If you have cable, streaming or broadcast HDTV access to The Western Channel or Grit, Movies! and the like you’re never far removed from stumbling across the work of Anthony Mann, an auteur in the “man’s man” movies corner of American cinema.
His Westerns have risen in stature over the decades, even if “Winchester ’73,” “Bend of the River,” “The Naked Spur,” “The Tin Star” and “Man of the West” aren’t held in the same esteem as the classics of John Ford or Howard Hawks. The Jimmy Stewart Westerns in particular are constantly rebroadcast.
Prestige pictures he made turn up here and there — the flawed “El Cid,” the sturdy “Glen Miller Story” and the more varied early films (pre-1950) turn up occasionally.
Back when film critics were first championing “the auteur theory,” that directors were the true artists responsible for the art of cinema, Mann gained some notice and notoriety thanks to those hardboiled Westerns and a few other gritty genre pieces. But he never rose to the pinnacle of critic Andrew Sarris’s famed “pantheon” of great movie makers, then or now.
His rare venture into combat cinema, “Men in War,” is a Korean War grunts-eye-view movie made shortly after that war ended, filmed, like the much later “M*A*S*H” (movie and TV series) in arid and sunny Southern California (Malibu Canyon).
From the very first scenes, it’s unmistakably a Mann film — self-conscious screen compositions, arresting angles and two-shots, a rough and ready and intimate drama filmed in black and white and littered with close-ups.
It’s a Robert Ryan/Aldo Ray vehicle, posting the two screen tough guys as foils in a platoon sent to secure the elusive Hill 465 in the early months of the conflict.
Ryan is Lt. Benson, something of a humanist, something of a fatalist as he leads men whose names he has to look up in his notebook to remember them into battle.
He has to bark, cajole, challenge and beg his men through firefights and sniper ambushes, a minefield and a final (Hollywood) textbook assault on that hill when they finally reach it. And as he loses soldiers along the way, he loses track of their names.
“He’s dead, sir.”
“Right now,” he says at one point, “I’ve only got 17 men…”
“FOURteen. Count’em,” the gruff Sgt. nicknamed “Montana” (Aldo Ray) corrects him.
Montana was rushing his shellshocked/catatonic Col. (Robert Keith) to the rear when Lt. Benson’s platoon — having just lost their vehicle — waylay them and commandeer Montana’s rough-and-ready Jeep (There is only One Jeep).
Montana, insanely devoted to his Col., is put out. And he’s not shy about popping off to the frazzled platoon leader who outranks him. Benson wants prisoners, to get an idea of what they’re up against on this 14 mile long quest. Montana is trigger-happy.
“If you’re not sure, shoot first or die first.”
Benson makes Montana offer a cigarette to a North Korean prisoner the Sgt. didn’t manage to shoot.
“What’re you trying to prove?”
“That you’re human!”
The script, by Philip Yourdan and Ben Maddow, has a tense sense of men among men bravado and bluster — Howard Hawkish, at its best.
“All you’ve gotta fight is your own legs,” the Lt. reasons with them as he’s getting backtalk for ordering his shrinking force through an artillery barrage. “Make’em carry you beyond the range of fire!”
His goal, he expresses to another subordinate (Vic Morrow, Nehemiah Persoff, James Edwards, Philip Pine and L.Q. Jones among them), is to just “keep one man alive” through all this, one who will live to tell their tale.
As the bodies pile up and the mission seems more impossible to complete, we wonder if even that modest ambition is a hill too far.
Mann stages the combat scenes the way he blocked Old West shootouts — flanking maneuvers, cover fire, with grenades, a .30 caliber machine gun, a BAR, a bazooka and most inexplicably, a flame thrower instead of Jimmy Stewart and his trust Winchester ’73.
There’s a visual verve mixed in with the stock “types” — Morrow plays a GI who has partially cracked up, Persoff one who loses it mid-minefield.
This isn’t “Saving Private Ryan,” but you can tell Spielberg saw it before his D-Day epic. The quest is similar, the challenges both tactical and moral, the Lieutenant plainly a more educated man than his charges, something the more instinctual Montana dismisses.
There are plenty of moments that wouldn’t pass muster, or get common sense backtalk on the set — the idea that they could have a firefight with some members of a Korean contingent defending the hill that others, close by, defending that same him wouldn’t hear. This happens again and again the film.
The finale is a bit of an eye-roller, if not an outright speechifying, logic-defying bust.
But the riveting performances, the natural dialogue — Asian racial slurs included (but Edwards, of Kubrick’s “The Killing” and Franklin Schaffner’s “Patton” makes this an early “integrated Army” movie) — and the myopic, intimate, grunts-eye-view action make “Men in War” a combat film that reached back to the flag-waving heroism of WWII cinema while pointing the way to the more resigned, cynical war films of the future.
It’s worth checking out, just to remind us that Anthony Mann wasn’t just Mr. Westerns, wasn’t just Jimmy Stewart’s go-to guy in the ’50s.
Rating: “Approved,” violence
Cast: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Vic Morrow, Nehemiah Persoff, James Edwards
Credits: Directed by Anthony Mann, scripted by Philip Yourdan and Ben Maddow, based on a novel by Van Van Praag. A United Artists release now streaming on Tubi, Amazon and other platforms.
Running time: 1:42