FORCE OF ARMS —–a mixed-results 1951 WW2 romance set in Italy, squeaks by on the strength of leading man William Holden, good black & white cinematography, with some not bad action scenes. It’s hobbled by a bland leading lady, weakness in the supporting cast and script contrivance that rushes the unconvincing love stuff and trivializes the conditions and setting of the conflict.
During leave from the stalled front, a combat-frazzled Army lieutenant (Holden) meets and falls for a WAC officer (Nancy Olson). They spark, spat, separate, he gets wounded, they make up, and then duty calls him back again to his troops and the liberation of Rome. From a story by Richard Tregaskis (famous for Guadalcanal Diary), the Italian setting and military-themed romantic dilemmas can’t help but recall Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, which had film versions (1932 and 1957) that bracketed this mid-level production, directed with standard competence by Michael Curtiz.
The script adaptation from Orin Jannings doesn’t measure up to Tregaskis’ work, and if you read the superb 2007 epic from Rick Atkinson–“The Day Of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944” (highly recommended, 4-stars) you will see that the movie soft-peddles the living daylights out of the dire conditions in Naples and the liberation-wracked countryside. *
Holden, anyway, is very good, much better than the material. At 32, he was coming off twin hits Born Yesterday and Sunset Boulevard: this cynical soldier character presages his later incarnations of the type in Stalag 17, The Bridges At Toko-Ri, The Proud And The Profane and The Bridge On The River Kwai. Holden had the ‘weary warrior’ role down to a science: he did this better than anyone. Here, unfortunately, he’s re-teamed, for the third of four quick times with the ‘nice’ but bland Nancy Olson. They’d worked well together in Sunset Boulevard, so were quickly shoehorned into Union Station (both in 1950). Then this, followed by Submarine Command, both in ’51 (‘Arms’ force-landed on spot #110 for receipts, the sub-flick sonared #111). The script, after a good, terse start, speeds them through their dalliances and Curtiz’ direction has them double-time it: it all feels synthetic.
Olson doesn’t generate much heat, but at least she doesn’t irritate like supporting goofball Dick Wesson, who overdid his schmuck-shtick in a number of Warner’s films of the period. Reliable backup Paul Picerni is also wasted. Much of the humor is cringe-inducing. Doing an oddly lame job is normally very effective Gene Evans, who (aside from racking medals in his WW2 combat record) registered strongly in two more, better-regarded war films in 1951, both for Samuel Fuller, The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets! Third-billed behind the two stars is the sturdy Frank Lovejoy: although it’s a truncated part, he plays it straight and does just fine.
Back before they were assaulted by (sub)divisions of Chevrolet-armed suburbanites, the Santa Susana Mountains north of L.A. provided locales to substitute for the once-contested hills of Italy. Ted D. McCord handled the laudable cinematography, Max Steiner the less helpful score. Mixing in with the brisk battle scenes are snatches of footage from the real thing. 99 minutes, with Katherine Warren, Argentina Brunetti, Ron Hagerthy, Philip Carey (getting pushed by Warner’s with six gigs in ’51), Don Gordon, James Dobson and Henry Kulky.
* War correspondent Tregaskis’ story came from his 1944 book “Invasion Diary”, about the miserable Sicilian and Italian campaigns. From the book: “The lure of the front is like an opiate. After abstinence and the tedium of workaday life, its attraction becomes more and more insistent. Perhaps the hazards of battle, perhaps the danger itself, stir the imagination and give transcendent meaning to things ordinarily taken for granted.” On Nov. 22, 1943, his helmet barely saved him from being killed by shrapnel doing reporting from Monte Cassino. Surgeons removed a number of fragments from his brain. He went on to report on conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. In 1973, at age 56, after all his exposure to danger from armed men in three wars, he died in Hawaii…from drowning.