The opening of this film, as a voiceover solemnly tells of the US Medal of Honor, how difficult it is to acquire and how few people have won it takes on a greater significance than is immediately apparent; it goes on to talk about the menace of communist China in a way that looks, misleadingly, as if this is going to be a piece of anti-communist propaganda. The film certainly treats the communists as a sinister threat in a way that is both supernaturally dangerous and simplistically motivated but there is very little that is simplistic about the situation presented to the characters here.
As the action starts, a platoon of US soldiers are relaxing in a bar in Korea, under the benevolent eye of their commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), and the distinctly less warm eye of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), whose prissy dislike for the ‘common’ men could have been a model for MASH’s Frank Burns. On leaving, the men are kidnapped and brainwashed, Shaw being picked out for special treatment.
Marco is identified as important, required for the plan, but the plan revolves around Shaw who is made to commit an atrocious act that gives him little chance of a happy ending and yet, on their release, is credited with saving the platoon in a soul-stirring display of courage designed to win him that medal. All of the prisoners, including Shaw himself, believe the story, though Marco has nightmares that hint at the truth (as does another soldier, a black corporal whose story, disappointingly, isn’t developed) and Shaw has a nagging feeling that his medal is somehow tainted.
Shaw has been targeted, it is clear, to be a weapon though the target and the exact plan is not yet revealed. His step-father, to complicate matters, is an anti-communist firebrand, a tub-thumping populist of limited ability, clearly a dig at Joe McCarthy, whose success depends entirely on the scheming of Shaw’s mother (the quite marvellous Angela Lansbury). It is up to Marco to try and work out how the pieces all fit together, and persuade the authorities to act, when he can barely himself understand what is going on.
The suspense is built up gradually, along with character, and there are a couple of moments of stunning power, one particularly that left us agog – did they really do that? And the climactic finale is a real tour de force, a demonstration of how to wrap up the threads of a story.
Sinatra is surprisingly good and very engaging, his personality developed and fleshed out in a burgeoning relationship with a young woman (Janet Leigh) met by chance on a train, their quirky, snappy dialogue really enlivening the proceeding. Harvey, too is marvellous, his cold fish act broken by a sweet middle act about his first love that shifts our sympathies 180 degrees around regarding him. But it is Lansbury who takes the laurels. Her psycho-mummy power broker is both calculating and intense and she adds the flourish to an already excellent film.