his voice an exhausted barked whisper. It turns out that this platoon is stuck in the middle of nowhere, several miles away from their rendezvous point, their jeep demolished, and surrounded by both enemy snipers and landmines.

The man in charge, Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan), keeps his head and orders the men to round up all the weapons and supplies they can carry and start walking. Before long another jeep comes along, driven by a sergeant known as "Montana" (Aldo Ray). In the passenger seat is Montana's colonel (Robert Keith) gone catatonic from shellshock. Montana looks at the older man as a father figure and is determined to get him to a hospital, but Benson commandeers the jeep, much to Montana's frustration.

It turns out Montana is a big help, knowing a little about how the Koreans operate and saving the platoon a couple of times. In one harrowing sequence, the road ahead becomes a deadly trap as the Koreans bomb it from above. The men realize that the bombs come in threes, and send men running through after every third explosion. The plan mostly works, but is not foolproof, and a couple of the men don't make it.

Men die in Men in War, randomly, unexpectedly, and without time to stop and think about it. Men are upset, and perhaps even shocked to the point that they can't fight anymore; they have seen and experienced more than their brains can handle. This was an issue that the military of the time did not want people to know about; Stanley Kubrick also dealt with it in one potent scene in Paths of Glory the same year.

The movie continues with this theme up to the end. It doesn't have a happy ending, but it's not a total tragedy, either. Some men survive, and others do not. The men who survive choose to use the movie's final minutes to remember their fallen colleagues. As it should be, the movie turns out to be more about men than it is about war.

Young Vic Morrow and L.Q. Jones are among the infantrymen. The great character actor James Edwards has one of his best roles as the platoon's mechanic; he was one of the earliest African-American actors to appear in Hollywood films, and he's a recognizable face from Samuel Fuller's The Steel Helmet, Kubrick's The Killing, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, and others.

Olive Films released the film on DVD and Blu-ray for 2014, and it's most welcome. The picture quality is fine for a film of this age and type, but the audio track has a bit of hiss. There are no subtitles or extras.

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