Kings Go Forth


There are simple, straightforward war movies, there are also films which see their stories played out against a backdrop of war, and then there are what I can only describe as genre hybrids. Kings Go Forth (1958) is one of those hybrids; it is not a full on war movie, meaning the plot is not driven solely, or even principally, by the battle scenes or the military strategy, yet these aspects are not relegated to the merely incidental either. In brief, it is a movie dealing with personal and social conflicts, all presented within the wider framework of the latter stages of the Second World War.

Not all wars are created equal, are they? While D-Day and the invasion of Northern France grabbed the headlines, and continues to garner attention, it is easy to forget that the drama and tragedy of WWII was also being played out in other theaters. Kings Go Forth unfolds in the south of the country where the US forces are in the process of trying to clear out the remaining pockets of Nazi resistance. Sam Loggins (Frank Sinatra) is a lieutenant in need of a new radio operator for his outfit. His voice-over narration in these early scenes make it clear that Britt Harris (Tony Curtis), the man who talks his way into the role, is a figure who will loom large in the subsequent events. He is brash and cocky, sure of himself yet essentially unknowable to others. Right from the beginning, Sam is aware that what is presented is largely a facade, an image offered up for public consumption with the goal of ensuring that what Britt wants, Britt gets. An apparently contradictory figure, he joined the army only as a last resort, having tried to bribe the draft board, but is not averse to indulging in showy heroics – dragging wounded men from a treacherous minefield, or braving machine gun fire to neutralize a pillbox. In short, as Sam himself noted at the outset, he is a man you notice. Well, it takes all kinds to make a world and the various peculiarities of character need not trouble anyone too much. Or that’s the way it seems for a time.

While these two central characters are shown  in sharp relief, the contrast only becomes an issue with the arrival on the scene of Monique (Natalie Wood). She was born an American, brought to Europe by her parents as a child, and is now practically a Frenchwoman. When Sam chances upon her during an impromptu leave he is smitten on the spot. He sees her again, and falls a little further, and all the while Monique remains half a step removed, charming and charmed yet cool. An evening in a cafe, where the wine and jazz form a potent cocktail has Britt meeting this pair, and so the final decisive point of the triangle is fixed in place. By the by, the reason for Monique’s reticence is revealed to be largely the product of her uncertainty of how Americans will react to her mixed race heritage. Sam is gradually accepting of this, having first forced himself to confront the prejudices he once entertained, but Monique finds herself dazzled by the glamor Britt seems to represent. In the end, the story boils down to a question of character and how it manifests itself. On an evening that promises death or glory deep in the enemy’s stronghold, truth emerges as the victor, but it is perhaps a bitter victory.

It has been some time since I last featured a movie from Delmer Daves. Over the years, I have developed a deep appreciation of this director and I count him among one of my favorites. His sympathetic handling of multifaceted and flawed characters caught up in situations which were correspondingly complex shows great maturity and I find his reluctance to sit in judgement enormously refreshing. Characters may be idealized by others within their world, but the viewer is presented with them as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. There is something soulful yet reassuring in the frank admission of imperfection and frailty; this is a filmmaker who not only understood but embraced humanity and sought to celebrate all its aspects. For me, such characteristics define the artist.

Kings Go Forth came in the middle of a particularly productive period in Frank Sinatra’s screen career. Some Came Running, The Joker is Wild and Pal Joey were all made in and around this time. It’s a fine performance, restrained, largely dialed down and frequently internalized. There is a good deal of pain in Sam Loggins, a hard-bitten personal diffidence riding side by side with a professional assurance, a tricky balance to achieve. I very much appreciate how the easy option of having the leading man simply do the right thing without thought was avoided, how he was made to look his own racial prejudices square in the face and acknowledge them for what they were. Perhaps we’re not talking redemption in the classical sense, but it is a matter of decency won after a hard battle, and the ending of the movie, in all its bittersweet melancholy and tantalizing optimism, is all the better for it. Nor is Natalie Wood asked to play any one-dimensional angel. Her hunger for acceptance draws her deep into a damaging and worthless relationship, blinding her to the artifice which is burrowing its way into her heart. It is an honest piece of work and, as with all forms of honesty, not always attractive. Tony Curtis is well cast too, coasting along on looks, style and polished patter, but never able to completely sell the lie to himself. As he sits in the clock tower with Sinatra, feeling the chill breath of fate creeping closer, his openness about his complete absence of character is very well realized – to watch him at this moment is to watch a man gazing deep within himself, and being appalled at the emptiness that he discovers. And finally, a word for Leora Dana, who is characteristically touching as Wood’s mother. If the only movies she had ever made were this one, 3:10 to Yuma and Some Came Running, then it would still constitute a fine career.

