Thursday 21 March 2019

Movie Review: Battle Circus (1953)

A semi-documentary highlighting the difficult work of army medical units under fire, Battle Circus features a tepid romance floundering within a narrative void.

During the Korean War, Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) is a battle weary doctor and part of the leadership team for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit 8666. Operating out of large tents near the front lines, MASH has to be ready to redeploy frequently and at short notice, and sometimes overnight. New arrivee Lieutenant Ruth McCara (June Allyson) joins the unit as a nurse, and Jed first saves her life during an enemy air raid and then tries to initiate a romance within the confines of a hectic military environment.

In addition to treating wounded soldiers and remobilizing to new locations, Jed and the other unit leaders including Sergeant Orvil Statt (Keenan Wynn) and Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Whalters (Robert Keith) have to deal with columns of displaced civilians requiring treatment, injured prisoners of war, enemy bombing raids, ambushes, foul weather, and the uncertainties of shifting front lines. Ruth initially resists Jed's advances and the other nurses in the unit warn her about him. But eventually a deep love emerges, although he refuses to reveal whether or not he is married.

Before the much more famous (but no better) MASH movie and television series, Battle Circus ventured to the front lines with doctors and nurses given the unenviable task of patching up bodies close to the arena of combat, although this is a field hospital with no visible blood or injuries, and remarkably pain-free and well-behaved patients. Director and co-writer Richard Brooks cobbles up a non-script most interested in featuring men-at-work putting up and taking down large tents, and occasionally dodging unconvincing and quite wayward enemy attacks.

Bolted on to the appreciation of American medical ingenuity under fire is a miserable love story, consisting of Jed lecherously pursuing Ruth. His pushiness to get his hands all over her borders on assault rather than romance. Regardless she falls passionately in love for reasons lost in the muddy terrain between the tents. Bogart and Allyson are far from convincing as medical professionals, and even less so as lovers, sharing no chemistry.

Brief glimpses of human drama poke their helmets out of the foxholes in the form of an injured Korean child who arrives at the field hospital near death, and later a delirious enemy soldier waving a hand grenade. The doctors carry on with their surgeries and disregard the wobbly intruder, just as this film is best ignored.

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  1. It's been a while since I saw Battle Circus - it was so long go that it was the first movie I ever saw with June Allyson - but I remember finding it interesting if not particularly spectacular. Of course, the main thing I remember is thinking "Humphrey Bogart as Hawkeye Pierce!"

    1. Bogart just about kept it watchable for me, but I found this to be easily one of his weakest efforts.


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