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Besieged: The 1950s at War and at Home

2010 July 11
by Morris Dickstein

Then other week I took in two engrossing films from the 1950s that reminded me, if I needed reminding, of the enduring fascination and complexity of an era in American life that is still not well understood. Not surprisingly, these movies were made by directors who seemed marginal at the time, solid professionals who worked largely in genre films. Such work drew little cultural respect, yet by flying below the radar of positive thinking they managed to avoid the upbeat clichés of the period and the industry, clichés that in many ways still condition our outlook on that decade. As result they may reveal more about the mood of the times – perhaps even its unconscious mind – than more upholstered feature productions.

The director Anthony Mann is now best known for the films noirs he made in the late 1940s, and especially the great series of Westerns he made with Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s. His work has long since been rediscovered, and it is currently enjoying a thirty-two-film retrospective at the Film Forum in New York. Men in War (1957), shown on TCM to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War, was his only war movie and surely one of the most grim and depressing combat films ever made in the United States. This little tale seems so numbing and pointless that it’s hard to believe that it dealt with the Korean conflict, not the Vietnam War, which it eerily seems to anticipate. It is set in early September 1950, at a low point in the war, when South Korea had largely been overrun and United Nations forces were reduced to a small perimeter around Pusan. For the soldiers fighting, who seem like little more than enemy targets, survival is the issue, not war aims, individual bravery, or thoughts of victory.

The film tracks the fate of one patrol under the command of a lieutenant (Robert Ryan), and their situation mirrors the dire condition of the war as a whole. The patrol is lost and out of radio contact in no-man’s land, its one vehicle has broken down, and enemy snipers lurk everywhere. Yet somehow they must make it to Hill 465, fifteen miles away, where they hope to link up with other American forces. To carry their weapons, equipment, and ammunition, they commandeer a jeep driven by a sergeant (Aldo Ray) who is trying to deliver his catatonic, shell-shocked colonel (Robert Keith) to safety – that is, out of the war. Ryan upsets Ray’s plans and the visceral tension between them drives the rest of the movie, like the gripping male rivalry at the heart of most of Mann’s Westerns.

Robert Ryan is one of great underrated actors of the period, usually playing insidiously charming or morally ambiguous figures who complicate any easy sense of good and evil. Here he seems like the perfect officer, utterly devoted to his men and mission, always ready to put himself at risk. Aldo Ray, on the other hand, is an officer’s nightmare, a thick-necked bulldog, insolent and insubordinate from the first moment his jeep is stopped. But Ryan’s determination is streaked with fatalism – his knowledge that the mission is futile, that his men are doomed from start. And Ray’s intractable willfulness is powered by his filial devotion to his mute, helpless colonel, the only man who has ever called him “son,” and by his almost preternatural instinct for anticipating and outgunning the enemy that surrounds them. These mixed characters pose moral dilemmas familiar from the best Westerns.

In the end there are no Americans to link up with at Hill 465; the post has been overrun, and nearly all of Ryan’s men are killed in trying to take it, just as he anticipated. The only survivors are Ryan, wounded but still fighting, and Ray, who had lost his beloved colonel when the old man, in a desperate gesture, tried to join the fight. Together Ryan and Ray, using flame-throwers and grenades, rout the remnant of the enemy and capture the hill, a gesture as pointless, futile, and hollow as the war itself, as least as the film portrays it. If we are still tempted to think of the 1950s as complacent, smugly prosperous, and blandly optimistic, yet also Manichean in its cold war sense of friends and foes, this film alone would be enough to disabuse us. Its bleak atmosphere is closer to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” than to any heroic triumphalism. Even its title, pointing to men in war rather than at war (Hemingway’s phrase), suggests entrapment rather than agency. By 1957, the postwar feeling of economic and political dominance, always qualified by an undercurrent of anxiety, was clearly breaking down.

We can see the same kind of breakdown on the home front in Nicholas Ray’s ironically titled Bigger than Life (1956). In his films Ray typically identified with rebels and outsiders, or with people who simply didn’t fit in. Bigger than Life was made soon after Ray’s most successful work, Rebel Without a Cause, with James Dean. It is in some ways a continuation of that film, despite its seemingly conventional protagonist: a modest schoolteacher, a good husband and father, who lives a “boring” life in an idyllic small town. All this changes when he experiences some terrible side-effects from a new “wonder drug,” Cortisone, but this clinical theme proved too much of an oddity for both audience and critics. The film was badly reviewed and soon forgotten, at least until the revival of interest in Nicholas Ray, which was propelled by the French, who always took him seriously. Now it has been released on DVD in an impeccable wide-screen print in the indispensable Criterion Collection.

It turns out that the reviewers who dismissed it as a rarefied medical documentary, despite James Mason’s crucial role as star and producer, were not entirely off base. Adapted from an Annals of Medicine essay by Berton Roueché in The New Yorker, the movie seems at times bizarre, or merely relentless, both in the extremity of Mason’s symptoms and in everyone’s obtuseness about their evident cause. Taking Cortisone in increasing doses to relieve a rare and potentially fatal inflammation of the arteries, this Everyman first turns manic, then falls into wild mood swings which develop into a Napoleonic self-importance and god-like contempt for his wife and students. He exerts abusive control over his young son. When the boy falls short of his demands, he decides in his dementia that he must kill him, in the spirit of Abraham binding and sacrificing Isaac.

Gradually we come to see that the medical subject was simply the occasion, the raw material, for a social parable. Ray’s goal, as in Rebel Without a Cause, was to explode the dynamic, the normative innocence, of the nuclear family. In Rebel he shows the stranded kids from unhappy families creating an alternate community until the larger society intervenes and smashes it up. Here he turns the family drama into a horror film, a film noir in lurid color, with dark expressionist shadows projected behind Mason as he looms menacingly over his hapless son.

Like the townspeople who lose their identity in contemporaneous films like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, Mason is transformed from an ordinary paterfamilias playing backyard football with his son to a would-be Nietzschean superman who means to follow through where Abraham, with God’s blessing, turned back. As in a nightmare version of the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best, he becomes a murderous caricature of the patriarchal authority that supposedly went unchallenged in that benighted decade.

But despite its peculiar angle of vision, the movie itself is just such a challenge. Like Ryan’s entangled mission (and the colonel’s mute helplessness) in Korea, it reflects authority under stress rather than authority in control. It’s important to recall that most of the critical points made about the 1950s were also made during the 1950s, by a legion of social critics, writers, musicians, and filmmakers, all working outside the nation’s official self-image. It was perhaps the most self-critical decade in American history, despite its growing prosperity and boldly confident surface. By the middle of the fifties, the undisputed certainties that followed the war were badly undermined: by the trauma and carnage of the war itself, and new fears stirred up by the cold war; by the influence of psychoanalysis and existentialism, which highlighted neurotic patterns and stimulated introspection; and by widespread dissatisfaction with the new gods of suburban pastoral, consumption, and domesticity. This helps account for the undertone of hysteria in the arts of the period, a foreboding reflected in both these movies, which wash up on our shore like messages in a bottle.

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