The Sunday Intertitle: Rise of the Footsoldier
Not easy finding an intertitle in Anthony Mann’s oeuvre. Lots of opening titles thanking the people of New Mexico etc, and lots declaring the factual nature of the story we are about to see — although Mann seems to have preferred VO for such direct announcement. But this card, from MEN IN WAR (1957), just about satisfies my stringent requirements, even if it’s only “inter” the main titles and the film.
It does neatly tie the story, an Korean war existentialist crisis drama, into the historical record, connecting it to other Philip Yordan scripts filmed by Mann — EL CID and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Yordan seems to embrace both the mythic and universal properties of the western and other period subjects, and the more specific, historically-rooted possibilities.
I’m a little wary of generalizing about Yordan as an artist though, since he fronted for so many blacklisted writers (taking a healthy cut of their fees). When it cam time to restore the names of the true authors to the films’ credits, Yordan had apparently fallen out with some of his “collaborators” and refused to confirm their involvement. This strikes me as rather improper. And since Yordan was working as producer on the Bronston epics his name is attached to as writer, I have some concerns as to whether he actually did any writing. Bernard Gordon’s memoir, Hollywood Exile, makes no mention of Yordan doing any real writing on 55 DAYS AT PEKING (great stuff about Nick Ray though).
– EXCEPT — a viewing of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE shows so many thematic concerns and character scenarios in common with TFOTRE that it becomes inconceivable that Yordan wasn’t a prime mover on that script.
In a weird way, Yordan’s name is still quite a good badge of quality on a film’s credits though, since he chose to work with talented blacklistees whose approach was sympatico to his own. So there’s a kind of pseudo-authorial style detectable anyhow.
As both the uber-generic title and the intertitle suggest, MEN IN WAR is a microcosm of the whole history of armed conflict. At times it almost feels like this dwindling platoon are on their way back to caveman times. Characterisation is briskly confined to what we can see and hear of the men’s behaviour — large numbers of them are left largely blank, with only Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Victor Mature, James Edwards (above) and Robert Keith making strong impressions: but those impressions are VERY strong. But I can never work out which one is Anthony Ray, and the normally distinctive LQ Jones is hard to recognise.
The conflict between Robert and Aldo is very interesting because it flies in the face of traditional war movie dynamics. Not just because Ray is looking out for himself and his Colonel, having counted himself out of the war. In most war films, there’s a character who’s right and a character who’s wrong. In this movie, Ray is consistently right, in the sense of acting in a way that ensures his survival. But it’s far from certain that Ryan is wrong. Most of the time he’s an effective officer, though given to self-doubt. Many of the personal clashes arise from the fact that he’s intent on contributing to the war, and Ray just wants to get out of it alive (I’m on Ray’s side).
On a first viewing, the ending, where Ryan reads out the names of his fallen men so Ray can award them posthumous silver stars, seemed like the movie was backing into more conventional patriotic territory. But the fact that Ray is tossing the medals into the dust rather disproves me. Each man is being true to the character he’s shown throughout the story. Only the tiresome song on the soundtrack attempts uplift (Mann seems PLAGUED by rancid balladry — GOD’S LITTLE ACRE has one of the more listenable ones, which isn’t saying much, but THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE’s title tracks could be used in aversion therapy to put people off fifties movies for life).
MEN IN WAR is a really great work, I think, in a genre I have no naturally sympathy for (supposedly Robert Ryan, a former soldier himself, shared my contempt for the glamorizing of armed conflict — but I suspect he dug this movie). As with all Mann’s best movies, the tactile/visceral strengths are inseparable from what might seem to be the contrasting quality of thoughtfulness.
UK buyers –
END of Anthony Mann Week. Tomorrow: something else! Tuesday: The Shadowplay August Impossible Film Quiz.