A WALK IN THE SUN was released at Christmas, 1945, four months after the war ended, the last of the movies about WW2 made during its final throes. Understandably, after years of strife and a regiments worth of films on the subject, audience demand was slacking, ironically as a number of the best came out that climactic year. Well-reviewed at the time, the $800,000 picture earned $2,250,000.*
It had some clout going in, with direction by Lewis Milestone, renowned as the maker of the classic WW1 epic All Quiet On The Western Front (winning Oscars for his direction as well as Best Picture) and a proven hand at the second round with Edge Of Darkness, The North Star and The Purple Heart. For this 117-minute mission, Milestone tackled one afternoon’s efforts of a single platoon on the first day of the landing in Italy at Salerno in 1943.
Action is intermittent, almost incidental until the final rush, with the bulk of the story taken up by back & forth nervous jabbering from the troops, with an added assortment of pensive voice-overs (perhaps planting some seeds for Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line ). Based on Harry Brown’s 1944 novel, the script by Robert Rossen, rather than belabor the details of plot and fighting, instead deals with men’s various emotional ways of handling the martial mix of confusion, boredom and peril. A good deal of it works (albeit dated now), but it gets to be overkill—these guys never shut up. It becomes annoying, especially the Deep Thought attempts at lofty reflection that pepper the chatter like shrapnel. Apart from a smattering of buddy-kidding, it’s simply overwritten as hell, like Rossen is going for a miniature “War And Peace” with all the instant philosophizing these guys exhale. Pipe down! Laying on the mush is the addition of a frequently intruding ballad (the first time for this effect? presaging High Noon by seven years), warbled by Kenneth Spencer in the manner of a spiritual: it doesn’t date well.**
As for direction and acting, Milestone uses his familiar, always effective dolly tracking shots and gets good work from the cast, led by a confident Dana Andrews, with a notable first gig from lanky, laconic John Ireland. Richard Conte and George Tyne manage the wisecracks as to the manner born.
With Herbert Rudley, Lloyd Bridges, Sterling Holloway, Norman Lloyd, Richard Benedict, Huntz Hall, James Cardwell, Steve Brodie and Robert Horton. Burgess Meredith does the narration.
* As the war with Germany wound down, it seemed the escalating horror of the fight with Japan would go on for a long time. That grim, determined mindset transmitted to art as reflected by movies had them shifting into more serious gear. Landing in ’45, a solid squad of sober-minded replacements: Back To Bataan, Objective Burma, A Bell For Adano, They Were Expendable, Pride Of The Marines and The Story Of G.I. Joe. Then, spent with the half-elated/half deflated dawn of 1946, War Movies took an at-ease break that lasted until 1949.
** At least one ex-GI was not impressed. Samuel Fuller, hustling screenwriter and late of the storied 1st Infantry Division wrote to Milestone (who served in WW1) : “Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out . . . When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.” Fuller had earned his bitching rights at Omaha Beach and assorted bloody foxholes, including Salerno, and he may have partially voiced his tirade as he knew enlisted man scuttlebutt about Milestone’s Colonel, Thomas D. Drake. Taken prisoner by the Germans at Kasserine Pass, Drake spent 583 days in captivity. (He was kept at a camp in Poland that also held English actor Michael Goodlife, whose confinement we mention in the review of Von Ryan’s Express.) Drake was considered a zealous martinet: in Tunisia his men dubbed him “Quack Quack”. Known for his brutality, he instructed his officers to kill any of their men who left the line without permission and ordered “ “Teach all personnel to hate the Germans, and to kill them at every opportunity. I will notify you when I want prisoners taken.” Drake had been given prisoner-exchange by the Germans a year before the film commenced. Apparently he was so nasty even the Nazis had their fill of him.
The crusty, unapologetic Fuller (“The only way to bring the real experience of war to a movie audience is by firing a machine gun above their heads during the screening“) would channel his combat experiences into four excellent war movies: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Merrill’s Marauders, and his ultimate personal saga The Big Red One. In the 50s, Milestone would add two more classics to his combat resume: Halls Of Montezuma and Pork Chop Hill.
Kenneth Spencer, the African-American opera singer who handles the rolling ballad, gave up on homegrown prejudice in 1949 after a tour of Europe, where response wasn’t tarnished by bigotry. He plied his craft in Germany for 14 years, before perishing in an air crash in 1964.