Two classic films about war at Senator

February 12, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

War is unkind to children and other living things, but it is nastiest of all to soldiers, as the two classic films the Senator is bringing in for three days attest.

Taken together, "A Walk in the Sun" and "Grand Illusion" form kind of coherent meditation on the experience of war from two distinct points of view, the officer's and the enlisted man's.

Lewis Milestone's "A Walk in the Sun" is the great infantry picture of the Second World War: It's the dogface odyssey, the "Platoon" of 1945. And its epic journey is traced across the circumscribed universe of six miles, from beach to farmhouse, between 7 a.m. and noon, in Southern Italy of 1943.

This is not a glory war, and the movie is a thousand miles from the agitprop flag-waving and ethnic character assassination of the early war films. No flags here, no speeches, no drooling Nazis, not even any heroic officers -- "the lieutenant" is killed in the first few seconds, his face blown away.

This is war as the sergeants and privates fight it: intimate, dirty, scary as hell. Milestone, who reuses some of his camera moves from the anti-war film "All Quiet on the Western Front," knew that like manycomplicated enterprises, war tends to break down at the squad level. His tone is ironic from the get-go: just a "little walk in the sun" and yet, for so many, it will be the last walk and the last sun.

Thus his soldiers start out lost and never really find their way; the top sergeant freaks out and collapses; his baffled, resentful juniors have to take over, and when faced with a tactical problem, can't figure it out and leave the details to a PFC who happens to be sitting close by.

The movie labors strenuously to imprint the sense of "myth" on these guys, complete to bogus spiritual on the soundtrack, and the dialogue has a near iambic pentameter rhythm that seems a little numbing after a bit. But the film is exquisitely photographed in the kind of brilliant black and white cinematography that no longer exists and the action is vivid and convincing.

The stalwarts are Dana Andrews and John Ireland as the reluctant inheritors of the dead or bugged-out professionals, Richard Conte as a machine gunner, and, best of all, squirrelly little Norman Lloyd as the platoon nihilist who thought he'd be fighting in Tibet someday -- and didn't know he'd end on "St. Elsewhere" as Dr. Daniel Auschlander.

There's almost no combat in Jean Renoir's great "Grand Illusion" of 1937, but it's a portrait of duty, responsibility and love under the most trying conditions. Set in World War I, it's about a trio of French fliers imprisoned by an aristocratic German (the great Erich von Stroheim) and how, though everybody respects everybody else, everybody has to do their duty, no matter the cost.

The cost is high. Von Stroheim is forced to shoot de Boldieu, another professional soldier and aristocrat, whom he respects. De Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay) has given himself up to duty, by allowing the other two to escape without him. They -- Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio -- escape the fortress and take refuge with a farm woman and, briefly, understand that at her hearth is the peace they long for. But duty interferes again, and off they go, back to almost certain death.

"Grand Illusion" is somewhat square by hip modern standards, particularly in its opening section, but once it starts unrolling and one sees the tragic tapestry of good men dying for ideas that seem meaningless in retrospect, it acquires tragic power and grace.

As a camp note, the film opens with an on-camera appearance by Renoir, evidently filmed in 1958, in which he laboriously points out that these Germans were of the 1914 variety, not the nasty sort that Dana Andrews' platoon had to fight 30 years later.

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