Director: Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann's Men in War, which actually takes place during the Korean War, is aptly titled, for it's one of the finest movies about any war I've seen. The film opens on the morning after a battle between Communists and a small platoon of American troops—around twenty in number—led by Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan). Stranded, their supply truck destroyed, they must make their way back on foot to a nearby hill to rendezvous with the rest of their unit. Almost as soon as they start out, a Jeep comes careering out of the distance, and Lt. Benson commandeers it and its two occupants—the driver, Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray), and his mute, shell-shocked passenger, his commanding officer whom he calls simply The Colonel (David Keith)—to carry the platoon's weapons and ammunition. The rest of the film details the journey, which lasts several hours, to their destination.
Propelled by a sense of great urgency, the plot is utterly simple, consisting largely of the perils the platoon must deal with in order to reach its goal. These include snipers, land mines, and artillery attacks. The landscape the platoon moves through, rocky and nearly devoid of vegetation, offers little cover, and the sense of being constantly in the open and exposed to attack creates a milieu of unrelenting danger. Mann expertly milks this rather basic story for its full potential, creating a film that even in its infrequent lulls in action still maintains an atmosphere of nail-biting tension.
With such a basic plot, Men in War relies on the interactions of its characters for depth. Mann avoids the common cliché of many war movies of portraying the platoon as an obvious cross-section of ethnic and personality types. As in real groups of this kind, most of the men don't seem that distinct from one another, although a couple—a patient, likable African American medic and the nearly catatonic, battle-fatigued young soldier he cares for—do stand out. Lt. Benson, however, is thoroughly fleshed out, and Robert Ryan, who worked with Mann in three films, fully inhabits the character in one of his most nuanced and sympathetic performances.
Ryan's Lt. Benson is a weary man but a purposeful one, his immediate purpose to complete his mission and report back to his unit with vital information about the situation. At one point he states that his objective is to get just one man back to headquarters. In the meantime, although he views those under his command as resources to be deployed to achieve his strategic goal, he seems not without concern for their welfare. It's just that he sees completion of the mission overriding any consideration of the safety or even survival of himself or his men. Benson is a man of great leadership ability, able to keep his soldiers united in their purpose and focused on the task at hand. A follower of rules and prescribed procedures, he is nonetheless a practical, level-headed person able to gain the cooperation of his men with his confident attitude and skills of persuasion—organized without being a martinet, authoritative without being authoritarian.
The only person this reasonable approach does not succeed with is Sgt. Montana, and it is the clash between the personalities and attitudes of these two that provides the conflict in the film. Montana is Benson's opposite in every way, a maverick dedicated to his own agenda—to get his psychologically wounded Colonel back to safety and medical treatment. When he remarks at one point that The Colonel is the only man who ever addressed him as "son," it becomes clear that a kind of transference between the two has occurred. That The Colonel has become in essence a surrogate father for Montana explains his fierce personal loyalty, which in turn explains his disdain for Benson's mission, his animosity towards Benson, and his defiance of Benson's authority at every turn.
Burly Aldo Ray is quite good at conveying the unsympathetic qualities of Sgt. Montana. Not only is Montana an insolent loner, but he is also an almost paranoiacally suspicious racist who refers to Koreans with derogatory racial epithets, the only person in the film who ever does this. In a key sequence, the platoon encounters several American soldiers in the distance calling out to them and racing towards them. Without warning, Montana opens fire and mows them down. When the astounded platoon reaches the bodies, they discover that the dead men are actually Koreans with uniforms and weapons taken from dead American soldiers. After Benson angrily points out that Montana fired before he could even see their faces and might easily have killed Americans, Montana replies,"I can smell 'em," and adds that his practice is to shoot first and find out who he has killed later. The appalled Benson responds by saying, "God help us if we need men like you to win this war."
David Thomson compares Men in War to Mann's Westerns in the way it "work[s] toward an ordeal by combat that defines honor." In a sense, that's indeed what happens at the end of the film when the group reaches the hill only to find it has been taken by the Communists. Desperate, Benson works out a risky plan to retake the hill, and at this point circumstances force the two adversaries to set aside their considerable differences and work together. In the end, only accommodation between Montana's extremism and Benson's moderation, between Montana's gung-ho machismo and personal hatred of the enemy and Benson's professional shrewdness and detached view of the enemy as just another obstacle to be overcome, allows the two to combine the forces of anarchy and order and move towards a common aim.
Men in War ends with a brief but powerful scene in which Benson and Montana together posthumously "award" to their fallen comrades Silver Stars Montana has been given by The Colonel, each man's behavior in the scene absolutely typical of his essential nature. As the two stand atop the hill they now control, Benson methodically reads off the names of the dead in alphabetical order from a notebook in which he records the details of combat, while Montana tosses the medals over the sandbag parapet of the hill, strewing them randomly over the bodies of the dead soldiers below. I would say that in this scene Men in War arrives at a conception of honor quite unlike the unambiguous moral choice normally found in Mann's Westerns. War, Mann seems to be saying, consists of equal parts method and chaos, of both selfless nobility and selfish ferocity, of great personal sacrifices made to achieve minor victories. In the face of this paradox, honor becomes such a relative term that it ceases to have any clear meaning.
You might also be interested in my post on Samuel Fuller's Korean War movie The Steel Helmet.