Opening Night at the 2015 UCLA Festival of Preservation: Anthony Mann's Men in War

March 8, 2015

UCLA Film and Television Archive's 2015 Festival of Preservation kicked off Thursday night with a screening of Anthony Mann's 1957 combat drama Men in War.

 

While I usually walk into screenings at the Archive's Billy Wilder Theater a minute or two before the show starts (I really dislike those hot pink seats), I know better for big events like this. Along with screenings such as the world premiere restoration of Ramona (1928) last year and the 2013 Festival of Preservation's opening night's film, Gun Crazy (1950), Men in War packed the house quite quickly, as I suspected. Luckily, I got myself in line before 7:28 this time, picked up my pass, and found a seat. 

 

In his introduction, Archive Director Jan-Christopher Horak explained that just a few years ago, this film was in danger of being lost forever. In fact, the original negative had been destroyed; UCLA worked off a fine grain master that was almost fully deteriorated due to vinegar syndrome to create this preservation print. Despite the horrid condition the film was in, the restoration, led by UCLA's Scott MacQueen, looked terrific. 

My program and pass for the 2015 UCLA Festival of Preservation (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Men in War begins with an unseen accident that separates an American platoon from the rest of its division behind North Korean lines during the Korean War. Before losing radio contact, Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan), the Platoon's Commander, receives only vague instructions to get his men to a specific hill for relief. Before they begin their trek, a jeep driven by Sergeant Montana (Aldo Ray) roars towards them, and Benson flags them down. Montana's traveling with "The Colonel" (Robert Keith), a shell-shocked, mute man Montana regards as his father who he has tied to the seat. Montana explains that he and The Colonel are through with fighting and he's trying to get The Colonel to a hospital for medical attention. Benson, however, has different plans for them; he commandeers their jeep to transport supplies and men on the long hike to safety.

 

Montana and Benson quickly butt heads over orders and how to lead the men to the hill. On route, the men find themselves targeted by sly North Korean snipers, who slowly kill them one by one. As Benson attempts to both command and keep his men's morale up, he strategically out-maneuvers bombs and traverses mine fields (with the help of a surrendered North Korean) to finally make it to the bottom of the hill. When three men in American uniform on the hillside approach the platoon, Montana shoots them dead; though he wasn't 100% sure at the time, they turned out to be North Koreans in disguise.

 

With their safety spot overrun by the enemy, Benson decides to attack and take over. Montana (and The Colonel by default) refuses to join and cooly watches as the men take their places to begin the assault. However, when the fighting begins, The Colonel finally undoes his chains and runs into action. Montana grits his teeth and races in after him, but it isn't long before The Colonel is shot and dies in Montana's arms.

 

When the smoke clears, only Montana, Benson, and Riordan (Phillip Pine) still stand, and the survivors make sure to carefully take out of rest of the North Koreans. Soon thereafter, Riordan hears the familiar sounds of the American troops finally marching towards them, while Montana and Benson belatedly bestow medals to Benson's men and The Colonel.  

There were a few different wars being waged in this movie...

At first I found this film an odd entry on director Anthony Mann's resume, because the genre didn't fit in with my expectations of his work. However, as Horak pointed out (in Mann's Westerns and to a lesser extent, his film noirs), the director was well-known for his use of violence and his exploration of his character's psychological states. Well, both of those points were on full display in Men in War, but not as overtly as you'd think. The violence was sudden and jarring, and only about half the time did you see something coming. Visually, Horak noted Mann's use of tension and action in the way he framed the shots. For example, part of the terror comes from the fact that Mann's long shots revealed nothing; they were simply an (eerie) observation of the surroundings, complete with rustling trees and the sound of wind howling. Rather, it's in the claustrophobic close-ups that a good chunk of the action takes place, blindsiding the characters and the audience. This method was extremely effective in putting the audience in the actor's shoes; we were just as terrified as the actors felt real soldiers would be for what was coming next, and, more frighteningly, when. 

 

To Mann, that was how war was fought, and thus Men in War reflected that view. The battle the platoon waged in the film wasn't out in the open but rather from behind bushes, in the trees, and hidden behind hills. This style of warfare, and surely the combat itself, was the driving force behind Mann's exploration of the psychological consequences of war, which he explored equally with war's physical effects too. This intention is evident in the film's first sequence after the men have become stranded. The camera introduces each character, and while I may not have remembered their names, I sure as hell registered the looks on their faces; though I usually wasn't able to pinpoint exactly what was going on, I could tell the struggle each man faced just by their demeanor and expressions alone. It was a powerful way to begin the film, because the men's fragile mental states, coupled with the emphasis on silence and ambient sound, cranked the tension up to ten for both the men on screen and the audience. When one of the men discovers the first casualty of the film, a comrade who has been stabbed in the back and laid back down to look like he was sleeping, the table is set not for a big, brash, action packed tale but rather a slow, tense, calculated story and journey that will hopefully lead these men to safety. 

