"That's funny. I was afraid I was gonna die. Now I'm afraid I'm gonna live."—Ken Wilcheck (Marlon Brando), The Men
When A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan's big-screen version of Tennessee Williams' classic stage play, opened in 1951, it brought with it the face of a young actor who would change the course of screen acting forever—Marlon Brando. People hadn't seen anything like him before—with his rugged good looks and raw emotionality, Brando literally created a new form of acting that emphasized a kind of complete embodiment of character never thought possible. He didn't just act the part of Stanley Kowalski—he was Stanley Kowalski.
But although Streetcar is the film most often credited with catapulting Brando into superstardom, few realize that it wasn't his first film. A year earlier, in 1950, Brando made his motion picture debut in Fred Zinnemann's The Men, a minor but very effective social consciousness drama that, while not exactly providing Brando with the emotional opportunities afforded to him in Streetcar, did give a hint of what was to come.
Facts of the Case
The Men opens during World War II, as Ken Wilcheck (Brando) leads a force of American troops in the raid of an enemy base. As the troops prepare to ambush the base, Wilcheck is hit by sniper fire in the spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. We then cut to a paraplegic hospital, where the most of the film takes place, as Wilcheck is both physically and emotionally crippled by his injury. His doctor, Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane, Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane) is seen explaining the debilitation to the families and relatives of the patients, amongst whom is Ellen (Teresa Wright), Wilcheck's fiancée, who he arranged to marry before the war but with whom he has since cut off all communication, out of his own self-pity and fear of rejection.
Eventually, Ellen is able to break down some of the barriers Ken has set up, and he becomes motivated towards rehabilitation. But the road soon becomes bumpier than either of them had imagined, as the two are forced to come to grips with the fact that Ken will never walk again. And despite her ostensible good intentions and deep love for her fiancé, Ellen soon discovers that she might not have the strength to face his difficult condition after all.
Made in 1950, The Men is the kind of drama that studios used to make when they wanted to raise public awareness about a particular issue, in this case paraplegia and the devastating effects it had on war veterans and their families. But rather than turning into a dated, cookie-cutter melodrama, the film rises above its potentially limiting premise to become a wisely understated little character study, bolstered by an excellent production pedigree and some terrific performances. For starters, it was directed by the great Fred Zinnemann, who would go on to create such classics as From Here to Eternity and High Noon, and it's clear that a pro like Zinnemann knew that even when dealing with an emotionally sensitive issue like this, it was wise to downplay the potentially sensational aspects of the material in order to achieve the maximum effect. In Zinnemann's hands, what could have easily been cheesy and off-putting instead becomes effective and genuine.
Of course, the entire thing hinges on the ability of its lead to make both the condition and rehabilitation believable, but even in his screen debut you can already see that Brando knew exactly how to play this kind of part, exhibiting both restraint and subtlety rather than flashy emotion. Brando was one of the first movie stars to embrace the Method style of acting, in which the actor literally becomes the character for the entire process of shooting, and here he is particularly good at internalizing the rage and frustration that Wilcheck feels at having been saddled with this unspeakably debilitating condition, frustration that we witness in both his treatment of others and his own self-loathing. When Ken finally lashes out at Ellen later in the film, the effect is real, because we've seen it building for the entire course of the story. Few actors were ever as good as Brando at making us feel what they were feeling, and his ability to accomplish this kind of audience identification was obvious from the very beginning of his career.
In a way, once Ken lets Ellen back into his life, the story becomes almost as much about her as it is about him, as she struggles to come to terms with the fact that she will likely spend the rest of her life as not just his wife, but, to put it crudely, his nurse as well. In this sense, Teresa Wright's performance as Ellen is every bit as crucial to the believability of the story as Brando's, but Wright, one of the most underrated talents of the '40s and '50s, succeeds effortlessly at creating a three-dimensional character forced to make a real choice under the circumstances. What's best about her work is the way in which Wright makes both of her character's possible choices seem feasible, when the very notion of Ellen leaving Ken might otherwise have made her seem like an uncaring wretch. The decision of whether or not to stay with him isn't nearly as cut-and-dry as it might at first seem, and the whole "If you love me then you'll stay with me" notion, while hopelessly romantic in Hollywood terms, is in fact foolishly naïve, as real life is much more complicated than that.
This three-dimensionality extends to other aspects of the story as well, and is seen especially in the portrayal of Ellen's parents, who urge her to take the easy way out and leave Ken. Carl Foreman's writing is so good at cutting to the heart of the matter that the characters come off not as unfeeling, but rather as two people who love their daughter and don't want to see her get hurt.
The scenes in the hospital, where a significant portion of the film is set, continue the theme of understated realism, as Brando's Ken gradually assimilates himself into the community of paraplegics, all of whom are sharply drawn and bring a sense of both cynicism and hopefulness to the proceedings. Among them are Angel (Arthur Jurado), a Latino veteran for whom taking care of his large family motivates him to work the hardest of any of the patients toward rehabilitation, Leo (Richard Erdman), who uses gambling to keep his mind off his condition, and Norm (Jack Webb, of TV's Dragnet), who understands the public's guilt towards cripples best of all, yet realizes the importance of leaving the hospital and trying to return to a normal life. Though the quality of acting among the paraplegics varies (Jurado, especially, is a bit stiff), the sense of community fostered among them feels genuine, and contributes to the idea that while getting out of the hospital may be what the patients eventually strive for, the comparative harshness of the outside world makes it look more inviting then they originally thought it to be.
In the end, The Men, while not necessarily a great film, remains at the very least a good one, helped enormously by the realism of the performances and surprising complexity of Carl Foreman's script, which adds dimension and shading to a relatively simple story that otherwise would've played as a movie of the week. Though pretty much everyone involved, especially Brando, would go on to bigger and better things, it's a film that shouldn't be dismissed. And despite its relatively unknown status in the film world, there's something essential to be said for the fact that an actor known for his ability to explode onscreen began his journey to cinema greatness not with an explosion, but with this small, vital spark.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the film itself holds up considerably better than expected, this DVD from Artisan is adequate at best, and occasionally worse than that. When I first fired up the film, I was amazed to find how crappy the print looked, with noticeable specks of dirt everywhere and occasional jumps in the film splicing. Fortunately, the picture improves as the film progresses, and once we arrive at the hospital, it becomes stable if unimpressive. Dirt continues to show up every now and then, but it's fairly inconsistent, really only becoming obvious nighttime scenes and shots of darkness. It's not a great transfer, and the print could use some restoration work, but it's by no means unwatchable.
The audio, like the video, is only adequate, and is presented in mono. There's some hissing here and there, but all of the dialogue is clearly audible. English subtitles are included for the hearing impaired. There's not a single extra to be found, although according to the back of the keep case, "Digitally Mastered," should be considered a special feature. Go figure.
Though the DVD treatment of The Men isn't going to set the world on fire, the film itself remains essential, if only because it contains the start of one of the most fascinating and bizarre careers in movie history.
All involved with the making of the film are free to go. Those responsible for its DVD presentation, however, are found guilty as charged, and sentenced to five years without the use of their legs. Case dismissed.
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