MOVIES FOR SOLDIERS FOR FAMILIES FOR SOLDIERS FOR COMING HOME by Noah Buschel
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(The Men is now available on DVD through Republic Pictures.)
Obama says he will bring back another 10,000 soldiers by Christmas. Then another 23,000 by the summer. Even then, that would still leave nearly 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan. The President says he intends on having all US military out of Afghanistan by 2014. Let’s hope so.
Hoping is the easy part. Because the reality of our men and women coming home is not so simple or heartwarming. We’re all at least a little bit scared of what they’re bringing back. The PTSD. The lost limbs, faces, smiles. The nightmare memories. And they must be just as scared of us. Of the looks in our eyes.
There have been a bunch of movies about this stuff that have come out in the past few years. Movies like The Hurt Locker and The Messenger and Stop-Loss. Not necessarily anti-war movies all. Different vantage points and angles. They’re compassionate and decent efforts. And then you go back some, you see Robert Deniro in The Deer Hunter, unable to attend his own coming home party, hiding out in a motel, crying alone in the motel bed in his decorated uniform.
There’s Coming Home, The Manchurian Candidate, The Best Years of Our Lives, and a bunch of others. But the movie that flashes in my mind the most as I hear about plans for withdrawal—that movie is from back in 1950. Written by Carl Foreman and directed by Fred Zinnemann, The Men is mostly known as being Marlon Brando’s feature film debut. It’s not thought of as a great movie. And yet, it might be one of the most powerful and most enlightening on this subject. It’s a movie you might not see coming.
The Men starts with these words scrolling down the screen (brought to our ears by a garish tinny sounding news reel announcer): “In all Wars, since the beginning of history, there have been men who fought twice. The first time they battled with club, sword, or machine gun. The second time they had none of these weapons. Yet this, by far, was the greatest battle.”
Okay, sure. The second battle is the battle of returning home. The battle of coming back to a world that might not make too much sense anymore. Baseball, groceries, laundry. Whatever, okay.
When we first see Brando he’s standing up, it’s daytime. Not more than a few second later he’s been shot and is lying down on the ground, helpless. The rest of the movie is all about that. What it does to someone when they’re standing up one second, and lying down the next. What it does to their identity. What it does to the people who love them. As Brando’s lying on the ground we hear him in a hushed voiceover—”It was a bad shot or else he was impatient. He must have aimed for my head but he got me in the back. I was scared. I couldn’t feel anything from my waist down. I thought I was dying.”
The shot of Brando as a soldier in the bright dust dissolves into a shot of Brando lying in a hospital bed at night. Then the voiceover continues: “That’s funny. That’s very very funny. I was afraid I was gonna die. Now I’m afraid I’m gonna live.”
Okay. It seems like a by the books old-fashioned movie, but maybe a pretty good one. At least stick around and witness the birth of the method on celluloid.
Brando is so ashamed that he can’t walk anymore; he refuses to see his fiancé, Teresa Wright. But not to worry, not too bleak for long—there’s old-fashioned American hope. Because she cares for him so purely, it doesn’t cross her mind to try to leave him behind. Unconditional love is what she offers. She’s not cheap or shallow or spineless. She’s some kinda saint it seems. A wounded soldier’s wet dream. Or dream anyway.
Once she convinces him that she knows the difference between pity and love, he starts to work real hard on getting better. He’s gonna fix himself through sheer hard work and will power. Push-ups. Pull-ups. Climbing rope. Pool tube basketball. And sure enough, he starts to feel things in his legs, “getting return.” She’s elated by the news. No more spasms. Maybe someday no more wheelchair. Maybe there will be a happy ending after all.
The movie, clearly priding itself on sticking to some kind of reality, makes Brando’s goal practical. All he has to do is stand-up on his own at their wedding. If he does that, he kisses her upright, then we know eventually… eventually he’ll be walking. After the picture’s over, somewhere in time, he’ll be walking and they’ll be picture perfect. Like there’s no war and never was.
At the podium they both look beautiful and young and he stands up from his wheelchair and he completes the picture. And he’s doing it and he’s standing there—but when he’s asked to join hands with the bride, he loses his balance. He doesn’t fall all the way back down to the dusty ground—but only because his best man, a doctor from the hospital, catches him. Teresa Wright’s eyes flash a kind of horror we hadn’t seen in her before. Perhaps her love is not as pure as she wishes it was.
