Average wartime soaper with a superlative cast...and a stolid director. Warner Bros.' incomparable on-line M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service of library titles, the Archive Collection, has released Until They Sail, the 1957 M-G-M WWII romance starring Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, and Sandra Dee. Directed by Robert Wise, from a script by Robert Anderson based on a short story by James A. Michener, Until They Sail should knock your socks off with that roster of talent...but at least it's pretty to look at. A trailer is included as a bonus for this good-looking transfer.
Christchurch, New Zealand, November, 1945. At the murder trial of New Zealand Army soldier Phil "Shiner" Friskett (Wally Cassell), U.S. Captain Jack Harding (Paul Newman) testifies as to the morality of Shiner's slain wife, Delia Leslie Friskett (Piper Laurie). Flashback to the beginning of the war, when New Zealand sent its young men off to war...and its women back home to wait restlessly for them. Barbara Leslie (Jean Simmons) admits to herself that she doesn't really know her departing husband of one month at all, but she vows to remain faithful to him. Her older sister, Anne Leslie (Joan Fontaine), vows to maintain a sense of propriety her deceased parents would have been proud of. Youngest sister Evelyn Leslie (Sandra Dee) says goodbye to her "boyfriend" with typical adolescent aplomb, and trampy sister Delia Leslie (Piper Laurie) promptly starts looking for the last man standing in New Zealand...who happens to be the more-than-willing lout, Shiner. A quick marriage follows, and an even quicker separation when New Zealand's armed forces get desperate for men and Shiner finds himself a prisoner of war. Well, you know what that means: Delia is on the prowl. Lucky for her, a couple of thousand Americans land in New Zealand, and one of the few who isn't screwing Delia, Captain Richard Bates (Charles Drake), becomes more than friendly with Anne when he's directed by the Pentagon to formally apologize to Anne, who wrote a stinging rebuke of the tasteless, crass, horny-as-goats Yanks who have invaded her shores (that's not a metaphor). The only other American apparently not Delia-filed is Captain Harding, whose job it is to investigate New Zealand girls who want to marry American G.I.s...like Anne and Delia. Will smoldering Barbara fall for his surly charms?
Hey, Until They Sail should have been a lead-cinch for me. I've established my soap-loving credentials around here for years, as well as my preference for big, glossy melodramas (just to stay with Newman, check out my love for overripe soap like From the Terrace. Add to that a director I enjoy (from time to time...), one of my favorite lead actors, and a quartet of talented, lovely actresses who should have easily smoldered up the screen in this supposedly steamy tale of love and war, and Until They Sail should have received an automatic "highly recommended" from yours truly.
Mmmmmm...no. Now right off: Until They Sail is an acceptable picture if you're into the stars or this type of genre work. It's professionally produced (maybe too professionally produced...); it looks great in black and white widescreen (I love that combination), and it's over in a relatively short time (although it seems about a half-hour longer than it really is). In short: it gives you the romantic basics you'd expect from this kind of movie. Having never read the short story upon which Until They Sail is based, I can't say how faithful the story is to Michener, but the screenplay is tasteful and carefully literate from Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy, The Nun's Story, The Sand Pebbles, I Never Sang For My Father). If the storyline is episodic, and the transitions a little bumpy―for example, Delia is talking about running off to Wellington to sleep with men before we have to figure out on our own that Shiner is somewhere else, and who knew Newman and Simmons weren't lovers?―we forgive it because individual scenes do work (the choppy feel of the film makes me wonder if big chunks were cut out of that relatively short running time prior to release).
No, the problem with Until They Sail is that it's all so bloodless and correct, and that can be laid squarely at the doorstep of the director. Perversely, I've always enjoyed Wise's efforts that either the critics or public (or both) hated; I'd watch The Hindenburg or The Andromeda Strain any day over West Side Story or The Sand Pebbles. And sprinkled throughout his long career are particular favorites I admire precisely because of the aesthetic precision he brings to them (Born to Kill, I Want to Live!, The Haunting). But he's the wrong director to get across the seething frustrations and unbridled war-torn passion of Until They Sail. This is "war," after all, and war is hell...but the sex was great according to everyone who had it legally or illicitly during the "Big One" (impending death will do that to you). But you'd never know it from Until They Sail.
I know this was 1957, and there was only so much they could do in an M-G-M sudser (it would have been dirtier over at Warner's), but couldn't someone at least move their body in an approximation of someone in heat? Wise has his actors standing around like waxwork dummies, never touching anyone, never raising alarm bells, while the actors pout and sulk in front of the camera. Of all the actors here, sexy little minx Piper Laurie at least gets the subtext of the piece; she's just about bursting from the tension of being restrained here, her palpable carnality cruelly subdued by Wise's geometrically precise framing and blocking (we'd find out how innocently sexual little hottie Sandra Dee would become...but not in this stiff). Newman is frosty as usual, but then he always froze up when it came time for big, emotional, sexual scenes, so we don't blame him for that (if there ever was a male sex symbol to be fantasized about from afar, at a distance―to be looked at merely for his startling beauty rather than to actually be touched― it was Newman). And Simmons rarely got to show that perverse lust behind that beautiful porcelain mask of a face, either (probably Preminger's Angel Face is the only real example).
But neither of them are going to get any help from Wise, that's for sure. Wise was legendary for extreme preparation and for his orderly sets, but sometimes you gotta have a little chaos, a little inspiration and spontaneous improvisation to get at something more than just frozen bodies in a frame. Hitchcock could use mapped-out storyboarding techniques and a quiet, respectful set and turn it into a chilly, brilliantly cold personal aesthetic in his movies, but that same approach locks up Wise; he needs a crowbar to loosen up here (and the less said about poor, misused, glacial Fontaine the better; no wonder she was just a few short years from stuff like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). As I wrote above, Wise was too good a director not to have Until They Sail work on a basic level. Individual scenes pay off, such as Delia's memorably horrible wedding, complete with thunderstorm and Shiner's slobbering kiss, to the disgust of her sisters. But interesting thematic tangents are left dangling; the murder trial is a goofy, half-assed hook that only comes in at the last 10 minutes...and how about coming to some opinion on the morality―or lack, thereof―of Delia and Barbara and everyone else, instead of laying all options on the table...and then running away from it? Before you know it, Until They Sail is trudging from one static set-up to the next, as the war years roll on, with the horrors of conflict treated as nothing more than deliciously melodramatic and inconvenient obstacles to love...love that's decidedly bloodless here, and it all slips away from the cast and crew. Without the heat, who cares about the morality?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.