A Walk in the Sun

(USA - 1945)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, George Tyne, John Ireland, Lloyd Bridges, Huntz Hall
Genre: War/Drama
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Robert Rossen from Harry Brown's novel
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Composer: Freddie Rich

An infantry platoon during World War II lands on the beach in Salerno, Italy with orders to blow up a bridge six miles inland. When their lieutenant is quickly taken out, the sergeants are left to fend for themselves. A Walk in the Sun is generally praised and criticized based on its “realism”, but the various perspectives on the term and expectations they entail undoubtedly create more of a controversy than the quality of the film itself. Though a far superior contemporary of William A. Wellman’s pretty good Story of G.I. Joe, which more prominently features Walk in the Sun’s narrator Burgess Merideth, the realism is more in line with the French poetic realism movement of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, which in it’s quest to depict interior reality tended to be far more poetic than realistic. Despite director Lewis Milestone having fought in France (for Russia) during World War 1 and novelist Harry Brown enlisting in the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1941, the attention to exterior detail isn’t a strong suit of A Walk in the Sun. The soldiers lack dirt, sweat, and grime, are improperly equipped, and practice a grenade engaging technique that would be better suited as dollar store dentistry. Milestone concentrates on how everyday Joe’s contemplate and ultimately react to the trying situations they’re stuck in. The story lies in the travel that leads the platoon to battle rather than the battle itself, with the focus being on the effect of the unknown aspects on the known mission.

A Walk in the Sun is a tense film because at anytime the Germans might come from the sky or pop out from behind a bush; a grenade or land mine could rear its head at any moment. The soldier’s have a map, but know nothing of the area; the number of enemy troops that may be stationed, their patterns and movements are the X factor. We see no more than the US soldiers do, so combat is nothing beyond booms, rat-a-tat-tats, and clouds of smoke. A bomb dropped in the distance could just as easily have been from your own side as theirs.

Milestone, of course, finds ways to incorporate his trademark pans that were so distinguishing in his early sound masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, but far more notable is the manner in which he has Russell Harlan utilize the camera to isolate the audience in a manner similar to the soldier. Most films find the man with the best view, but Milestone would rather depict the fear of the unknown. It’s much more terrifying to see a crawling soldier find a mate’s dead body as he inches toward his destination, the reality that the next squirm could render a similar fate becoming ever-present despite the mystery remaining intact because he (and we) still can’t locate the enemy. You never see the enemy until the final 2 minutes, but for the other 115 their mysterious proximity is never out of mind. Reality is, whether the soldier likes it or not, he must find a way to get from point A to point B knowing not what lies between but only that until the top of the incline or the next sight line it appears safe.

Lewis Milestone’s goal isn’t to make a military style version of Henri-Georges Clouzet’s The Wages of Fear. Tension, nerves, and fear are driving forces that are at the forefront of every soldiers mind, playing on their fragile psyche at every moment. These inescapable thoughts bring them to, and sometimes beyond, the brink of cracking. The focus however is on the simple but well observed banter that’s designed to bring relief through distraction. The soldier’s mind presents their only means of escapism. Thus, the movie is a combination of the aimless repetitive chatter that sometimes gets on the nerves of their comrades more than it relieves them and the thoughts, feelings, and emotions they hide from everyone but the audience, who is privy to them through an internal monologue. All this dialogue leans far more toward the poetic than the realistic, possessing lyric and rhythmic qualities that made for a fine novel, from which screenwriter Robert Rossen lifted many of Harry Brown’s passages verbatim.

There’s plenty of time to flesh out all the characters in the ensemble cast, none of which are particularly more important than the other. Sadly, none are particularly original either, instead we get the typical archetypes such as the yammering Italian GI from Brooklyn and the earthy mid American farmer. This is a rare film that’s unafraid to present war as mostly downtime. Though not nearly as commercial, it’s often more trying for the soldiers to deal with because they are thinking rather than reacting. In a battle many aspects are known. You are ordered to cross a strip of land and fire at a certain point, the directions and maneuvers are predetermined. The outcome probably means your life, but either way the result comes so quickly there’s not a lot of time to be a hypochondriac. It’s before the battle that you wait and wonder. You are bored to death for hours, days, or weeks, your impending doom front and center in your mind then you are scared to death for a few seconds, minutes, or hours. The real battle can be protecting your mind so you aren’t so worn down and petrified before that you don’t make it to the battlefield or freeze when you do. Since it’s Hollywood, when the action finally comes the heroes magically run through machine gun fire with only a few getting dropped. Although not without flaws, A Walk in the Sun is one of the most personal and introspective war films, and as good as any ever made at dealing with prefight ennui.

The basic arch with a struggle to land followed by a lengthy period of searching then culminating in a climactic battle is much like what Steven Spielberg employed for Saving Ryan’s Privates or: How I Learned to Stoop to Creating a Simplistic Hodgepodge of Every War Film and Love the Oscars. If your idea of a war film is a gory, action glorifying, effect laden phantasmagoria complete with a bombastic heart tugging score that blares every manipulative emotional dictate at full volume you’ll probably hate A Walk in the Sun. Milestone’s film is as slow as the soldiers in it walk, with the two battle scenes being purposely unrewarding; the opening shrouded in black and smoke and the closing being remarkably short. The dialogue of soon to be a screenwriter Harry Brown, who went on to work for Milestone on Arch of Triumph and that rat shit, is obviously a strength with the ordinary grunts reduced to wishing they’d get a minor wound so they’d get sent home and joking the enemy plane was shooting jelly beans when they don’t. Beyond that, many of the best aspects lie in what’s absent. The platoon’s missions has no greater meaning, if any meaning at all. We are spared the grand and heroic notions, all the patriotism. The enemy isn’t demeaned, as undoubtedly they also largely consist of regular guys who are doing their duty. There’s no why we fight speeches, in fact no speeches at all. There’s no melodrama, no honor or glory, no ideology. In the infantry you walk, but it’s no walk in the park. Even though in many ways you need to, you can never relax. War is waiting helplessly, intermittently interrupted by the sights and sounds of weaponry.


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