We cut to them in their new home after the wedding. She’s nervous as hell. All her pious confidence is out the window. Maybe she can’t really handle this after all. Maybe she was kidding herself. She tries to talk light, talks about the materials of the drapes in a little girl sing-songy voice that is very clearly bullshit. She’s trying to keep the movie on that old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending track. But the movie itself is veering into fresh wet shadows usually kept at bay for noir films. She talks about the ashtrays she bought, but his damn wheelchair starts squeaking, sounding like baby mice every time he wheels just an inch across the new carpet. He sees her look, her thinking he’s something creepy, and now it’s his turn to deflect. “I gotta oil these wheels down tomorrow,” he says with a half-hearted grin. He opens the family album she’s put together. She apologizes for the photos of him as a football player, she wasn’t thinking. He tells her loudly, now sounding a lot like Stanley Kowalski, that “it’s alright!” She goes to get champagne. He broods like the Brando we’d come to know on motorcycles. She comes back from the kitchen with the champagne bottle, voice still sing-songy, can’t breathe, hell-bent on talking like June Allyson. The bottle won’t open so he grabs it from her, pops it, it spills all over the new carpet. The pretty picture is getting ruined more and she freaks out, drops to her knees, tries to expunge the stain. His feet start tapping in his wheelchair, the spasms. She stares at his shaking feet, completely terrified and nauseated.
What’s a matter?
Nothing I’ll get some water.
What are you looking at? You’ve seen this before.
I don’t like the way you’re looking at me.
I said I was sorry.
Yeah I know but what are you sorry for?
I don’t know. Stop putting me on trial! You pick at me so I can’t think!
Wait a minute, what are you thinking? Are you thinking you made a mistake? Is that it? You’re sorry aren’tcha?
(grabs her arm)
You’re sorry aren’tcha!
What do you want me to say? Alright I am!
(lets go of arm)
Why didja have to wait till we were married?
He leaves her in their new home, returns to the hospital.
Time passes. He sees the hospital as his home now. He’s not trying to get any better. He gets drunk, gets in trouble. She comes by to see him. She’s had time to see things for what they are. She still wants to try. He tells her to get lost.
Eventually the soldiers and doctors force Brando out of the hospital. He’s rehabbed and he’s getting in trouble and he’s married. They tell him to go home. “She looked at me like I was a bug,” he tells the doctor. “She’s human,” the doctor replies.
The last scene has Brando racing his wheelchair down the street to hero’s music. Teresa Wright sees him out the window. She’s excited. But here again the movie subverts the Hollywood thing, and instead of him getting up to the door and sweeping her off her feet, Brando’s stopped by the stairs going up to her door. He can’t get up the stairs in his wheelchair. Oh right. The gallant music melts into a somber puddle. She comes out to meet him. She doesn’t run out. She just comes out, takes a few soft cardigan steps, stands at a proper distance, on the stairs. And he’s sitting there. There’s no promise of sex. No promise of glory. No coolness, smoothness, fire. No promise of all the things Brando would later become synonymous with. He’s just a person who’s been through a lot and is wiped out by it all. There’s no energy left for defensiveness. No energy left for bravado. No energy left to lash out. It looks like he might cry. Like a kid after they’ve fallen and they get up and they’re taking that moment to decide whether to let out a ripping good cry or not.
But he just stays quiet, pensive, shy, keeps the delicate calm. He’s wearing khakis, a watch, a suede jacket, a v-neck sweater, a button-up shirt, his hair wet and neatly combed, face clean shaven. He looks like a college kid. His feet point out away from each other, like a dead duck’s. A suburban street winds behind him. One extra walks across a lawn in the distance. Brando’s eyes are squinted a little, in case some flicker of repulsion shows up in her expression, like it did on their wedding night. His whole being could easily be confused for disdain. She doesn’t confuse it. She ‘s optimistic, but not in a fervent closed down way. We can see she has no idea what the future holds. She’s still scared of him. And scared of what he isn’t. What’s she capable of? She feels sorry for him, but only ’cause she loves him and he’s hurting. Let him not mistake her feelings of sorriness for him again. Let her not mistake them. The house behind her is blurry and out of focus. The leaves make shadows on the house that move—they’re not painted. She’s centered. She can do a lot of things.
Are you doing anything tonight?
Would you like to go to a movie or something, or talk?
Yes I would.
Do you want me to help you up the stairs?
She helps him up the steps in the wheelchair and they go into the house. The movie ends. I don’t know what happens after that.
— Noah Buschel