The Naked and the Dead (1958)
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HEARN -- in the book he's tough as hell, a Harvard football star and intellectual cynic with high society education who's used to fighting back and challenging authority. In this movie he's like Andy Hardy half the time, going "gee, General Cummings, let me just shake your hand!"
CROFT -- in the book he's ice, a stone killer like Tom Berenger in PLATOON (really just a hippie flavored remake of Mailer's book.) In the movie he actually gets weepy in front of the men of recon crying over his wife Janey! The real Croft would have shot himself first.
GALLAGHER -- in the book he's an ugly, stupid, cowardly anti-Semite who hates Jews and behaves like an Archie Bunker prototype. In the movie he's just a clean-cut guy with a pregnant wife.
BROWN, Wilson, MARTINEZ, ROTH -- in the book they all have rich pasts, complex characters, and they make believable soldiers and human beings. In the movie you can hardly tell one from another.
I cannot believe Hollywood did this to Mailer. I cannot believe Mailer let them do it! James Jones wasn't half the writer Mailer was, but FROM HERE TO ETERNITY looks like Shakespeare compared to this. Maybe the lesser books always make the best movies!
Walsh was an arbitrary choice to film Norman Mailer's novel. Mailer wrote the book as a young man with a name to make and awards to win. In 1958 Walsh had nothing left to prove to anyone -- even when he was Mailer's age, I can't imagine him going for Mailer's bludgeoning tactics. Though I'm no Mailer acolyte, you do miss his chutzpah at first, as the movie has a laid-back feel more appropriate for a beach volleyball film. An amphibious landing that brings echoes of D-Day is carried out near the beginning of the film, during which we're told that 130 men have died, but we don't see a single limb get blown off. We just get a couple shots of smoke rising out of the forest as the ships land. You start to worry that Walsh, like in those Errol Flynn war films of the 1940's, has brought his crew down to Pasadena to film in a state park with three potted palm trees.
However, the interplay between the actors -- Walsh favors long-takes with eight or nine guys just shooting the s--t, stirring hooch and whining about their superiors -- is enough to keep you watching. Eventually it dawns on you that Walsh has seen much more of life than Mailer. He is long past the need to sadistically linger on the more dramatic moments of war. You can feel Walsh feeding off his group of actors, basking in their youth while lovingly depicting their trials of life, the same ones he underwent half a century ago. The approach is very much like Scorsese's in The Aviator in its tendency to concentrate on hope and promise, a refusal to wallow in the ugly. Right to the end Walsh resists the impulse to ratchet up the tension -- like a conductor guiding his music with a steady pulse, the movie just keeps plodding along, and a horrific death is given no more emphasis than a running joke about Raymond Massey's character getting a daily bunch of flowers.
In the final hour, his method pays off. The landscapes open up in spectacular fashion, just as each character moves inexorably towards an action that will define them within time like a pin in a map. An authenticity grips the movie and won't let go. The way Walsh has of letting major events happen offscreen begins to feel ominous and evocative of unseen forces, worthy of Jacques Tourneur, and the underpopulated battles take on massive grandeur in the imagination. A culminating sequence featuring rows upon rows of tanks and mortars battering an invisible enemy is what all directors want to achieve -- a moment that goes beyond words into an expression of pure cosmic power, millenia of sorrow and rage blending into a firework display for the gods.
Think of this as The Naked and the Dead, and you'll be disappointed. Think of it as what Terence Malick wanted to do with The Thin Red Line, and you will see exactly where he went wrong, and where Walsh succeeds. Walsh blows the world up good, but unlike the lords of war, he does it for love, not personal gain. And he takes us all out equally.
This is based on Norman Mailer's novel which he infuses with some of his war experiences. First off, I don't like the start in Honolulu and the flashbacks. They take the audience out of the war experience. It feels melodramatic and old school like a bad 50s war movie. At its best, the movie has a feel of Malick's film 'The Thin Red Line'. The wide field of grass and shots that come out of nowhere give the movie a feeling of foreboding. The cast of characters get scattered in the mission. There is a message being delivered but it's a bit muddled. The movie needs to narrow the focus.
Coming to the screen The Naked And The Dead's impact was neutered somewhat with changes, most importantly the death of a main character was eliminated and that person allowed to survive. Still what you get here is a really rancid version of a military campaign in the South Pacific Theater, the kind that Hollywood wasn't showing up to that time.
There are three main characters. First Cliff Robertson who comes from wealth and privilege and clashes with his martinet of a commanding officer. For that breach of military etiquette, Robertson is assigned to lead a patrol behind enemy lines to gather valuable intelligence.
The commander he insulted is General Raymond Massey who likes being the martinet, but in the end gets showed up rather beautifully by an eager subordinate who took some initiative during a combat situation.
Thirdly there is Sergeant Aldo Ray who was probably no prize, but whose character was totally twisted by the unfaithfulness of his wife Barbara Nichols. Nichols is just great in a flashback episode as a woman who might just as well have had a sandwich board sign labeled 'floozy' all over her. In some ways her small part is the most memorable in this war film. He's been leading his squad without any officers over him and would like to keep it that way. But he knows his job.
