On 6 September 1950, a battle-fatigued platoon of the US 24th Infantry Division finds itself cut off from its battalion and picked off, one by one, by stealthy North Korean soldiers.
Led by Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan), the platoon is on its way to reunite with American forces on a distant hill when it encounters a jeep driven by 1st Cavalry Division Staff Sergeant Joseph R. “Montana” Willomet (Aldo Ray), accompanied by a shell-shocked colonel (Robert Keith) who is mute, catatonic, and strapped to his seat.
After the First Battle of the Naktong Bulge (5 – 19 August 1950), Montana has decided he and his colonel are through with the war.
Benson commandeers their jeep for his platoon’s rations and ammo and for Corporal James Zwickley (Vic Morrow), another shell-shocked combatant.
As the platoon proceeds toward its rendezvous point, Montana goes against Benson’s order and kills a North Korean sniper on the verge of surrender. It is discovered that the sniper was hiding a weapon in his hat.
Bringing up the rear, Staff Sgt. Killian (James Edwards) is killed by a North Korean infiltrator after decorating his helmet net with daisies. Montana takes his place by the side of the road and feigns sleep, luring two lurking North Koreans into the open, where he kills them.
Thereafter, Montana transforms the platoon into a functioning military unit that successfully negotiates a sniper attack, artillery barrage, and a field full of landmines – though Platoon Sergeant Nate Lewis (Nehemiah Persoff) panics and gets himself killed.
Once at the hill, they find it occupied by the enemy. Montana shoots a group of enemy combatants posing as Americans after a North Korean prisoner (Victor Sen Yung) is used to flush them out and is killed by his own men.
Benson leads his men in an attack but Montana and the colonel hesitate – until the colonel suddenly comes to his senses, joins the assault, and is fatally wounded by shrapnel from a nearby shell explosion, whereupon a chastened Montana finally joins the fight.
They take out a pillbox and machine-gun nest but only Benson, Montana, and Sgt. Riordan (Phillip Pine) make it through the battle.
As US reinforcements approach, Benson asks Montana for the Silver Star medals meant for the colonel’s men. As Benson calls out their names, Montana tosses the medals to their dead recipients.
The film was shot in Malibu Canyon, Janss Conejo Ranch (Conejo Valley, California), and Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, in July and August 1956.
The production had hoped to secure Department of Defense (DOD) cooperation but that was denied when Pentagon officials vetted the script and found that it depicted shell shock, insubordination, and unit discipline in tatters.
Released in February 1957, Men in War was only modestly successful at the box office, earning $1.5 million – just a half-million dollars more than it cost to make. Due to the film’s subversively mordant stance on war and the military, contemporary reviews were mixed.
Staff Sergeant Joseph R. “Montana” Willomet
Sgt. Nate Lewis
Corporal James Zwickley
Staff Sgt. Killian
North Korean Sniper Prisoner
Victor Sen Yung