THE YOUNG LIONS was a big hit in 1958, #8 at the boxoffice, a 167-minute ‘prestige’ adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s highly-regarded bestseller. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, with a screenplay adapted by Edward Anhalt, it was top-loaded with star power: the challenging combination of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin, the two most-acclaimed proponents of Method Acting matched with the first dramatic role for a singer known for his decade of playing straight man to Jerry Lewis.
The cauldron of the Second World War produced a rash of big, bold books by a new breed of authors relaying their personal experience of the cataclysm into vehicles that carried universal import. In his 680-page contribution from 1948, Shaw’s “lions” were three soldiers, one Austrian, two American. Former ski instructor ‘Christian Diestl’ (Brando) has his initial patriotic hopes for Hitler’s Germany ground down by service as an officer in North Africa and France. Across the Atlantic, bookish ‘Noah Ackerman’ (Clift) and seemingly shallow Broadway bigshot ‘Michael Whiteacre’ (Martin) become pals in the Army, and eventually see action as infantry privates in Europe. Before he ever gets to fight any Nazis, Ackerman experiences home-grown anti-Semitism in the service. Each man has romantic relationships that are tested by the demands of the conflict, and each must come to grips with the sorts of sacrifice are entailed to get through it all. *
Unfortunately, other than some stray acting moments here and there, and one excellent action sequence, the result is a mess. First the good: Brando, whose accent now seems on the cliché-goofy side, is always worth watching, even when he’s just fiddling around. Martin more than holds his own against Clift; Dino gave another effective performance that year in Some Came Running. The three main female co-stars—Barbara Rush, Hope Lange and May Britt—do well (Rush is the best), but the acting honors go to the male co-star, Maximilian Schell, in his Hollywood debut: his intense energy as one of Brando’s fully committed superior officers sells every scene he’s in. He also features in that action scene mentioned: the few others in the film are not well-handled, although Marlon is allowed a quite impressive death scene.
What doesn’t work—is everything else. Other than the presence of the cash-value stars and a few location shots done in France and Yuma, Arizona (subbing for North Africa), the production design looks chintzy, with obvious, bare-bone sets, and zip flair in the camera work. Along with an abundance of dialogue anachronisms, Anhalt’s wimpy screenplay guts Shaw’s novel. The author was incensed that Brando buffaloed Anhalt and director Dmytryk in order to soften the Diestl character, in the book an ardent Nazi, to a touchy-feely “good German” that allowed Marlon to indulge in pre-p.c. existential guilt suffering. Dmytryk’s uninspired direction flattens scene after scene—he’d just similarly mangled a Civil War epic the year before, Raintree County, also with Clift. Monty, then, is another nail in the coffin. A car wreck during the making of Raintree damaged his face, but his self-destructive abuse of alcohol and drugs took a heavier toll. His movements and voice are so jerky and hesitant it’s painfully obvious that he’s less in-character than just unsure how to walk and talk: excruciating to watch. **
A $3,550,000 production tag was put paid with a gross of $12,800,000, and the Oscars gave it token (and undeserved) nominations for Cinematography, Sound and Music Score.
Decent work in the viable supporting cast from Liliane Montevecchi, Parley Baer, Herbert Rudley, Dora Doll, Arthur Franz, Lee Van Cleef, Hal Baylor, Vaughan Taylor, John Banner and L.Q.Jones.
* 1958’s movie lineup was loaded with adaptations of literature and popular fiction. You could cheat on book reports for Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), Hemingway (The Old Man And The Sea), Faulkner (The Long Hot Summer and The Tarnished Angels), Norman Mailer (The Naked And The Dead), Herman Wouk (Marjorie Morningstar), James Jones (Some Came Running), Graham Greene (The Quiet American), John O’Hara (Ten North Frederick), Nathaniel West (Lonelyhearts) and Erskine Caldwell (God’s Little Acre).
World War 2 landed in force: A Time To Love And A Time To Die, South Pacific, In Love And War, Kings Go Forth, Run Silent Run Deep, The Key, Imitation General, Darby’s Rangers, Me And The Colonel, The Naked And The Dead, Torpedo Run, The Deep Six, and from Britain, Dunkirk, Carve Her Name With Pride, I Was Monty’s Double, The Camp On Blood Island and Ice-Cold In Alex. Less victorious also-rans WW1 and Korea got shoehorned in with Lafayette Escadrille and The Hunters.
** Clift declared this his best work—yikes, we call it his worst. Succeeding performances in Lonelyhearts and Suddenly Last Summer were similarly ragged. Then he rebounded, at least on-screen, with good turns in Wild River and The Misfits, a wrenching cameo in Judgement At Nuremberg and an effective interpretation of Freud.