L.Q. Jones looking very western.

After the film, L.Q. Jones, who played Sergeant Davis, took the stage for a Q&A with Horak. Jones, wearing long brown cowboy boats with bright red embellishments, relaxed into his seat, resting the microphone on his chest. Though laid back, he had a habit of answering Horak and the audience's questions with "Yes, sir," which almost made me feel like he was re-enacting his part in the movie!

 

Jones admitted that he hadn't seen the film in years, and after this evening's viewing, he remarked, "It ain't pretty, and it's not enjoyable." The audience partly agreed: certain sequences were definitely tough to take. Over the course of his career, Jones played in a handful of war pictures, but Men in War stands out as the one combat movie he acted in that didn't feature any "curlicues;" this film was all about the tension, seriousness, and realism of war.

 

Jones has appeared in roughly 113 movies (he's been told) and an additional 300-400 TV shows, but Men in War was the only film he was involved in that started shooting on page one and filmed straight through to the end.  He attributed the rhythm that grows as the movie progresses to this method and the work schedule. Though the men performed like a well-oiled machine, Jones revealed that there wasn't much prep behind the scenes. What helped, though, were the conditions under which the film was shot, the locations, and the fact that the men were treated like an actual unit. For starters, Jones' costume was only washed once during the shoot, and the actors weren't fed the best food, either. Filming took place in Bronson and Malibu Canyons and lasted only about four and a half to five and a half weeks, which was extremely quick; consequently, the cast and crew operated on a tight time schedule, and everyone on set was there because Mann knew they could do their job well and deliver.

 

As for working with Mann, Jones remembered that the director got everything exactly the way he wanted, but he would never give instructions to the actors directly, nor would he tell them no; he'd talk around his point so the actor would have to figure it out, and if they didn't turn in what Mann was looking for, the director would ask, "What would happen if..." and lay out what he saw for the scene. Thus, when the actor followed the director's lead, they'd think it was all their own doing.

Benson (Robert Ryan) and Montana (Aldo Ray) working things out  (via cinema.ucla.ed)

Jones shared some amusing behind the scenes stories involving both Robert Ryan and Anthony Mann. Jones' Ryan story came from his time working on The Wild Bunch (1969). Apparently, the cast all lived in private houses near the set, and one evening Ryan invited Jones over to dinner. The woman who owned the house cooked the meal, a pepper dish that, hilariously according to Jones, "would raise a blood blister on a roughed out boot." Ryan couldn't take the heat, and when the woman left he threw the food under the carpet! "That's the tough human, Robert Ryan," Jones joked.  Another anecdote revealed a more compassionate side of Ryan: the actor found out that same woman ran an orphanage, and she did so by cooking small pieces of candy to sell for about two and a half cents each. Well, Ryan had her whip up about ten bars, and he sold them to the cast and crew at insanely inflated prices: director Sam Peckinpah paid $10,000 for his, and Jones - because Ryan "knew I was cheap" - threw in $1,000. In the end, Ryan raised over $35,000 for the woman, which helped cover the orphanage costs for about five years. How sweet!

 

Jones' story about Mann occurred on the set of Men in War. Mann wasn't very religious, according to Jones, and he had quite a mouth on him. While getting ready to shoot a scene towards the end of the movie that was getting started late in the morning, Mann began to get antsy. When everything was finally ready to go, a little VW bus pulled up into the middle of the set. The doors opened, and out stepped two nuns and about seven or eight 8-9 year olds. Mann rushed down to the group, bowed to the nuns, invited them to look at the camera and explained to the kids how movies were made - all without a hint of bad language. However, the moment the Assistant Director walked up and reminded Mann that they were ready to start that all changed: "OK, let's get this goddamn thing shot!" Jones remembers Mann yelling. Of course, the nuns quickly spun on their heels, ran back to the VW with the kids, and couldn't get out of there fast enough!

 

 

How to go to war with Anthony Mann:

Men in War is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.com. Just a heads up though: this film probably plays best on a large screen, in the dark, and with perfect silence for maximum paranoia potential. 

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