Nearly two decades before M.A.S.H., the Korean War romantic drama Battle Circus, starring Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson as a surgeon and nurse, covered much of the same territory. Indeed, the opening shots of a helicopter hovering above a landscape of tents looks uncannily familiar to any fan of the later film and TV series. This film was made while the war was still going on, and doesn’t quite have the sharp irreverence of the later takes on the conflict, but there are flashes of the same kind of black humour. (The wounded here are ‘incoming mail’.) It is also a lot more downbeat than some of the Second World War flag-wavers, which is perhaps inevitable in a film focusing not on soldiers, but on the army medics called to patch up the wounded and dying. I found the medical and military scenes powerful, but felt it a shame that so much screen time is spent on the rather unconvincing romance between Bogart and Allyson.
Bogart stars as Major Jed Webbe, a hard-bitten, weary surgeon with a gift for sarcastic one-liners, who shows the way forward to Hawkeye Pierce in M.A.S.H. Like Hawkeye, Jed is starting to show the strain of his daily struggle to save lives, and at one point is tempted to drown his sorrows with an illicit bottle of whisky. However, he is soon in trouble for this, even though he is off-duty at the time, as his commanding officer (Robert Keith) tersely points out that he must be sober and ready to work 24 hours a day, if required.
In another scene, after a young soldier has died on the operating table, Webbe briefly walks out of the room to cope with his emotions, and is followed by Lt Ruth McGara (Allyson), who tells him: “Don’t blame yourself for that man dying.” “It’s not just him,” he replies. “It’s all the others – all the young men, the futility of it all.” At another point he suggests that the Korean war will become the third world war in one lifetime – bringing out the fears of those living through it.
The film is really at its strongest in scenes like these, and also in all the haunting shots of the tents being taken down and pitched again as the camp follows the army (the reason for ‘circus’ in the title). These sequences reminded me of a Western, with the small band of exiles moving through the hostile landscape in a latter-day version of a wagon train. Then there is the relentless rain lashing everything in sight and, most of all, there are glimpses of the Korean refugees, marching for days on end. There is also a moving sequence where a little Korean boy (a very good young actor) is operated on by Webbe. As part of the recent John Garfield blogathon, Jeff Flugel discussed Howard Hawks’ 1943 film Air Force and the casually racist language in some Hollywood films of the time, which brings an audience up short now and would have done the same for some viewers at the time. I was interested to note the contrast in this film, made just 10 years on, where there is one chillingly casual usage of this type of language, clearly rooted in reality, but it is immediately slapped down by one of the medics. However, the fear and hostility between the two sides is not skated over, and in one of the film’s stand-out scenes a wounded and terrified Korean brandishes a live grenade, which is eventually coaxed away from him by Ruth.
According to TCM’s article on the film, it was partly filmed at Camp Pickett, where the MASH units trained, helping to give a feeling of authenticity. The film was directed and partly written by Richard Brooks, who also worked with Bogart on his previous film, Deadline USA, one that I haven’t caught up with as yet. Brooks went on to make some fine films, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry and Sweet Bird of Youth, but this was fairly early in his career as a director and it is rather uneven, with the romance scenes slowing it down and diluting the intensity.
The film was advertised with the tagline “MGM’s great drama of desire under fire”, and clearly aspires to be a tale of love and war, but it is no Casablanca. Bogart and Allyson have little chemistry, and their relationship is far more prosaic and everyday. Indeed, in almost their opening conversation, Bogart helpfully tells Allyson where the toilets are – useful, I’m sure, but hardly romantic. I did like the scene where Jed makes his opening pass at Ruth, in a practised, hard-boiled style – his arm slipping round her surreptitiously as he spins a well-worn line. She resists being just another conquest and demands to be treated as an equal and a colleague. After that he is forced to set aside his clichéd womanising and look at her as an individual, something which could have worked well – but somehow it never comes alive on screen. There is too much to-ing and fro-ing and agonising, and their love is too often spelt out in so many words rather than just being understood through the scenes of them working together.
June Allyson’s casting was criticised at the time and she does make a slightly incongruous combination with Bogart, but I rather liked her performance as a nurse. She is refreshingly unglamorous, understated and professional. She does have one scene where she breaks down under the strain, but then again so does Bogart – the difference being that she cries and he drinks. The comradeship between her and the other nurses is also convincing. There is a bit of predictable back-biting when one of the other nurses is jealous of her relationship with Jed, but this is quickly forgotten.
All in all, while this isn’t one of Bogart’s greatest roles, it is an interesting one and I’m glad to have seen it. Unfortunately, the print shown on TCM in the UK, which I watched, was of poor quality, with a washed-out grey picture which failed to do justice to John Alton’s black-and-white cinematography. (At one point, the picture was so fuzzy and had so many green shadows that I wondered if the tube of my TV was going!) However, there are two DVDs available, a Warner Archive release and a Spanish region 2 disc, so I would certainly hope the quality of those is better. I’d be interested to hear if anyone can confirm this, and also if TCM in the US has a better print.