Self Preservation, by Scott Nye
“If we have to win our wars with people like you, God help us!”
James Jones hated that line. He certainly had the grounds to. The author of The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity had served in World War II, and would go on to cover the Vietnam War as a journalist. In his 1963 Saturday Evening Post article “Phoney War Films” (reprinted in The Criterion Collection’s booklet accompanying their Blu-ray release of Terrence Malick’s adaptation of The Thin Red Line), he outlines the many dishonest ways Hollywood had portrayed that war, and many others, in the twenty years between his leaving the Army and writing the article. The offense of Anthony Mann’s Korean War drama Men in War, which he otherwise liked, was in positing that there was some moral barometer that metered combat, when in fact the Army and those who commanded it sought to enlist or create the very men that this film deems Unfit for Duty.
Men in War was shown last night to kick off UCLA Film & Television Archive’s biennial Festival of Preservation. I had never seen it before, but in the lead-up to that line, I suddenly realized that I had read of it before. Such is the mercurial nature of repertory attendance. One minute, you’re absolutely enthralled by a film that has proven resolutely original and singular; the next, you realize you were chuckling to yourself about it on your couch five years ago.
Jones’ essay has proven an important lens through which I view war films, as it happens. Even though I hadn’t remembered his specific mention of Men in War, I had thought about it several times while watching the film. His key point is that sentimental depictions of individual heroics motivated only by “grit” and “toughness” are completely dishonest methods of depicting war. He sees nothing of “the regimentation of souls, the systematized reduction of men to animal level, the horror of pointless death, the exhaustion of living in constant fear.” He continues:
Most deaths in infantry combat are due to arbitrary chance, a totally random selection by which an unknown enemy drops a mortar or artillery shell onto, or punches an MG bullet into, a man he has never seen before – and perhaps never does see at all! Such a death is totally reasonless and pointless from the viewpoint of the individual, because it might just as well have been the man next to him… About the only good thing that can be said for such a death, really, is that the individual is generally so dehumanized already, and so dulled emotionally and mentally, that being killed doesn’t really hurt him half as much as he may have once imagined that it would.
Not exactly the kind of material that, if represented onscreen, would send young men rushing to enlist, let alone canonize those who Fought and Served, the two most common goals of the war film. For the most part, though, Men in War lives up to Jones’ ideal. When we meet the troop, they’re cut off from any contact with the Army, sitting in a field surrounded by hidden Korean soldiers, and forced to march some fifteen miles where their division might possibly be stationed. At every moment, Mann highlights the constant danger that surrounds them – landmines, mortar shells, snipers, even men hiding in the bushes with knives, waiting to pick them off one by one. Aside, obviously, from star Robert Ryan, any one of the men is expendable, and is all too aware of his likely death, which will be, at best, determined at random. Time after time, men are killed simply for standing in the wrong place.
The film’s most horrific scene sees Ryan call the men up, two by two, in alphabetical order, to run across a field that’s being shelled, hoping they’ve timed out the shelling accurately enough to make it to the other side alive. The smoke and dust builds around them, the holes in the ground widen, making every quick step a precarious one, the danger doubled by the fact that the enemy may fall into a new shelling pattern at any moment. At one point, the shelling stops altogether, surely to resume…but when?
Jones fairly feels that Men in War concludes with “a pretty sorry resolution to an interesting beginning,” in which The Men make one last valiant attempt to Take The Hill. Though their effort is ultimately successful, however, their deaths valorized as noble sacrifices, the way Mann goes about this routine business is anything but. For one, Ryan is forced to reteam with the man he berated in the line quoted at the beginning of this piece. Aldo Ray plays this film’s Animal, a man who, though ruthless and probably mentally unstable, is accurately said to be “always right.” Each time he determines his actions according to the worst possible outcome, he successfully deters precisely that. It is exactly the ruthlessness Ryan despises that helps them win.
Further, every attempt made by the men to accomplish Individual Heroics is instantly made in vain. They run to help their lieutenant, and are immediately killed. Their impulsive actions only bring undue attention. But their deaths are not in vain, because Ryan and Ray do ultimately take the hill…right? Not so fast there, either. As Ryan reads off the names of the dead, his communications officer hears the larger infantry coming in to help them – good news for the living, but might the final battle have been less bloody had the troop simply waited another hour for reinforcements?
This sort of moral tension provides the burning underbelly of the picture – the men try to do what’s right, but are continuously drawn further down into the muck. It may not ultimately be the most “realistic” portrait, but it does have a certain honesty is showing the hopelessness of the individual when caught in the machine of war. It’s the more moment-to-moment tension that drives much of the picture – at times reaching a sort of nightmarish beauty that rivals such films as The Wages of Fear – but ultimately this that cements its horror.
UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation continues tonight, and throughout March, at the Billy Wilder Theatre in the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Los Angeles. Films include rarities by Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk, John Ford, Leo McCarey, Laurel & Hardy, Edgar G. Ulmer, D.W. Griffith, and more. Visit the festival website for more information.