Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan) and his platoon are stuck on a Korean hillside. They’ve tried contacting the division headquarters, but their radio isn’t working, and they can’t leave the hill since their truck is broken down. With few options, Benson decides that in order to survive, his men must march back to division headquarters.
Soon after their journey begins, the men spot a speeding jeep ahead and decide that they’ll overtake it. The jeep’s driver, Montana (Aldo Ray), is a sergeant trying to help his colonel, who has become shell-shocked after being too close to a mine explosion.
Montana and Benson find themselves at odds, but eventually agree to work together to save their soldiers.
Anthony Mann directs 1957’s Men in War. Alongside the feuding Ryan and Ray, the film features the talents of Robert Keith, Phillip Pine, Vic Morrow, and James Edwards.
Men in War offers a well-balanced blend of action and drama in a story that is simple but gut-wrenching. The film isn’t overloaded with action, nor does it ignore the fact that these men are involved in a war, and that the presence of their enemy is a constant threat.
Gunfire is exchanged and lives are lost, but rather than depicting this with excessive, gratuitous violence, the film offers what seems like a more realistic portrayal of the wartime environment. Danger is constant, but fighting isn’t. Much of the film focuses on the soldiers’ interactions with one another.
The film also makes great use of its outdoor setting of hills, tall grasses, and at times dense tree cover. A gritty atmosphere is built, and the setting — along with the looming presence of enemy forces, and the conflict between Montana and Benson — provides for plenty of tension.
There isn’t a single bad performance in the bunch, all of the film’s actors believable as soldiers trying to survive a terrible war, and watching their peers get killed off one by one. It’s a grim reality, and grimly portrayed.
TCM aired this film back in August for the Summer Under the Stars day dedicated to pioneering black actor James Edwards. This was one of the talented man’s more prominent roles, though he easily could have been given more to do in the film. (Spoiler alert: Edwards’ character is killed about thirty minutes in.) Edwards was often, very unfortunately, relegated to minor roles with very little screen time. His screen time is small here compared to his co-stars, but he still makes a huge impact, and gives his character of Sergeant Killian a sensitive, dignified quality.
Men in War is not an easy watch, but certainly a very well-made film. Strong performances and plenty of mood-building bring to life a bleak story, handled with appropriate seriousness by the filmmakers and cast.