One of the splashier WW2 combat sagas adapts Norman Mailer’s respected book but ends up a bona fide mess. Aldo Ray, Cliff Robertson and Raymond Massey flail about in a compromised screen story, augmented with side-dish appearances by sultry Barbara Nichols and — even though she’s allowed to contribute almost nothing — famous ecdysiast Lili St. Cyr. Let the search for outtakes begin.
The Naked and the Dead
Warner Archive Collection
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 131 min. / Street Date August 28, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Aldo Ray, Cliff Robertson, Raymond Massey, Lili St. Cyr, Barbara Nichols, William Campbell, Richard Jaeckel, James Best, Joey Bishop, Jerry Paris, Robert Gist, L.Q. Jones, Max Showalter, John Beradino, Saundra Edwards, Lydia Goya, Val Hidey, Taffy O’Neil, Liz Renay, Grace Lee Whitney.
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Film Editor: Arthur P. Schmidt
Original Music: Bernard Herrmann
Written by Denis Sanders & Terry Sanders from the novel by Norman Mailer
Produced by Paul Gregory
Directed by Raoul Walsh
When RKO closed its doors in 1957 the process took over a year, while its backlog of movies waiting to be released were divvied up between other distributors. One of the first productions to become an RKO-Warners hybrid release was The Naked and the Dead, a war saga set in the Pacific Theater. A significant ‘war diary’ best seller, Norman Mailer’s profane source novel really couldn’t be filmed as written. Given a big publicity push, the movie failed to shock the public or add anything new to the combat genre, which in the Fifties was often lumbered with awkward love scenes to appeal to women in the audience. What it does have is a gutsy performance by Aldo Ray, whose brutal Sgt. Croft is the film’s only standout character. The production is lavish, but a frankly terrible script and Raoul Walsh’s unfocused direction does it in.
An Army battalion becomes bogged down taking a mountainous island away from Japanese defenders. Down at the platoon level the action revolves around Sgt. Sam Croft (Aldo Ray), who commands due to the lack of officers. This allows Croft to stretch and bend the rules in his own undisciplined, unforgiving style. To demonstrate his mindset on killing, Croft coldly executes prisoners and even makes a point of crushing a wounded bird. Every Croft choice is direct and brutal; his only redeeming feature is his fearless willingness to walk into danger. In the command tent, the refined martinet General Cummings (Raymond Massey) plays psychological games with his handpicked aide Lieutenant Robert Hearn (Cliff Robertson), trying to dominate Hearn with a notion of discipline based on power and fear. Lieutenant Hearn can’t help but be insubordinate, and soon finds himself leading a dangerous mission to scope out enemy positions. He takes charge of Sgt. Croft’s platoon, not knowing how far Croft will go to retake command, and accomplish the mission his way.
The Naked and the Dead sounds like an un-killable idea for a war movie, but producer Paul Gregory makes a real mess of it. The project started in a strange way, in development with Gregory and director Charles Laughton, when Laughton was directing the bizarre Americana gothic horror The Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum was reportedly on board as well. Laughton’s second unit director and all-around assistant were respectively Terry and Denis Sanders, UCLA film students that had earned a short subject Oscar for Denis’ thesis film A Time Out of War (1954). Had Night of the Hunter not been a flop, causing Laughton to abandon his directing ambitions, he was going to proceed to Norman Mailer’s sprawling, profane novel. Paul Gregory and the Sanders brothers went on alone.
What Charles Laughton might have brought to the show is unclear, but the finished version of The Naked and the Dead is chaos. The mis-cast Raymond Massey is unconvincing as a general who keeps a well-stocked refrigerator in his tent, fusses about details and gives prissy lectures about controlling men through fear. His attempts to manipulate Cliff Robertson’s rich-kid Lieutenant are so strange, they come across as homosexual advances, just one raised eyebrow or veiled insinuation away from Laurence Olivier’s creepy overtures to Tony Curtis in Spartacus. Robertson’s half of the dynamic is poorly written as well, a complimentary set of position speeches underlining moral points that haven’t been established.
