Considering this was directed by Anthony Mann I couldn’t help but wonder if James Stewart was approached to play a grizzled war veteran with a platoon of men at his command behind enemy lines in the Korean Conflict. The reason for that thought is he had been working with Stewart throughout the 1950’s for a total of 8 films. The ninth was apparently to be Night Passage. A western that Stewart went on to make without Mann behind the camera, also released in 1957. The leading character for Men In War is not unlike some of Stewart’s western portrayals but I must say in Robert Ryan’s capable hands we’ve no need to worry. Ryan was no stranger to Mann having worked for him in the excellent The Naked Spur opposite Stewart in 1953.
Ryan’s portrayal of Lt. Benson is very akin to the role of Deke Thornton, the weary lawman he would go on to play in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Photographed in black and white the film opens following a skirmish. Ryan and his platoon are hunkered down amidst the gun smoke that is floating in the air. Some men are banged up, others in shock, some silent and some dead. There is no contact via radio and Ryan needs to get his men to Hill 465 which is supposed to be under the control of U.S. forces.
At Ryan’s urging the march begins through the foothills towards the ever changing front lines. Among his platoon are Nehemiah Persoff, James Edwards, L.Q. Jones, Phillip Pine and a young shell shocked Vic Morrow. The men are all on foot with plenty of gear to carry but fortune is about to smile on them. Speeding fast through the territory is a jeep headed their way. In it is Aldo Ray and his Commanding Officer, Robert Keith. Keith is in need of medical attention after an explosion has left him in a coma like state and Ray is the loyal soldier attempting to get his father figure to a MASH unit.
Ryan is soon to realize that Ray is a professional killer. The two are at odds from the moment they meet. Ray isn’t concerned about the platoon and whether or not they survive. His mission is to get Keith to safety. At gunpoint Ryan commandeers the jeep and enlists Ray into his command. Ray’s got a cold bloodedness to him and dispatches all enemy soldiers with no remorse prompting Ryan’s …..
“God help us if it takes your kind to win this war.”
With no response on the radio from Hill 465 and what is supposed to be H.Q., Ryan, is beginning to doubt there is anyone left alive. As the journey towards home base continues the platoon’s numbers will dwindle under sniper fire, incoming shells and land mines. Upon reaching their destination Ryan’s fears are proven true leaving what’s left of his platoon little choice but to attempt to retake the hill from Korean forces.
“With guts we’ll take it.”
Ray will have nothing to do with the suicide mission and with the jeep back in his possession sets out to get Keith to a hospital but of course we know that’s not going to happen and he’ll be joining in the fight before the final shells are fired leaving very few men standing at the fadeout.
Men In War is a solid film of the era with a tough guy cast to match. It’s just this sort of film that the gravel voiced Aldo Ray is best remembered for. He starred in a succession of war films during the 1950’s. Among them Three Stripes In the Sun, Battle Cry and The Naked and the Dead. The latter two also had Men In War’s L.Q. Jones appearing alongside Ray. Which brings us to a fun bit of trivia concerning L.Q. His real name is Justus McQueen. His character in Battle Cry was Pvt. L.Q. Jones. And the rest is movie history. Ray would return to the war film in 1968’s The Green Berets for director John Wayne while L.Q. would make a name for himself as an all around screen villain. Most famously in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
By this point in his career, Ryan, was firmly entrenched in the no nonsense type of characters he was famous for. Men that rarely paused to smile and were seemingly on edge throughout the films he starred in, usually westerns, noirs and dramas. Following Men In War the actor would reteam with director Mann and actors Aldo Ray and Vic Morrow in the 1958 release, God’s Little Acre.
Not lost on me is the fact that the film is based in a novel titled Combat by author Van Van Praag. Trivia hounds should be quick to point out Vic Morrow’s role in the long running Combat television series that ran for five seasons in the 1960’s. Besides the solid direction of Anthony Mann, the film also boasts a first rate score from Elmer Bernstein and Oscar winning Cinematographer Ernest Haller also working behind the scenes.
One notable name that jumped out at me in the credits was Victor Sen Yung. Portraying a doomed North Korean fighter, film buffs will know him as Charlie Chan’s Number 2 son, Jimmy, in the long running Chan series of the 30’s and 40’s. While his role is secondary here I’ve always loved spotting him in the many films he appeared in thanks to my love of the Chan mysteries. Speaking of notables, I know Bronson Canyon when I see it in a movie. Countless flicks have been filmed there including most any 1950’s sci-fi/monster thriller.
Men In War was one of the first films I may have purchased on VHS ages ago thanks to it’s being released by the low budget Interglobal company for home video. That really does seem like ages ago. Thankfully Olive Films picked it up for release on DVD and blu ray not too long ago. The original film poster? Happy hunting.