Over 59 years later The Naked And The Dead while not totally true to Mailer's words and plot, still hasn't aged one single bit. I could see a remake of this one in the future.
First, we see a bar in Honolulu where the cops raid the joint frequented by GI's in 1943. Then, we see newspaper clips of defeats suffered by our guys in the Pacific. Then, we get a movie. Where exactly in the Pacific is the action going on?
The weak writing still allows for 2 solid performances by Aldo Ray, as a vicious sergeant, who enjoys pumping bullets into his Japanese captors and Raymond Massey, as an army head who feels that he gets the best out of his men by being tough and cruel as well.
In flashback sequence, we see Ray married to Barbara Nichols, the dumb blond who knew occasionally how to turn in a good dramatic performance. Her acting here is amateurish at best. In fact, she sounds as she did on the old Ed Sullivan Show when she told the Romans that she begged Julie (Caesar) not to go to the forum. Not here, unfortunately! Flashbacks also bring us back to Robertson's civilian life where all he did was to cavort around lots of women.
Cliff Robertson is Massey's assistant, who soon falls out of favor with the latter when they disagree on Massey's philosophy. Robertson, who smokes heavily in the film, gets shot for his efforts and becomes very preachy at the final scene of this film.
There is plenty of anti-semitism to go around in this movie as well. Jerry Paris, as Goldstein, is coerced to his death by a fall over a mountain by being called a lousy J--. Joey Bishop has to fight an anti-semitic soldier as well. One funny scene is where Bishop throws away a sandwich when he finds out that it's made up of ham!
But this is not even the main reason why I dislike the movie. The main reason is that it completely destroyed the characters. In the book there are NO good guys and bad guys; you may hate Croft but you are aware that many characters are still alive just because of him; and Hearn is by no means such a perfect guy, just an ordinary one.
Many events from the book happen in the movie too, but without giving them any meaning or any accompanying emotions. For example, Gallagher receives the letter saying that his wife died. And - nothing of it; we don't even get to see his reaction. But in the book he keeps receiving letters from her, tormenting him into believing that she is still alive. Another example: we never get to feel the hardships of going through the thick jungle for a whole day, which occupy much of the book; it is much easier to include a snake bite instead to show us how the jungle is brutal.
Let us hope that once we will see a movie that will capture this great book more honestly...
The key of the movie is given by the sarge telling his men that they are not part of the Army.He's arguably a lunatic but he did understand:the enemy is not the Japs -whom we barely see anyway-,but as Pottier wrote in "l'Internationale" our own generals.Cummings ' s attitude echoes to that:see him playing chess -an obvious metaphor- or "waging war" in front of a model.Cummings 's madness (which is true , the cigarette scene is revealing )matches the sarge's one.
Walsh,though his film is very harsh ,shows compassion,notably for the soldier whose wife died in child-birth . The final lines of the lieutenant ,saved by his men,are:they did not do it out of fear but out of pity.
The book is exactly like a Hollywood movie. Bullets cannot find bad guys, and if you're evil enough, you live forever. We get this from 99% of films. No wonder Americans bend over backwards to be sadistic. In short, that's about all the book is. Very Hollywood.
This movie gives a fresh look for the viewer. Instead of the mass depression we're used to, we get an intelligent look at war. The hero is caught between two equally vicious men, one higher in rank, and one lower. Much of the rest of the movie deals with the characters, like in the older war movies.
Not to give away the ending, but you will be shocked and surprised. The film still shows the horror and depravity of war without getting preachy, as many later films did.
It's interesting that at the time that Hearn is injured, Croft has the men almost completely in his corner; but the tables turn quickly. The men detailed to take Hearn back to the beach grow to respect him; whereas Croft's men completely lose respect for him. In a way, Croft is a sort of low-life version of the general. Both men think they're always right, dominate those around them, and use the war to enhance their egos.
Both are shown to be essentially weak men. Hearn seems hapless, and almost everything goes wrong for him; but he perseveres, coming out of his experience stronger, and more self-assured. In short, his character changes, unlike the robotic general and sadistic sergeant.
There's quite a bit of chatter about the absurdity of war: the unexpected success of the patrol shows how chance plays such a significant role. Oddly enough, the very messiness of the patrol confuses the enemy into making a critical mistake; and encourages the colonel to mount the decisive attack.
By being absent, the general was shown up by a subordinate. And Croft, giving in to his reckless impulses, was eliminated. I'm aware that Mailer's story was altered significantly for the movie, which makes me want to re-read the novel. The movie stands on its own nonetheless.
Strictly as a war movie, The Naked and the Dead is very successful. The battle scenes are tense, exciting, and realistic. Ok, we have post-war tanks in several scenes, and the Japanese show up with our period-correct Shermans, but most war movies make-do like this.
I'll probably skip through the first part when I watch it again, but the second part is not to be missed.