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.