Movie Review

The Young Lions

Irwin Shaw's monumental best-seller
The Young Lions Movie Poster

US Release Date: 04-02-1958

Directed by: Edward Dmytryk


  • Marlon Brando
  • Lt. Christian Diestl
  • Montgomery Clift
  • Noah Ackerman
  • Dean Martin
  • Michael Whiteacre
  • Hope Lange
  • Hope Plowman
  • Barbara Rush
  • Margaret Freemantle
  • May Britt
  • Gretchen Hardenberg
  • Maximilian Schell
  • Capt. Hardenberg
  • Dora Doll
  • Simone
  • Lee Van Cleef
  • 1st Sgt. Rickett
  • Liliane Montevecchi
  • Francoise
  • Parley Baer
  • Sgt. Brandt
  • Arthur Franz
  • Lt. Green
  • Hal Baylor
  • Pvt. Burnecker
  • Richard Gardner
  • Pvt. Crowley
  • Herbert Rudley
  • Capt. Colclough
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: October 21st, 2013
Marlon Brando in The Young Lions.

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions.

The Young Lions is an epic story of World War II that focuses on the lives of three soldiers, one German and two Americans. Based on the best selling novel of the same name by Irwin Shaw, it feels like a transitionary WWII film in that it combines the heroism of earlier war films with a distinctively anti-war message of the war movies to come in the decades ahead.

Marlon Brando, Montogmery Clift and Dean Martin all star, although Brando only has one scene with the other two actors. All three of the stars seem too old for their characters, particularly Clift, but are talented enough to make it work. Brando, whose dyed blonde hair is shocking to see at first, steals the movie, despite a rather cliched German accent. His sympathetic Nazi character is ahead of its time and caused some controversy when the film was released, partly because it was a departure from the character in the original novel. Both Clift and Dean are also quite good. For Martin, this was the movie that helped prove he could have a serious career without his longtime partner Jerry Lewis, whom he'd broken up with just two years previously. Clift, looking older than his years and extremely underweight, still proves that he was one of the finest actors of his generation.

The scope of the film is quite large. It starts shortly before the war begins and ends with the American liberation of a concentration camp in the final days of the war. It tells the story of the war from three perspectives. We see Christian Diestl (Brando) go from patriotic and idealistic young German, to a jaded and disillusioned one who has struggled to maintain his principles throughout the war. On the American side we have Broadway showman, Michael Whiteacre (Martin), as a reluctant soldier who does his best to pull strings to stay out of the war, but with only partial success. Then we have Noah Ackerman (Clift), a young Jewish man who finds love before being sent off to war where he discovers that bullies and anti-semites aren't exclusively German. Whiteacre and Ackerman meet in New York City before the war and end up in the same unit, but they don't encounter Diestl until the film's climax.

Although shot in Cinemascope, the movie was filmed in black & white. While that medium can create a certain mood, it's a pity here given the scope of the film. Many of the scenes were filmed on location in France, Germany and in the desert. They could have been shown off much more if it had been shot in color. It's still a very good film, but it feels like a wasted opportunity.

With a running time of over 2 and half hours, the movie does require some patience. The pacing could have been sped up, particularly in the scenes before the war. They are great for building up character but in terms of narrative they do little to advance the plot. Having said that however, since those scenes are included, it feels as if a scene is missing at the end of the film where we could have seen the romantic resolution that is set up for one of the characters.

Compared to the more straightforward, patriotic WWII films of the 1940s and early 50s, The Young Lions stands out. It shows heroism and honor on both sides of the conflict as well as sadism and cruelty. It requires a commitment to sit through its full length, but thanks in large part to its three leads, it's worth the time.

Reviewed on: November 12th, 2013
Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Dean Martin talk during a break in filming The Young Lions.

Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Dean Martin talk during a break in filming The Young Lions.

A great cast, fine direction, inspired Oscar nominated black & white cinematography, and a sweeping Oscar nominated score all combine to make The Young Lions a nearly great war movie. I agree with Scott that several early scenes could have been trimmed. A bit too much time is spent showing the romantic lives of the three main soldiers. There are consecutive scenes where each of them is shown in a romantic situation with a woman. In all three scenes the woman gets angry with the man but winds up kissing him.

Edward Dmytryk brings an excitement to the battle scenes. They are quite realistic, especially for the time. He manages to keep the story personal while never allowing the audience the chance to lose sight of the larger conflict. I have not read Irwin Shaw's novel but I do know that the outcome of the war was altered from page to screen for one of the main characters. It makes for a happier, if not more emotionally powerful, resolution.

Brando gives a great performance as Christian Diestl (an intentionally symbolic first name). I never saw him as sympathetic. Sure he becomes increasingly conflicted about performing his duty when all around him he sees proof of the worsening evil of the Nazi regime. He may have been an idealistic young soldier but he enlisted in the German army with his eyes open. The scene where an anguished Christian smashes his rifle in despair seems a bit contrived. From what I've read his fate in the novel seems more truthful. Brando himself wanted to make him sympathetic. Apparently this caused Monty Clift to quip that if Marlon tried to die at the end of the picture with his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, he would walk off the set.

