—A Solid War Dramedy—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Richard Brooks
Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) deals with the stress of being a surgeon during the Korean war by drinking heavily and bedding nurses. When Lieutenant Ruth McGara (June Allyson) is assigned to his mobile hospital, he begins to fall in love even though he knows he doesn’t want a long term commitment.
What I Thought
This is the second Richard Brooks film that I’ve reviewed for the blog, the first being Deadline U.S.A., and the man is clearly a talented and very competent director.
Battle Circus is another one of those films that I found entirely watchable and very entertaining, despite the fact that the critics have been a little hard on it. No, the chemistry between Bogart and Allyson doesn’t click as well as it could have. Yes, Director Brooks can get a little lost in the minutia of the hospital’s daily grind.
But I think what was so exciting to me about this film, was that it must have been an influence on Richard Hooker’s novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, and surely a subtle influence on Alan Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on the subsequent television series. The number of similarities between Battle Circus and all the incarnations of MASH that followed are overwhelming:
The Korean War is treated with humor . . .
There’s a surgeon who keeps above the stress with booze and women . . .
A hospital crew bends over backwards to save a dying Korean boy . . .
Surgeons and nurses deal with an enemy soldier who has a grenade in the O.R . .
A surgeon massages a patient’s heart until it beats again . . .
I think a great double feature would be to pair Battle Circus with Robert Altman’s MASH, and then perhaps even top it off with the first episode of the television series. While Battle Circus might not be in Bogart’s top ten, it’s certainly solid enough to warrant a viewing by any Bogart or classic film fan.
The Bogart Factor
Bogart plays the line between drama and comedy perfectly. Major Jed Webbe is a slightly different spin on his dismissive and fatalistic role of Sgt. Joe Gunn from Sahara. I love the fact that Director Brooks and Bogart didn’t hold back in making Webbe look like an unabashed cad – having Bogart trying to romance Allyson in the back of a moving truck alongside other nurses with whom he’s surely tried the same moves before.
While the script is flawed, this is a good solid Bogart fix. A. Sperber’s Bogart bio Bogart talked a lot about how he really wanted to serve in the military beyond his stint in WWI, and his roles as service men were the best contribution that he could make. He always does his military roles justice, playing the scenes for honesty and pain, especially in the roles where he might not have been the perfect bright and shiny soldier.
So Battle Circus isn’t a groundbreaking film and it occasionally dips into wartime cliché? So what? It’s good Bogart, and if there were another dozen movies like it added to his filmography, I wouldn’t complain.
June Allyson plays Bogart’s love interest, Lt. Ruth McGara. Her chemistry pales in comparison to some of Bogart’s previous leading ladies, but Allyson is still very good in the role. I can never get enough of that smoky voice coming out of that cute and naïve looking face. Allyson does very well here playing the part of an overwhelmed nurse caught up in the middle of a horrifying situation. Her scene with the Korean soldier and the grenade is one of the best in the film.
Keenan Wynn plays Bogart’s right hand man, Sgt. Orvil Statt. I loved Wynn in the role, and he added a lot of heart in his side story with the wounded Korean boy. This film certainly made me want to check out the rest of his filmography.
Robert Keith plays Bogart’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Hilary Whalters. (IMDB lists it as “Walters” despite the film’s credits spelling it “Whalters.”) Keith is good here as the tough-but-understanding CO, and I have no doubt that the role of Henry Potter from the television series dipped a little bit into this character’s bucket for Harry Morgan’s portrayal.
Classic Bogie Moment
There are lots of great little bits of classic Bogart humor throughout the film – not the least of which is his facial reaction when Allyson mentions the word “marriage.” But one of the quick little scenes that stuck with me the most happens early in the film when Bogart is helping to load a wounded soldier onto a chopper near enemy lines. As he’s helping the soldier into the cockpit, machine gun fire draws a line in dirt just a few feet behind him. Bogart turns, quickly and coolly, back to glance at the bullet spray before carrying on with his job.
The man could show a wonderful grace and nonchalance under pressure!
The Bottom Line
Like Sahara? You’ll like this. Plus, who can ever get enough of June Allyson?!?