The Korean War was unlike any war Americans had ever been involved in. The movies made about it certainly reflected that. There was nothing simple about it, no easy answer, but I suppose that applies to all wars. One of the best movies about Korea is also one that has gone criminally unrecognized over the years, 1957's Men in War.
Following a horrifically costly engagement late in 1950 in Korea, Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan) finds himself in command of the ragged remains of his rifle platoon. With just 17 men and no idea where the rest of the battalion is, Benson leads his men to a prearranged objective that he's not even sure still exists. Along the way, they run into Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray), a stubborn and very capable soldier who's transporting by jeep his shell-shocked commanding officer, the Colonel (Robert Keith). When Benson commandeers the jeep, Montana goes along more than a little unwillingly. Together, the motley group continues to their objective, an otherwise ordinary location, simply titled Hill 465. What awaits there? None of them know.
Never even mentioned among the best war movies around, this Korean War has been criminally neglected since its 1957. From director Anthony Mann, it is a cynical, extremely dark, very realistic, and even a tad existential at times. While it is based in Korea, it really could be any war. The infantry soldiers trudge on, fighting a mostly unseen enemy, just trying to survive. We learn nothing about anyone, and there's no bigger picture of the war. These men are separated from their possibly annihilated unit and walking in heavily occupied enemy territory. The North Koreans appear as needed; in the aftermath of a firefight, two survivors talk quietly -- not really hiding either -- where seconds before bullets and grenades were raining down on them. This is war and the effect it has on the individual.
Beyond that simple story is a realistic story. I try not to use this description too much, but it was truly ahead of its time. We're introduced to Benson's platoon in the aftermath of the attack that separated his platoon from the battalion. The men look exhausted to the point of fainting. One man has been killed -- stabbed in the back with a bayonet -- by a North Korean scout, and so it starts. The cynicism is palpable. Benson mumbles 'Son of a...' before veering off. Ray's Montana shoots a surrendering North Korean, albeit one reaching for a hidden pistol. Later, a second prisoner is used for bait to see if the platoon has been spotted. Filmed in a close-up black and white, I felt like a fly on the wall as a viewer. We feel like we're right there with the foot soldiers. By no means a flashy filming style, but the story doesn't call for it. Also worth mentioning is Elmer Bernstein's eerie but spot-on musical score.
Playing on the basic notion of the unit picture, 'War' has an impressive tough guy cast. It's great to see Ryan get a good guy role. Very capable of playing a hellishly bad villain, Ryan is a perfect choice to play the beaten down officer who must buck up to get his men to safety. Ray as his counter is just as spot-on, a similarly experienced soldier but one with a simpler mission. That angle (protecting your commanding officer) would be used 20 years later in A Bridge Too Far. Benson's platoon includes Riordan (Phillip Pine), the radioman, Lewis (Nehemiah Persoff), the unhinged sergeant, Zwickley (Vic Morrow), the scared to death private, Killian (James Edwards), the mechanic, and Davis (L.Q. Jones), the medic and BAR man. Seven other soldiers are listed in the cast but under the dirt, grime and three-day stubble, it's hard to distinguish them.
For the most part here, the story is fairly familiar. Nothing crazy or out of the blue. The platoon deals with North Korean scouts trying to pick them off, bickering amongst the men, even stumbling into a minefield. Where it distinguishes itself is in the finale as Benson's men reach Hill 465. There is nothing special about the hill, just a big chunk of jagged rock....that's occupied by North Koreans. The small-scale battle has elements of the surreal. The enemy fires only occasionally, only appearing for brief close-ups. In its small scale, it is a very personal, aggressive, and uncomfortable depiction of battle. Soldiers are killed, but we barely see their faces to know who it is. The film ends on a dour note, but an effective one just the same.
A war film that deserves better. Effective message that is never overbearing, great casting, almost documentary-like feel from Mann, all amount to a film well worth watching.
Men in War <---Youtube clip (1957): *** 1/2 /****