Boots on the Ground: ?The Young Lions?

By  · Published on May 25th, 2010

To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:

The Young Lions (1958)

I’ve had a strange relationship with war movies, much of which has to do with the reality of the subject matter; I feel like there is a fine line that must be tread when dealing with a topic as serious as armed conflict. I have never gotten a lot out of films that propagandize war and the participants, painting one side as square-jawed heroes and the other as moustache twirling villains. Yes, sometimes – one side is simply wrong in their aims and intentions, but many times the nuances are lost and that reality is dealt with using a heavy hand.

This stands particularly true of WWII film.

In the early ’40s through the late ’50s, American war movies were mass produced with little variation past cast, location, and enemy. Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Jimmy Durante turned them into comedies to lighten the topic of America’s first foray into peacetime conscription. America’s entry into the second world war saw a boom in the before mentioned propaganda films; stories that generally extolled the virtues of the allied forces while turning the Axis powers into caricatures of human beings. There was a strong appetite for these films in Western culture at the time – they clearly made their money for a reason. These films brought all classes together under a common banner during a period of great conflict. Right or wrong, is was a shared experience.

That said – some risk taking producers, writers, directors, and actors chose to turn the common conventions on their collective ear by going the opposite route. In a time when patriotic fervor was incredibly high, these people chose to actually examine war; they were willing to not only note the general futility of conflict, but drag ugly truths about our ability to be cruel to each other into the spotlight. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon were great at doing this, but they came when things were safe – when the United States wasn’t, for the most part, in lockstep with wartime policies. For all of the incredible loss of life, World War II ended the Depression Era – when it was over there was food on tables and jobs to be had after thirteen years of economic suffering. Can you imagine being the folks that swiped at the visage that was created around that patriotism and pride?

It almost makes it funny, then, that one of my favorite war films of all time is 1958s The Young Lions. I say funny because the screenplay was written by noted über-right wing war propagandist Edward Anhalt, based on a novel written by Irwin Shaw – an ex-Army Warrant Officer who left the United States for over two decades after being accused of being a Communist during the height of McCarthyism. The director? Canadian Edward Dmytryk, a man who spent time in prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who finally ratted out his fellow American Communist Party members in the industry before moving to Europe.

It almost seems like The Young Lions is a film that should not be. Add to this the fact that the cast is absolutely stellar, and it’s even more mind-boggling.

The Young Lions is the story of three men from very different backgrounds, all confronting the realities of the early days of Hitler’s rise to power. There is Christian Diestl, played with deft perfection by an in-his-prime Marlon Brando, a German ski instructor and son of a shoemaker who believes that with the rise of Naziism will also come much needed prosperity and economic equality in Germany. He chooses to push the extreme statements coming from the Third Reich out of mind.

The fantastic Montgomery Clift plays Noah Ackerman, a soft spoken, seemingly meek Jewish store clerk who runs into and befriends popular actor and Broadway star Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) while waiting for their draft physical.

Ackerman readily accepts his fate as a draftee, having no family to speak of and a job of no importance that will keep him away from the line. Michael is a self-important and admitted coward who has even less reason to keep him from serving, but does everything he can to avoid a uniform.

Noah attends a party held by Michael a short time before shipping off to bootcamp, and of course – finally finds a tether to the world in another guest, Hope Plowman, played by the painfully beautiful Hope Lange. I could see why he was immediately lost in her – Lange is easy to fall in love with in this film in the short time we’re graced with her presence on screen.

Michael has a contentious but affectionate relationship with the no-nonsense socialite Margaret, who spends the entire film trying to convince Michael to stand for something – anything. When discussing his active avoidance of the war at one point, Michael says, “I’m against war, and this whole drummed up super-patriotic atmosphere.” While it is implied that this is simply an excuse, it is a strong statement. There are many like it. The entire film builds with the changes that occur in these three men, speeding toward a point where their destinies ultimately bring each other together for better or worse. The directing is superb, the acting top notch, the filming beautiful.

It’s difficult watching Christian, having joined the ranks of the Nazis, realize again and again what a monstrous and unthinking machine he has become a part of – and still resign himself to much of his duty. He lives under constant moral conflict, moving between holding naively to the shreds of what he hoped Hitler would give the German people, to watching and sometimes participating in the reality of what the Reich is really about. He falls in love with a widowed Parisian named Françoise, and she him. Brando gives so much with so little. Much of what Christian is going through can only be seen in his eyes, or with a subtle change in posture – the fact that his lover is a widow, and he is guilty of this by association, does not escape him. That she still cares for him is almost more than he can bear. That said, it’s all in the eyes and those careful movements for most of the film; a masterful performance very few but an actor like Marlon Brando could pull off.

This film was Dean Martin’s first big solo-success after parting ways with the cash cow that was his partnership with Jerry Lewis. I have honestly seen very little that I have loved Martin in, most of his contributions to film being heavy on bravado and one-liners and slim on strong performance. While the one-liners were slung often enough, Martin does a dynamite job in this movie. A lot of the social commentary actual comes from Michael, and Martin leaves the kitsch out of the character completely. He doesn’t want to fight, and not particularly for any ideological reason; he just doesn’t want to get shot. He’s comfortable with a life of singing, acting, and dancing around his delicate relationship with Margaret. Still, not so deep down, Michael has heart – and Dean Martin does a solid job of making sure we know it.

I realize it’s a little thing, but one of my favorite scenes occurs in the barracks between Michael and Noah. Noah is not adjusting well to the constant bullying he’s the target of by the other men in the company. After having money stolen from his footlocker, Noah submits a challenge to whomever was responsible; a fight behind the barracks. It ends up being four of the roughest hombres in the room. Over a few days poor Noah gets creamed by each of them, Michael doing his best to pick up the pieces. After one particularly brutal beating, Michael kneels next to the prone Ackerman – and gently pets his head. The scene, to me, was exceedingly touching. Martin made his name playing a playboy, a tough guy with a mouth, a zinger, and a cigarette at the ready. Here, he plays a man coming to terms with his beliefs and principles. It’s a pleasure to watch.

While I’m on tough guys, Montgomery Clift does an amazing job as the sensitive but increasingly self-assured Noah. The Young Lions was brought to theaters when it was still common to see women tossed around on screen, force-kissed when they played hard to get; basically filling parts clearly written by men. That said, this film does not break from that pattern, with the exception of Noah and his relationship with Hope. Clift plays his character’s interaction with Hope with a sensitivity and sweetness that many leading men of that time simply could not pull off, perhaps because they’d never take a part that would require the effort. The chain of events that causes Noah to fall in love with Hope on the very first night they meet is completely believable thanks to the performance of Clift and Lange. One of my favorite scenes occurs right after he makes the mistake of kissing Hope upon walking her home. She reprimands him, and Noah is absolutely beside himself. Their interaction from that point on is wonderful, and worth not spoiling for anyone that has yet to view the film.

The Young Lions, from start to finish, is an outstanding movie. It does not shy away from the violence men visit upon one another for ideological reasons – and even worse, simply because they’ve decided to stop thinking and follow orders. There is redemption, realization, and loss all set against the backdrop of one of the darkest chapters in modern civilization. There is a clear message in this film, repeated in one form or another throughout.

War is cyclical, it rarely meets the intended aim of either side, and more often than not it only serves to separates us more from our own humanity.

It is an exceptional war film, that steals the concept of glory from the act and leaves you with something more substantial – more true. I like that it does so without beating the viewer over the head, and without abandoning levity. A lot of the film is fun, and heartwarming; that it mixed this well with the heartbreak of the subject matter is a real testament to what a classic The Young Lions really is.

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