Bright Lights Film Journal

Combat Autopsy: Raoul Walsh’s <em>The Naked and the Dead</em>

“What is most disturbing about all of this is the straight, uninflected manner in which Walsh visualizes the story.”

Writers on film rarely discuss the combat genre and, when they do, they tend to confine their observations to a short list of “official” classics – The Big Parade (1925), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Paths of Glory (1957), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) – films which, for the most part, take an unambiguous anti-war stance. It is relatively easy to be anti-war when the wars in question are the economically motivated World War I, or our unfortunate debacle in Vietnam.

Hollywood films concerning World War II are apparently harder to deal with, probably because WWII itself is, in retrospect, harder to deal with. What modern critic would be caught dead celebrating the gung-ho glories of Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)? (If you are truly inclined to celebrate combat, make sure your story takes place in the safely distant past.) Yet WWII is still generally perceived as a just war, and few but the most committed pacifists – or right-wing neo-Nazis – would contend that Hitler (Evil Adolph) was not worth fighting. Among the few recognized WWII classics, John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), Anthony Mann’s Men in War (1957), and Samuel Fuller’s The Big, Red One (1980) are prized mainly as examples of the auteurist cinema of Ford, Mann, and Fuller. For Ford, WWII was just one more chapter in the ongoing saga of America’s history/destiny; for Anthony Mann, another opportunity to express his bleak noir vision. Among the three, only Sam Fuller was/is centrally preoccupied with war in general, and WWII in particular.

Raoul Walsh

You will search in vain for a serious discussion of Raoul Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). Reviewers who mention it at all typically dismiss it as “a third-rate action movie” (Pauline Kael). Yet The Naked and the Dead sticks in the mind precisely BECAUSE it is so profoundly ambivalent about war.

The Naked and the Dead was based on a novel by Norman Mailer, considered by some to be the finest novel written about WWII. It was originally supposed to have been the second film directed by the great Charles Laughton, a follow-up to his masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). No doubt Laughton would have taken an unambiguously anti-war point of view. Unfortunately for us all, Night of the Hunter failed at the box office, and Laughton was never allowed to direct again.

The choice of Raoul Walsh to direct The Naked and the Dead guaranteed negative reviews, even before the film was shot. Walsh was, after all, an action filmmaker, best known for his exuberant direction of Errol Flynn in stories of macho camaraderie (Gentleman Jim, They Died with Their Boots On) and exploits behind enemy lines (Desperate Journey). Furthermore, a novel as long and complex as The Naked and the Dead would have to be greatly shortened and simplified in order to create a commercial movie, so why bother?

What was not taken into account was Walsh’s dark side, his unblinking, matter-of-fact treatment of criminal psychosis in films like The Roaring Twenties (1939), the noir Western Pursued (1947), and – especially – James Cagney’s over-the-top performance as the psychopathic Cody Jarrett in Walsh’s greatest film, White Heat (1949). Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead shows us war as psychosis on a grand scale, affecting everyone from General Cummings (Raymond Massey) on down to Sergeant Croft (Aldo Ray) and the enlisted men who idolize him. The only important character who comes across as not-psychotic is the Kennedyesque Lieutenant Hearn, played by Cliff Robertson, the film’s nominal hero.

Robertson may be the hero of the piece, but most of the film’s energies are invested in the characterization of Aldo Ray’s crazed Sgt. Croft. Clearly, there was a part of Walsh that identified with this character. The plot is essentially this: Hearn (Robertson), an idealistic lieutenant from an upper-class back ground, is sent to the Pacific to work as an attaché under General Cummings (Massey). When instead of kissing the old man’s ass, he dares to voice a criticism based on ethical grounds, he is hastily shipped to the front lines to “supervise” the out-of-control Sgt. Croft (Ray). Croft has no use for supervision of any kind, much less supervision from a snotty lieutenant who disapproves of such established practices as prying the gold teeth out of dead Japanese soldiers. Croft plots with his enlisted men cronies (a rogues’ gallery of disturbed character-types, including Richard Jaeckel, James Best, and L.Q. Jones) to take out Lt. Hearn by shooting him in the back during one of their missions. Of course, everything turns out alright in the end.

What is most disturbing about all of this is the straight, uninflected manner in which Walsh visualizes the story. It is as though Walsh was simply handed the script with all of its dark, subversive elements, and he proceeded to direct it the same way he would direct any other action film. Yet, to give the director credit, it is abundantly clear based on the evidence of Pursued, White Heat, et al. that Walsh knew psychosis when he saw it. The bottom line is that Walsh’s strategy, conscious or not, works.

Mad magazine during the ’50s (about the same time this film was made) used to run a recurring feature called “Scenes We’d Like to See” in which various cinematic clichés were humorously inverted. (E.g., A gladiator, beloved by the Emperor’s daughter, fights nobly against various opponents, including a lion. Does he prevail? Nope – the lion eats him.) Some of the sequences in Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead have that same twisted quality. Example: Sgt. Croft has to lead his men across a narrow ledge along the side of a steep mountain. The ledge is barely wide enough for one man. Upon seeing it, one of Croft’s company, the token Jew (Joey Bishop!), freezes. The tough sergeant tries to get him to cross the ledge by taunting him. He calls him a coward. He calls him a kike! Angered, the man starts forward and – naturally – falls to his doom.

The Naked and the Dead is liberally sprinkled with flashbacks in which the characters recall their civilian lives. In one of the flashbacks, Sgt. Croft remembers his marriage to a heartless stripper (Lili St. Cyr) with an exaggerated figure and a total lack of fidelity. Later, Croft has a quasi-hallucinatory episode in which he savagely bayonets a life-size effigy of his stripper wife. What is most remarkable about this episode, given the director and the time this film was made, is how it shows the psychosis of war to be rooted in the dynamics of machismo.

Even though this is a World War II film, faithful in most respects to the conventions of the combat genre, we hardly see the enemy. That’s because the real enemy is the psychological tensions within the soldiers themselves. Contributing mightily to that sense of invisible tension is the film’s musical score composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann. This was 1958, the same year in which Herrmann composed two of his greatest scores, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Herrmann becomes, in effect, a co-auteur of The Naked and the Dead, his music adding to numerous scenes a subtext which might not have been part of the director’s original intentions. The dissonance created in the minds of the audience between Walsh’s straightforward depiction of typical war film events (such as the landing of amphibious vehicles in the night) and Herrmann’s unabashedly deranged music is what gives The Naked and the Dead so much of its dark power.