BR: Young Lions, The (1958)

August 7, 2015 | By

 

YoungLions_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 9, 2015

Genre:  War / Drama

Synopsis: The lives of three men – two Americans, one German – ultimately collide in this epic adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s best-selling WWII novel.

Special Features:  Audio commentary with film historian Julie Kirgo, screenwriter Lem Dobbs, and producer Nick Redman / Isolated stereo music track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 


 

Review:

The classic film version of Irwin Shaw’s somewhat autobiographical novel about three sets of characters struggling through the dramatic arc of WWII finally arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time in a stellar transfer that features a true surround sound mix (more stereo than directional effects, but very clean) and an isolated stereo track showcasing one of Hugo Friedhofer’s greatest scores, taken from the original recording sessions.

Lions was headlined by Marlon Brando playing a ‘good’ Nazi, Montgomery Clift as a Jewish marine recruit, and Dean Martin making his dramatic debut playing a coward who ultimately scores a heroic deed with unlikely buddy Clift. Also co-starring were Maximillian Schell in his English language debut, and actresses Hope Lange, Barbara Rush, and May Britt, plus several familiar character actors in smaller but memorable roles like Parley Baer.

Director Edward Dmytrk delivered a solid drama, and screenwriter Edward Anhalt kept the continuity of Shaw’s fat best-seller which studios had wanted to adapt for the big screen soon after the novel‘s publication in 1948, and yet, as commentators and TT regulars Julie Kirgo, Lem Dobbs, and Nick Redman point out in another stellar discussion, Lions is ripe with flaws that should’ve turned the movie into a shiny but flat-looking dud, or as Dobbs describes, a “turgid melodrama.”

So why does the damned thing work, and why are its fans – myself included – often lauding the film as one of the best WWII dramas of the fifties?

Dobbs is highly critical of the film and points out many glaring issues even fans suspected were always hovering below the gloss, and yet he’s more than charitable to director Dmytryk, addressing his controversial past with a body of work that seemed to show a once-skilled director of noir classics choosing stories in which guilt is constantly tormenting its characters.

Dmytryk was a member of the original Hollywood Ten – writers, directors, and producers suspected of shoving pro-Communists messages in films, charged by HUAC, and sent to jail for not naming-names – but Dmytryk not confessed to being a Commie, but finked / outed supposed Communist sympathizers, got out of jail and regained a career that would’ve been virtually dead had he stewed in his cell with his compatriots.

His turnaround restored his directorial career, but the edginess of prior work, often in B-movies, seemed gone, and Dobbs isn’t wrong in describing even the look of Lions as rather flat – overlit interiors, safe compositions – but there’s a sense Dobbs, like other cineastes familiar with Dmytryk’s oeuvre, struggle with sympathies for a filmmaker who started out strong, slid into increasingly larger budgeted productions, and soon found fewer worthy stories to tell. His final movies were often filmed outside of Hollywood, and more than a few – the goofy Bluebeard (1972), the truly awful Shalako (1968) – are qualitatively so far removed from his late career peak period, which seemed to end around 1965 with the romantic amnesia thriller Mirage. British writer / director J. Lee Thompson suffered a similar career trajectory, moving from small character pieces before the blockbuster The Guns of Navarone rebranded Thompson as a maker of super-productions, many of which were quite banal.

And yet Dmytryk wasn’t a hack, nor a workmanlike director; in addition to noir classics like Murder My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947), he also directed the superb Christ in Concrete / Give Us This Day (1949), adapted by fellow Hollywood Ten member Ben Barzman and starring blacklisted actor Sam Wanamaker. Concrete is very pinched in its drama, but it’s one of Dmytryk’s finest works and alongside the anti-racist drama Crossfire, shows Dmytryk, as Dobbs argues, as a reluctant auteur – a filmmaker attracted to stories of conflict, outrage, and social aggressors. The themes may not be wholly overt, but his anti-fascist stance is also apparent in Bluebeard in which the famous wife-killer is now a Nazi, calmly dispatching uppity wives to Heaven (or Hell) via assorted grisly deaths. (In the film, the Nazi iconography was reportedly graphically altered to ensure the film could still play in Germany.)

Shaw’s story takes a unique route: in 1938, American Margaret (Rush) meets ski instructor Christian (Brando) in Bavaria, and during New Year’s Eve she realizes Nazism has clearly penetrated small towns, including otherwise good souls like Christian. Two years later Margaret’s boyfriend / reluctant fiancé Michael (Martin), a Broadway boy and callous heel, meets Macey’s clerk Noah (Clift) at the draft office. The two strike up a quick friendship, and when Noah attends Michael’s cocktail party, he meets pretty Hope (Lange) with whom he falls fast in love.

The future couple leave the party while Michael tells Margaret he’s been drafted, but he and Noah are eventually sent to basic training, where Noah’s brutalized by racist thugs (two of which are played by L.Q. Jones and Lee Van Cleef) in a storyline that’s very similar to that other classic WWII drama starring Clift, From Here to Eternity (1953), based on a novel published after Shaw’s opus in 1949.

Meanwhile, back in Germany, Christian is now an officer under the command of Capt. Hardenberg (Schell) in Nazi occupied Paris, and during a furlough, visits Hardenberg’s wife Gretchen (Britt) to convey her husband’s greetings and a gift. It’s clear Christian gives in to her flirtations, but he soon returns to Paris and spends evenings with best friend Sgt. Brandt (Baer), who brings along a blind date for Christian  – Francoise (Liliane Montevecchi) – in the hope he too can enjoy sexy Parisian culture.

