A Walk in the Sun, A Review of the Film from 1945, and a Quick Look at the Book

{Ed. Note: This in-depth look at the wonderful 1945 film, A Walk in the Sun, based on the book by the same name from Harry Brown, is by filmmaker Robert Bailey, specially done for Books and Vines.}

In the early 1940s, an ambitious young man arrived in Hollywood determined to be the next David O. Selznick. Bessarabian-born, Sorbonne-educated, Samuel Bronston, a nephew of Leon Trotsky, secured a sizable loan by mortgaging his house and approached several famous filmmakers, offering to produce any projects they wanted to make.  One of them was fellow Bessarabian Lewis Milestone, who had worked his way up through the Hollywood ranks in silent films, eventually being hired by Howard Hughes to direct Two Arabian Knights, for which he won the 1927 Oscar for Best Direction of a Comedy (a category dropped the next year).  Despite the success of this and The Racket, Milestone clashed with Hughes and walked away from his contract.  He went on to Universal Studios and directed one of the indisputable classics, the 1930 Best Picture All Quiet on the Western Front, winning the Best Director award.  He followed this up with the original film version of Hecht & MacArthur’s The Front Page, but his prickly nature didn’t fare well in the studio system, and he was working as an independent when approached by Bronston.

The actor Burgess Meredith, who a few years earlier had played “George” in Milestone’s memorable filming of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, had given Milestone a copy of Harry Brown’s recently-published war novella, A Walk in the Sun, and the project naturally appealed to Milestone.  He signed an agreement with Bronston and soon developed a script with screenwriter Robert Rossen.  The picture was cast predominantly with relative newcomers to the movies.  Dana Andrews, who had appeared as a captured Doolittle pilot in Milestone’s The Purple Heart and had just had a major success as the detective in Laura, was picked to play the central character, Tyne.  Andrews was the nominal star, but A Walk in the Sun is really an ensemble piece. To create the sense of camaraderie essential to the picture, Milestone had the cast and crew sequestered at the shooting location, the Paramount Ranch (now the town of Agoura).  He had successfully used this approach on All Quiet, but this time, after a few weeks, the all-male cast started sneaking back into Hollywood on weekends .

This breakdown may have been due to the fact that, after a week of shooting, Bronston’s house went into foreclosure, and Bronston was out of the picture.  With no funds, Milestone was forced to dip into his own pocket to pay the cast and crew while he searched for other funding.  Finally, he was introduced to Johnny Fisher, who owned a bar on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.  Fisher apparently had “friends” in Atlantic City who had a lot of cash lying around. He agreed to finance the shooting, provided he was able to keep tabs on his investment by replacing the extras (those actors with non-speaking roles) with his own people—who weren’t movie professionals, but who apparently were professionals at watching out for their boss’s interests.  (Much of this information comes courtesy of the legendary actor Norman Lloyd, who plays “Archimbeau “ in the film, but more about that later.)

Filming continued and except for some torrential rains, apparently the rest of the production was without incident.  Although WW II was being waged while the picture was in production, the war ended before the post-production editing, mixing and scoring were finished.  With the coming of peace, most studios abruptly cancelled their planned war movies, feeling the moviegoing public was experiencing “combat fatigue.”  Bronston’s early departure had meant the loss of the original release deal through United Artists, so with his movie completed, Milestone was having a problem finding a distributor.  Finally, he approached old friend Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, who agreed to release the picture, although Zanuck felt that the title sounded too much like a love story and wanted to rename it Salerno Beachhead (it was released under this title at one point).

The picture opened on December 3, 1945 and went into wide release on December 25—hardly the most propitious time for a long, unsentimental movie about men in battle.  The picture was generally well-received by the critics and did “respectable” business at the box office, but was completely overlooked by the awards givers: in the year of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which took Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, A Walk in the Sun didn’t get a single nomination.   In the years since, the movie fell out of copyright.  Without legal protection, worn out 16mm TV prints from the Fifties, often with chunks removed to provide more “commercial interruptions,” became the usual source for bootleg video copies which have been the only way of seeing the movie in the past quarter-century.  Small wonder the film has been neglected.  It was only after being lauded by Steven Spielberg, whose Saving Private Ryan bears some resemblance, that Milestone’s movie has been gaining greater respect.

