Battle Circus (1953): Richard Brooks’ Korean War Romance, Featuring Bogart in One of his Last Films, Co-Starring June Allyson

Though not one of Bogey’s best films, Battle Circus bears a number of distinctions.  It is, as it turned out, one of his very last movies, and one of the few war films in which he actually wears a military uniform.

Richard Brooks wrote and directed Battle Circus, a Korean War romantic story, starring Bogart (in his only MGM film) and June Allyson.

Grade: C+ (** 1/2* out of *****)

Battle Circus
Battle Circus - 1953 - poster.png

1953 film poster

Bogart plays a surgeon and commander of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) 8666 (“66” in the dialogue) and Allyson is the newly arrived nurse.

Despite their initial handicaps, their love flourishes against a background of war, enemy attacks, death and injury.

Lieutenant Ruth McCara initially experiences a distant welcoming by Bogart’s Major Jed Webbe, the unit’s hard-drinking, no-nonsense chief surgeon.

Jed engages in a helicopter rescue of army casualties while under fire, and Orvil Slatt (Keenan Wynn), a former circus roustabout, is tasked with the constant dismantling and re-pitching of the tent hospital.

Jed is impressed with the risks Ruth takes, and while courting her, he also cautions that he favors a “no strings” relationship. Ruth is warned by the other nurses of Jed’s womanizing ways. When she asks him about his love life, he refuses to answer, and they separate.

When a Korean child needs special care, Ruth asks Jed to perform open-heart operation.  Later on, Ruth disarms a dangerous North Korean soldier with her persuasive words.

At one point, Bogart typically says: “Three World Wars in one lifetime. Maybe Whiskey’s as much a part of our life as war.” But he tapers off after he is threatened with being transferred, if he does not stop drinking.

Traveling cross-country, Jed sets out on a perilous journey, trying to meet up with the nurses who had already left.

In the happy ending, Jed and Ruth are reunited.

Battle Circus is the only MGM film Bogart had made; most of his films, especially his good ones in the 1940s (“Casablanca”), were produced at Warner.

Bogart’s Major Jeb Webbe, the commanding officer of a medical unit during the Korean War, runs his operation by the book, though occasionally he succumbs to sensitive compassion—and the bottle.

When nurse Lt. Ruth McCara (June Allyson, one of MGM’s most popular stars in the 1950s) shows up, he is initially irritated by her foolhardiness and by what he sees as excessive softness misplaced idealism.

Predictably, opposites attract and the two fall in love.  Bogart gets a number of drinking scenes, an opportunity to redeem himself (and get rid of all the alcohol), and even have one or two romantic scenes with June Allyson, though she is not the type of star who’s suitable for him (she’s too saccharine and sentimental, and smiles a lot), like Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, or Ida Lupino.

Keenan Wynn plays a scene-stealing part as the camp’s wheeler-dealer, a character that would be further developed in Altman’s” sharper 1970 satire, “M*A*S*H,” also set during the Korea War.

Bogart liked the writer-director Richard Brooks, whose liberal politics were close to his own beliefs.

Lines to remember:

At one point, Bogart says: “Three World Wars in one lifetime. Maybe Whiskey’s as much a part of our life as war.”

 

Cast

Humphrey Bogart as Maj. Jeb Webbe

June Allyson as Lt. Ruth McCara

Keenan Wynn as Sgt. Orvil Statt

Robert Keith as Lt. Col. Hillary Whalte.

William Campbell as Capt. John Rustford

Perry Sheehan as Lt. Lawrence

 

Credits:

Directed by Richard Brooks
Written by Richard Brooks, Allen Rivkin. Laura Kerr
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Cinematography John Alton
Edited by George Boemler
Music by Lennie Hayton
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: March 6, 1953

Running time: 90 minutes
Budget $1,201,000
Box office $2,362,000

DVD: March 7, 2000