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.
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.