Sunday 6 May 2007

The Men (1950) Fred Zinnemann

Fresh from the stage for his first screen part, his impact in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway gave Marlon Brando the lead in his debut, The Men, a war film without a war because, opening footage notwithstanding, the soldiers we see have already come home and are trying to adjust to modern life with the knowledge and memory of what they had been through. There are major names here, well beyond Brando's which was nothing at the time to the movie watching world. The director is Fred Zinnemann, who was already established though his greatest work, such as From Here to Eternity, High Noon or A Man for All Seasons was still come to come. The producer is Stanley Kramer, who was reasonably new and who had some major moments ahead, with films like On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. There are name actors backing up Brando, from Teresa Wright to Everett Sloane to Jack Webb. Most notably, there are 45 men from the Birmingham Veterans Administration Hospital, which along with everything else suggests that this would have been a prime candidate to be a Sam Fuller movie.

Sloane dominates early on as a doctor specialising in paralysis who is open and honest to an audience of women whose boyfriends and husbands are patients. Soon he's dealing with the patients themselves and he's similar yet not quite the same to them. How powerful this was in 1950 I can't ever know but from a 2007 viewpoint it's tame compared to films focusing on similar issues a war or two later such as Coming Home. I wonder all the more what Sam Fuller would have done with it. He'd have used Everett Sloane too, I would think, one of Orson Welles's Mercury Players who got a great turn in Citizen Kane and went onward and upward from there.

Brando plays Lt Kenneth 'Bud' Wilcheck, who, as you'd expect from a character played by Brando, isn't as happy or at least adjusted as the rest of his fellow patients. He gets to exude angst and pain and he does a pretty good job in his debut. No wonder he went through life never playing anything but the lead, even when he was only in a scene or two like Superman or Apocalypse Now. He does his thing here, dominating scenes even when he isn't actually doing anything which is a serious talent for sure, but I had far more fun enjoying Everett Sloane's performance. I merely often had to wait a while for him to come back.

Teresa Wright gets overshadowed, but it's almost logical that she got to be in a film about disabled men given that four years earlier she'd played a major role in The Best Years of Our Lives, which very notably featured a disabled man who got to become the one and only actor to ever win two Academy Awards for the same role. Jack Webb, almost entirely known nowadays for his long running role as Joe Friday in Dragnet, shows that he has versatility beyond what anyone would expect knowing only that character. In fact everyone here keeps the side up, but to my mind it's Everett Sloane's show, not Brando's.

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