IN LOVE AND WAR—–“The Big War”, Anton Myrer’s fine 1957 novel , is given an attractive but superficial pass in this 1958 Saturday Night Special, featuring a half-dozen of Fox’s capable veteran or fresh contract stars of the day. The story covers three distinctly different Marines in 1944, dealing with their romantic crises on leave in San Francisco and then their baptism of fire in the Pacific. *
Established heartthrobs Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner and newcomer Bradford Dillman are the woe & war-beset Leathernecks; Hope Lange, Dana Wynter, Sheree North and France Nuyen are their worried or exasperated lovers. Lange and Wynter were racking up impressive credits while North’s once-promising movie career was stalling out (after this and Mardi Gras the studio dropped her and she didn’t return to the big screen for eight years). Nuyen, 19 in her debut year, lucked out with South Pacific. To froth the soap opera suds of Edward Anhalt’s script, comedian Mort Sahl makes his movie debut as a wisecracking Greek Chorus type; his lines seem improvised. **
Myrer’s book had depth and fury, but Anhalt’s adaptation, with competent but uninspired direction from Philip Dunne, reduces the authors 512 pages to 111 crammed minutes, loading the game cast with passages that have too much emotion for their pacing. It’s like Cliff Notes, with scenes ending up overwrought, simplistic, sappy and telegraphed: Pretend Adult. Hunter, Lange and North come off best; Wagner’s drunken clowning and sudden dramatic reverses are energetic but unconvincing. Wynter is pretty but has to go over-the-top with a meltdown. Dillman is loaded up with earnestness at odds with his cagey visage: anyone else ever notice how much he looks like Rip Torn’s brother? Nuyen is placid.
The $1,590,000 production has a glossy polish, bolstered by Leo Tover’s camerawork, and some real battle footage mixed in with the okay studio back-lot combat scenes. Some shots of California’s Monterrey Peninsula add to the luster. US box-office gross put in 32nd place, taking in $7,100,000.
With Stephen Gant, Harvey Stephens, Paul Comi, Murvyn Vye, Joe Di Reda and Veronica Cartwright, in her movie debut at age 9.
* Myrer’s second novel was based off his own WW2 experiences as a Marine (he was wounded in the retaking of Guam). It’s a good read, but his triumph came with the 1968 magnum opus “Once An Eagle”, an instant classic. Like this story, it was ill-served when made into a really disappointing TV mini-series in 1976. It’s one of the great books on men in war.
**Sahl reprised this bit two years later trying to add flair to All The Young Men, again as a Marine, in the snows of Korea with Alan Ladd and Sidney Poitier. That may have prompted the similar insert-bantering of another droll monologist, Bob Newhart, two years later in the otherwise grim Hell Is For Heroes.