The story is simple, the action, small scale: a platoon of the Texas Division lands at Salerno.  Before they get off the LSTs, their commanding officer is mortally wounded because he can’t resist the urge to look over the side at the rather desultory artillery fire (unlike Saving Private Ryan, the landing force encounters, at first, very little opposition, which was in fact the case for some of the troops in the actual landing).  The platoon has been detailed to blow up a bridge 6 miles inland and take the farmhouse guarding this potential route for German reinforcements.

With their officer dying, the next-in-command, Platoon Sergeant Halverson leaves to get orders from the company captain, instructing the senior squad sergeant, Porter to take the platoon just off the beach and wait in some nearby woods.  Later, the men hear Halverson has been killed as well, leaving Porter in command.  It is obvious the men don’t respect Porter‘s leadership qualities—he has “a lot on his mind.”  Nevertheless, the platoon sets out to accomplish their mission, but before they leave the woods they are strafed by enemy planes, and one of the other squad sergeants, Hoskins, is wounded and must be left behind.  As they leave him, Hoskins warns Sergeant Tyne, “a smart apple,” to watch Porter—“I think he’s going to crack.”

Halfway to their objective, Porter does crack, asking Tyne to take over command.  The platoon encounters some Italian deserters (who are shown to be rather pathetic, though as one soldier puts it, “they have themselves to blame”), encounter and defeat an enemy armored car in one of the few scenes of actual combat, and finally arrive at the farmhouse where they are momentarily checked by the strong German defense.  The platoon splits up, one attacking the farmhouse while the other blows up the bridge.  More men are killed, but no tears are shed by the survivors, happy just to be alive.

Most of the picture is taken up with the men walking and talking.  Much of the talk is humorous, especially the exchanges between the wisecracking machine gunner, Rivera (Richard Conte), and his loader, Friedmann (George Tyne):

Friedman: (after Sgt. Tyne has rejected sharing an open can of C-rations) How could he turn down a tasty dish like this? Do you know where they get this stuff?
Rivera: (digging into it with his own spoon) Sure, I know where they get everything.
Friedman: (Eating with gusto) Where do they get this stuff?
Rivera: You know the sewers?
Friedman: What sewers?
Rivera: Any sewers—the Hoboken sewers.
Friedman: How do you know? You got a brother works in the sewers?
Rivera: Never mind my relations.  You want me to tell you how they get it out of the sewers?
Friedman: No!!  I’m eating it!

Just the kind of chatter that goes on between bored soldiers, its silliness a surreal counterpoint to the seriousness of their situation.  Sometimes it’s mock bravado to keep up their own courage, as after their Lt. is wounded:

Rivera: Purple Heart, sure as little apples. How’d you like to have a Purple Heart, Jakie?
Friedman: Depends on where I got the Purple Heart—in the leg, OK.  In the gut, no.
Rivera:  Purple Heart means a nice quiet trip to Jersey City; I’d like a nice quiet trip to Jersey City.
Judson:  I’d like a nice quiet trip anywheres.  I haven’t had a nice quiet trip since this war started.  Jersey City’d do fine.
Porter: (obsessing over the Lt.’s wounding)…blew a hole out of the side of his head.
Friedman:  In the head, no—I don’t want a Purple Heart in the head.
Rivera:  Joey Simms got a Purple Heart in the head; I bet when they’re through with him he’ll look better than you do now.
Friedman:  I don’t want a Purple Heart in the head!!

Rivera also has the line which expresses the wish of every soldier who has seen combat:

Friedman: You ever think you’ll live to make corporal?
Rivera: Baby, I just want to live long enough to make civilian.

Private Archimbeau, “platoon scout and prophet,” who believes “every dirty job in the army is my personal property” continually worries he’ll never get that chance:

Archimbeau:  Sergeant, I want a discharge—I’m all fought out.  In the last war, they sent a guy to France; that was all there was to it, they sent him to France, then he went home—simple, real simple. But what do they do this time? Do they send you to France?  No they do not send you to France. They send you to Tunisia, then they send you to Sicily, then they send you to Italy.   Who knows where they’ll send you after that?  Maybe we’ll be in France next year, ‘round Christmas time, maybe. Then we’ll work our way east—Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey…nah…no, not Turkey…all I know is in 1958 we’re gonna fight the Battle of Tibet.  I got the facts.

