On Memorial Day, you can be sure to see classic heroic war films with stars like Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Hollywood has always supported the troops. From the time of FDR’s presidency, through the Reagan years of Top Gun, the Bush era and present day pro-military films like Zero Dark Thirty, Tinseltown can be counted on to support any presidency’s military agenda. Although film makers have a long history of making anti-war and anti-military films, Hollywood was forced to make pro-war propaganda films for the most part. Directors volunteered to shoot soldiers in the best possible light. The men were shown with a quiet heroism. A Walk in the Sun tells the story of the Lee Platoon of the Texas division of the U.S. army during World War Two. It takes place in the hours from a pre-dawn landing on the beach in Salerno, Italy to noon the same day. It featured soldiers who were tired of war. Tired of being on foreign soil that wasn’t fertile enough to grow a simple apple tree. Weary to their bones as they lay siege to a strategically located farmhouse.
A Walk in the Sun isn’t an anti-war film, like Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion), directed by Jean Renoir. It’s not an anti-military movie, like Crossfire, the film noir war drama Edward Dmytryk which explored anti-semitism in the military (The book it was based on, “The Brick Foxhole” by screenwriter and director Richard Brooks, was about the persecution of a gay soldier.) But it wasn’t the typical rah rah patriotic film that was the usual fair while the U.S. was in the middle of WWII. The men in the troops didn’t want to be there. They were dog faces. Bitter, tired, sick of killing, sick of waiting to be killed, sick of walking and walking and walking. A Walk in the Sun paints in broad strokes. It tackles post-traumatic stress disorder, battle fatigue. When the Staff Sgt. Eddie Porter breaks down and is unable to continue, he is no coward. These things happen, too many battles. Sure it’s overdone, and yeah he overreacts the shit of the scene, throwing himself face-down into unconditional surrender, but it’s alright, his men understand. He fought too many battles. He should have never been in command. He should have never had the choice of life or death for 53 men in his hands.
The “Walk” is a dangerous mission and death can come unexpected from any direction, at any time. For one soldier it comes in the middle of a word. The soldiers blanket themselves in gallow’s humor. They joke about death. They tease each other. They can be cruel. Cruel enough to shove a love letter into a wound instead of mailing it.
Director Lewis Milestone made the classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930 based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque and starred the fantastic actor Lew Ayres along with Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander. The Russian-born director won Best Director Oscars for All Quiet on the Western Front and Two Arabian Knights from 1927. He also directed The Front Page in 1931, The General Died at Dawn in 1936, Of Mice and Men in 1939, Ocean’s 11 in 1960 and Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962. A Walk in the Sun was based on the book by Harry Brown who wrote for Yank, a weekly Army magazine that came out of England. Liberty Magazine serialized the book in 1944.
Do you know who you’re fighting? They never told me.
Dana Andrews leads the platoon Staff Sgt. Bill Tyne. Andrews is best known as the detective in Laura, the 1944 film noir starring Gene Tierney and as war veteran Fred Derry in The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946. Andrews made his film debut in William Wyler’s 1940 western, The Westerner which starred Gary Cooper. Andrews played a gangster in the 1941 comedy Ball of Fire. Andrews was the lynching victim in 1943 movie The Ox-Bow Incident with Henry Fonda.
Jon Ireland made his screen debut as Private Windy, He writes letters in his head that, someday, he will write and mail. Ireland played in Wake Up and Dream and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946. He would play alongside Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks’ 1948 film Red River. Ireland was the innocent man on the run in the 1955 film The Fast and the Furious and played the gladiator Crixus in the Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus with with Kirk Douglas.
As Rivera, who loves his machine gun, Richard Conte personifies the rough camaraderie of men in arms. He wraps himself in the flak jacket of his mantra: “Nobody dies.” When he says “Butt me,” he’s not talking about how to kill time in a platoon without women, he just wants a cigarette from his friend, the man he wants to protect, and knows wants to protect him. He doesn’t want to be there either. They came to this beautiful country to kill those who live in this beautiful country. Herbert Richard Benedict’s Pvt. Tranella “speaks two languages, Italian and Brooklyn,” When he’s called on to translate for two Italian army deserters, he’s friendly. He likes them, begins to gossip, begins to joke.
After being considered for the part of Don Corleone, Richard Conte was cast as Don Barzini in The Godfather. Conte made his theater debut in Moon Over Mulberry Street in 1939, the same year he made his first film Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence, where he was credited as Nicholas Conte. He changed his name when he signed on with 20th Century Fox. For Fox Conte played soldier after soldier in such films as Guadalcanal Diary in 1943 and The Purple Heart in 1944 before walking in the Italian sun. After World War II Conte played in noir films like Whirlpool with Gene Tierney and the spy movie 13 Rue Madeleine starring James Cagney in 1947. He also played in Call Northside 777, Thieves’ Highway, The Sleeping City, The Raging Tide, Highway Dragnet, The Blue Gardenia, The Big Combo and I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Conte played Edward G. Robinson’s lawyer son in House of Strangers. He starred in a Twilight Zone episode in 1959.
Known to modern audiences for his Emmy-nominated role of Izzy Mandelbaum on Seinfeld, Lloyd Bridges plays Staff Sgt. Ward. Bridges is best known as Mike Nelson the main character of the TV series Sea Hunt. Bridges was blacklisted in the 1950s after admitting to the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had been a member of the Actors’ Lab. He was cleared by the FBI only to spout profanity on live television during a 1956 appearance on The Alcoa Hour. The episode was directed by Sidney Lumet, who began his career on stage as a Dead End Kid.
Another Dead End kid, Huntz Hall, has a very small part, but, because he’s one of my favorite actors, I’m going to dwell on him. He doesn’t want to be there. He’s gotta be a draftee. He doesn’t give a shit about the trees or the land, the beautiful countryside of Italy. He just wants to go home. Hall plays a very down-to-earth caricature of New York soldiers. He’s not interested in Norman Rockwell. “Now they got pictures, so why bother drawing?” He asks his more artsy platoon partner who says. “You might was well say now they got movies, why take pictures? Why don’t they put moving pictures on the covers of magazines?” “Someday they’ll have it,” a precognitive Hall says. And now, of course we do. Hall’s Pvt. Carraway is no patriot. He’d desert in a heartbeat. He’s just looking for an excuse. “What would you give me for a spoon of beer? I’d give you my GI rifle, my GI bayonet, and even my GI pants.”
Huntz Hall gained his own infamy when the police found two pounds of marijuana buried on his property in the 1940s. Talking about it with David Letterman years later, he admitted that was what they found, hinting that he had further stash. Hall appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Norman Lloyd plays Pvt. Archimbeau. Archimbeau is convinced that wars will never end. He predicts continuing conflicts in a never-ending march of battles. He is obsessed about a war that will happen in Tibet in the 1950s. The movie was narrated by Burgess Meredith.
Now, about the theme song, it functions as a kind of Greek chorus as a faux spiritual, but it breaks the action, has an awful beat and you can’t dance to it. It’s no “High Noon.” It’s more “Sixteen Tons.” You forgive it. Barely.
A Walk in the Sun is a classic. It’s made better by its low budget because it forces what might have been a routine war movie into a character-driven study. Yes, the characters were caricatures but they were enduring caricatures. What better movie for Memorial Day than a war movie that declares: Nobody dies.