“The Young Lions” (1958)

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Co-stars: Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Barbara Rush, Hope Lange, Maximilian Schell

Awards: Nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role

Character: Lt. Christian Diestl

The film opens with a handsome, young German ski instructor/shoemaker skiing in the Bavarian mountains with a beautiful American woman. It is New Year’s Eve in 1938, and he is more or less carefree and politically unaware.  He convinces the young American woman to spend the evening with him, even though she has a fiance. That night in the ballroom, after the clock strikes midnight, the Germans in the room start up with rousing Nazi songs, and the woman retreats to the deck, visibly shaken. The young German follows, and inquires what is wrong. She expresses her fear and distaste of Hitler and his influence, and confused, the young man claims to not be political. He does however think that Hitler could be good for Germany, liberating them from the tithes and taxes of the Allied powers of WWI. He states a desire to avoid war, but a belief that if it is necessary to secure peace he will support a war. The young lady leaves him standing on the deck, bewildered.

A few years later, and on the other side of the world, two men are called to the draft board, and they are both to be certified 1-A. Michael Whiteacre is a Broadway and radio star, and a self-admitted coward. He fears the war, and will do anything to avoid the front. He is engaged to Margaret Freemantle, the young woman skiing in Bavaria early in the film. While filing an appeal to the draft board, he is introduced to Noah Ackerman, a young Jewish man without a family who cannot think of any reason to not head for the front.  Whiteacre invites Ackerman to a party later that night at his house, where he introduces him to Hope Plowman. They fall in love, and after the blessing of her anti-Semitic father (who had never met a Jew before), they are married. At training camp, Ackerman is subjected to bullying and prejudice based upon his size and his religion, by both his commanding officer and by fellow men in his company. After 20 dollars is stolen from his footlocker, he challenges the men who did it to a series of fights, where Whiteacre acts as his second, and he is badly beaten. After Whiteacre attempts to intervene, his commanding officer tells him that he has been summoned from his post to Washington, where he will have a safe and cushy job, but only if the officer approves. That night, Ackerman wins his last fight against the bigots, but then deserts his company out of fear. After being caught, he has the choice to go to jail or go to war, and after learning his wife is expecting a child, he heads off to battle. His commanding officer is issued a court-martial for his bigotry towards Ackerman and for mismanaging his company.  Whiteacre heads to Washington and then to London for the easy job, and Ackerman wins the respect of his company.

The young German man is now Lieutenant Christian Diestl, reluctantly stationed in Paris. There, he meets a beautiful French woman, Francoise, who initially despises him for being German, having lost her husband as a result of German bombs. She angrily accosts him, demanding to know how many Frenchmen he has killed. After truthfully admitting to none, she settles, and apologizes for her reaction. They end up spending the evening together, and promise that after the war they will find one another again.

After “arresting” a young Jewish boy from his home to fill his “work duties”, Christian asks for a transfer somewhere that he is not forced to arrest children. Disgusted with his attitude, Captain Hardenberg tells him he to shape up, as thinking about things and questioning authority weakens an army. When screams are heard from the basement, Christian panics and searches for the sound. Hardenberg intervenes, and tells him he ought to shoot him for his insubordination, and that on the battlefield he would be within his rights to do so. After this, Hardenberg tells Christian that he is being sent to Berlin, and asks him to do a personal favor for him- deliver a gift to his wife and send his loving regards. Christian agrees, and upon arriving in Berlin, heads to the Captain’s home. There, he meets his beautiful wife Gretchen, who invites him in for a drink and to relax while she is out with military friends. After she returns, she finds Christian passed out with a bottle of vodka. She seduces him, and promises to pull strings for him to be transferred out of police work in Paris.

