Monday 15 February 2021

Movie Review: The Young Lions (1958)

An epic World War Two drama spiked with notable action, The Young Lions explores the intense personal and military experiences of three memorable characters, one German and two Americans.

On New Year's Eve of 1938, German ski instructor and shoemaker Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando), an idealist seeking a better future, romances American vacationer Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush). She is repulsed by the growing wave of German expansionism and returns to the United States and her boyfriend Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a Broadway entertainer. 

When America enters the war, Michael meets store clerk Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) at the Army draft office. Michael labels himself a coward and tries to avoid service, but Noah, a Jew, calmly accepts conscription. Michael introduces Noah to Brooklyn girl Hope Plowman (Hope Lange). Their courtship starts with a commuting odyssey, then Noah has to win over her father (Vaughn Taylor), who had previously never met a Jew. 

Christian becomes a Lieutenant in the German army occupying Paris under the command of the merciless Captain Hardenberg (Maximilian Schell). He meets Parisienne Francoise (Liliane Montevecchi), then has a torrid encounter with Hardenberg's wife Gretchen (May Britt). Both Christian and Hardenberg are reassigned to the North African front lines. Meanwhile Michael and Noah go through basic training together, and Noah is exposed to bullying.

Once the liberation of Europe starts, Michael has to decide if being a coward is what he really wants, Noah will experience the chaos of combat, and Christian's idealism will be severely tested.

An adaptation of Irwin Shaw's novel, The Young Lions earns its 167 minute length with a focus on rich character development as well as a few scenes of short and sharp war action. The Edward Anhalt script is eloquent, ably maintaining control of multiple story lines from late 1938 to the end of the war in Europe. Edward Dmytryk keeps the scenes relatively short and the pacing brisk, pausing when necessary but never dragging. The result is a gourmet cinematic experience.

With abundant content comes a few weaknesses, and The Young Lions is not immune. A plausible argument can made that each of Brando, Clift and Martin (at 34, 38 and 41 years old respectively) are older than their "young" characters, with Clift perhaps visually least convincing as a budding man. Martin's character Michael Whiteacre is prominent early and late, but disappears for long stretches in the middle and is afforded relatively few scenes to navigate his arc. And a motorcycle escape sequence is kneecapped by rudimentary rear projection and flirts with unintended comedy.

But in the context of the film's scope, these are quibbles. The Young Lions soars to majestic heights of dramatic involvement by investing in people from different backgrounds, the war shaping who they are and what they stand for, the three central characters evolving into compelling men through complex growth journeys. 

Christian starts with a vision of a more equitable Europe where shoemakers can break free from the shackles of classism. His disillusionment rises as he awakens to the evils of the Nazi party and the brutal tactics employed by men like Hardenberg. Noah has the most to fight for, starting in Brooklyn where a Jew is treated with suspicion, then at training camp where survival means confronting bullying. And Michael is a man of music and cocktail parties, perhaps capable of pulling a few strings to secure a cozy desk assignment but aware of the implications to his sense of self.

Anhalt and Dmytryk are not satisfied with just the central stories and extend their focus to other fascinating characters surrounding the three men. Captain Haldenberg rides his rigid adherence to the principles of an implacable invading army from the highs of photo opportunities in Paris to unimaginable lows. And while Margaret and Hope are relatively static, Hardenberg's wife Gretchen, in just a couple of scenes, emerges as an unforgettable representative of the elite and decadent Berlin set, her behaviour and fate mirroring that of her Captain. In occupied Paris, the feisty Francoise is torn between fury at the German invaders, fear of fraternizing with the enemy, and the enticing prospects of a European project with men like the attractive Christian at the helm.

The cast sparkles with acting talent. A blond Marlon Brando brings a German accent to his sometimes mumbled internally anguished introspection. Montgomery Clift is committed as the outsider used to coping with a lowly status, instinctively aware a world war can change all societal dynamics. In one of his earliest dramatic roles Dean Martin is not in the same talent class, but is never less than serviceable. Maximilian Schell, in his first Hollywood feature, remarkably matches Brando with a dominant portrayal of regime loyalty.

The action scenes inject well-timed jolts of energy and allow the characters to further define their psyches and earn battlefield legacies. The best is a commando attack in North Africa demonstrating the double sword of ingenuity and cruelty.

Monumentally ambitious and grandly substantive, The Young Lions is an impressive roar.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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