Kings Go Forth (Delmer Daves, 1958)

kings go forth 1Please 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.

Sinatra and Curtis at war

Sinatra and Curtis at war

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).

Sinatra and Wood

Sinatra and 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.

Men at war

Men at war

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.

Sinatra out in the cold at the jazz café

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.

Monique showing Sam the piece of brown bread she has preserved from her hungry days

Monique showing Sam the piece of bread preserved from her hungry days

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.

kings go forth 2

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13 thoughts on “Kings Go Forth (Delmer Daves, 1958)

  1. Saw this way, way back and all I remember about it is that I did not care for it. Sounds like Natalie was miscast. That said, enjoyed reading your review as always!

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    • Thanks, John – I do think she was somewhat miscast, although I’m sure it would have been difficult to get a black actress approved by the studios for such a role in those days. As you will have gathered, I liked it, but we can’t always like the same movies!

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  2. I’m not sure why this movie isn’t better regarded. I guess it’s not Daves’ best work but it’s not bad either. I think the director, and I’ll admit I’m one of his biggest fans, had a knack for interesting romantic situations. All his best westerns weave them successfully into the stories and make them integral parts of the films.

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  3. I haven’t seen all that many of Daves’ films as yet, but from those I have seen, such as ‘Broken Arrow’, ‘Dark Passage’ and ‘Pride of the Marines’, I can see that he is good at interesting romantic situations, as you say – and this film certainly lives up to that. I’ll definitely watch out for more Daves, Colin, especially after your comment that you are one of his biggest fans. Thanks for that.

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  4. It was unfortunate for “Kings Go Forth” that another “racial” drama, Stanley Kramer’s controversial but much admired and Oscar nominated, “The Defiant Ones”, was released in the same year, relegating the former film to, what could be described as, an “also ran”.

    I enjoyed “Kings Go Forth” and thought the acting by all principals to be strong and Dave’s direction to be both confident and sensitive at the appropriate times, (I especially enjoyed the tension that he built, in the “final” battle scene). Daniel L. Fapp’s cinematography was a little compromised as both Curtis and Miss Wood were unable to be present for the “location” scenes filmed in Nice, Villefranche, and Antibes – Curtis was still completing “The Defiant Ones” and Miss Wood was enjoying her honeymoon. Their absence necessitated some use of back-projection etc. while other scenes were blended in, with shots filmed in Monterey, California.

    I have no difficulty in understanding Monique’s mother “checking out”, Loggins’ intentions – simply to protect her daughter. Mrs. Blair would have been well aware of the hostile attitude of many of Americans to “mixed” relationships – in fact, Monique’s parents had fled the USA in an effort to protect her from such an experience.

    It is revealed in Mrs Blair’s initial conversation with Loggins that she left America 20 years previously. It is logical, therefore, that Monique is around that age, whereas Loggins is much older and, in view of Monique’s stated love and admiration for her deceased father, it is not beyond reason that she could view Loggins as a “father figure”. The pained expression on Monique’s face, when Loggins expresses his true feelings for her, is particularly revealingly, and she makes it quite clear that “friendship” is all that is wanted/expected. It is Loggins who believes he can change her feelings towards him.

    That the innocent Monique would be attracted to the young, experienced and handsome Harris, is not unexpected. He is a man well versed in having women “give him things”; a self confessed, ” man with everything except character”. Initially, Loggins quiet acceptance of the situation is surprising but logical when examining his character more closely. His rage when Harris is revealed as a racist and a callous deceiver was most satisfying to this viewer…and his wife.

    The non-Hollywood ending was appropriate and effective.

    Judy, I much appreciated reading your views on “Kings Go Forth” and thank you for drawing attention to this neglected film – it certainly deserves to be re-discovered.

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    • Thank you so much for the detailed thoughts on this film, Rod, which I very much appreciate. I hadn’t realised that some of the principals couldn’t be present in France and so there was the mixture of location and studio shooting and CalIfornia scenes blended in – will watch out for this when I see the film again. I also haven’t seen ‘The Defiant Ones’ but will hope to do so.

      I thought there was a suggestion that Monique could have returned Sam’s feelings if she hadn’t fallen for Britt, but you make an interesting point about her possibly seeing him as a father figure. I suppose Harris is in a way consistent in his inconsistency – Sam keeps saying that he can’t figure him.

      Thanks again, Rod, and I’m glad we agree that this is a film which deserves to be seen.

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    • Judy, “Kings Go Forth” worked so much better for me, when I accepted Monique’s intended/expected “daughter/father” relationship with Sam Loggins; it explains her treatment of him. Although not “spelt out” in the screenplay, there are a number of scenes that, to my eyes, provide evidence of this, and I would value your opinion of my theory once you have re-visited the film, sometime in the future.

      “The Defiant Ones” is an intelligent film that examines, not only the relationship between both the Black and White protagonists, but has a lot to say about American society in the Fifties. Older films are a valuable repository of the values and opinions of society at the time, and should be preserved, viewed and considered, accordingly. I feel sure that you will enjoy Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” when you have the opportunity to view it.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my “rantings”.

      Rod.

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  5. “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.”

    Absolutely, Judy, I couldn’t agree more here. And wow, what a remarkable, stunning review you wrote here! One of your greatest essays ever at MOVIE CLASSICS and doubly significant because it considers a film that is too often overlooked. For that matter Davies until quite recently was never seen as a particularly accomplished director, but his work on BROKEN ARROW and 3:10 TO YUMA and even A SUMMER PLACE speaks for itself. Personally I thought Sinatra gave one of his greatest performances in this film -I had never actually seen the trailer until now- and Curtis and Wood on largely on even ground with him here.

    Tying all the plot strands together -and this was daring stuff for that year- is a magnificent score by Elmer Bernstein, who had an incredible year in 1958, when you consider he also scored DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, SADDLE THE WIND, GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, ANNA LUCASTA, THE BUCCANEER, and the film you just reviewed – SOME CAME RUNNING. The score contains a distinct war motif which quickly yields to the three-note theme that develops into one of his typically ravishing melodies, the theme for Monique. The score contains an equal measure of romantic music, jazz and action music, and of course the main theme was recorded by Sinatra but never used in the film.

    In any event your review of this film is just so definitive that fans of film need not go any further than here. Bravo Judy!

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    • Thanks for that impressive list of other scores by Elmer Bernstein in this one year, Sam – and for pointing out that the score of this one includes a distinct war motif together with the other styles and themes you detail here. I do agree that this is one of Sinatra’s finest performances. Glad to hear that you share my admiration for this film – and thanks very much for the over-the-top praise, which is much appreciated!

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  6. Well Judy, it would seem that there are quite a number of admirers of this film, out there. Sam makes an interesting statement, ” One of the greatest pleasures…….is the extensive use of narration by Sinatra”. It transpired that vintage actor and friend, Boris Karloff provided “unofficial coaching” advice to Sinatra in this instance; I agree with Sam’s remarks.

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    • Wow, Rod, I had no idea that Karloff had coached Sinatra in the narration, but he certainly did a great job in this regard. Glad that both you and Sam agree on this film being well worth seeing.

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  7. Hello Judy: I just happened to post a take on this flick tonight and mutual reader Colin sent me your way. Nicely done and as for the film, I hadn’t seen it in many years and found it enjoyable once again. I like when Frank plays the low key roles where he isn’t the outgoing type. More shy and introverted.

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    • Thanks, Mike, and thanks to Colin too – much appreciated! I agree that I like Sinatra in the more downbeat roles – he’s very good at playing introspective characters. I’m going over now to have a look at your review.

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