“A Walk in the Sun” is a pensive, ultimately engrossing look at a group of soldiers on a mission to take out an Italian country home occupied by Nazis.
What’s unusual about this drama, written by Robert Rossen from a book by Hank Brown, is that it explores the mindset of this group of soldiers. Rather than focus on the action, it focuses on their reactions. And while this may be disorienting at first, as you keep waiting for something more to happen, the film does fall into its own rhythm as the soldiers get closer to the house and the tension slowly mounts.
The beginning of the movie is a bit confusing if you aren’t familiar with the film’s focus. The men are on a boat, waiting to hit the beach in Italy. The lighting is low, so you don’t see much, and it’s difficult identifying who is who. The dialogue centers around the upcoming battle, day and war in general.
The next time we see the men, they are sitting in the sand, waiting to move inland. Their dialogue explains how the landing went, and it’s in this section we get a good look at this group, headed by Sgt. Eddie Porter (Herbert Rudley), who is thrown into the role of leading this mission yet is slowly cracking under the strain of doing so. Sgt. Bill Tyne (Dana Andrews), Porter’s right-hand man, helps guide Porter through important decisions.
You also have actors Richard Conte, Norman Lloyd, John Ireland, Lloyd Bridges, Sterling Holloway, George Tyne, Richard Benedict and numerous others sharing their thoughts, whether it’s Ireland’s point of view as a writer to Lloyd’s pessimistic attitude to Conte’s cocky boasts.
Again, there’s no action to accompany the dialogue. But if the audience is waiting for more, so are the characters, and slowly the narrative provides an appreciation for what these men must do. They are a bit disoriented by the unknown of what lies ahead, and yet they must react and hope their decisions are the correct ones.
In a way, “A Walk in the Sun” unfolds like a series of one-act plays. While it looks like it was made on a shoestring budget – the first 45 minutes features only a few changes of scenery – it ultimately doesn’t feel that way. But I also like the film’s honesty. If the talkative narrative is too much at times (toward the tense climax, one character begins speaking about a leaf), the story also displays the doubts and courage of these men.
The character of Porter is especially telling for a film made during this time. He’s not a coward, but it’s clear he’s not up to leading this mission, and watching him slowly crack is startling and sobering. Tyne, who makes decisions not with a swagger but with common sense, faces his own crisis as the men realize they have a nearly impossible task to carry out.
The acting is uniformly excellent, headed by Andrews, who was so good at playing seemingly tough men and showing their vulnerabilities. Frankly, the entire cast is top-notch, working together as a true ensemble.
Directed by Lewis Milestone as an independent production released by 20th Century Fox, the movie doesn’t have the studio sheen, which is a plus. You can also pick up on Milestone’s anti-war sentiments. After all, he made the brilliant “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1930 World War I anti-war film.
“A Walk in the Sun” was a film that stayed with me long after I finished watching it. While the narrative may be a bit surprising, it ultimately succeeds as a testament to the bravery of men who must battle their own thoughts and emotions while heading into a battle against the enemy.
This is a film that dares to examine a soldier’s fears. During World War II, films were either focused on defeating the enemy or showing our fighting forces in as positive light as possible, so this must have been a bit shocking.
“A Walk in the Sun” was released at the end of 1945, and while critically well-received, it was not a box office success. With the end of the war, the battle film genre quickly died at the box office, and no one thought it would be revived. But by the end of the decade, MGM’s “Battleground” and 20th Century Fox’s “12 O’Clock High,” both released in 1949, proved that the World War II battle film could be a reliable genre. Even today, films about World War II have a certain appeal.
Looking back at films made about and released during World War II, we can see a progression from ones that celebrated heroics to more realistic fare like “The Story of G.I. Joe,” “They Were Expendable” and “A Walk in the Sun,” with filmmakers like John Huston applying what they learned to their future films. If audiences then were tiring of the war, today we can appreciate their realistic approach as Hollywood moved into the post-war era, where realism would find its way into more and more product.