Force of Arms.
It's 1943 and the fighting in Italy is intensifying all along the front. After weeks and months on the line, an infantry platoon commanded by Sgt. Joe Peterson (William Holden) is tasked with one more objective. Though it costs heavy casualties, the platoon retakes an important position from the Germans. The entire unit is awarded five days of leave far removed from the muddy, cold front lines, Peterson meets a WAC, Lt. Eleanor MacKay (Nancy Olson), who he starts off on a rocky path almost immediately. Still, as they argue and test each other back and forth, both Joe and Eleanor can't deny their attraction to each other. The clock is ticking though as the soldier and the WAC must decide where to go next before Joe returns to the front line fighting. Can they come to terms with how they feel about each other in time?
Gag me, I hate when I have to write plot descriptions like this. Don't get me wrong. If there's a good romance war story out there, I'll give it a fair shot. Also, I don't really count Casablanca. I'm talking war stories, men on the front lines when the story takes a detour for some loving away from the front. Director Michael Curtiz's flick has a ton of potential because the portions focusing on the fighting, on Peterson taking a leadership role, of the platoon both in action and resting, that is 'Force' at its strongest. Too much time is spent on the budding relationship between Holden and Olson in the process. 'Force' is filmed in black and white with some cool location shooting, California filling in surprisingly well for Italy. It has a gritty, worn look, but dang, enough with the love story.
Holden is one of my favorites, and Olson has more than held her own in Sunset Blvd., Battle Cry and several other flicks. They have some decent chemistry together, but this script does them absolutely no favors. They meet in a military cemetery in the dead of the night and at no point does Holden's Peterson ever think "Hmm, I wonder what she's doing here? Maybe someone she knew...died?" From there, we get to know two folks working through some stuff -- Peterson the war wearing him down day to day, Eleanor trying to overcome a lost love -- with death hanging in the air. They wonder aloud what love really is, question if they truly can love, take dreamy walks on the Italian countryside, and share tons of scandalous hugs where they rub faces. A love story is one thing. One that moves this sluggishly with not enough of a payoff? Yeah, not good.
At times, 'Force' reminded me of 1959's Never so Few, a WWII story that is at its strongest when it focuses on the war, on the soldiers, on the combat. That's 'Force' in a nutshell. The story starts at its strongest as Peterson's platoon is tasked with retaking a German-held position on a rocky hill. This isn't large scale warfare but a small unit of soldiers going toe to toe against another small unit of soldiers. The violence isn't graphic, but it's startling and quick just the same. That's most of the action/combat scenes, including the platoon moving into position under heavy German guns and later navigating an Italian town with winding streets and German shells and mortars raining down on them. As quick as these segments are over, the script jumps right back to the love story. Oh, joy.
Beyond Holden in the soldier department, look for Frank Lovejoy as Major Bradford, the unit's commanding officer and an old friend of Peterson's from back home. Commanding officer and one of his trusted officers but also friends with a past. In Peterson's platoon, look for Gene Evans as McFee, worried what his wife is up to back home, Dick Wesson as Kleiner, a capable soldier and a capable smartass, Paul Picerni as Sheridan, the smooth Italian (similar to the part he played in To Hell and Back), Ross Ford as Hooker, the southern farmer, Ron Hagerthy as Minto, Peterson's runner, and a young Don Gordon in one of his first speaking parts as Sgt. Webber. I like the group dynamic, their friendships, their arguments. It feels natural, and I just wish there was more of it.
A mixed bag unfortunately. When it's good, it's pretty good. When it's bad, love is pretty rough to watch.
Force of Arms (1951): **/****