Fifty shades of Humphrey Bogart. Actually, I’m sure there are more than fifty, but they’re only effective if the movie he’s in makes him worth watching, not if it just seems that he’s going through the motions, as it is with Battle Circus, which is M*A*S*H before M*A*S*H came along, focusing on a Mobile Army Medical Unit during the Korean War, and all that must be done to keep it going, and how casualties are taken care of, the surgeries involved, the quest to get more blood for transfusions, and even a frightened Korean man seeming to take control of the operating room, though Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Walters (Robert Keith), Major Jed Webbe’s (Bogart) superior, treats it with a hardened nonchalance since he’s operating on a patient.
The fault isn’t really Bogart’s. If you’ve seen Casablanca and a number of his other movies, you know what to expect from him. You know what kind of Bogart he’s likely to be, with the hooded eyes, the slightly dark disposition, the mysterious nature that makes him an irresistible actor even today, decades after his death. Who is he as this man? What kind of life has he lived before we’ve gotten to know this character and what is he going through right now? Those questions are ever-present in Battle Circus, but a number of factors hamper the prospect of a better movie emerging from admirable direction from an emerging Richard Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay. This was 1953, two years before he’d make Blackboard Jungle, starring Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford, which then led to such stunning, absorbing classics as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Elmer Gantry. I don’t think that with the talent that Brooks mildly exhibits there, he is responsible for most of what abounds, namely that of a burgeoning romance between Webbe and Lt. Ruth McGara (June Allyson), a new nurse in this MASH unit. The interplay between Webbe and McGara nearly makes good on its threat to eat up the entire movie, and that would be acceptable only if there was any shining chemistry between Bogart and Allyson. There is none. Bogart and Bacall is of course a tough act for any actress to follow, but putting them aside, there’s nothing between Bogart and Allyson that makes you want to keep watching. It mainly keeps you hoping that one of the supporting characters has something to say or do that can take away a few minutes from this loveless love story. In fact, upon seeing Bogart at the beginning, I was struck with the desire to watch Key Largo again. It’s on my list.
Probably what makes Battle Circus a minor note in the enormously entertaining career of Humphrey Bogart was the behind-the-scenes turmoil at MGM. In 1951, legendary mogul Louis B. Mayer was fired and replaced with Dore Schary, the production chief whom Mayer had hired when he was ordered to find another Irving Thalberg in order to control costs at the studio. In hindsight, it was a necessary move because Mayer was the old guard and the movies had to change with the advent of television threatening to reduce their power in the American consciousness. Why go to the movies when there’s free entertainment on a box in your home? Hence The Robe at 20th Century Fox, which was the first widescreen motion picture, through the CinemaScope process. Movies had to be bigger and every major studio knew this. Getting rid of Mayer was the only solution for MGM, and while they surely thought that this would help them make progress in bringing back audiences to its brand, the transition from Mayer to Schary seems rocky when looking at the movies produced early on in Schary’s tenure, including Battle Circus. By the time it was released, Schary had been in the job two years, and you get a sense in Battle Circus that he’s not quite sure where to go next. True that the Korean War was winding down when Battle Circus was released in 1953, and ended that July, four months afterward. The nation had been going through the war by what they were seeing on the news, and so why would they go to see a movie like this? Perhaps it was Schary’s way of being topical, of wanting to give audiences a wider view of what was going on in Korea, and indeed, Brooks’ treatment is almost documentary-like, especially when the MASH unit strikes its tents, packs up, and moves to another location, all done so quickly and so professionally. Maybe Schary wanted to give them a fuller impression. However, because of the irksome Bogart/Allyson interruption in the way of an attempted romance, we’re robbed of a more intriguing story, more details from others in this MASH unit. In fact, some of the supporting actors are far more interesting than Bogart and Allyson together. They are the ones who inspire regret that more time was not given to them.
Because of the war aspect of Battle Circus, director Brooks allows the actors to occasionally flub their lines. War is not all nicely laid out, tightly scripted, and done with absolute precision. It is messy, it is confusing, and it surely is frightening for all involved, and when emotions are jumbled, the words don’t always come out clearly or in the right order. In these instances, June Allyson does fine work, though it must have been quite a change from the musicals and other brightly-colored movies she had made before, and a challenge. She meets it head-on and does it well. There is that consolation amidst waiting for something else to happen.
At least Battle Circus gave us the Richard Brooks to come. The Korean War interests him enough to want to show as much detail as possible, but he just can’t do anything with Bogart and Allyson together. His belief seemed to have been to just let them do what they’re used to doing in romance scenes and move on. For this setting him on the path to eventual cinematic prominence, for people curious about what MGM was like immediately after Mayer’s ouster, for Bogart fans who want a little something different, Battle Circus should have your 90 minutes, whenever you can give it. And thankfully, it’s only 90 minutes.