Five Classics Newly Released on DVD Deal with the Struggle of War
Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Slim Summerville, William Bakewell. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Dolby Digital mono. B&W. 130 minutes. 1930. Universal 20510. NR. $24.98.
Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Bowman, Robert Walker, Desi Arnaz. Directed by Tay Garnett. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Dolby Digital mono. B&W. 114 minutes. 1943. MGM 907662. NR. $24.98.
Run Silent, Run Deep (DVD)
Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Jack Warden, Don Rickles. Directed by Robert Wise. Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen), 1.33:1. Dolby Digital mono. B&W. 93 minutes. 1958. MGM 907500. NR. $24.98.
They Were Expendable (DVD)
Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Jack Holt, Ward Bond, Donna Reed. Directed by John Ford. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Dolby Digital mono. B&W. 135 minutes. 1945. MGM 907661. NR. $24.98.
Pork Chop Hill (DVD)
Gregory Peck, Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, George Peppard. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen), 1.33:1. Dolby Digital mono. B&W. 98 minutes. 1959. MGM 907669. NR. $24.98.
Never mind vanquishing the enemy, never mind survival—war is hell on earth, and a hero in war is a soul who triumphs over fear and circumstance. All five of these famous and moving films about war approach their awful subject from that common existential viewpoint. "We live in trenches and we fight," explains Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), the young German soldier of World War I at the center of All Quiet on the Western Front. "We try not to be killed—that's all." Yet in the trenches of France, in the narrow bowels of submarines, on the exposed decks of torpedo boats plowing the Pacific, in the fevered jungles of the Philippines, and on the murderous slopes of a hill in Korea, self-preservation vies with the commandments of honor and duty. One fights because it is one's destiny.
Again and again, like the deep tolling of cautionary bells, these unromanticized tales sound the somber theme. Nowhere does it ring more clearly, more chillingly than in All Quiet. Seventy years and many wars have come and gone since director Lewis Milestone fashioned this epic saga of disillusionment, but one still shudders at its unvarnished portrayal of youth's devastation. Based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front is a story of The Great War, as World War I would be christened, told from the perspective of a German lad who succumbs to the railings of his jingoistic classroom teacher and enlists to fight the French for the glory of the Fatherland. But the glory of war is instantly dimmed in Paul's very first engagement. Amid the thunder of artillery fire, one of his comrades is blinded most painfully; as the terrified victim lurches about, screaming that he can't see, machine-gun fire cuts him down.
Thus, in the prime of their usefulness for better things, ordinary men band together as desperate comrades, soldiers now more devoted to each other than to country. One fellow observes that he feels no animosity toward the French or the English hunkered down in their own trenches, and wonders whether in fact they feel the same about him. Yet tomorrow they will go on slaughtering each other; and indeed, with relentless regularity, thousands upon thousands, they come to hideous ends—shot, maimed, blown to bits. When Paul is wounded and gets leave to return home, he finds the same old nationalistic fervor undimmed. At his former school, he tries to tell another class of innocents the raw truth about war, only to be shouted down as a traitor and coward. Suddenly the home of his childhood seems more surreal—and intolerable—than the front. Rejoining his comrades at arms, he finds that death has taken no leave. More of his pals have perished, and his own race is nearly run. It is the fragile beauty of a butterfly that draws Paul to his eternal rest.
Although the images are grainy and the soundtrack scratchy, All Quiet remains a powerfully engaging experience in this DVD transfer, and no allowance need be made for the film's depiction of battle: It is shattering. The blasts from endless artillery fire churn the earth into the sky, and the machine guns—with which the Germans greeted the unsuspecting French for the first time in WWI—appear to mow down the faceless infantry with staggering ferocity.
Some 30 years after All Quiet, director Lewis Milestone brought his lean, graphic, naturalistic style to another battlefield halfway around the world: Korea. But in Pork Chop Hill Milestone articulated a somewhat different message. If All Quiet argued the horrible inhumanity of war, Pork Chop Hill played on its grim, exhausting mindlessness. One of the last and bloodiest battlegrounds of the Korean War, Pork Chop Hill—so named for its resemblance to a pork chop—was high ground of no great strategic value to either the Chinese communists or the United States. The value of that real estate was strictly political: It became a figurative testing ground at the peace talks in progress at Panmunjom. The Chinese, who held the hill, in effect challenged the Americans to try to capture it as a demonstration of this country's resolve to stay the course. So the order came down to Lt. Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck) to lead his company of 135 men up the hill. Thirty hours later, Clemons and his 27 surviving comrades could claim "victory."
