“The Men” (1950)

Rotten Tomatoes

Co-stars: Teresa Wright, Everett Sloane, Jack Webb

Character: Ken Wilcheck aka “Bud”

Alright then, so this was Brando’s first film, and therefore the first one I watched on my epic quest to view his entire filmography. Upon its release, it was more or less ignored by the majority of the viewing public, most likely due to the Korean War beginning and viewers not wanting to see a story like this. What story? Well, the story of paraplegic veterans.

At the beginning of the film, we see Lieutenant Ken Wilcheck leading his platoon through a war torn town, a nervous yet resolute expression on his face. He turns to his troops to give out an order, when we hear gunshots and he is instantly seen crumbling to the ground. In a monologue overlaying the scene, he explains that he has been shot in the back, instantly paralyzing him from the waist down. His initial feelings and fears are also explained in this opening scene. The next we see of Ken, he is lying in a private room of a veteran’s hospital, buzzing for the nurse, pissed off and depressed. We are introduced to Dr. Brock in the next scene, explaining to the mothers and wives of the vets what it means to be paraplegic. We also meet Ellen, who was Ken’s fiance before the war, but who he has since cut off communication with. She desperately misses him, and still wants to marry him regardless of his disability.

We then learn that Ken has been injured for over a year, and while in a tremendous amount of pain still, has been resistant to proper rehabilitation due to his insecurities of being half a man. Against his will, he is put in a large ward with the rest of the paraplegic vets, where they offer him no pity or sympathy. Against his protests, he is reunited with Ellen, where the emotions run fluidly through the scene, and insecurities are laid bare. Ellen fights with and for Ken, and soon we see his spirits rise. The next day, we see him struggle to pull himself up in his bed, and when he passes out from the effort, we see Norm (his neighbor in the ward) help him come to and then crank his bed up to the sitting position. What happens for the next while can only be described as the wheelchair version of the Rocky training montage, with scenes of Ken learning to sit up, lifting weights, and shimmying up a rope.

The emotional journey towards recovery after personal tragedy is also well covered in this film. We see Ken start to open up, and his reaching out to his fellow vets. He makes personal connections with the people around him, and his confidence grows as he realizes he still has many physical capabilities. We also see the relationship between him and Ellen build up. It is at first hesitant, but we soon see him outside waiting for her, and we see them stealing a kiss. I want to focus on that for a second actually- I feel like it was a perfect example of Brando’s realism in films.  If you’ve ever seen an old movie, the kisses often shared are very, for lack of a better word, smash-y. Highly frantic, faces and bodies pressed against each other in desperation, the actors oft look like they are attempting to devour each other, even in casual greeting between lovers. In this film however, we see Ken roll down to Ellen, she leans in, they share a very relaxed and real kiss, and the scene rolls on. It’s the kind of kiss we’ve all seen and shared ourselves. Anyways, we see them continue to evolve and grow as a couple overcoming adversity, and we see Ken learning to hope again.

There is a pivotal scene in a restaurant, where the couple are on a date, and due to Ken being in a wheelchair, they are given a table ahead of the people already waiting. In the restaurant, the people at the other tables can’t help but to stare, and Ken grows irritated and embarrassed, and insists they leave without eating and go to somewhere familiar where people know them. In the car, a conversation ensues, where Ellen reveals her frustrations about being together for six years and not being married, and Ken expresses worry about her pitying him more than actually loving him, again. It is however decided that yes, they are going to get married. We then see yet another wheelchair Rocky montage, this time with basketball and water polo. Ken is determined to stand up at his wedding, with the help of leg braces of course.

The wedding occurs, and on the wedding night, the couple’s deepest insecurities are revealed, resulting in an immediate breakdown and somewhat violent confrontation (no, there isn’t a Chris Brown moment if that’s what you’re thinking). Needless to say, some of Ken’s private anger and insecurities come boiling to a head, leading to violent outbursts and inappropriate behavior, but everything works out in the end, and the audience is left with a sense of hope for Ken and Ellen.

Overall, I would say it was a damn good movie. It’s a story that isn’t told often, and therefore highly unique. The acting here is superb, and shows the power and the range of a young Brando. Along with genuine and often painful emoting, the physicality of his performance is on the mark. There is a shot where he is seen crawling on the ground during rehabilitation, and the way he carries himself  and pulls himself along as sweat goes down his face is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. As the foremost example of the method acting technique, and coming off a highly successful two year run on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando allegedly spent a month living in the ward with the vets of the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. He learned the ropes of using a wheelchair, went to therapy with them, and socialized with them. The vets didn’t know who he was, but after the third week, he confessed why he was there, promising to tell their story the best he could, and some of them began to confide in him. The hard work paid off, as there isn’t a single moment of disbelief in the film.

There are a few very basic elements to a good movie: a quality story, great acting, and competent direction. Luckily, for The Men, all three elements are at play. The film is by no means perfect, and overall isn’t ‘great’, but it is good, even in 2011.  If you have an opportunity to, I would recommend watching it. Thumbs up.

LIFE Archive pictures of Brando in The Men and more information

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"He's an angel as a man and a monster as an actor."
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