Bavaria in 1938, and on the ski slopes of the Alps a couple are enjoying themselves, the German instructor Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando) and the American tourist Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush), collapsing into the snow and laughing. It is New Year's Eve and they are there for a party, appreciating one another's company without a care in the world, or so Margaret thinks. That evening, inside the ski lodge, the beer is flowing and the music is playing as the holidaymakers dance the night away, but then something happens that pulls her up short: the assembled Germans toast Adolf Hitler as the clock strikes twelve midnight. She wanders outside, disturbed that Nazism should interrupt her lovely time, but Christian doesn't understand: surely patriotic pride can only be good and improving?
Does this movie have news for him, although it takes the whole of the Second World War for Christian to twig what a mistake he has made. This was the Hollywood version of the bestselling war novel by Irwin Shaw, and therefore changes had to be made, most obviously in the character of bleach blond Brando's Christian who on the page started out an innocent and was subsequently corrupted into evil, but the studio had cold feet about that depiction so had their biggest male star start the film naïve, become misled as to the value of his post in the German Army, and end up seeing the light. Credit to Brando, given that material (and labouring under a shaky accent), he managed to make these alterations powerful.
Still, there were those, Shaw among them, who felt this resulted in a dishonest movie, and while there are opinions that The Young Lions was a classic, there were just as many others who were less convinced, and heaven knows the production offered them enough ammunition to fuel that argument. Brando was not the only star here, as he was joined in the story by Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin who played American soldiers drafted into the conflict, and a goodly proportion of this was caught up in their training. Clift was emerging after his recent car crash with noticeably aged features, indeed he looked ten years older than his actual age by this point, and though he served up a committed performance he was obviously not a well man.
Meanwhile Martin was seeing if he could make the transition from comedy to drama, which in his case paid off as his two fellow leads were criticised but he was singled out for praise as proving himself with greater range than singing opposite Jerry Lewis might not have offered him a chance to display. He assuredly held his own against Brando and Clift, though more the latter than the former as the three of them didn't meet up till the final couple of minutes of near-three hour long film, that notion that the lengthier the experience the more important the work was already taking hold amongst would be serious efforts on the silver screen. Clift did tend to stay in the mind, however, and that may well have been down to his fragile physical appearance: when his Private Ackerman makes up his mind to fight four men who have stolen his money, it's painful for more reasons than one.
Noah Ackerman is Jewish, and the anti-Semitism that the character suffered in the novel was merely hinted at in the movie, as he is singled out by the bullies and bigots in the U.S. Army because he got his barracks into trouble in this telling, watered down and not as significant. That was not to say you could not detect the real reason for his victimisation, but it was a regrettable item of pussyfooting in a film that was supposed to be hard hitting, and more proof of the military's harmful involvement with films which needed their permission to be made. Each of the trio of leads had a love interest, and Clift was paired with the equally sensitive, in her screen persona at least, Hope Lange, while Martin met up with Rush later on and Brando tussled with May Britt, all very well but coming across as a distraction from the anti-war message. Nevertheless, with a cast like this there were always going to be interesting scenes, and director Edward Dmytryk provided a number of them even as he failed to allow them to build to a devastating climax as appeared to be the intention, as there was just too much that felt inessential (though not to Carrie Fisher, who at her lowest mental ebb believed this film was sending messages to her). Music by Hugo Friedhofer.