Monday, August 25, 2014

A Walk in the Sun (1945)

Director: Lewis Milestone                              Writers: Robert Rossen & Harry Brown
Film Score: Freddie Rich                               Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Starring: Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Norman Lloyd and John Ireland

Director Lewis Milestone made his name in Hollywood with another war film, All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930. The film was an Academy Award winner and put him in the front ranks of directors during the early sound era, and he continued to assay distinctive films in the war genre throughout his career. At first glance A Walk in the Sun seems a strange picture. Actors like John Ireland, Sterling Holloway and Norman Lloyd hardly seem like action heroes. But the reality is neither were the citizen soldiers of World War Two, and so the casting here seems absolutely appropriate and realistic. But that’s about the only thing that seems realistic. It’s an oddly sanitized war picture in which an isolated squad of men makes its way through enemy territory without really fighting anything. The occasional plane strafes them, or an armored car comes along the road and they have to destroy it, but there’s no real sense that they are fighting other soldiers until the very end. In fact, no German faces are seen in the entire film. The idea, however, seems to be that this represents the blind battle that the soldiers wage, oblivious to the planning and rationale of those higher up in charge of the war.

The film begins with the distinctive voice of Burgess Meredith introducing the viewer to the cast. The action starts on a landing craft heading for Salerno and the invasion of Italy by the allied soldiers, the first strike against the mainland of Europe since the Nazi invasion of France. The company has a new lieutenant and in trying not to appear nervous he looks out over the side of the boat and is fatally wounded before they even land. Once ashore the company heads inland a hundred yards and holds in a ditch waiting for orders. They men talk quietly, complaining or ordering each other around, but when no orders come the company heads into the woods. While the beach is being strafed Dana Andrews muses to Sterling Holloway how much worse the invasion of France is going to be. Isolated from the action, however, the men can see none of it. After learning that their commanding officer is dead, the men look in his map case and find that their objective is a farmhouse six miles inland. Herbert Rudley is the next in command, a weak soldier who doesn’t want the responsibility. Dana Andrews, who probably should be in charge, alternately chides him and gives him suggestions, and eventually they pack up and begin walking toward the farmhouse.

The purpose of the film was to give American audiences a sense of the unity of their diverse population. Of course this still excluded blacks and Asians, the white melting pot including primarily European immigrants and Puerto Rican Richard Conte. The film is also less about war than it is the men and their relationships, the things they talk about with each other, both innocuous and meaningful, a stream of consciousness that attempts to replicate what real soldiers would talk about. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is when Herbert Rudley finally cracks up, and winds up crying on the ground. John Ireland is sent over to watch over him for a while and gives a short monologue saying that his emotional wound is just as real as the physical ones that soldiers get. This is a far cry from scenes that would appear in later war films, like George C. Scott slapping the “battle fatigued” soldier in Patton or the utter lack of compassion for Marc Warren’s Private Blythe in Band of Brothers. The other part of the film that is the most chilling, however, is the discussion between various soldiers about how long the war would continue. Released in December of 1945, the war was already over, but seeing these soldiers in 1943 and knowing they still had two brutal years ahead of them which also included D-Day is harrowing.

One of the unfortunate choices that director Lewis Milestone makes is the use of a ballad sung by baritone Earl Robinson to provide what he felt would be a unifying element to the picture. Instead, it only serves to increase the unreality of the movie in general. This lesson was evidently lost on producer Stanley Kramer when he used a similar ballad in High Noon several years later. Preview screenings of that film actually had the audience laughing whenever the ballad was heard. Milestone’s colleagues urged him to get rid of the song altogether and, while he refused, he did limit the appearance of the song from his originally conceived eleven times to the four that appear in the film. He also wisely omitted the song during the climax of the film. Dana Andrews is the star, and does his normally solid job. Richard Conte’s role is a humorous one, but his relationship with George Tyne is one of the highlights of the film. Norman Lloyd is the dark cloud of pessimism in the story but not overly so, and John Ireland is the scribe, audibly taking down letters to his sister back home. In the end A Walk in the Sun is a very strange war film, an overly artificial look at six hours in the life of soldiers during World War Two.

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