Archimbeau is shaken when his friend Trasker is killed by a strafing plane: “we were the same draft board, the same day.” He seems to grow more gloomy and pessimistic as they approach their objective.  He is as war-weary as Porter, but without Porter’s responsibilities, he can at least keep functioning, and never cracks.  Waiting for the final assault, Tyne looks at him:

Tyne: How do you feel about things, Arch?
Archimbeau:   (wearily)  It’s a long war…that’s all I know about it.
Tyne:  Still worrying about Tibet?
Archimbeau:  Sometimes I think we’ll never get out of the army.  Honest, that’s what I think.
Tyne:  I used to think I’d never get in, so I figure some day I’ll get out.  It could be worse.
Archimbeau: (slowly shaking his head) I don’t know how.      

When he is killed in the attack on the farmhouse, Archimbeau throws his rifle in the air and yells “TIBET!”  It is one of those moments where the filmmaker’s judgment falters, and one of the instances where the film differs from the source material.  In the novella:

Beside him, he saw Archimbeau start to run too, and then suddenly stumble and with a surprised look on his face go tumbling down like a sack, on his way to the Battle of Tibet.

The operatic quality of Arch’s death in the film is a stylistic departure from the novella—one that is less satisfying than his death in the book, but one that does not materially change the author’s intentions.  Likewise, the cringeworthy scene at the end, after the farmhouse is taken–James Agee’s review describes what’s wrong about it better than I can:

 …various featured players are shown completing the gags which tag their characters—chomping an apple, notching a rifle-stock, and so on—while, so far as the camera lets you know; their wounded comrades are still writhing unattended in the dooryard.

Again, this scene isn’t in the book, which is ambiguous about whether the platoon captures the farmhouse, but on the whole, it is faithful to the general surrealistic quality of the book’s ending:

Behind it there were two more explosions, and somewhere in the next world Rivera’s finger was on the trigger of his gun and he was singing.

They were all singing. All of them.

“It is so easy,” Tyne said aloud as he ran. “It is so terribly easy.”

But where the filmmakers broke faith with the theme of the book is a more serious issue, for the book is not, strictly speaking, a war story; it is a book about the nature of leadership.  The first 2 sentences of the book dispense with the commanding officer:

The lieutenant had been wounded while they were still on the water.  He was a slight, dark man named Rand, rather silly, and if he hadn’t been doing something silly at the time he might never had been wounded. 

Rand was a newcomer to the platoon, a neophyte whereas the rest of the soldiers have been in combat through Tunisia and Sicily.  The men have little empathy with Rand; his first replacement, Sgt. Halverson has already been leading the platoon after their first officer was killed in Tunisia, and though the men don’t like him, they trust him as a leader.  Tyne, “a smart apple,” thinks Halverson’s “all right…he didn’t like him, but he admired him. For what he did, he was all right.”  Porter, on the other hand, “was a beautiful drill sergeant, but he seemed to lack something in the field.”

Sergeant Porter, Tyne felt, did not comprehend war; it had passed him by and gone over his head….

Tyne does have the qualities of a leader.  When the men hit the beach, only Tyne thinks to take Lt. Rand’s map case: “It was funny that no one had thought to do that.”  When a motorcycle scout who has offered to search ahead for the enemy fails to return, Porter’s anxiety is more than he can handle: he turns to Sergeant Ward:

“Ward,” he said, “if I can’t go on would you mind if Tyne took over?”

Ward pulled out a dry blade of grass and placed it between his teeth. He stared out toward the road and turned the blade of grass moodily over in his mouth. “It don’t make no difference to me,“ he said. “I don’t care who’s boss.” 

“Tyne’s a good man,” Porter said.

“I know he is,” said Ward.

“You can work with him.”

“I know I can.”

This scene is repeated exactly in the film with one difference:  in the film Tyne is a staff sergeant, but in the book he’s a corporal.  With this one change, the film blunts Harry Brown’s statement about the nature of leadership.

