Battle Circus (Richard Brooks, 1953)

Battle Circus 7

Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson

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.

Battle Circus 3The 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.

Battle Circus 5June 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.

Battle Circus 2

Battle Circus

Battle Circus 6


17 thoughts on “Battle Circus (Richard Brooks, 1953)

  1. Interesting review Judy. I have Battle Circus on DVD but haven’t actually watched it yet. The main reason is that I’ve found Bogart’s 50s movies patchy overall; some are quite good but others, while never bad, are extremely ordinary. Everything I’ve heard suggests that this film belongs firmly in the latter category. Also, I do think June Allyson sounds like an odd choice to co-star with Bogart.

    Like I said, i haven’t actually watched my Spanish DVD through, but I gave it a quick look after reading your comments on print quality. Frankly, it’s not great. I made a few random screen grabs you can check out here – – although I reckon it looks a touch better in motion.
    Seeing as you mention Deadline USA, I also have a Spanish DVD of that title. Again, it’s an average movie, but the DVD transfer is quite a bit stronger than is the case with Battle Circus.


    • Colin, thanks so much for tweeting about my post and for going to the trouble to make the screen grabs – certainly looks as if the quality isn’t great on the DVD either, as you say. Thanks also for the info re ‘Deadline USA’. I’ve been meaning to catch up with some of the Bogart titles I haven’t seen – must agree that from what I’ve seen his 50s movies are a bit patchy, but (in those I’ve seen) he is always good, even if the film isn’t as a whole. I thought June Allyson was good casting as a nurse but not so good in terms of the romance with Bogart – I know opposites attract but in this case it is hard to believe and also the script doesn’t help as it all happens rather suddenly. Anyway, thanks again and I’d be interested to hear what you think of this film when you get round to it.


    • Back in the mid to late 80s, I was trying to catch as many of Bogart’s movies as I could on TV – there really wasn’t any other option at that time. A lot of his 50s output was the most elusive, or so it seemed to me. When I did manage to see a lot of those titles I felt bit underwhelmed – Sirocco anyone?
      I know it’s actually a late 40s movie but I’ve still never managed to see Chain Lightning.


    • There are still quite a lot of his films I haven’t seen, including ‘Chain Lightning’. I do have ‘Sirocco’ in a DVD box set, but am not a big fan of it either although it does create a good moody atmosphere – whenever I try to give it another chance, I seem to glaze over part of the way through and lose track of the story. A pity they didn’t include ‘Passage to Marseille’ in the set instead – I love that one even if it does have flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks!


    • As someone who grew up on the TV series, I thought the similarities were quite striking. I forgot to mention in my piece that, according to the TCM article, Brooks originally wanted to call the film ‘MASH 66’, but the studio refused to let him call it that because it was thought it would make the audience think of mashed potato!


  2. Very nice post. I will probably get a brick tossed at me, but I always have a bit of a hard time with Bogart. But, I would like to see him with Allyson – a very interesting pairing.


    • Thank you! I won’t chuck any bricks, but will just say I’m a fan of Bogart, as you have probably gathered… I don’t think the pairing of him and Allyson works all that well but it is certainly interesting, as you say.


  3. I am going to be out of step with nearly everyone on the planet by admitting that I don’t like “MASH”…never have. So, this film’s resemblance to that show would not be a selling point for me. What is a selling point, though, is the odd pairing of June Allyson and Humphrey Bogart. I think June is delightful…though I must admit that every time I hear her voice, I think, “Christopher Columbus!” (From her role in “Little Women.”) It would be fun to see her playing romantic with the rough-and-tumble Mr. Bogart.

    The movie line about “the futility of it all” was probably extremely realistic for the Korean conflict. With the Korean War coming so closely on the heels of the second world war, many of the same men were called to fight again, and they had to be frustrated by and resentful of that. (William Holden’s “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” deals with that very subject.)

    Though your film quality wasn’t all that good, your stills are awesome! Thanks for a great write-up.


    • Patti, my family got a VHS tape of the film of MASH free with our first video recorder, so I have seen it many times – I am a big fan of the film, and also loved the TV show at the time but feel the film has probably worn better, although I do love Alan Alda as Hawkeye. I haven’t seen ‘The Bridges at Toko-Ri’ but will look out for it – it must have been very difficult for the same soldiers having to go to war again.

      The stills are gathered from around the net and I meant to say that some of them are from Doctor Macro. I love June Allyson’s voice too – both she and Bogie have such distinctive voices! I don’t really think they go very well together in this, but they are both good in their roles as nurse and medic, it’s only the romance scenes that let them down. I also forgot to mention that Bogart’s father was a (plastic) surgeon in real life, so I wonder if he borrowed anything from him for the role. Thanks for the great comment.


  4. Hi Judy, Sorry I have not been around lately but I do keep meaning to stop over and well here I am. Anyway, I caught this film on TCM here in the States a while ago and my feelings are pretty much in synch with yours. A lack of chemistry between the two leads definitely hurts the film. Actually, I have a half written review buried on my PC with some of the same thoughts as you do on this film. The opening is very similar to MASH, I was almost expecting the theme song SUICIDE IS PAINLESS to start playing on the soundtrack. What also struck me was how the nurses were sometimes wearing t-shirts instead of their uniform shirts just like in the TV show and there is a bit of the black humor as you mention. The print shown here was decent and I assume it was about the same quality as the DVD. Like you, I feel the film is interesting if not really successful.


    • John, very kind of you to pop over – I know you are busy with all that you do! I’d be interested to see your review if you get round to finishing it – interesting to hear that our feelings on this one are quite similar. I also almost expected the M.A.S.H. music at the start! Thanks very much for your thoughts on this one.


  5. I’ll add only that the Korean war was deeply unpopular in the US. It was just about the first of these colonialist wars, a new thing (so to speak), not only just after WW2. Both actors are fine. This was a good read.


    • Thank you, Ellen – I think the film does give the feeling of the war being unpopular. I could really do with watching a good documentary about the Korean war after seeing this, or maybe reading a book but I’d probably take in the documentary better as I find it hard to take in books about wars unless they are personal accounts. I’ll see what I can find.


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