Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Debut of: Marlon Brando, actor
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was a landmark Hollywood film. It marked the first time a widely popular film explored the realities of World War II combat veterans returning to life at home. Following three men from different backgrounds, the most touching was the story of young sweethearts Homer and Wilma. Homer, played by real armless veteran Harold Russell, must help Wilma (the always sweetly effective Cathy O’Donnell) understand how deformed his body is and how helpless he can be without his artificial arms. Wilma takes each revelation like a trouper, and we foresee a happy future for them because of their steadfast love and devotion. The film deservedly won seven Oscars, including the Best Picture Oscar.
The Men takes up a story similar to Homer and Wilma’s at an earlier point. Marlon Brando plays Ken “Bud” Wilcheck, an officer who becomes a paraplegic when he is shot in the spine. We see him prostrate on the ground, bullets whizzing around him but missing, and an interior monologue in which he relates that he can’t feel his legs. When next we see Bud, he is in a private room in a military hospital, feeling depressed and refusing to see his fiancée Ellen (Teresa Wright). He is in the care of Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane) who decides that he needs to get motivated to work toward discharge. Brock gives orders to move Bud into the general ward.
We’ve already been introduced to some of the denizens of the spinal injury ward. Wisecracking gambler Leo (Richard Erdman) spends much of his time on the phone with his bookie, placing bets on the horses and smoking cigars. Angel (Arthur Hurado) works out constantly so that he can return home and help support his mother and siblings. He’s got a build like a boxer and a heart like a champion. Rounding out the trio is Norm (Jack Webb), a college graduate with a mordant sense of humor and a bleak outlook on all of their prospects for attracting a wife and living normally in society at large.
When Bud arrives on the ward, he’s mainly interested in being left alone. Leo instantly starts in on him, turning his radio up to an ear-splitting level. Angel tries to call Leo off and encourage Bud. Norm simply cracks wise and wicked. This initiation seems to cut through Bud’s isolation, and he starts to consider his options.
At the same time, Ellen persists and finally succeeds in getting in to see Bud. He tries to send her away, but she insists that she still wants to marry him. With a goal of marriage and home in front of him, Bud starts to train alongside Angel with consistency and determination.
The Men was filmed at the Birmingham Paraplegic Hospital in Van Nuys, California, and includes real patients and caregivers. The film doesn’t shy away from some of the physical realities of paraplegia, such as incontinence, impotence, pain, and death. So, too, does it deal with the outside world in a fairly believable way—staring patrons at a restaurant to which Bud and Ellen go, the lack of ramps for Bud’s wheelchair, Ellen’s terror when she realizes that marriage to Bud will mean a lifetime of compromise and accommodation. The Men performs a public service by openly depicting the world of the injured veteran. Unfortunately, the subjects are discussed in a fairly antiseptic way by the mainly B-list cast, and the entire film has the air of noble blandness that you might expect from a Department of Defense educational film.
Only Marlon Brando, in his first screen appearance, makes this film a felt experience that’s worth your time. Everything Bud goes through is written on Brando’s face, from the first realization in the opening sequence that he can’t feel his legs, to the contained happiness that he might be regaining some feeling in his legs, to the conflicted anguish as he tries to go against his feelings and send Ellen away.
His legendary ability to build emotion internally to a well-timed crescendo is visible in virtually every frame. Compare Brando’s anger in the TV room where he rebuffs his fellow patients who ask him why he isn’t with Ellen on their wedding night and finally smashes the windows with a crutch, with Dr. Brock’s explosion at his patients who feel he has let them down. Sloane’s looks like a drama school exercise of his “big moment,” whereas Brando’s tears your heart out. It is no wonder his first screen outing was a starring role, and his next film, A Streetcar Named Desire, a reprisal of his Broadway triumph, made him into an international star.
In a recently premiered documentary, Brando, produced by Turner Classic Movies, many of today’s stars, including Al Pacino and Jon Voight, commented on how Brando completely changed their lives and determined the trajectory of their careers. It’s exciting to be able to see this force of nature emerge, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, to change movies forever.