The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

All the Young Men

In the last few days, I've written a handful of movies about the Korean War, dubbed the Forgotten War in the years since.  Along with the actual war, the movies set in the Korean War have been forgotten for the most part.  Some for good reason like the B-movies I've reviewed.  Others unjustly so as WWII and Vietnam movies are more well remembered.  Korea had its fair share though, like The Steel Helmet, Pork Chop Hill, The Bridges at Toko-Ri and several others I'm probably forgetting.  One I'd seen parts of and finally caught up include 1960's All the Young Men.

This war movie comes from one of our favorite genre's here at Just Hit Play; the unit picture.  Instead of focusing on an epic battle or behind the scenes action at HQ, the unit picture focuses on one specific group, anywhere from a squad or patrol to a regiment or brigade.  When handled well, they work so well because story-wise there is going to be a large cast full of multi-dimensional characters in some precarious position, usually forced to work together to get out alive.  More than most unit pictures, 'Young Men' reminded me a lot of 1934's The Lost Patrol.  But more than just a unit picture, an added dimension has been added, racism among soldiers.

After a successful landing in Korea, an advanced Marine recon platoon is sent out on patrol to take control of a Korean farmhouse controlling a key pass.  The pass needs to be held until reinforcements can arrive because a battalion of Marines has been cut off, and the pass provides their only way to safety and rescue.  But on the march, the patrol is ambushed with heavy casualties.  Dying of his wounds, the lieutenant commanding the platoon must pass command to one of two men.  First, there's Kincaid (Alan Ladd), a former sergeant busted for behavior with years of combat experience, and two, Sgt. Towler (Sidney Poitier), a new transfer who's never led men in combat. Towler is picked so he must lead the survivors to the pass and hope to hold out so the Marine battalion can get through safely.

The Korean War was the first conflict where the army units were integrated so here is one of the first examples of a movie showing black and white soldiers fighting alongside each other.  Kincaid objects to Towler's in-field promotion because of his lack of experience, not his skin color, while others like Paul Richards' Bracken is a bigoted Southerner who wants nothing to do with Towler.  Poitier must have been used to doing racially charged roles by 1960, but he does a great job as the sergeant with the target on his back.  As the man in charge, he's tasked with deciding what's best for his men and what's best for the war effort.  Not his best performance, but one definitely worth recommending.

It might come across as cliched or stereotypical, but the way director Hall Bartlett handles the soldiers and their interactions seem to ring true to me. The life of a soldier are these lightning quick moments of fear and terror broken up by long stretches of boredom with nothing to do.  Bartlett directed, produced and wrote this war flick that isn't heavy on action, instead letting the soldiers breathe a little, have conversations, let us find out who they are, what they think about, what they're afraid of.  The combat sequences are somewhat repetitive and reminded me of scenes from 1949's Battleground -- also filmed on an indoor set -- with their claustrophobic feel of being surrounded, being closed in by an unseen enemy.

Telling the story of this small group of soldiers, we see all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of different walks of life as Bartlett assembles quite a unique group for his Marine squad.  A very old-looking Ladd is rather wooden here as Kincaid, the soldier the others trust most.  He comes to life during his intense confrontations with Poitier, but other than those scenes it is not his strongest role.  Filling out the rest of the group is former teen idol James Darren as Cotton, Glenn Corbett as Wade, the medic (same name as Saving Private Ryan's medic), comedian Mort Sahl as Cpl. Crane (given a chance to even do some of his act), and Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson as Pvt. Torgil.  Filling out the ranks there's also a wounded soldier (Dick Davalos), a Navajo Indian, the youngster, and the tired vet.

Besides the ahead of its time decision about integrated units, 'Young Men' also pushes the envelope with its handling of violence whether it be blood squibs or just what and how things are shown, including a hand attached to a bloody rifle, no body in sight.  It's not particularly gory or graphic, but it is noticeable.  Filmed in black and white with a mix of indoor sets and outdoor (Glacier National Park in Montana), this is a solid Korean War movie that is well worth looking up.

All the Young Men (1960): ***/****

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