August 24, 2018

THE NAKED AND THE DEAD: User-Friendly Norman Mailer
Starring Aldo Ray, Cliff Robertson, Raymond Massey, William Campbell, Barbra Nichols, Richard Jaeckel, James Best, Joey Bishop, Robert Gist, L.Q. Jones, Lili St. Cyr, Jerry Paris. Directed by Raoul Walsh. (1958/131 min). 


Review by Mr. Paws😸

I once took an American Lit class from a professor with a serious man-crush on Norman Mailer. We were subjected to several of his novels, including The Naked and the Dead, which was inspired by the author's own experiences in World War II. While I admittedly harbored a bit of resentment from being forced to read a 700 page novel during the first goddamn week - in addition to the workload of my other classes - I didn't share my professor's enthusiasm. Personally, I found Mailer's prose ponderous and pretentious. Worse yet, with no Cliff's Notes available, I had to power through the thing by sheer will and lots of caffeine.

Had I known it was adapted into a movie back in 1958, I might have been tempted to bluff my way through class discussions and my subsequent analytical essay. But I would've likely been rewarded with an F because the film jettisons most of the novel's heavier themes - stuff that lit professors love - in favor of focusing on its basic story and the main characters. Perhaps because film is a completely different medium - not-to-mention I wasn't forced to watch it for a grade - I found The Naked and the Dead to be very engaging, one of the better World War II action epics of the era. It's also the last good movie from director Raoul Walsh, certainly an improvement over his previous war effort, the sudsy, jingoistic Battle Cry.

Aldo Ray in time-out.
After a woefully shaky start - some pointless flashbacks and a gratuitous opening scene in a strip club - the basic story focuses primarily on the Army's attempt to take a Japanese-occupied island. Commanding the operation is General Cummings (Raymond Massey), who believes fear and hatred of his superiority motivates the men. It's a philosophy not shared his aide, Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson), whose overt empathy for the soldiers prompts Cummings to put him in command of a dangerous recon mission out of sheer spite. The platoon Hearns is assigned to is usually commanded by Sgt. Croft (Aldo Ray), a career soldier known for his ruthlessness and cruelty. Needless to say, Croft resents being forced to take orders from an inexperienced officer.

The unfolding relationship between these three is fascinating and the film does a masterful job revealing their true natures. Cummings turns out to be a vindictive megalomaniac, more than willing to sacrifice others to satisfy his own ego. Hearns is selfless and compassionate, the only one who seems mindful of war's human attrition. But it's Croft who proves the most compelling. At first, he simply comes across as coldly effective at his job. He may not be loved, but his actions get results. As the narrative unfolds, however, Croft is not only violent, but hatefully sadistic with no qualms about killing, enemy or otherwise. The dichotomy between Croft & Hearns is remarkably similar to that of Barnes & Elias in Oliver Stone's Platoon.

The last hour is gripping and emotionally intense, with a final act that probably had my professor fuming indignantly, but very satisfying from a cinematic standpoint. A winning music score by the great Bernard Herrmann - which is oddly reminiscent of his sci-fi scores - wonderfully enhances the tension.The Naked and the Dead may not help you pass your American Lit class, but it's user-friendly and a terrific (anti?)war film worth rediscovering, especially on this great-looking Blu-ray.


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