Kings Go Forth was an early release on DVD by MGM and looked good enough even though it was presented open-matte. There was a Blu-ray release by Twilight Time but I think that’s been out of print for some time now. However, there is a fine Blu-ray available in Germany, English-friendly, widescreen and generally very attractive. I freely admit that I am an unashamed fan of the work of Delmer Daves and I am well aware that this may color my view of his films. That said, I think Kings Go Forth is a terrific little movie and it comes highly recommended.

35 thoughts on “Kings Go Forth

  1. A very interesting piece, Colin, on a film I have never seen. It is one of only a fairly small number of Delmer Daves’ films that I haven’t seen actually. His name resonates with me principally for some very fine westerns he made in the 1950s but actually when I looked deeper into his filmography some years ago I realised how many of his films of different genres had made their mark with me.
    Frank Sinatra, apart from being one of the greatest popular vocalists ever, was also a very fine actor.

    That MGM DVD can still be sourced and I am looking at sending for it very seriously based upon both my appreciation for Daves’ work coupled with your recommendation which goes a long way with me.

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    • I very much like the feeling that I take away from viewing Daves’ films. It’s hard to put into words exactly but there’s an appreciation of people as people, a focus on the positives of humanity, even when (or maybe we could say especially when) those qualities have to be worked on to be drawn out. His westerns highlight this very successfully of course, but it’s a sensibility which runs right through his oeuvre, in my opinion.
      I think you’d like the movie, Jerry, if you are able to get your hands on a copy.

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  2. Really enjoyed reading this, thanks Colin. I am a big Daves fan but had pretty much forgotten about this one entirely. Must be close to 40 years since I last saw this and realise now I remember very little. Look forward to more pieces on this fine filmmaker!

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  3. I’ve not seen the film but recall some nice Elmer Bernstein music from the soundtrack album.

    The title intrigues me. Is it explained in the movie? I assume it is a deliberate echo of 2 Samuel 11: “In the spring, when kings go forth to battle, David sent Joab with his servants and all Israel, … But David tarried still at Jerusalem.” {KJV). This is the beginning of the disastrous episode with Bathsheba. It is often suggested that David’s initial fault is that he should have been off leading his army like a true king. Tarrying in his palace is what makes him vulnerable to temptation. Does the movie reflect that theme in any way?

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    • Good question. That will be the source of the title. The novel from which the movie was adapted may reflect it more, I don’t know. But, at a stretch, I suppose it could be said that it may refer to Sinatra’s slowness to act in the face of Curtis’s challenge. I do think that’s reaching s bit though.

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  4. Colin, I saw King’s Go Forth on its initial release, and never again. Memorable in every way and you do it justice. Oh, Sinatra towers above all, including the fine supporting cast.

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  5. A very fine review, Colin and a lovely appreciation of Daves’ work, which makes me want to find this movie and others of his. I like your acknowledgment of Leora Dana’s performances. In 3 10 she is exceptional and the camera simply adores her face.

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    • I’d certainly recommend trying out more Delmer Daves films if you’ve not had the chance to see many – I still need to catch up on some too. He remains a somewhat underrated director but really shouldn’t be.

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  6. I have not seen this but I did see the trailer of this while waiting for the screening of a movie then. On checking imdb, I found that Party Girl (1958) could be the movie that was screening at that time.

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  7. Kings do indeed go forth on their way to me. Ordered today! Based entirely on the elegant and enticing writing on your part, Colin.

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  8. The only time I ever seen this one was back in the late 70s. Going off your write-up I figure a re-watch is in order. I love how you keep hitting the buttons on these films I had forgotten all about.

    Thanks you very much for the reminders.

