Has there ever been a World War II classic that starts as clumsily as “A Walk on the Sun?”
Corny ballad with printed sing-along lyrics, a poorly-faked landing craft voyage that never gives you any sense that the GIs on board are actually at sea, arch dialogue, including one private (played by John Ireland) who recites aloud his next planned letter home to his sister.
“Dear Frances, I am writing you this letter relaxing on the deck of a luxury liner. On shore the natives have evidently just spotted us and are getting up a reception – fireworks, music and that sort of stuff. Ha…”
There’s a solid 20+ minutes of this cheese. Even when the platoon’s lieutenant is hit offshore (and off-camera) and the drawling medic (Sterling Holloway) jokes his way forward to treat a dying man, everything about this opening act screams “The director was born during the Victorian Era,” as indeed Lewis Milestone was. Stodgy. Old fashioned hokum.
But once you get past the hokum, this is surprisingly sober and grimly realistic for its day. Eventually the style settles down, the “Wait wait wait” because “this is the Army, after all” tedium begins to resonate and the characters and the fine actors who play them start to make their marks.
Norman Lloyd is the put-upon complainer who figures he’ll “make sergeant” eventually, by the time they fight “The Battle of Tibet, in 1956.”
We tend to forget, in the middle of this global war, nobody really knew how long it would take to turn back fanatical fascists and anybody else who threatened liberty.
Richard Conte is the wise-ass machine gunner with a funny line for any eventuality. Italian deserters surrender to the platoon.
“Ask’em if they know where I can get a pizza.”
Lloyd Bridges is the farmer turned sergeant who might be the most competent NCO, and certainly the bravest.
Ireland is the poet, Windy, always composing those letters aloud, waxing lyrical about “GI dirt” and piping up when his commanders don’t have a clue.
“You’re a pretty shrewd guy, Windy.”
“That’s what I tell myself, all the time.”
And Dana Andrews is the stoical sergeant following the chain of command, even though the second in command (Herbert Rudley), nervous but in charge after the lieutenant’s death, has no one’s confidence.
“How’s baby?” Andrews’ Sgt. Tyne asks of the GI cradling his Thompson sub machine-gun, its butt covered in notches for “kills.”
“I’ll wake her up when I need her.”
The platoon is packed with troops when they land. They have a simple mission, seize a farmhouse stronghold, blow up a bridge below it.
As they duck strafing German fighters and take on tanks (off camera) and a machine-gun equipped halftrack (on camera), men die, and not generally in melodramatic ways. Nobody stops to mourn or get sentimental. Milestone — he directed the definitive 1930s film version of the anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”– and screenwriter Robert Rossen (“All the President’s Men” and “The Hustler”) give this movie, filmed while the war was winding down, a dose of unemotional reality in between the wisecracks.
“It’s a funny thing, how many people you meet in an army that cross your path for a few seconds and you never see ’em again.”
The combat is messy, inefficient, just like the real thing. Half the platoon hurls grenades at that hafltrack. It takes forever to disable and then take out.
The assault on the farmhouse, even by combat veterans, has a “follow orders” fatalism. There’s no Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne derring do. The machine gunner is to keep the Germans pinned down.
“I’m gonna aim for the knees, and then work north,” Pvt. Rivera (Conte) chortles.
They send a squad out to flank the house. “Volunteers? “
“Pass out the purple hearts, mother!”
“Any extra pay?”
“Then I’ll go anyway, just to make them feel ashamed.”
The rest of the platoon will charge. A lot of them will go down.
The hokum here is mostly in the opening and closing moments, where singer Kenneth Spencer sings “the ballads.” The combat sequences, from quick sketches that show how limited your average GI’s field of vision is — What’s that explosion over there? Where’s that smoke coming from? Who’s coming up behind us? Are we all alone? — to the big set piece in the finale, are handled with professional polish.
After a while, even Windy’s narrated letters home stop sounding so damned hokey.
“Dear Frances, we just blew a bridge and took a farmhouse. It was so easy… so terribly easy.”
It’s not “The Ballad of GI Joe” or as good as the combat films of the ’50s. But if you run across “A Walk in the Sun,” as I have over the years, don’t let the first 20+ minutes chase you away. Ireland, Bridges, Conte, Andrews and Milestone make it well worth your while.
MPA Rating: “Approved”
Cast: Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, John Ireland, Huntz Hall, Sterling Holloway, Herbert Rudley and Norman Lloyd
Credits: Directed by Lewis Milestone, script by Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Harry Brown.
Running time: 1:57