His next post is in North Africa, under the command of Captain Hardenberg once again. Hardenberg is a cruel Nazi, who believes in the military and in their mission. Behind British lines, Christian and him work out a plot to move past the British ahead of them. Waiting for the sun to be in their eyes, the Germans bomb and shoot the British, until there is no more movement. Christian orders a ceasefire, but Hardenberg, angered by the fact that the order did not come from him, orders the company to open fire over the zone for another 60 seconds. Disgusted, Christian and the other men move into the space the British occupied. Hardenberg orders them to kill all of the wounded, as they cannot take any prisoners and can’t have their positions given away. When a man who hasn’t been wounded emerges, Christian refuses to shoot him, even after a direct order from Hardenberg. Sneering, Hardenberg pulls a pistol from his belt and shoots the man dead.

Later, higher up German army officials come to the North African front to warn the men that their position is slipping, and to expect an attack from the British shortly. Nearly immediately after the speech, the British are upon them, and Christian and Hardenberg barely escape. Exhausted, they escape the British fire on a motorbike together. What ensues is the funniest moment in the entire film, if your sense of humor is dark and has room for Nazis.

After their accident, Christian emerges unscathed. Hardenberg, however, has his entire face more or less destroyed. As Christian visits him in the hospital, he tells him of his plans to join politics after his face is fixed, as he believes it will serve as a great reminder of the sacrifice he made for his people. He then asks Christian to send his well wishes to his wife when he is in Berlin next, as he won’t be able to leave the hospital for six months. Christian agrees, and as he goes to leave, Hardenberg requests that Christian bring him a bayonet. Horrified, Hardenberg assures its for the man in the next bed, who has no more hands or face and cannot bear to go on living. Reluctantly, Christian agrees. In Berlin, he visits Gretchen, who informs him that Hardenberg has killed himself with a bayonet. She attempts to seduce him again, but Christian knocks her away in disgust.

While in Berlin, he runs into his friend that introduced him to Francoise. The friend convinces him to drive him to Paris so he can make his next post, and so as to see his French girlfriend again. He tells Christian that the girls are now living together, and invites him for dinner with them. Reunited, Francoise comments on the fact that Christian is no longer the same man. Tired and nearly spiritually defeated, he informs her that war has changed him. Christian’s friend informs him of his intentions to desert, of which Christian does not object. Francoise tries to convince him to desert as well, but he leaves in the middle of the night, because even though he loves her, he is still a German solider. However, as he continues to battle for Germany, he comes across a concentration camp while he is in pursue of food and drink, separated from his company. It is there that he learns the true horrors of the German army and the Third Reich, and we see in an instant a man changed forever.

At the time of it’s release, The Young Lions was not considered a triumph for Brando so much as it was for Clift and Martin. Based on a book of the same name, Christian was initially conceived as a good man turned evil by the Third Reich and the war. After Brando’s insistence, he goes from a good if ignorant man into someone broken and changed by the evil and sickening inhumanities around him. It even caused a public clash between Brando and the novel’s writer, Irwin Shaw. Ultimately, either portrait of Christian would have worked equally well as an anti-war statement, which this movie is. However, by humanizing “the bad guy”, Brando was able to get under the skin of many people. The film was released only 14 years after the war, and the wounds and the horrors were still felt. We now know that not every German was a card carrying, Hitler loving Nazi. Many people simply weren’t aware of what was happening in their country (entirely plausible if you stop to think of how many politically unaware people you yourself know), and most of the men were drafted into battle, much like the Americans portrayed by Clift and Martin. However, in the 1950’s, as The Cold War was still in the beginning stages and the war was yet a fresh wound, Nazis and German soldiers were synonymous. Brando’s performance was maligned, and considered to soft and gently by many. Watching it 52 years later however, it is a nuanced and honest performance of a man torn between loyalty to  his country and his own personal morality.

This is a film mammoth in length, scope, and talent. All three leading men steal the spotlight from one another in equal turns (even though I have neither the energy nor time to break down each of the plot lines) , but ultimately, it is the audience that wins. Beautiful photography and great performances all around make this a great feature to this day. Some people feel that Brando was miscast, but I disagree, his German accent is spot on and he looks the part (he is of German descent himself- his last name is an Americanization of ‘Brandau’). I wouldn’t be surprised if this sees the remake treatment at some point. Thumbs up.

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1 Response to ““The Young Lions” (1958)”

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