Anhalt’s script has the characters nudging each other at specific dramatic intervals, including a battle in North Africa, D-Day, and the discovery of a concentration camp, but technically Brando never shares scenes with co-stars Clift and Martin: the finale brings the three together, but it’s edited in a way that makes it clear the penultimate convergence of the film’s good Nazi and two marines happens through clever editing.

Lions is a melodrama, but there are many strong scenes that transcend clichés because the cast is so interesting – Brando and Clift in particular – and because Dmytryk was a good director, even during his big budget fifties period. He was able to handle notorious scene-stealer and directorial headache Brando, and choreograph some great scenes that work purely on the talents of the actors, the script, and direction, such as Brando and Britt’s two encounters in Berlin; and a simple scene in which Christian visits Francoise one last time.

Things clicked better in Lions than in Dmytryk’s prior opus, the bloated and problematic Raintree County (1957), which co-starred Clift, and tried desperately to tell audiences it was Gone with the Wind (1939) reincarnated, but clearly lacked that film’s superior characters and plotting. (During the production of Raintree, Clift was involved in a terrible accident that necessitated facial reconstruction. In the final film edited, one can ghoulishly pinpoint footage shot before the car crash, whereas Lions was Clift’s first film shot after the accident.)

Like Brando, Clift isn’t the ideal choice for the role of Noah (he’s too old) but he sells the role through a performance built around the actor’s own fragile physical frame, and scenes with Hope Lange: as Noah’s wife, Lange gives an emotionally believable and compelling version of a fairly underwritten character.

Of the film’s main women, though – Hope, Francoise, Gretchen, and Margaret – it’s the latter that’s the strongest because Margaret’s a bit more involved in scenes of emotional conflict with callous, self-loathing Michael; Hope transforms from a headstrong and initially reluctant love interest into a devoted mom, while Gretchen is just playful (albeit desperate for attention and later security), even when her beautiful Berlin has been destroyed. Francoise has deeper emotional scenes with Christian, but the naughtiness and striking screen presence of Britt almost neuters the rival love interest.

The best performance arguably comes from Parley Baer as Christian’s buddy, an ordinary man who just wants to be a ‘citizen of the world’ and be free from the shackles of ideology: he loves France for its culture, not as a freshly conquered land ripe for rape. Although an American actor, his performance, accent, and likability are completely natural, and he’s especially moving when a little too candid during his last encounter with Christian, risking being reported for desertion.

The second-best performance lies in the music, which tempers the melodrama and softens the story leaps and transitions. Each of the three characters gets a distinct theme, with variations that are harsh, heartening, playful, and modernistic at various times. Sometimes it erupts with fury, but never bludgeons a scene nor imposes a mood. Friedhofer’s one of the great Fox composers most people have never heard of, and TT’s disc allows one to observe all the nuances and subtext his music adds when playing scenes with the isolated music track.

While some might argue Lions isn’t a great film, it’s perfect for those who love character-based war dramas with gloss and star power. Brando’s perfectly fine, trying out another new accent and hair dye, and Clift is compelling in spite of a really prolonged basic training sequence where he’s repeatedly beaten to a pulp for being Jewish. (As Kirgo notes in the commentary and highly defensive booklet liner notes, Noah being branded as ‘our representative from New York’ by fellow soldiers was code at the time for being Jewish.)

Martin is really good playing a cad and handling his character’s conflict of being an absolute coward, and Schell is typically dynamic as Christian’s Nazi superior who goes by the book like a classic (if not clichéd) autocrat. A year later, Schell would co-star in the original teleplay of Judgment at Nuremberg and reprise the role of the German defense lawyer in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, winning an Oscar for his efforts.

Clift would appear in a small cluster of films (including Kramer’s Nuremberg, and Elia Kazan’s Wild River) before his death in 1966, whereas Brando would tackle directing in 1961 with One-Eyed Jacks, featuring what Dobbs also notes (quite rightly) as a near-perfect Friedhofer score.

Lange, who’d recently starred in Peyton Place (1957) also co-starred in the war film In Love and War (also written by Anhalt and scored by Friedhofer) in 1958, but finally got a meaty role in The Best of Everything a year later, but after 1961 the good roles started to dry up, sending her to TV for much of her career. Rush also found more fertile work in TV during the 1960s, but she’s best remembered for a series of classic genre films – George Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951), the melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), and Nicholas Ray’s potent drama Bigger Than Life (1956) – and starring in the TV series Peyton Place (1968-1969) and the steamy Flamingo Road (1980-1982).

Britt stepped away from films after marrying Sammy Davis Jr., but her best-known American films are War and Peace (1956), the Cold War drama The Hunters (1958), and the crime drama Murder, Inc. (1960). Dmytryk would direct Britt in the 1959 remake of The Blue Angel, but his next film was the solid western siege drama Warlock (1959).

Screenwriter Anhalt’s numerous story and script credits include Elia Kazan’s taut virus thriller Panic in the Streets (1950), Dmytryk’s The Sniper (1952), Becket (1964), the even better virus thriller The Satan Bug (1965), and several TV productions including QBVII (1974) and the superb Peter the Great (1986) which starred Schell in one of his best roles (and screams for a DVD release).

Many of Irwin Shaw’s works have been filmed, such as Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957), the epic mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976-1977), and the TV movie Evening in Byzantium (1978).

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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