Brando makes his film debut in this earnest but realistic drama about paraplegic war veterans
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Marlon Brando (Ken Wilocek), Teresa Wright (Ellen), Everett Sloane (Dr Brock), Jack Webb (Norm), Richard Erdman (Leo), Arthur Jurado (Angel), Virginia Farmer (Nurse Robbins)
The Men opens with a thoughtful dedication to the two wars many soldiers have fought: the first with weapons, the second “with abiding faith and raw courage” against the physical and emotional consequences of the first. Fred Zinnemann’s documentary-influenced The Men takes a careful look at how the impact of that second war at a paraplegic veterans hospital. Ken Wilocek (Marlon Brando, in his film debut) is a former college sports star now confined to a wheelchair and struggling to adjust. His fiancé Ellen (Teresa Wright) is still eager to marry – but are either of them ready for the difficulties Ken will have adjusting his life?
The biggest strength of The Men – aside from its realist lack of flash – is how it avoids easy answers to big questions. Sure, Carl Foreman’s script has a tendency to lean into a mix of relationship drama and information film. But in looking at Ellen and Ken’s wedding night (and, in a neat visual metaphor of a misfiring champagne bottle, their likely sex lives), The Men is coldly realistic. Ellen might be largely presented as a picture-perfect ideal woman – but even she is freaked out by Ken’s squeaky wheelchair, twitching leg, implied impotence and the thought of what she has let herself in for.
That’s as nothing to the self-loathing fury – directed into rage at Ellen – Ken feels. This man who defined himself by machismo and physicality, who labours for weeks to stand upright so he can get married at the alter (it’s a sign of the film’s avoidance of easy solutions that, despite this, Ken still falls over at the alter) suddenly realises that he will always be partially dependent on his wife for simple tasks. He’ll never be the provider he expected to be – and he’ll never be able to fulfil some of his wife’s sexual needs. A proud man, no wonder the realisation throws him into depression.
It’s moments like this when Zinnemann’s film is at its strongest. It’s a film surprisingly frank and (for the time) daring about the emotional and physical consequences of war injury. Everett Sloane’s impassioned doctor is introduced warning wives and mothers about the consequences of paraplegia and the difficulties emotionally, physically and (he all but says) sexually they will have – but he might as well be talking direct to the camera informing the audience.
ZInnemann’s film, in a dispassionate but respectful way shows the process of rehabilitation, its strengths and its weaknesses. From physical training to the difficult emotional adjustments. The film used several real-life veterans – including Arthur Jurado in a key role as a Latino paraplegic holding onto optimism – and worked closely with hospital medical staff (some of whom appear as themselves). There is a solid sense of respectful realism about the whole thing. (You can feel the hand of producer Stanley Kramer.)
He’s also helped hugely by a powerful, committed and complex performance from Brando in the lead role. Making his first film, Brando astounded Zinnemann and the crew with his commitment. Effectively Brando “learned” to be paraplegic, forming deep friendships with the veterans (far more allegedly than with his fellow actors). His performance is a searing collection of contradictions. Ken is boyish, eager and lets excitement flash across his face when playing sports or driving an adjusted car for the first time. But he’s just as apt to be surly, resentful and bitter, to snap at those trying to help him and furious at the failings his own body have forced on him.
It comes to a head at that disastrous wedding night. Brando struggles with a growing realisation of his dependence and helplessness and his face flares with the pained recognition that this is in no way the wedding night be imagined. Throughout much of the film he is desperate to cling to any chance of recovery – from imagining sensation in his legs to furious workouts to build his upper body strength to help him pretend he still has fully functioning limbs. It’s a fabulous performance, a slice of realism and humanity, underplayed with an everyday casualness.
It does mean Teresa Wright at times looks a little more actorly as Ellen. To be fair to Wright, her part is saddled with the most conventional plot arcs and scenes, of romantic devotion mixed with sudden doubts. (It’s not helped by Dimitri Tiomkin’s overly emphatic themes for her character, that do their best to do all the work for the audience). Her scenes tend to have the air of the infomercial about them, as Ellen debates disabilities with Dr Brock and her doubting parents. Foreman’s dialogue also tends to lean a little too much into “I’ll love you Ken, no matter what” territory.
The Men is at its weakest when it looks at societal integration. For all the quality of Brando and the low-key sensitivity of Zinnemann’s direction, this ends up being a lighter, less impactful version of Wyler’s astounding The Best Years of Our Lives. Brando plays a combination of Dana Andrews’ and Harold Russell’s characters from that film, but The Men never hits the same heights of universal experience and pain as that film does. (Teresa Wright basically plays the same role here as she did opposite Dana Andrews). It’s just a little too low-key, a bit too documentary.
When away from the medical, there is a lack of inspiration and poetry from The Men. It gains a lot from Brando’s performance, but without him it would feel more like a Government infomercial. When it hits drama, for all its daring, it never manages to fully turn itself into something more than a traditional romance-against-the-odds. It has its heart in the right place, but it feels like a companion piece to better films than a classic in its own right.