Anthony Mann's Men in War: Aldo Ray, Robert Ryan
I've written a feature for Movies.MSN.com, occasioned by the release of War Horse and focusing on notable films that take their own distinct looks at the subject of war. The full package can be found at http://movies.msn.com/movie-guide-winter/photo-gallery-feature/10-war-movies-you-need-to-see/?photoidx=1. Meanwhile, here are two of the individual writeups:
You couldn't find a title more elemental than Men in War (1957), and that goes for the film as well. The epigraph sounds as if it might have come from Xenophon: "Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars." The action, set during the Korean War, covers a single day and the following dawn. Robert Ryan plays a lieutenant named Benson, a non–career officer and liberal humanist (close in spirit, one senses, to the actor himself) whose patrol is utterly isolated in a wasteland nameless but for numbers on a map. In the eerie yet plain-as-day mise-en-scène, the enemy is barely seen but omnipresent, almost literally part of the landscape — which is to say, this is an Anthony Mann picture par excellence, building on and extending the stylistic and spiritual legacy of the director's great Westerns (The Naked Spur, Winchester '73) and films noirs (Border Incident). Aldo Ray costars as a case-hardened sergeant who crosses the path of Ryan's patrol while attempting to get his shell-shocked commandant (Robert Keith) to safety. Philosophically, he's more adversary than likely ally to Ryan, yet both men are crucial to the prospect of anyone surviving the day. The warfare is harrowing; the heartbreaking finale, unforgettable.
Here's one nobody saw coming, then or now. Went the Day Well? was made in 1942, though part of what's dislocating about it is that it pretends to be some time later, looking back at an incident that's already taken on the augustness of history. The setting is a picturebook-quaint English village called Bramley End, the residents of which awaken one morning to learn that some British troops are to be billeted among them. These troops are fine fellows, surely, and the locals set about finding room for them in their homes and public places. Thing is, the visitors aren't British at all, but impeccably anglicized German paratroopers preparing the way for a full-scale invasion of the Sceptred Isle. Based on a story by Graham Greene and directed by the gifted, Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti, this movie is simply astonishing. The patented homely touch of Ealing Studios, usually in the service of folksy comedy, is amply at play, but with the aim of making the eventual moments of betrayal and murderous violence the more horrific, even obscene. Leslie Banks, not only an established star but an icon of English cinema, is brilliantly cast as the village squire secretly in cahoots with the Nazis, while Basil Sydney (later Claudius in Olivier's "Hamlet") plays the German commandant. The desperately improvisational resistance force includes such stalwarts as Marie Lohr, Edward Rigby, Mervyn Johns, and Frank Lawton (who in Hollywood days played the adult David Copperfield).