November 10, 2009
Robert Ryan looks exhausted in Men In War, Anthony Mann’s spare Korean War drama. He focuses all of his energy on curling his upper lip, slitting his eyes, and furrowing his brow, as you see in the photo above. He’s worried, tired, broken. He delivers the dialogue with a laconic flatness, never rising above a low rumble. His Lt. Benson confronts a dead soldier with the same intonation as he does a busted radio: “This war, you’re either healthy or you’re dead”. He continues doing his job out of inertia, prodded on by the desperate stares of his men. His weary resignation shifts into a bitter nihilism before the final battle, and Ryan handles the transition by adding a tremolo to his voice and taking off his helmet, revealing his matted-down mop of hair. Working with Mann, it’s a masterful bit of sepulchral underplaying, keyed to the battered landscape and the canny enemies that hide inside it.
Based on Van van Praag’s WWII novel, Day Without End (1949), and adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan (in collaboration with the blacklisted Ben Maddow, who is uncredited), Men In War follows Lt. Benson and his unit as they are cut off from central command and try to fight their way out from behind enemy lines. They are joined by the amoral Sergeant Montana (Aldo Ray) and his Colonel (Robert Keith), who has been shell-shocked into silence. All of these men are literally disconnected, as the opening scene finds the radio man repeatedly calling for help as Mann pans over a smoky, desolate horizon. No answer. This opening shot sets up the soldiers’ growing alienation from the army, and the incipient danger of the landscape, from which Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who does fine foggy work) will wring a series of compositions emphasizing the North Korean’s mastery of the terrain. Manny Farber: “…the terrain is special in that it is used, kicked, grappled, worried, sweated up, burrowed into, stomped on.” Mann focuses on boots in mud and “threading lines at twilight” that emphasis the physical toll of battle. Nature is synonymous with death, and it shows in every crease on Ryan’s brow.
Mann cements this early on, in a rhyming composition between a dead, slumped over soldier, and Ryan’s resting body in a foxhole. Ryan is the walking dead, and so are his men, but they move on. While American bodies are slumped and lifeless, devoured by their surroundings, their Korean adversaries show off their knowledge of the terrain.
They have all the tactical advantages, while Ryan’s men start to reach a hysterical pitch of complaining. There are two central conflicts, one between Benson and Montana, and the other between soldier and landscape. Montana is a shoot-first, take-no-prisoners type, whose fearlessness and brutality saves lives and bruises Benson’s already wounded nobility. Benson is trying to maintain a code of honor, but events keep spiraling out of control, with Montana’s smiling head pulling a trigger to solve the problem. Benson demands that Montana take a prisoner – and he guns him down instead. When Benson inspects the body, he discovers a pistol in the hat that would probably have taken him down. Montana simply wants to get his Colonel home safe, this doddering old man the only thing left in the world that he values. Army protocol takes a beating here, which drew the ire of the U.S. Armed Services, who publicly condemned the film and refused any assistance in its production, from on-set experts to weapons and ammunition.
The Benson-Montana showdown plays out in a rather predictable manner, but Ryan and Ray imbue it with enough bleary resignation and childish psychosis, respectively, that it’s an effective microcosm of the broader drama of man versus nature. The only sense in which Mann allows these soldiers a measure of control is in his obsessive inserts of hands – especially in the exchange of cigarettes. These close-ups show the miniature world in which Benson can gain control of. Outside, Montana is overthrowing his ethics and the DPRK Army will soon overrun his men. And eventually the world right in front of their eyeballs face the reality of blood and dog tags.