Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin. A handsome German ski instructor turned Nazi, a forlorn and romantic American Jew and a Broadway playboy meet before WWII and then again during the war.
The most intriguing element of 'The Young Lions' is the pairing of two of Hollywood's finest and most iconic actors, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, who, along with James Dean, formed a rebel triumvirate in the 1950s that captivated audiences and changed the face of screen acting. Though the two (sadly) never share a scene in Edward Dmytryk's epic adaptation of Irwin Shaw's sprawling World War II novel, their fascinating, dovetailing portrayals keep us transfixed throughout this disjointed, occasionally lumbering, but ultimately satisfying film. Their subtle bits of business, throwaway gestures, and studied speech patterns elevate Edward Anhalt's script and infuse their respective characters with greater depth and complexity. As a result, 'The Young Lions' flaunts a serious, substantive air, even if it does shamelessly rip off elements of another, more famous (and Oscar-winning) war film, 'From Here to Eternity.'
Or does it? Yes, the film version of 'From Here to Eternity' was produced five years before 'The Young Lions,' but Shaw's novel preceded James Jones' magnum opus by three years, so if any "borrowing" was done, Jones is the more likely culprit. In any event, the similar themes of persecution and discrimination by one's own peers courses through both tales, but they actually resonate more deeply in 'The Young Lions' because they directly correlate to the reprehensible attitudes that fueled the Nazi machine. 'From Here to Eternity' may possess a more engrossing plot and more salacious elements, but 'The Young Lions' examines the personal issues and philosophies of its characters - as well as war itself - with greater depth than its more celebrated cousin.
Of course, with a running time that's 50 minutes longer than 'From Here to Eternity,' 'The Young Lions' can more completely indulge and develop its characters and scenarios. We first meet Christian Diestl (Brando), an idealistic and patriotic young German, in 1938 as he teaches skiing to Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush), a carefree American tourist who's attracted by his gallantry and exotic European aura. Margaret expresses concern about the cruel intentions of Hitler and the Nazi party, but Christian defends the regime, pointing out how it has helped not only to rebuild the German country, but also repair the confidence and buoy the outlook of a depressed and downtrodden populace. Margaret understands Christian's viewpoint, but believes supporting the Nazis is morally wrong, and she returns to New York and her selfish, man-about-town boyfriend, Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a Broadway song-and-dance man who uses a stance of pacifism and neutrality to mask his crippling cowardice. Michael hopes to evade the draft, but Margaret - much to his chagrin - urges him to stand up, accept his responsibility, and be a man.
Noah Ackerman (Clift), an average joe who goes with the flow, meets Michael at the draft office. The two strike up a friendship, and through Michael, Noah meets the lovely and demure Hope Plowman (Hope Lange). The two instantly fall in love, but Hope must convince her strait-laced, close-minded father (Vaughn Taylor) to accept Noah's Jewish heritage and the prospect of an inter-faith marriage. He does, but Noah's fellow servicemen and sadistic commanding officer do not. (Unfortunately, the movie - in order to receive cooperation and support from the Pentagon - doesn't directly attribute Noah's military hazing to anti-Semitism, instead using - rather ridiculously - his New York background as the catalyst for his mistreatment.) Much like Prewitt in 'From Here to Eternity' (whom, coincidentally or not, Clift also portrayed), Noah is saddled with extra duty, must endure derisive remarks, and ends up fighting his enemies to uphold his principles.
Meanwhile, Christian becomes an essential and respected cog in the Nazi machine, but the more atrocities he witnesses, the more disillusioned he becomes. A gentle soul at heart, Christian can't condone or abide Hitler's overzealous vigilance and crazed tactics, yet he refuses to reject his German heritage and commitment to the Fatherland. As the war rages, destiny puts the three men on a collision course, and how their military experiences shape and change them - and their women - forms the balance of the story.
By painting full-bodied portraits of both American and German characters (a rarity among World War II dramas), 'The Young Lions' explores both sides of the coin, and the varied perspectives about the nature of war, obligation to fight, and ideologies fueling conflict at home and abroad add breadth and meaning to the drama. The German fervor, discipline, and unified posture that define the dawn of Hitler's aggression give way to disenchantment, chaos, and selfishness as the Führer's empire crumbles and American resolve intensifies. Yet the insidious bigotry that drives the Nazi engine also infects - to a lesser degree - the American military and homefront, proving the essence of a human being isn't necessarily defined by the uniform a soldier wears or the nation from which he or she hails.
Though the character of Christian was significantly softened (at Brando's request) for the film version - a choice critics roundly lambasted at the time of movie's release - one can't help but believe Germans like him existed, and 'The Young Lions' cogently depicts his moral dilemmas and tortured psyche, and how honor, duty, and patriotism often override his emotions and placate his conscience. The Nazi ideology certainly transformed a huge army of idealistic and impressionable young men into ruthless, remorseless killers (Christian more closely resembles one of those in Shaw's novel), but the idea of a sympathetic Nazi is easier to embrace and understand today than it was a half-century ago.
Both Brando and Clift file magnetic, affecting performances that transcend some of the material's more clichéd elements. Brando believably inhabits Christian's skin, and his improvisational antics, like eating a snowball, both enhance and distract from his fine work. Clift is equally mannered at times, but no less captivating. According to biographer Judith M. Kass, the actor "starved himself down from 150 to 139 pounds, he distended his ears with putty, and slightly altered the shape of his nose" to achieve his vision of Noah. 'The Young Lions' was Clift's first film after the horrific auto accident that disfigured his face, and his insecurity about his altered appearance and ability to withstand the rigors of shooting lend his portrayal a greater degree of sensitivity.