For the military, the sanctity of the chain of command is inviolable—never would a sergeant turn over command to a corporal while there is still a sergeant fit for duty.  Nothing in the book is more subversive than this attack on the holiest of holies.  Since the movie was made during the war and the filmmakers needed the Army’s help—as did most films about the US military up to “M.A.S.H.”—official “advisor,” Colonel Thomas D. Drake was assigned to the movie, and the promotion of Tyne to sergeant is undoubtedly a change he insisted on, along with the added dialogue, not in the book, when Hoskins warns Tyne that he thinks Porter will crack. Tyne replies:

Tyne:  He’s been screened like everyone else.
Hoskins:  Once in a while a guy slips past that screen—it’s hard to tell.  He’s a good man but I think he’s going to crack.

With these changes, A Walk in the Sun becomes just another war movie, a very good one with the best dialogue of any war movie I’ve seen, but if they had remained true to the novella, it would have something much more.

The photography, by the great Russell Harlan, is first-rate in its attention to atmosphere and time of day (the change from the darkness of the pre-dawn landing to sunup is beautifully realized in the shot below).

A Walk in the Sun

The acting is uniformly good; it’s difficult to single out any actors for individual praise, but John Ireland (in his first major role), Herbert Rudley and Norman Lloyd give flesh-and-blood reality to characters who, in less accomplished hands, could come off as artificial.  Dana Andrews, George Tyne and Richard Conte don’t even seem like they’re acting—they just are the characters they portray.

Robert Rossen’s screenplay very wisely copies great chunks of the book word-for-word.  He had the happy idea of giving much of Brown’s narrative prose to the actors as dialogue, particularly to Ireland’s character, “Windy,” who makes up letters in his head so he can write them down later.  When Porter cracks, it is Windy who voices Brown’s assessment of the leader who didn’t have the “stuff”:

Windy:  You’re crying Porter.  You’re crying because you’re wounded.  You don’t have to be bleeding to be wounded, you just had one battle too many. Yeah, you’re out of it now: no more guesswork and waiting and wondering for you.  You built yourself a foxhole (tapping his helmet)—up there, and crying…we understand.

This movie had always been a favorite of mine, but there are two things that give it a special resonance.  Back in the late 90s, I worked on a Paramount TV series 7 Days–on the whole a less-than-great experience (and a less-than-great show), but one of the stars was Norman Lloyd.  I cherish memories of hearing him recount anecdotes from his fabulous career–a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, his lengthy association with Alfred Hitchcock, and acting in this movie.  The shaky, and shady, financing of A Walk in the Sun was one such anecdote related by Lloyd.

The other personal connection dates from the early 1990s, when I was Director of Photography on an exceedingly low budget film.  It was John Ireland’s next-to-last movie role.  He did it as a favor to the director and had two brief scenes.  While we were waiting for the lighting crew (filmmaking is like war in many respects, long stretches of waiting being one), I mentioned to Mr. Ireland how much I had always admired his performance as “Windy,” and that I thought the scene where he composes a letter to the mother of his just-killed friend, Tinker, the most moving in the film.  He proceeded to quote that letter, word for word, exactly as he had performed it almost 50 years earlier.  The crew, many too young to even know Ireland’s work, was spellbound. The camera operator told me later that it made his scalp tighten. As it did mine.

Here are two clips from the movie. The first, a clip with Norman Lloyd, who was discussed above. The second, a speech by Archimbeau about the Battle of Tibet.

A final word must be said about the source for the film.  Harry Peter McNab Brown dropped out of Harvard to write poetry and work at Time magazine.  He wrote an epic poem published in 1941 by Scribner’s, and enlisted in the Army in July of that same year.  He became a staff writer for Yank magazine and contributed a humorous column under the name of “Pfc. Artie Greengroin” which was in its day as popular as Bill Mauldin’s work.  Knopf published his next book, A Walk in the Sun in 1944.  After the war, Brown was enticed to Hollywood and became a successful screenwriter, eventually winning an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy—this being, of course, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.

