From The Warner Archive: Battle Circus, 1953 (dir. Richard Brooks)

This newly remastered  release of Battle Circus, an early film from director Richard Brooks, is a must for fans of Bogart and as well as those who love Robert Altman’s 1970 Best Picture nominee M*A*S*H. The Korean War still had another few months before it was officially over when this film was first released and actual footage from the war is featured in it. The title comes from a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit’s ability to pick up and move itself and its surgical tents as swiftly as a traditional circus. Much like Altman’s later film, it also features the interconnectivity of the personal lives of the nurses, doctors and soldiers alike.

Brooks, who is probably best known for his later films Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry and In Cold Blood, is one of my favorite directors from this later part of the Classical Hollywood era. He pushed boundaries early on and I firmly believe he is one of the directors responsible for the transition from the Old Hollywood to the New Hollywood aesthetic.

Bogart is great as Major Jed Webbe, the unit’s surgical commander who has a penchant for whiskey and women. It’s a great performance, sure, but he’s playing a role that is hard to love. I’m not really sure how you were supposed to feel about the character then and I’m still not really sure how I feel about the character now. This is part of why I think Brooks is such a great director (he also co-wrote the film): he builds ambiguity into his heroes. You can admire him and you can hate him at the same time. Webbe is much like the heroes in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Elmer Gantry, and it takes great actors like Bogart and Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster to pull off these kind of roles.

Also great is June Allyson as the new nurse Lieutenant Ruth McGara, who falls for Bogart’s Webbe. My only complaint is that the chemistry between the two feels a little stilted. The tension is just not quite there. That said, Allyson’s Ruth really shines when she’s doing her duties as a nurse. There is one scene in particular where she talks a confused Korean refugee from blowing everyone to pieces that, for lack of a better word, blew me away.

I don’t have much to say here, I just wanted to share this shot because I think it really showcases Brooks’s ability to create the world of a MASH unit so perfectly.

If this shower scene was not a direct influence on Robert Altman’s MASH, I will eat my copy of this DVD.

Everyone’s favorite character actor Keenan Wynn is marvelous as Webbe’s right hand man Sergeant Orvil Statt. If you see Wynn in the cast list of a film, you know at least he will not disappoint you and this is no exception.Stratt speaks the language and interacts with the refugees in several touching scenes that never once feel manufactured or false.

I just had to post this great shot of William Campbell as Captain John “Rusty” Rustford, who risks his life flying supplies like blood and even patients at times in and out of the MASH units. Campbell doesn’t say much in the film, but his face conveys more than any words could. Also he looks so badass in those shades.

Lastly I wanted to mention the troop of nurses. In pants! These women each have their own personalities and I almost wish we got more time with them. Someday I want to write a film about a group of battle nurses. Someday. Until then, if you ever get a chance check out the British propaganda film The Gentle Sex, directed by Leslie Howard (of oh Ashhhhhley aka Gone With The Wind fame). It’s fascinating stuff.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a review disc given to me by the Warner Archive, though the opinions are all my own.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 15, 2012, in Classic Film, DVDs and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. OMG It looks like M*A*S*H alright – especially the shower scene. Altman’s MASH is very dark and funny and maybe even angry. Shoot I was a Freshman in college when I saw it LOL. I asked GRG and he had never heard of Battle Circus. I would really like to see it after reading this review. I thought I had seen everything Bogart was ever in – I guess not.

    And for you as a screenwriter -I bet there is a lot of unexplored territory when it comes to military nurses.

    Nice article – thanks

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