Review: The Young Lions (1958)

 The Young Lions (1958) 
 Dir. Edward Dmytryk 
 Starring: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin

I may have to preface this with the highly subjective remark that it would have been very difficult for me to have disliked this film, considering its cast. The episodic narrative loosely follows three very different men, all coming to terms with their military involvement at the beginnings of the Second World War. Marlon Brando in full Nazi regalia, complete with a shock of white-blond hair and German accent, is smoothly believable as an uncertain, soft-spoken soldier, torn between moral qualms about his role and a firm sense of duty as an enlisted man. Montgomery Clift, his post-accident, broken beauty magnifying the sensitivity of his young Jewish-American GI, is bullied by his fellow soldiers with Anti-Semitic taunts and keeps a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses in his foot-locker. Dean Martin, quoting from the man directly, is a "likeable coward"; a Broadway big-shot who suffers from pangs of guilt every time he uses his connections to avoid combat.

The film sometimes lapses into cliché, and its narrative cohesion is occasionally compromised by its length -- but it maintains emotional resonance, largely through the exquisitely sensitive performances of Brando and Clift; one can look upon nearly any cliché with fresh eyes through their enormous talents.  Brando's Lt. Dietl reaches a shattering epiphany through encounters with innocent civilians, the blood-lust and fascist mindset of his superiors, the seductive, amoral women on the Home Front, and finally, his meeting with a concentration camp commandant. Clift's Private Noah Ackerman is so fragile as to seem nearly autistic, but grows increasingly self-assured as he discovers his young wife is pregnant with his first child, and the war is a necessary evil on his long journey home. Anti-war from the ground up, one feels that Dmytryk is positing the romantic view that had there been more of these noble young men in the world, there would perhaps be less of its infantile obsession with destruction and warfare. Particularly striking moments include Lt. Dietl's meeting with a patriotic Frenchwoman of occupied Paris, who tells him defiantly that she knows "what a pig looks like up close" before upending a glass of wine on the table, and the plaintive look of pain and despair in Clift's face when he comes upon the sight of a slumped over, dying German soldier. Unfortunately, the film's message is not delivered with the same sort of clarity as it might've been before the censors took hold of it; the Anti-Semitism Clift faces is toned-down, and is punished within the military ranks as an aberration rather than the norm; it was said that Clift himself was unhappy with the film's deviation from the more hard-hitting Irwin Shaw novel it was adapted from. It is difficult not to compare his Ackerman, an individualist military man, to Prewitt, the GI in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. Both strong-headed loners, they are put through the machine, withstanding continual violence and resisting the pressure to conform in order to carve their own individualist paths.

Regardless of his misgivings about Dmytryk's omissions, he had this to say about his role in the film: "Noah was the best performance of my life. I couldn’t have given more of myself. I’ll never be able to do it again. Never."



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