Hollywood may have been the death of Brown as a novelist.  Although he wrote other novels, including The Stars in Their Courses which was the basis of Howard Hawks classic El Dorado, Brown never again achieved the success of A Walk in the Sun, one of the half-dozen best American novels to come out of World War II.  Neglected for many years, it deserves a wider readership.  I can only think of one other American book, treating the massive subject of war so concisely, which stands on the same level of achievement—Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

My edition of A Walk in the Sun is a Knopf reissue of the first edition of 1944, the only copyright date.  Was it a remainder from the third printing?  It’s an exact match for the copy shown in the main credits of the film.  I’d be surprised if it actually dates from then (I picked it up in the 1960s) as the dust jacket is like new (as is the rest of the book.).  The jacket, binding, and typographic layout (Baskerville) are the work of Warren Chappell, Knopf’s most prolific designer. Here are some pictures of the book:

A Walk in the Sun, Knopf, Cover (dustcover)
A Walk in the Sun, Knopf, Cover
A Walk in the Sun, Knopf, Cover Detail
A Walk in the Sun, Knopf, Title Page

6 thoughts on “A Walk in the Sun, A Review of the Film from 1945, and a Quick Look at the Book

  1. What an interesting read and article from Robert Bailey, especially the reminiscences with great actors John Ireland and Norman Lloyd. Thank you !!

    While the role of Hollywood and film industries around the world in promoting and supporting war efforts is, of course, hardly a surprise the films which cut against this grain, i.e. anti-war films or films which give a realistic portrayal of combat devoid of propaganda and combat glory are few and far between. About five or six years ago, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago had a fascinating retrospective series which lasted throughout the summer examining this topic. It began with a legendary silent film from King Vidor, ‘The Big Parade’, and culminated with the great anti-war films emanating from the Viet Nam war, e.g., Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and the astounding documentary ‘Hearts and Minds’. I believe the series concluded with Terence Malick’s 1998 classic ‘The Thin Red Line’. The best of the relatively recent films in this vein was, for me, Clint Eastwood’s 1996 film ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’, told from the viewpoint of the ordinary Japanese soldier.

    The topic of movies based upon works of literature can fill an entire month or two of discussion. My off-the-cuff assessment is that more often than not the book is far superior to the movie and it is the rare film that either captures the spirit and intent of the book or, even rarer, surpasses it. As an aside, shortly after viewing Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam war film ‘Full Metal Jacket’ I remember reading that Kubrick (a voracious reader) had gotten the inspiration for the film from a novel by Gustav Hasford called ‘The Short Timers’. Because I was mesmerized by the film, especially the first half which dealt with Marine boot camp, I thought it would be a great read. Wrong. It was awful and I could not understand what Kubrick saw in this book that would translate into a great film, aside from the most basic premise(s) of the novel. Incidentally, a fascinating book about what it is like to put your life and career on ‘pause’ while being involved in this film can be found in a little-known book by its star, Matthew Modine (‘Pvt. Joker’), called ‘Full Metal Jacket Diary (2005, publ. Rugged Land LLC). I can only imagine asking Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman about their experience and thoughts in this regard after doing same to star in Kubrick’s strange film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ .

    Final thought: the last few months of 2011 were blessed with the publication of two extraordinary books (non-fiction) which capture the totality of war, especially upon the non-combatants, Max Hastings’ magisterial book ‘Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945’ and Peter Englund’s book ‘The Beauty and The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War’. Englund’s book is especially fascinating and original, a great read. He selects twenty ordinary people from all corners of the globe and, through careful research of their journals and letters, traces their lives during WW I and the effect the global conflict had upon their paths. The book moves seamlessly between the home front and the front lines, using the lives of these twenty non-combatants to focus on the average man and woman, illustrating how global conflicts unwittingly entrap and involve everyone. Both are must reads.

    1. ‘The Beauty and the Sorrow’ is poignant and indispensable.

      Another recent book that brings home the horror and realities of combat in a more recent conflict is ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes which, I suppose, you could label ‘faction’, following the experiences of a company of Marines in the Vietnam war.

  2. What a fantastic review – I’ll be watching this film again as soon as I can get it!

    More of this please.

    Thank you,

    Neil

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