Good, amongst Brando’s best, and almost great,
War films tend to be a snap shot of the time they were made as much as the time they are portraying. “The Young Lions” is no exception. A sprawling epic over 167 minutes includes a fine cast, a thoughtful script, and some messages which resonate as much with the time they were written, as with the time they portray.
The plot centres around three main characters, a playboy actor/ singer, Michael Whiteacre, ( Dean Martin), a Jewish immigrant conscript, Noah Ackerman ( Mongomery Clift), and a German Officer, Christian Diestl, ( Marlon Brando). Filmed in 1958, the war was 13 years past, the Nuremburg Sentences had been either enacted or commuted or in many cases served, the Cold War was at its height, and McCarthyism was raging. The Second World War had moved on from being simply a story of good versus evil. Based on Irwin Shaw’s novel of the same title, some of the plot differences explain some “clunky” bits of the screenplay.
Whiteacre’s role is the one most underwritten. He appears as a cowardly lounge lizard who meets Ackerman at the draft board .He introduces Ackerman to his future wife, befriends him while he battles anti-Semitic prejudice, uses his influence to avoid front line service, then sees the patriotic heroic light and joins the front line at the end. Yet in quite a long film, Whiteacre gets precious little screen time and appears in vignette. The book has him as a more thoughtful ands his distaste for war being more cerebral, rather than cowardly.
Montgomery Clift has the most satisfying part. From mumbling virgin innocent with Hope Plowman, through battling Barrack Room bullying and prejudice, to heroism in battle and a safe return to wife, children and the American Dream. He acts the part superbly and his bloody defiant resistance to his tormentors viscerally unfolds. Sadly the comeuppance of the prejudiced junior officer who allows the bullying is awkward, sudden and unsatisfying, as if a moral point had to be made.
Marlon Brando is quite superb as the doubting Nazi. He is the conscience of the film. At the pinnacle of his youthful good looks he convinces as he is confronted by a series of moral dilemmas throughout the story. He mainly plays opposite Maximilian Schell as Captain Hardenberg, his commanding officer who obeys orders but for whom the audience still has considerable sympathy. A stand-out scene (of many) is when Deistl is asked by his commanding officer to deliver a present to his wife in Berlin. He finds her, May Britt, in an alluring evening dress and in a beautifully constructed seduction and tease they succumb. In a savage coda, Deistl subsequently revisits her to discover that her rejection of her critically injured husband has resulted in his committing suicide, this time he rejects her amorous advances in disgust.
The women in the film excel in both performance and beauty. Britt is gorgeous and convincing and it is surprising that she did not have a more successful subsequent career. Hope Plowman playing Ackerman’s wife is the epitome of the wholesome all- American gal, Barbera Rush and Dora Doll glow. And in a supporting role Lee Van Cleef is rather good as a Barrack Room bully too.
So why does it fall short of greatness? The stories are poorly interwoven and the 20 minute turnarounds on the respective stories feel awkward. A Concentration Camp scene towards the end feels forced and unconvincing, the nexus with Ackerman’s character doesn’t quite work. And crucially, Deistl’s role is so symbolic that on several occasions, in real life, his CO would have had shot or at the very least Court Martialled.
And where does it excel? It gives both Clift and Brando parts that they can really act in. Clift’s marathon journey to take his future wife to be home on their first meeting is wonderful, and Brando’s scene with his seriously injured CO when he asks for a bayonet to enable a fellow injured soldier to commit suicide, ostensibly, is poignant and moving. Dean Martin is of course in his element with a Bourbon in his hand, a piano in front of him and girls by his side. However with all of this going for him, I doubt that Director Edward Dmytryk will feel too disappointed with what didn’t quite make the grade.