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And the ordeals they had to endure could be intense. Critic David Boxwell nicely analyzes "the peculiarly intimate agony" in Mann's films. "The hero's suffering is viscerally shared by the viewer of Mann's best films. For example, we are invited to share the unendurable pain of Stewart being shot in the hand at close range, filmed in close-up, in The Man from Laramie.... Certainly, Mann's Westerns and film noirs portrayed some of the most consistently shocking representations of pain and violence in American film before Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese."
Pain is the human condition in Men in War, which ranks with Black Hawk Down among the movies' most remorseless depictions of combat. The Mann film never leaves the platoon which is stranded far from other U.S. troops in a no-exit purgatory that is often Hell and thus allows the audience not even a momentary release from the perilous tension. Haggard and haunted, propelled only by fear, the soldiers might be corpses who don't know they're dead; and these warriors can expect no resurrection. Lt. Benson's aim is to get back to headquarters, yet as platoon members are picked off by the enemy and resolve sours to despair, he acknowledges the futility of the mission. As he tells one of his men: "The battalion doesn't exist. The regiment doesn't exist. Command Headquarters doesn't exist. The U.S.A. doesn't exist. They don't exist, Riordon. We'll never see them again."
The movie, written by Yordan and the blacklisted Ben Maddow, is essentially a debate between two views of battlefield ethics. Benson, who's seen too much to be an idealist, still believes the a soldier should distinguish between the enemy and the civilian population. Montana, as if anticipating the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, takes a darker, more practical view: expect the worst in man and you won't be disappointed. "I'm not in your war," he tells Benson, "and you're not in mine." In a great moment, the men capture a Korean soldier and Benson orders Montana to "Give him a cigarette. Light it." Montana demands, "What are you tryin' to prove?" and Benson replies, "That you're human."
Humanity is the first and lasting casualty in any war, where the purpose is to kill as many of the enemy as stand between you and your objective. (It turns out that, in Men in War, the objective was an illusion: when the remnants of the platoon reaches its base, it finds that the Koreans have taken it.) Montana has one spark of humanity: he cares deeply for his wounded colonel (Robert Keith), struck mute by shell shock. But that doesn't soften his resolve against any foreigner who might be the enemy. In this unforgiving context, it's clear that he has genius for combat; even Benson recognizes it. But when he tells Montana, "It takes your kind to win this war," he spits it out as a bitter maxim. The suggestion here, as in Mann's Westerns, is that the men who are most suited to fight for their country are not fit to live in it.
Most of the men in the instructively deranged Man of the West are not fit to live, period. They are a gang of outlaws led by Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), a ranting, randy patriarch a western King Leer. Link Jones (Gary Cooper) was once a part of this gang, and Dock treated him like a son (though Cobb was 10 years younger than Cooper). In fact, this was Mann's patriarch period: four consecutive movies, in 1957-58, with a father-son relationship at their core. In three of them Men in War, Man of the West and God's Little Acre the father figure is, respectively, shell-shocked, homicidal and genially obsessive. (Only in The Tin Star is the older Henry Fonda unconditionally, paternalistically helpful to the callow sheriff played by Anthony Perkins.)
Like many a Mann hero with a deadly past, the Cooper character has managed to reform himself without getting strung up first. But now, through a series of credence-straining coincidences, Link has landed back with Dock's gang, and in the company of a saloon singer named Billie (sultry Julie London). Billie, whose affection for Link must remain unfulfilled because he has a wife back home, wonders how a man so righteous could have run with a gang so rancid: "You're not like them." "I was," Link replies. "There wasn't any difference at all." Explaining his youth with Dock, Link says, "He taught me killing and stealing. I didn't know any better. Then one day I grew up. There's a point where you either grow up and become a man, or ya rot like that bunch."
Just how rotten they are becomes clear when a gang member, Coaley (Jack Lord, another Mann villain with a Pepsodent smile), waves a knife in Billie's face and forces her to strip in front of the entire gang and Link. This long scene is a battle between the lurid prurience of the men in the shack (and maybe in the audience) and the proprieties of the Production Code. The undressing stops at her petticoat. Still, it packs a slow, sadistic jolt. At the time, it affronted not just the softer sensibilities of the audience but Hollywood's movie mores. From films of the '50s I can't think of a scene like it.
The plot justification for the stripping comes later, when Cooper and Lord engage in a brawl that lasts a harrowing 4 minutes 25 seconds. It's one of the longest fights ever in American movies, and startling in its vicious, clumsy realism. ("I never saw anything like that in my life," Dock says in stunned admiration, and for once we have to agree with him.) Link eventually strips Coaley, as Coaley had made Billie do. The message: expressions of male sexuality and male violence can be equally pernicious and, in movies, equally crowd-pleasing.