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Brando at War: Dyed blond, Marlon Brando played a sensitive German solider in 'The Young Lions.'

Soldiering On

Edward Dmytryk's 'The Young Lions' puts Marlon Brando in a fetching uniform

By Richard von Busack

THERE IS a certain percentage of the population, he said, using his professor Kinsey voice, which secretly entertains fantasies of being used roughly by Nazis in full regalia. Such persons would want to run out and see Edward Dmytryk's 1958 film version of Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, playing at the Stanford Theatre Dec. 3-5. Marlon Brando certainly could fill out a German Army uniform. Brando—dyed blond isn't the right way of putting it, really; gilded is the word—ambles through The Young Lions encountering wartime situations that chip the irony from him.

The story cuts between Germany and America as World War II soldiers prepare for a fateful encounter in Europe. In New York, Montgomery Clift plays a sad-sack Macy's clerk befriended by noted radio crooner Mike Whittaker (Dean Martin, in his first dramatic role). The two end up in the same barracks. Meanwhile, in Europe, a sometime ski instructor and cobbler's assistant named Christian (Brando) spends his 1938 New Year's Eve looking into the future. He is in favor of the peace and brotherhood that Hitler is promising once he makes his conquest, but Christian is not politically sophisticated enough to realize what the price tag is going to be. All he knows is that it is terrible "to live upon tips from foreigners in your own country."

Once Christian dons a uniform, he is a new man, carrying on with enough correctness and insinuation to retrieve happy memories of Erich von Stroheim. He is at his smoothest during a quick illicit affair with a married woman: the Swedish starlet May Britt, flashing her wide eyes and looking most corrupt. Yet Dmytryk also touches on the brutality and boredom of military life, with Clift being hazed for his Jewishness, and a haunting squalid sequence at a German military hospital, listening to the ravings of an officer who had his face blown off by a land mine. Safely behind the lines, Martin's Whittaker flaunts his yellow streak: "I've read all the books. I know in 10 years we'll all be bosom friends with the Germans and the Japanese, and I'll be pretty annoyed if I get shot." What's interesting is that Whittaker's girl (Barbara Rush) seems to honestly tolerate his cowardice; she just can't endure the fact that he's moping and beating himself up about it.

Dmytryk cures Clift's ordeal with "colonel ex machina," and a poorly directed concentration camp sequence is particularly phony, plastered thick with self-congratulation. A copy of Joyce's Ulysses is treated with the same reverence as the Bible used to be in the movies (few can read that book, either). And those who had Alfred E. Neuman as an uncle can't forget how much mockery Mad used to make of wartime dramas with the sensitive German soldier who had wanted to be a doctor before the accursed war. Still, François Truffaut's famous comment "There's no such thing as an antiwar movie" is contradicted with what this on-again, off-again epic sometimes manages to achieve. Of course, a movie can be antiwar and pro-uniform. Very flattering to a man's rump, those jodhpurs. No wonder so many film directors adopted them.

The Young Lions plays Dec. 3-5 at 7:30pm (with 2pm shows Dec. 4-5) at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto.

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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