The power of Pork Chop Hill lies in the faces of those reluctant American soldiers. No one wants to go up that hill. For what? The war could end at any hour. Meanwhile, through loudspeakers set up at the crest, the Chinese are haranguing the dubious GIs with the fruitlessness of their venture and the needless death that awaits them. But ascend they do, in darkness and confusion—and under the inadvertent pounding of "friendly" artillery fire. Lt. Clemons must keep his troops moving, even at the point of his own bayonet, and Peck creates a noble portrait of a military commander persisting against impossible odds.
Finally they reach the top, their force decimated, only to face the prospect of a massive Chinese counterattack. Clemons asks for reinforcements, but is simply told to hold out as long as he can. In the eleventh hour, back in Panmunjom, US negotiators belatedly recognize the symbolic meaning of Pork Chop Hill to the Chinese. Reinforcements are authorized and the Chinese counterattack is repelled.
For Clemons' victorious survivors, there is no celebration, only exhaustion. The horrific battle ended and morning come, the lieutenant picks up his rifle and shuffles off down the hill, another day's mad work done. No more than All Quiet does Pork Chop Hill wrap war in glory. It's not a place where anybody wants to be—not those guys starring at random death, not you or I. The DVD of Pork Chop Hill looks and sounds somewhat better than All Quiet, but after the first few minutes you aren't thinking about digital artifacts; you're thinking, "My God."
The Alamo-like last stand that Clemons' little band did not have to make is the very story of Bataan, which may be the most compelling war movie ever made. In December 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese landed a major expeditionary force in the Philippines, overwhelming the Filipino defenders as well as the modest American forces there. Bataan recounts the valiant resistance of a handful of American soldiers who blow up a key bridge, then dig in to obstruct Japanese repair work for as long as they can—a dozen guys with faces, lives, aspirations, pasts. One by one they are killed, either by the Japanese or by disease. For reasons they don't have time to ponder, for a purpose that is simply the work at hand and from which there is no turning away, they perish one and all.
So intimate is the framework of Bataan, so fine the delineation of characters, that it could well be a stage play. In fact, the entire film was shot on a set constructed in a Hollywood studio. But make no mistake—this is riveting human drama on a cosmic scale. Robert Taylor as Sgt. Bill Dane, who suddenly finds himself in command, and Lloyd Nolan, an old nemesis of Dane's from a nearly forgotten past, turn in eloquent performances. Visually, the DVD presentation is magnetic: In the close-ups of the men's faces one can see the struggle for control, sanity, and bravery, while in the dense, deadly jungle one glimpses the camouflaged specter of death.
The two naval films, They Were Expendable and Run Silent, Run Deep, also reflect the stolid, workaday nature of combat service; but in both films, set in the Pacific theater of WWII, the driving forces of pride and redemption come into play. In They Were Expendable, Robert Montgomery, as Lt. John Brickley, commands a fleet of torpedo boats (aka PT boats)—small attack craft whose combat value on the high seas is not entirely appreciated by the Navy brass. John Wayne, not at all the Duke here, is one of Brickley's officers. Even as circumstance—and no small measure of initiative—allows Brickley to prove the worth of his boats, the harsh realities of war loom large. On perilous, violent attack runs, good men, close friends, die.
One of the strongest scenes is a makeshift dinner party, to which John Wayne's newly acquired female companion, a nurse (Donna Reed), is invited. In the determined civility of this sparse affair, the good and the beautiful of the human endeavor are affirmed. And what of the romance? Wayne and Reed become separated, but manage to make contact on field telephones. They are headed in opposite directions. Will they ever see each other again? Is this goodbye?
In mid-farewell, a supply officer snatches the phone from Reed's hands. Like men and women in battle zones, relationships, too, are expendable. Visually and sonically, this may be just another B&W movie in mono sound; yet death as a way of life is perhaps best depicted in such shades of gray.
Of these five films, Run Silent, Run Deep comes closest to glorifying combat. Clark Gable plays a submarine commander reassigned to a desk job after his boat is sunk, apparently by a Japanese warship. In time, the discredited commander finagles another sub, taking it right out of the hands of Burt Lancaster, who suddenly finds himself settling for executive officer on what he thought would be his own ship. Thus the Pacific becomes Gable's personal battleground, where, against orders, he heads directly for a rematch with the ship that got him. The war becomes backdrop to one man's obsession, the game board on which he will play out his quest for redemption. Lancaster's gentlemanly officer plays foil to Gable's single-minded, damn-the-torpedoes hunter.
That, too, is the human face of war, and on the canvas of this DVD it is again vividly sketched in the half-tones of B&W—the only colors required or, one might infer, possible. The state of war, these films collectively proclaim, is stark and terrible, the human condition in extremis. It is a portrait to be drawn in chalk and charcoal.