Norman Mailer’s 1948 best seller put him in the big time and made his reputation. The movie version retains most of the key events, but changes the outcome to make the patrol a technical success. In the book the mission ends up being irrelevant. Convinced that he can’t break the deadlock on his own, General Cummings goes back to headquarters to beg for the air and naval support he’s been denied. His underling Colonel Dalleson (Casey Adams) leaps at an opportunity to launch an all-out attack, which sweeps the Japanese off the island,, humiliates the (incompetent?) Cummings and makes Dalleson the hero of the day. The same events occur in the movie, but with crucial information gathered by the Croft-Hearn patrol.
Movies with high price tags were almost always hindered by commercial compromises. Released a year earlier, the inexpensive Anthony Mann-Aldo Ray-Robert Ryan Men in War could afford to concentrate on grim, honest negativity. Men in War also didn’t want the Army dictating content, and received no material assistance. The executives monitoring The Naked and the Dead surely insisted on comedy relief, scenes with sexy women and a more positive ending. The film benefits from abundant Army cooperation, the use of Army facilities in Panama, and access to training exercises at Camp Pendleton, adding their own pyrotechnics. The film’s big-scale action scenes have shown up as stock footage ever since.
The downside is that the gutsy book source has been severely dumbed-down and emasculated. Both Norman Mailer and James Jones impressed readers with their willingness to show how soldiers really talked, and just how crude, un-democratic and sadistic they could be. We hear the word “Jap” thrown about at leisure, and one character dispatched on a solitary reconnoiter is called ‘Jap bait.’ A mean-spirited platoon member called Red (Robert Gist) says ‘Blow it’ a couple of times. But that’s the full extent of the bad language.
Sgt. Croft’s roughshod command technique and outright murder of Japanese prisoners are undermined by a surfeit of stupid characterizations and slapstick service comedy. A large cast is once again hammered into cookie-cutter war-movie characterizations. Richard Jaeckel’s Gallagher is no longer blatantly anti-Semitic, as he was in the book. But he makes the mistake of talking about his family back home, so tragedy soon finds him. Roth (Joey Bishop) and Goldstein (Jerry Paris) talk sometimes in Yiddish. Croft ignores the ethnic rancor except when it gums up his plans. To motivate the injured Roth to act in a tough spot, he calls him a Jew, a gambit that doesn’t have the result Croft hoped for.
Mailer’s many patrol members are reduced to just a few. The capable William Campbell and James Best play a nervy New Yorker and an annoying hillbilly, respectively. A replacement soldier (Edwin Gregson, un-billed) dies from a stupid snakebite, and the one Mexican-American (Henry Amargo, un-billed) is ordered by Croft to falsify what he’s learned from a patrol.
The film’s stupidity goes way up with the emphasis given actor L.Q. Jones, who at this time was playing a lot of comic relief Texan idiots (Toward the Unknown), as if someone thought him a new, hayseed Fess Parker type. Jones ”Woody” Wilson is crazy about a stripper named Lily (fourth-billed genuine strip star Lili St. Cyr), and in a mostly disconnected prologue goes nuts over her performance, like a Tex Avery wolf but minus the laughs, Woody then acts like a total spastic idiot, showing his fellow soldiers how he gets sexual satisfaction by wrapping himself in a raincoat/ground cloth with a painting of Lily on the inside. Even Sgt. Croft is appalled. Woody later applies himself to making a moonshine still, the film’s weakest episode, and passes around Lily’s love letters for everyone to read.