Monty Clift's Ackerman reminded me of his character Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Both are outsiders who get bullied in their outfit and both men are forced to fight other Americans. Ackerman is far less cynical and not the loner Prewitt was. As Scott mentioned, Young Lions, like Eternity had done 4 years earlier, shows a more complex view of war than those flag-waving Hollywood war pictures of the 1940s. One reason Clift looks older here is because of a near fatal car accident that left half his face partially paralyzed. He would never be the same man again. His already notorious drinking would only increase and he would be dead before the age of 50.

Dean Martin has the smallest role of the three stars but he does himself proud. Although Whiteacre's eleventh hour switch to heroism can be seen coming from miles away, it is still satisfying when it happens. He gets one of the movie's best lines, although it's unlikely that a soldier during the war would have said it. “Look, I've read all the books. I know that in 10 years we'll be bosom friends with the Germans and the Japanese. Then I'll be pretty annoyed that I was killed.”

My brother Scott has often said that it's better to see the movie adaptation of a great novel before reading the book. That way when you do read the book you won't be disappointed by everything they left out. The sign of a good movie is if it makes you want to read the original source material. Watching The Young Lions has made me eager to read Irwin Shaw's 1949 novel.

Reviewed on: November 20th, 2013
Maximilian Schell and Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Maximilian Schell and Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

As The Young Lions is such a long film, there is much that can be said about it. I guess my most glaring disparity from my brother’s reviews is that I thought the cast was mostly miscast. Scott mentioned Marlon Brando’s clichéd accent, so I will start there. The role of Christian should not have even been played by Brando. Sure, the Godfather of method acting does everything that is necessary, except one important thing; he does not speak German.

This would not have been a problem had the language barrier never been brought up. Look at the scene where Brando is on a double date with a French girl. He says a few words in French to her and then apologizes in English for that being the extent of his knowledge of the French language. At no point is it ever brought up that they are all speaking in English with accents. Look at The Longest Day (1962). The Germans speak in German and the French speak French.

Although Brando was a much bigger box office name, Maximillian Schell should have played the part of Christian. He is German and thus speaks the language fluently. Also, Irwin Shaw makes a point to mention in the novel that Christian is not even a blonde. Early in the book his photographer friend says that he would make a better subject for a propaganda photo if he were more Aryan looking. Schell has brown hair. Brando is playing a walking, talking stereotype, who when faced with the reality of war begins to question the world around him.

It is a nice idea, but I never completely bought it. It is like what Patrick wrote about Dean Martin’s prophetic line, these characters sometimes act as if they know the outcome of the war. Returning to the double date scene, Brando’s intended date says she is reluctant to be with a Nazi because she does not want to get her head shaved for collaborating with the enemy. That in fact happened to women who did but not until after the Germans were driven out at the end of the war.

To chime in about Montgomery Clift’s look, I found them horribly distracting. He was 38 years old and easily looked 48. This is called The Young Lions after all. With his ever sad, distorted face and skinny physique I kept thinking he looked like a junky desperately looking for a fix. He should have played Hope Lange’s father or the holocaust surviving rabbi.

Dean Martin makes the perfect Broadway producer, schmoozer and womanizer. Putting Martin in a party scene with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in another is like finding animals in a zoo. He is in his element. That however, is as good as his acting gets. After he joins the military, they should have trimmed his hair military style, instead of leaving it normal. All of the other men in the barracks have messed up hair as men of hard work or war would, while Martin never lets a hair fall out of place. Thus we never even begin to think of him as anything but a movie star pretending to be a soldier. Even during the action scenes he is nothing more than a pretty boy with a straight face. Brando, who was a truly fearless actor, should have played his part.

I agree with my brothers on the length and pace of the film. So much of the earlier scenes could have been trimmed but there are many great moments. I like the contrasting scenes between Brando's two visits to Schell's wife. In the first one there are children playng in a very nice neighborhood. On his second visit the buildings are mostly detroyed and the only child in sight is missing a leg.

It picks up as it goes on and all of the war scenes are excitingly brilliant. The final war scene is particularly so and is the payoff for the story. If it was not for the photo in Patrick’s review I would not even be sure that the three main actors ever met. Scott wrote that they share a scene at the end but that is not completely true as you never see all three of them together in one frame.

That one scene though, is extremely powerful. How many war movies have we watched where one soldier kills another, or several, and then moves on without him or us giving it a second thought? We never stop to think about the life that was just ended. All we know is that an enemy combatant has been killed and the shooter has survived another encounter. Here we have a soldier that kills an enemy and for a few seconds goes through a few emotions such as fear and perhaps regret before moving on. In other films we would not have thought twice about that death, but here we have come to know this person and his death has more meaning to us. Under different circumstances they could have talked and things would have turned out differently. After all, we learned earlier in the film that the German speaks perfect English.