Please note I do discuss the whole plot in this review. Second World War melodrama Kings Go Forth is one of the Frank Sinatra films from the 1950s which tends to get overlooked. Some aspects of the love triangle story have dated – I’ll come on to those later – but it is still a film worth seeing. After having now seen it a couple of times through showings on the UK TCM, I have found it growing on me and especially like Sinatra’s delicate, understated central performance. Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood both do their best with difficult roles, and the sweeping black-and-white views of the French Riviera are memorable, as is the melancholy Elmer Bernstein score.
The trailer feels more soapy than the film itself, but gives a glimpse of the three leads, and is also interesting in the way it focuses on the source books for Sinatra’s films.
One of the best French landscape views comes right at the start, as a long line of American soldiers are seen marching through the French countryside, before the cameras pick out one man in the line – Sam Loggins (Sinatra). He is seen accepting a gift from an elderly French woman who has turned out to welcome the liberating army. This is said to be possibly the only drama set during the “Champagne campaign” of 1944, where US forces patrolled the French-Italian border. Based on a novel by Joe David Brown, the film certainly brings out the distance between the soldiers’ life on the front line and their weekends of relaxation, going into town and meeting up with the local women – including beautiful Monique (Natalie Wood).
Director Delmer Daves is best-known for his noirs and Westerns, and at times the film recalls both those genres. The dwelling on the locations is something characteristic of Westerns, while the stark black-and-white photography by Daniel L. Fapp, who worked on great noirs like The Big Clock, at times has a noirish flavour to it – and the film’s voiceover also recalls the world of noir. One of the greatest pleasures of the film is this extensive use of narration by Sinatra. Listening to his voiceover made me realise how great his speaking voice is, sharing the sensitivity to the words which is a key element of his singing. The use of voiceover also enables the audience to share the thoughts of a character who tends not to say aloud what he is feeling. It really works in a similar way to the Bernstein score, which often brings out Sam’s hidden emotions. The voiceover and music together help to express the essence of the character, a tired and lonely man who has been at war for a long time.
The advertising for the film focuses in on the romance with Monique, Natalie Wood’s character, but in fact Sam has two central relationships – and the first part of the film concentrates on the building of his friendship with younger soldier Britt Harris (Curtis). The two are from different worlds, with Britt being a rich dilettante who has left several colleges and got bored with working for his father’s business. By contrast, Sam has worked his way up from nothing. At first he resents the spoilt new recruit who had to be dragged into the army in the first place – and now seems to assume he can swan around and be adored by any woman he meets. Where it was an old woman who made a fuss of Sam in the opening scene, beautiful young girls line up to present Britt with rare gifts such as eggs. “Women just like to give me things,” he explains.
However, despite his erratic behaviour, Britt proves his courage under fire and the two men cross the class divide to strike up an uneasy buddy relationship, with some witty dialogue. The war scenes in the first part of the film work particularly well, with some convincing conflict between the two over their different attitudes to orders and discipline. Curtis looks very young and impossibly handsome in this film and I was surprised to realise that he was actually in his 30s – he could easily be 10 years younger. By contrast, Sinatra looks all of his 43 years here, and there are many close-ups which dwell relentlessly on his drawn features. This must surely be deliberate, bringing out the character’s weariness, since in black and white films actors are often made to look younger.
During a break from the war, Sam meets Monique, who has grown up in France but has American parents. He is immediately attracted to her, but she says she will not be able to see him again. Later she inexplicably changes her mind and sends her mother (Leora Dana, who also stars in Sinatra’s other film of 1958, Some Came Running) to meet Sam and bring him back to their home. However, as Sam falls in love, Monique continues to keep her distance and insists that she has nothing more to offer than friendship. Eventually she reveals that her late father was African-American and she therefore fears Sam will be prejudiced against her. This whole racial storyline is very carefully handled and the treatment now seems rather mealy-mouthed to a modern audience, particularly the fact that the whole cast is white. The father is dead (we never even see a photograph) and Monique is played by Russian-American actress Natalie Wood, though there’s a suggestion at the imdb that African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge was considered for the role. However, at the time the subject matter was daring enough even with this kid-gloves treatment, and the film certainly shows the pain caused to Monique by other people’s reactions, ranging from patronising to outright cruel.
Sam’s immediate reaction is to go away silently and wrestle with his feelings, confronting the level of prejudice that he has grown up with. He then returns to their home and is welcomed back, and resumes his friendship with Monique, with the suggestion that now perhaps she could allow herself to return his feelings. However, all that changes abruptly when Sam takes Monique to a jazz café, where Britt puts in a surprise appearance and plays a wonderful trumpet solo – immediately winning Monique’s heart. Soon the young pair are intensely discussing their love of music, while Sam watches silently from the sidelines. The idea of Sam being shut out by someone else’s musical talent and able only to watch of course gains force from the fact that it is Sinatra in the role. The only music he has is the soundtrack, which continually works in snatches of the great song Monique, although this number sadly isn’t featured in the film at all. As with To Love and Be Loved in Some Came Running, you have to seek out Sinatra’s recording separately. There are quite a few similarities between these two films, beyond their Biblical titles.
Getting back to the story, Sam tortures himself by continuing to go along with Britt and Monique on their dates as a third wheel. When he learns that they have spent the night together, he angrily confronts Britt, who claims the couple are engaged – but it later turns out that he never had any intention of marrying Monique and he turns on her with a racist comment. There are more tragic twists as Monique attempts to kill herself, while Sam vows to get Britt killed, and enrols them both for a suicidal mission which does indeed claim Britt’s life – although, piling on the ironies, it also allows him to show the courage which made Sam respect him in the first place. The two men’s friendship is briefly resurrected now that it is too late.
Curtis has a difficult task in playing Britt because the character is so inconsistent, but he carries it off by pouring his own charm into the portrayal. By contrast, I don’t think Natalie Wood’s full personality ever really comes across in the role of Monique. She creates a much fuller character in another soapy melodrama from the same year, Marjorie Morningstar, where she plays a young actress who falls for an ageing Gene Kelly. In Kings Go Forth, Monique is always seen through Sam’s eyes, which makes the character rather distant, and her motivation is never really explained – why does she lead Sam on if she doesn’t love him? And, since it has been suggested that she deeply empathises with his hidden feelings, how can she break his heart by romancing Britt right in front of him? I also wish Natalie Wood had decided against the heavy and rather odd French accent she uses for the part, which is distracting and seems unnecessary, since both Monique’s parents are American.
It’s also a pity that the film never really shows how Monique has suffered during the war – she mentions that she has known hunger, and displays a piece of brown bread preserved as a reminder of those days, but the life we see her leading with her mother in their beautiful backwater seems idyllic enough. The ending does compensate for that to some extent, as a badly-injured Sam, who has lost an arm, returns to say goodbye to Monique before returning to America. He finds her teaching children who have been orphaned by the war, in a home which has been turned into a school. I suppose we are left with the hope that the couple might find happiness together, but there is no Hollywood ending here.
This film is available on DVD in both the UK and the US, but it looks to be a bare-bones presentation. I might buy a copy in the future, as it would be nice to see it without the interruptions from adverts on the UK TCM – though, having said that, I’m pleased they showed it at all, and the print looked pristine.