Dmytryk had his hands full managing these two geniuses, who privately admired each other, yet also competed for attention and supremacy on the set. "Monty was an exceptionally bright young man who liked to pretend he wasn't," Dmytryk later said. "Brando was the other way around." Sandwiched between them is Martin, and his natural, engaging performance is like a breath of fresh air. Maximilian Schell also impresses in his American debut as Christian's fiery commanding officer, and Rush, Lange, and Britt all make notable impressions, too. The women's roles are decidedly subservient, but these excellent actresses achieve equal footing with their male co-stars in their scenes together.
Like the story, the battle scenes are also intimate, focusing on the effect violence, tension, and arduous circumstances have on the various characters. A brief concentration camp sequence spotlights the inhuman treatment of the prisoners, but only scratches the surface with regard to the atrocities committed there. The offhand manner in which the camp's director discusses extermination is chilling, but unfortunately the images don't appropriately reflect the horrific conditions. Like many epics adapted from massive tomes, 'The Young Lions' must truncate events to cram as much as possible into the film, which sometimes lends the narrative a choppy, underdeveloped feel. The abrupt ending exacerbates this problem (I would have preferred a slightly longer coda), but considering the movie's considerable length, such a quick wrap-up is understandable.
Though it often gets lost amid other, showier World War II yarns, 'The Young Lions' remains a well-made, affecting, and finely acted film that manages to rise above its faults. Another director might have injected more passion, meaning, and artistry into the story, but Dmytryk respects the material, and his straightforward interpretation keeps us involved throughout the hefty running time. Brando and Clift, however, are the irresistible bait that continues to lure viewers to this classic movie, and their terrific work easily stands the test of time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Young Lions' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition and is packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay by film historian Julie Kirgo, several scene shots, and a color reproduction of the film's original poster art is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Slick, smooth, and beautifully modulated, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Twilight Time is a joy to watch from start to finish. Exceptional clarity and contrast produce a vibrant image with copious amounts of detail and depth, and not a single speck, mark, or splotch dots the pristine source material. Grain is almost nonexistent, yet the picture never appears overly processed, and Joseph MacDonald's stunning, Oscar-nominated black-and-white photography looks lusciously rich, even during harsh location scenes. A widely varied gray scale supplies texture and nuance, while highlighting background elements and bringing out the texture in clothing and upholstery. Though close-ups come at a premium (CinemaScope films usually shied away from them), they possess a pleasing amount of fine detail, and good shadow delineation helps keep crush at bay. No digital imperfections or enhancements detract from the film's natural beauty, which is on full display throughout this superior effort.
'The Young Lions' was nominated for Best Sound at the 1958 Academy Awards, and this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track honors that lauded mix. Subtle surround effects can be detected from time to time, but most of the sonic action is anchored up front and enhanced by some distinct stereo separation. The battle sequences feature episodes of crisp gunfire and some hefty shell explosions, but the bass frequencies aren't as potent and weighty as the images require. (The camera shakes as the bombs detonate, but the room does not.) Hugo Friedhofer's Oscar-nominated score sounds appropriately robust, exhibiting excellent fidelity and tonal depth, and dialogue, for the most part, is clear and comprehendible, though a few lines are obscured by Brando's patented mumbling and some of the foreign accents employed by other actors. Best of all, any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been scrubbed away, leaving a pristine track that almost equals the superior video transfer.
In addition to an isolated score track, which spotlights the sweeping, Oscar-nominated score of Hugo Friedhofer ('The Best Years of Our Lives'), only two supplements are included on the disc.
Audio Commentary - At times, I have criticized the Twilight Time commentaries featuring Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, but the duo - joined by film historian Lem Dobbs here - does an excellent job with 'The Young Lions.' It's tough to sustain interest over the course of a 167-minute film, but the lively dialogue, which covers a variety of interesting topics, keeps the listener surprisingly engaged. The trio talks about the subservient - yet important - roles of the women in the film (Kirgo especially praises the underrated Barbara Rush), the differences between Irwin Shaw's novel and its film adaptation (Dobbs believes the book is inferior and dated), how Clift modeled his look for the movie after a photo of Franz Kafka (!), the myriad connections to 'From Here to Eternity,' and how director Edward Dmytryk, one of the fabled Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy era, turned from hero to snitch by finagling his way out of prison and off of the blacklist by naming names and making up scenarios to please the anti-Communist committee. We also learn 'The Young Lions' marked Dean Martin's first serious role after breaking up his partnership with Jerry Lewis (and that Tony Randall, of all people, was originally considered to play his part) and Maximillian Schell's first American film. (Supposedly, the actor could not speak a word of English before he was cast.) Numerous anecdotes about Brando, Clift, and Martin are sprinkled throughout the discussion, and though the momentum slows a bit toward the end, there's enough analysis and factual information presented to satisfy anyone's curiosity.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview is also included on the disc.
Though at times it too closely resembles 'From Here to Eternity' (yet runs almost an hour longer), 'The Young Lions' stands as one of Hollywood's more substantive and involving World War II sagas. Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of Irwin Shaw's bestselling novel provides both German and American perspectives on the conflict, along with intimate, intertwining personal stories and some suspenseful battle sequences. And even though they never appear in the same frame, the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift raises the film's stakes and enhances its fascination quotient. Dean Martin also impresses in his first dramatic role, and Barbra Rush, Hope Lange, and May Britt offer stellar support. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation also impresses, thanks to a superior video transfer, solid audio, and an engaging audio commentary, all of which help this limited edition classic earn an enthusiastic recommendation.