A Walk in the Sun (1945)
“THEY FOUGHT BEST WHEN IT WAS HOPELESS!”
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, George Tyne
Synopsis: During WWII, a platoon of American soldiers trudge through the Italian countryside in search of a bridge they have been ordered to blow up, encountering danger and destruction along the way.
Lewis Milestone, the director of A Walk in the Sun, also directed two other classic war movies: All Quiet on the Western Front and Pork Chop Hill, and to each of them he brought something different. With A Walk in the Sun we have an unconventional movie that spends a lot more time philosophising about the nature of war than it does showing any action. Given that the lot of a combat soldier is supposed to be something like 80% boredom 10% anxiety and 10% sheer terror, the film therefore provides an accurate reflection of combat conditions in that respect. The dialogue is a little stylised, but it has a kind of rhythm that commands the viewer’s attention, and its raw depiction of the psychological pressures suffered by a group of American soldiers leaves us in no doubt that, although released in 1945, it was made after the final shot of WWII was fired.
A Walk in the Sun joins a platoon of US soldiers on a landing barge taking part in the invasion of Italy in 1943. This lengthy opening sequence introduces us to the major players in the story, and for the most part they seem a typical bunch, a cross-section of American malehood. But the conversation in which they engage is unusually dark and cynical, shot through with a kind of tired bitterness. These aren’t the gung-ho soldiers that populated propagandistic war movies while the conflict was taking place, but a much more realistic depiction of soldiers following orders with little or no understanding of either the reasons for the orders they are ordered to carry out or what part they play in the Allies’ overall strategy against the enemy.
They lose their lieutenant early on, and command of the troop falls first upon the shoulders of Sergeant Eddie Porter (Herbert Rutley) and then Sergeant Bill Tyne (Dana Andrews — Laura) when Porter eventually cracks up under the pressure. The platoon’s mission is to take a farmhouse about six miles inland which has been commandeered by the Nazis. The journey is littered with danger and risk, with no certainty of success at its end.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of A Walk in the Sun is the psychological frailty of almost every character. Not only do we see the perhaps inevitable nervous breakdown of a character who has an unfamiliar position of authority thrust upon him, but also the lack of confidence with which orders are issued, the forced humour of men who are in some form of denial, and the emotional detachment others adopt to distance themselves from comrades who can be cut down ‘in the middle of a word.’ This broad spectrum of responses to the stresses of war naturally calls for a larger than normal ensemble cast which means we only really get to know a few characters well, but the self-assurance of Harry Brown and Robert Rossen’s incisive script prevents any of the characters from feeling ill-defined or sketchy.
(Reviewed 21st July 2014)