The Young Lions (1958)

07 Jun

The Young Lions was supposed to be a turning point in the career of three men: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin. It turned out, however, that the only person it really helped was Dean Martin, who successfully made the transition from comedy to dramatic actor.

The story is taken from the novel by Irwin Shaw, though it feels a bit like two separate stories put into one film. One story follows Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando with blonde hair), a ski instructor and shoemaker who becomes a lieutenant in the German army during WWII. Initially, he is optimistic about Hitler, thinking he will make Germany strong and prosperous. But as he witnesses the horrors of war and the crimes of the army, he becomes increasingly troubled and disoriented, unsure of what his duty is.

Meanwhile, America is preparing for war. Both entertainer Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) and department store clerk Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) are drafted into the military. This part of the story initially feels like From Here to Eternity, with the Jewish Ackerman encountering antisemitism in his barracks and having to fight to earn acceptance. Eventually, however, both men end up in France and Germany, pushing back the German army, which is disintegrating.

The film culminates with the discovery – both by Diestl, who is wandering behind enemy lines, and Whiteacre and Ackerman – of a concentration camp, filled with starving people, and their attempts to grasp the full horror of it.

What is interesting about the film is that it does not deal with ideologies per se: Nazism, freedom. It comes off more like three men – who aren’t really that different from each other in terms of basic principles – who are not ideologically motivated. Mostly, what we hear from the German officers is the imperative of obeying orders, with a few who have qualms. In fact, it isn’t hard to imagine someone like Whiteacre or Ackerman fighting for the Germans (apart from the fact that Ackerman is Jewish). These are not guys fighting for any other reason than because they have been drafted and who’s loyalty is to their comrades.

Clift and Martin

In truth, Diestl comes off more like a pacifist than a man who specifically takes issue with the Nazi party line. He reacts negatively to the German occupation in Paris (I wonder what he would have made of Poland – France was mild in comparison) and seems more appalled by the cruelties of war than the specific crimes of Nazism.

All three men – Brando, Clift, and Martin – had high hopes for the film, but it doesn’t quite live up to all it could be. It feels, at times, like the story lacks cohesion or direction. Is a bit lethargic. But the actors themselves do well and were clearly giving it their all. Brando was seeking to revive his sagging box office appeal (which didn’t quite work) and probably has the most interesting role in the film.

The Young Lions was the first film Montgomery Clift made after having reconstructive surgery on his face after a terrible car accident. He was hoping also to make a comeback and perhaps even win an Academy Award, but sadly the reaction of most audiences was shock at his changed appearance and apparent ill health (he looks like someone who more likely would have been turned down by the draft board).

Dean Martin, however, was far more successful in achieving his goals. He had just broken up his partnership with Jerry Lewis and wanted to show that he was a viable dramatic actor. The very next year he would make Rio Bravo and receive much acclaim for his performance.

In The Young Lions, his more natural and laid back approach to acting is actually a very nice contrast to the method approach of Brando and Clift (who do not share a scene in the film, adding to the sense that we are watching two separate stories). Martin’s Whiteacre is a slightly spoiled singer and performer who thinks he is a coward. He spends part of the film hating himself for trying to get out of service, but eventually he conquers his fears in a sense of shared camaraderie.

He was actually fortunate to get the role. It was originally intended for Tony Randall, until it was decided that Randall was not suited for the part. Dean Martin, however, seems perfect.

This is my second contribution to the “Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon,” hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Be sure to read all the rest of the posts from days 1, 2, and 3 of the Blogathon!


Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

9 responses to “The Young Lions (1958)

  1. Grand Old Movies

    June 7, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    The Young Lions is one of those films that I’ve never been able to get past the first 20 minutes or so–I find it just doesn’t grip me (it might be that blond dye job on Brando also). However, I’d be interested in seeing Dean Martin in it, just for the chance to see how he stretches himself. He’s always so relaxed and insouciant onscreen, I’m curious as to how he’d handle heavy drama. Your review has piqued my interest!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      June 7, 2017 at 8:31 pm

      The blonde hair definitely took me aback. 🙂 Dean Martin’s character actually has the least to do of the three, but he didn’t seem out of place at all. I wouldn’t have minded finding out a bit about his character.

      Yeah, I know what you mean about it not quite gripping. It seems like it should grip more than it does and also feels like parts of the story are being left out.


  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    June 8, 2017 at 5:42 am

    The Young Lions and Edward Dmytryks’ previous picture Raintree County, both have that unwieldy quality you mentioned. They seem to be spinning out of control. I think the director got back on track with Warlock, but these two have me wondering what could have been, and what went wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      June 8, 2017 at 10:52 am

      That is interesting! I wonder if it’s trouble with the directing or trouble adapting the source material to film…or maybe both. I know what you mean…one feels it could have been a much more riveting film than it turned out to be, alas.


  3. maddylovesherclassicfilms

    June 8, 2017 at 8:10 am

    I thought Dean, Marlon and Monty were all excellent in this. The final scenes when they get to the camp are very powerful. I feel like this story would make a perfect miniseries. I felt like I was left wanting to spend more time with these characters and get to know more about them. Adapting this for the small screen might be/have been the better way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      June 8, 2017 at 11:10 am

      That would have been really cool! It does seem like some stories work so much better with a longer format.

      I so agree…it would have been nice and more satisfying to be able to see more of them, because the actors really make one curious and interested in their characters.


  4. Le

    June 9, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    This film was nice, but I felt it was too long. Indeed, Brando has the juiciest role, and made me wonder about how the German soldiers actually were: monsters who believed in nazism or simply men called to serve their country? Dean, of course, is very good, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      June 9, 2017 at 11:48 pm

      That is a really interesting question! I’ve wondered about something similar. And sometimes about what I would have done if I was a German during that time. It really gives one pause. I’d like to think I’d be heroic, but have a horrible feeling that I can’t make that assumption.

      Yeah…that’s a good point. It feels too short in some ways – like some plot is missing – and yet it also feels a bit long. I wonder how they could have resolved that. But it was interesting to see the cast!



What Are Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: