HOME OF THE BRAVE made an impact in 1949 as the first of a quartet of releases that year that tackled the racism imbedded in the nation’s fabric and still encoded in law at the time. Of the four, Pinky—a high-profile drama about a light-skinned black girl passing as white—was the biggest success (a hit, actually, 6th place), followed by the now-forgotten Lost Boundaries (a black man passing as white, again surprisingly well at 43rd place), with the well-reviewed lynch mob story Intruder In The Dust a distant 203rd. Home Of The Brave placed 99th, but scored a win with a $3,600,000 gross since it had been shot quickly and cheaply for just $370,000. Set in the Pacific in WW2, the tense tale of racial animus in the service took thematic advantage of the Civil Rights shift from the previous year, when President Truman ordered the armed forces to begin integrating. While ’49’s hit war films (Sands Of Iwo Jima, Battleground, Twelve O’Clock High, Command Decision and Task Force) focused on battles and the stress toll of ordering others to die, this intense small scale plot focused on a 5-man scouting patrol that takes place on a Japanese-held island. The mission has a profound effect on the men, especially on the outsider, ‘Private Peter Moss’ (James Edwards), a black soldier from an engineer battalion hastily ordered in as a replacement.
At first, Moss is happily surprised to find ‘Finch’ (Lloyd Bridges), a close buddy from high school, is part of the team, led by a young officer (Douglas Dick) who seems fair enough. Taciturn vet ‘Sgt. Mingo’ (Frank Lovejoy) is okay with Moss but surly ‘Corporal T.J. Everett’ (Steve Brodie) is a blowhard bigot and makes that clear from the outset. One is killed (tortured first), another maimed and the traumatized Moss suffers a psychological breakdown resulting in paralysis: he can’t walk. An Army psychiatrist (Jeff Corey) tries to spur his recovery.
Gutsy stuff at the time, other than its obviously commendable “we’re all alike” message and most of the acting, the hard-breathing dramatics are a harder sell today. Much is thanks to the script’s utter lack of anything resembling military authenticity: these guys make enough noise on patrol to be heard in Tokyo, backtalk the officer, and light up smokes day & nite, a great way to get snuffed by a blind geisha girl alone let alone battle-hard Japanese soldiers. The psychobabble with the shrink is also ridiculous, and otherwise laudable Edwards (his debut) is prodded into some over-emoting that reaches past gripping to the plain hysterical. Arthur Laurent’s wrote the original play (in which the maligned character was Jewish), and Carl Foreman did the screenplay: each had beating liberal hearts on sincere sleeves, but this sledgehammer approach is neither’s finest hour. The idea was sound, the execution shaky, directed by Mark Robson, produced by Stanley Kramer: Foreman, Robson and Kramer had just scored with Champion, and all would have their respective shares of career highs and lows over the next two+ decades. Another misfire is a puzzler as it comes from renowned composer Dimitri Tiomkin: this overly busy score has to be his least impressive, though it’s amusing to detect cues he’d use a few years later on The Thing. Much of it gets downright silly.
Okay, enough bashing: still worthwhile are the performances. Though Edwards goes over-the-top too often (doubtless fresh and bracing back then), he has impressive presence, which showed up in smaller roles on better movies until his untimely heart attack demise in 1970, just 51. Bridges gets a tad too earnest, but era hardies Lovejoy and Brodie are excellent and Dick (who later left acting to become a psychologist) has probably his best role. Though his character spouts a ton of hooey, the unsung Jeff Corey has one of his finest showcases as the determined psychiatrist. The racist insults, mostly from Brodie’s character, are hard to listen to: the movie also broke new ground by using the epithet “nigger”, which the Hays Code had forbidden since 1934. Though it makes perfect dramatic sense in the context of the story, the ugliness and ignorance behind it is never pleasant to contemplate, let alone endure.
Within a few years Foreman and Corey would be blacklisted, Bridges and Edwards ‘graylisted’. Home of the brave, sometimes.