    Gordon

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  9. Colin, good write-up of a once controversial movie. KINGS GO FORTH(filmed 1957, released 1958) was controversial for its time, because of the issue of miscegenation. That said, the movie was successful at the box office and I recall that it later was shown during tv network prime time four times, first on CBS-TV in 1966 and 1967 and later on NBC-TV in 1970. Most movies that aired on network tv received two prime time showings, although some received more, before being licensed for local tv airings. I remember that it was shown quite a lot on local tv and later on cable tv during the 1970’s and ’80’s.

    I first viewed KINGS GO FORTH on the NBC TUESDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES in 1970. I liked it and it was a movie that stuck with me. I thought the storyline was interesting and I enjoyed the actors and actresses performances. Also, the beautiful photography of Daniel L. Fapp. It is an unusual War movie for that time period, because as you say so well here, “There are simple, straightforward war movies, there are also films which see their stories played out against a backdrop of war, and then there are what I can only describe as genre hybrids.” Yes, and this is a good hybrid that places emphasis on the human condition.

    KINGS GO FORTH attempts to directly confront racism and bigotry and I think it does, as far as the Motion Picture Production Code would allow in 1957-58. Credit should be given to novelist Joe David Brown’s 1956 novel of the same name(which I haven’t read); producer Frank Ross; screenwriter Merle Miller; director Delmer Daves; and actor Frank Sinatra for getting this movie made. I don’t want to give away too much, because Jerry Entract and others haven’t viewed the movie yet, but I will say that this movie had problems with state and local censorship boards, not only because of the subject matter, but because of some of the dialogue. I checked to see if the movie played in Memphis, Tennessee in 1958 and it did. The notorious Memphis censor Lloyd T. Binford had retired as of January 1, 1956, but his presence was still being felt and that is why I think that some of the dialogue was probably sniped for its Memphis showing. Also, it wasn’t just in Memphis that snipping of film was done, because of censors.

    KINGS GO FORTH has a lot going for it and is well worth viewing. Colin, thank you for triggering my memory about the movie and causing me to pull out my dvd of it and viewing it once again.

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    • Firstly, it’s good to know you were motivated to give the movie another viewing after reading this, I find that most gratifying.

      Daves was especially good in movies where matters of race and identity play a prominent role. He not only had empathy but also had a solid understanding of the al the complexities and nuances of these stories and this rounded view he brings to the table which makes viewing his films so satisfying. The western afforded excellent opportunities for exploring these themes, as well as a broader and more general interest in characters who were very aware of themselves yet not always entirely comfortable in themselves. And while the western presented a fine canvas for such material, he was able to weave it into his forays into other genres too.

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      • Colin, I agree about the top-notch movie director Delmer Daves, because he has been a favorite of mine ever since before I knew who he was by name. I remember viewing on tv JUBAL(filmed 1955, released 1956) and THE HANGING TREE(filmed 1958, released 1959) as a youngster, before I began keeping up with who directed what. These two Western Movies stuck in my brain, because they were about the human condition and isn’t that what life is all about. Also, it doesn’t hurt any, if the movies are entertaining, which they are.

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  10. Films for the weekend
    BLOOD ALLEY 1955 Duke
    LORNA DOONE 1951 Richard Green, Barbara Hale
    LILIES OF THE FIELD 1963 I thought something with the just passed Sidney Poitier was in order.

    Have a good weekend all

    Gord

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    • Gordon, those are good picks for viewing, especially LILLIES OF THE FIELD(filmed 1962, released 1963) in which Sidney Poitier received an Academy Award for best actor.

      Sidney Poitier really liked Western Movies, fact is the very first movie he ever saw was a Western. Poitier was ten-and-half-years-old in 1937 when he saw it and he wanted to go to Hollywood to become a cowboy, because as a youngster, he thought that was where he had to go to become a cowboy. He finally did his first Western DUEL AT DIABLO(filmed 1965, released 1966) and on the cover of THIS LIFE(1980), his autobiography, is a photo of him from DUEL AT DIABLO.

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        • Jerry, as you know. I like this type of information, because I think it enhances the movie viewing experience.

          The first movie that Sydney Poitier directed was the Western Movie BUCK AND THE PREACHER(filmed 1971, released 1972), which I think is a good Western and well worth viewing. Poitier also starred in the Western Mini-Series CHILDREN OF THE DUST(filmed 1994, aired 1995 on CBS-TV), which I think is worth viewing because of Sydney Poitier’s performance. I wish Poitier had made more Westerns, because he was good in them.

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