The previous WB hit film Battle Cry came from the Leon Uris combat novel, but with constant flashbacks to soapy sex scenes back home. The Naked and the Dead is interrupted by only three such interludes. Sgt. Croft’s general misanthropy (and misogyny) is accredited to a two-timing babe back home, played without finesse by the great Barbara Nichols. Her two short scenes are filmed so awkwardly, we’re forced to believe that director Raoul Walsh either had no control or just didn’t care. Cliff Robertson’s flashbacks recall penthouse encounters with four or five sexy playgirls, who make out with him on the couch or drift with him toward the bedroom. They eventually show up all together, a visual which turns out to be the Lieutenant’s wet dream fantasy. One of the high-class dates is future Star Trek goddess Grace Lee Whitney, ten years younger than we’re accustomed to seeing her.
The brief scenes with the women not only interrupt the proceedings, but censorship makes them more than a little frustrating. Barbara Nichols mostly proves that she knows how to move around inside a dress, while Lily St. Cyr’s performance appears to have been cut down to nothing. The trailer uses a close-up shot from a stage routine, but the only performance shots of St. Cyr in the finished film are taken from far away. L.Q. Jones’ aptly-named Woody winds us up for something big, but Lily’s show is over before it starts. We wuz robbed.
[Sidebar: the special effects veterans on 1941, Logan Frazee and Joe Zomar, both worked in films with the great A.D. Flowers for 25 years before any of them started receiving screen credit. Flowers and Frazee were big friends of Aldo Ray, whom they described as a terrific guy, who at the time had a drinking problem. Joe Zomar had once been married to Lily St. Cyr, for five years. He proudly showed off a risqué photo of her, displayed appropriately in his effects locker! These were genuine tough guys accustomed to working rough shifts under miserable conditions. Long before my generation came along, movies were made by low-paid pros who often led colorful lives.]
Undiscriminating war movie fans will still find that The Naked and the Dead appeals. The Panamanian jungle locations are quite impressive — this is no war movie filmed in Griffith Park. However, the combat logic here and there can get a bit shaky. The least realistic action involves the grenades carried by our patrol. Not only are the explosions far too big, our boys can toss them 150 yards with great accuracy. Who needs mortars?
The film’s ‘serious’ message is abortive. The philosophical argument about command never gels due to bad writing and misdirected (Raymond Massey) and unfocused (Cliff Robertson) performances. Aldo Ray’s radical tough guy Sgt. Croft almost takes us to the limit of combat mutiny and fragging, but that angle is dropped as well when he suddenly exits the movie. Robertson’s Hearn never finds out that he was set up for a fall. The final image of General Cummings staring at troops on the move is just empty — we don’t know if the General is forlorn because Lieutenant Hearn hasn’t bought into his hateful philosophy of command, or simply because he’s going to lose his command.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Naked and the Dead is an attractive encoding of this expensive-looking, clumsy battle epic. The handsome transfer wipes away the memory of awful panned-and-scanned prints on TV. Those televised presentations weren’t censored; that apparently happened back when the picture was released, dag-nabit. The only thing screwy about the release is its stretched-out RKO logo up front, which reads like a distress signal from the sinking studio.
The strong audio track is mixed well; we theorize that post production might have been done at Warners’ because Warnercolor is listed in the credits. In fact, it seems likely that WB may have stepped in when they bought RKO’s film, and performed some editorial revisions, maybe even a re-shoot or two. But until I read a good account, that’s just idle guesswork.
A big plus for movie music fans will be the score by Bernard Herrmann, which is used mostly for transitions, jungle trek passages and a few emotional moments, such as when Gallagher receives bad news from home. Some action cues seem so familiar, we expect a Ray Harryhausen Cyclops to enter, screen right. The moody suspense passages remind us of familiar caverns deep underground. At least Herrmann was allowed to punch up the film in places where his brand of music was needed — the movie is not over-scored, and it has not been overrun with cliché Army themes.
What Charles Laughton might have had in mind for The Naked and the Dead is hard to say. Terry and Denis Sanders eventually tried their own version of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1964), produced at the budget level of Men in War. The modern classic to date of the Pacific Theater combat film is Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line, which manages intense action within a profound yet poetic rumination on the meaning of young civilians fighting a terrifying war far from home.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Naked and the Dead
Movie: Good –minus minus
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 29, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson