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Whether made independently or by a studio, "Lost Patrol" war movies usually come about because they're cheap to produce. Ten actors or so get in costume and stumble along playing soldier, while the cruel forces of combat play out in miniature, with frequent breaks for James Jones-style grumbling and to differentiate the various dogfaces --one's a weakling, the next a card sharp, and so forth. And there's always one clod that persists in talking about home or his plans for the future. It's a guaranteed ticket to the cemetery.
You can bet that Anthony Mann, dealmaker-writer Philip Yordan and Robert Ryan filmed their lost patrol movie Men in War in search of a decent payday. Back in the 1950s even big studios paid name directors far less than what one would expect, and the possibility of actually seeing back-end money for an independent film had to be a big motivator. Men in War has terrific acting, excellent direction and a screenplay of uncommon intelligence. So the fact that production values are thin doesn't matter much. With Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray heading the cast, and no stupid flashbacks to women back home, this is a favorite combat picture.
The story is much like Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet. Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan) is in charge of the remnants of a platoon trying to return from enemy-held territory. The radio is out, although Sgt. Montana (Philip Pine) keeps trying to make contact. Prominent among Benson's soldiers are the opinionated Nate Lewis (Nehemiah Persoff), maladroit James Zwickley (Vic Morrow) and an easygoing black soldier, Sgt. Killian (James Edwards). Success seems impossible until Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray) comes along in a jeep, with his Colonel (Robert Keith) strapped into the seat next to him. The Colonel is shell-shocked or suffering from a concussion, and just stares dumbly. Montana initially has no intention of helping Benson and behaves as if he's not under anybody's authority. But he proves to have an uncanny instinct for survival and is a sure shot. So he and the Colonel stay with the patrol, even though Benson has a tough time convincing Montana to act in the wider interest of the group. The men struggle along and take casualties until they finally are blocked by North Korean troops in a narrow pass. Will Montana abandon the platoon, or join in the fight?
Men in War avoids many combat movie clichés, boggles down in one or two, and invents a couple of its own. The only lame scene has Benson sending his soldiers in groups of two through an area being shelled, between incoming rounds. This 'run the gauntlet' bit comes off weak because the Koreans keep dropping shells in the same exact location, and when they do land they're all but harmless. When those explosive shells go off shrapnel flies in all directions. Yet as long as a soldier isn't actually engulfed by a dirt blast, he's fine.
English genre film critics immediately praised one scene in particular. Taking a break, Sgt. Killian arranges flowers on his helmet, in a sort of pacifistic "All Quiet on the Western Front" gesture. Taking a break to smell the flowers is not recommended behavior in a lost patrol movie. Nice-guy Killian really doesn't want to hurt anybody, but is oblivious to the sneaky Koreans creeping up behind him. Although it now seems rather obvious, this scene carried weight ten years later during our invasion of Vietnam, when minority soldiers that knew little about the politics of the war were doing most of the fighting.
Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray's exchanges are terrific. Ray's Montana is an utterly selfish tough guy who has to be reminded to say 'yes sir' to Ryan's Lt. Benson. The humanist Benson would be happy to see Montana go, but the guy's just too good of a fighter -- he even saves Benson during a skirmish. Then Montana turns around and is gentle and reassuring to his Colonel, who can only stare and tremble while trying to talk. It's great 'lost patrol' chemistry.
Vic Morrow's klutzy Corporal whines and is less than useless; made a driver so he won't get in the way, he promptly gets the jeep stuck when they're fleeing the Reds. Philip Pine has a standout face, along with the impressive Nehemiah Persoff. L.Q. Jones, Scott Marlowe and the others only get one or two bits apiece.
For the finale we're back in good old Bronson Caverns for a major battle scene. I can just imagine Roger Corman and Co. loitering around the corner with their Fiberglas crab mock-up, waiting to move in when it's their turn. The battle is standard stuff but Anthony Mann's direction is excellent, and earned him a DGA award nomination. Montana has decided that his primary mission is to save the Colonel and plans to sit out the fight until a surprise development draws both of them in. Grenades and a flamethrower are used to knock down the enemy defenses, but the North Korean machine guns pick off Benson's men one by one as they climb the steep hills to the pass.
Viewers in 1958 appreciated the film's concentration on first-person combat. Even better, the script does without the dumb flashbacks to women back home that were jammed into many war pictures of the time, presumably to appeal to feminine viewers. There's also little or no political discussion, so Men in War is free of the hectoring speeches heard in the next year's Pork Chop Hill.
Men in War was a production of Philip Yordan's Security Pictures. Olive Films has already released Security's Crack in the World, God's Little Acre and The Big Combo. This particular title is interesting because the film's text credit block contains practically every name in the main credits. Did some legal documents go missing?
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Men in War is a very good HD transfer. No digital cleanup has been applied, so dirt specks and small scratches show up around reel breaks. But the trade-off is that the picture is razor sharp overall. The widescreen formatting helps quite a bit in focusing the drama. Elmer Bernstein's music score makes a big statement during the main titles and then backs off to let the realistic scenes play without comment.
On old TV showings the un-matted image with its empty space reduced the sense of threat against the patrol. In one scene an enemy soldier crawls through some grass, and in un-matted versions we very clearly saw that they created the effect by pulling some kind of a sack with a string. I can't think of any better proof that matted widescreen movies need to be presented in their original theatrical ratios.
Olive Films has expanded their release schedule; their packaging art is as impressive as their consistently good film transfers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Men in War Blu-ray rates:
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