Young Lions, The (1958): Dmytryk’s Oscar-Nominated Anti-War Movie, Starring Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, and Marlon Brando

Based on Irwin Shaw’s popular novel, The Young Lions is a social-message anti-War film, with an all-star cast, headed by Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, and Marlon Brando.

Grade: B (**** out of *****)

The Young Lions
Young lions allp.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Epic in scale and length (167 minutes), The Young Lions is set before and during WWII, telling a set of interrelated stories, about the motives and morals of the Nazis as well as the liberating American forces.
Moving swiftly from subplot to subplot, the movie benefits from the expert black-and-white cinematography of Joe MacDonald and score of Hugo Friedhofer, which is largely based on drum base.
Brando plays Christian Diestl, an idealistic German office who embraces Nazism as a pragmatic solution for Germany’s problems, but ends his life loathing the ideology and himself. Brando’s character is interspersed with the stories of two Americans, a lonely, shy Jew (Montgomery Clift) and brash Broadway entertainer (Dean Martin in one of his best dramatic efforts). Not neglecting the home front, the film also deals with the women in the lives of the three men.
The story begins in Austria in December 1938, when a young vacationing American, Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush) flirts with her courteous ski instructor, Christian Diestl (Brando). She is disturbed when they talk politics, specifically his open sympathy for Hitler. Back in New York, she rejoins her fiancé, Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a charming, irresponsible man with a drinking problem. Meanwhile, in a shabby hotel in California, Noah Ackerman (Clift) visits his estranged father and stays with him until he dies.
Cut to Spring of 1940, when Diestl, now an Army lieutenant, cautions his men about the needless abuse of French civilians, which contradicts the more rigid and radical views of his boss, Captain Hardenburg (Maximilian Schell) and Diestl’s photographer friend Brandt (Parley Baer), a cowardly opportunist.
Ackerman and Whiteacre meet at a draft board. Sensing his loneliness and isolation, Whiteacre invites Ackerman to a party where he meets and falls in love with a girl from Vermont, Hope Plowman (Hope Lange). In Paris, Diestl befriends a pretty Parisienne, Francoise (Liliane Montevechhi), who keeps him at a distance while Brandt has more success with her friend Simone (Dora Doll).
In Berlin, Diestl delivers a gift from Captain Hardenburg to his beautiful wife Gretchen (May Britt) and begins an affair with her. Meanwhile, Ackerman courts Hope and overcomes the objects of her father to their marriage. The couple gets married before he’s mobilized, while Whiteacre tells Margaret they should postpone their plans for marriage until the War is over.
Diestl and Hardenburg fight with Rommel’s forces in North Africa, trying to push the British back toward Egypt. Though still a good soldier, Diestl is bothered by his Captain’s ruthless attitude, particularly his decision to shoot British soldiers instead of taking them as prisoners.
Placed in the same army barracks, Ackerman and Whiteacre become friends. In a scene that bears strong resemblance to his part in “From Here to Eternity,” Ackeran is brutalized by his anti-Semitic captain and beaten by some husky privates, the last of whom he manages to beat. Later, Ackerman goes AWOL, but turns himself in when he learns his wife is pregnant.
In Africa, the tide turns against the Germans, and Diestl and Hardenburg escape on a motorcycle but hit a land mine. Hardenburg is severely injured, but Diestl is only superficially wounded. In Berlin, Diestl visits his wounded captain in the hospital, and the latter asks him to call on his wife, from whom he has not heard.
He points to a burned and mutilated patient in the next bed and reveals that the man has asked Hardenburg to put him out of his misery by killing him. Diestl reluctantly agrees to bring a bayonet on his next visit. When visiting Gretchen, Diestl finds her to be unconcerned and flirtatious. When she tells him that Hardenburg had killed himself with a bayonet, Diestl knocks her down.
Diestl becomes more depressed with his position as a German soldier. Fighting in France, he witnesses his regiment attacked and demoralized. He comes across his friend Brandt and the two men make their way to Paris and call upon Francoise and Simone. Brandt tells Diestl that he will desert, marry Simone and become a Frenchman. Francoise pleads with Diestl to follow Brandt’s example and desert but he cannot do it, and he leaves, promising to return.
Diestl, now a hungry and disheveled wanderer, comes across a concentration camp. The Commander (Kurt Katch) feeds him and complains about his job, the difficulty of killing six thousand prisoners per day with a staff of only a dozen men. Desperate and disgusted, Diestl leaves the camp.
Walking around the woods confused and disillusioned, Diestl smashes his machine gun on a rock. Later, he spots two American soldiers, Ackerman and Whiteacre, walking through a clearing. Instinctively, he aims his pistol at the Americans, but he decides instead to give himself up. Diestl fires his gun in the air to get their attention and walks toward the Americans. They fire back at Diestl, who staggers painfully and slumps to the ground before sinking into the mud.
Brando dominates “The Young Lions” with his portrait of Christian Diestl, a sympathetic interpretation of a Nazi that disturbed many people. Critical reaction was mixed, with some deeming his performance a masterpiece, while others disliking what they considered to be self-indulgent and overly brooding acting.
Edward Anhalt’s screenplay departs from Shaw’s novel in two major ways. First, in the book, in the final confrontation, Diestl kills Ackerman, and only then is killed by Whiteacre. Second, and more importantly, in the book, Diestl is a harsh, disciplinarian, unredeemable Nazi, not the kind of the more sensitive and sympathetic solider Brando made him to be.
Oscar Nominations: 3
Cinematography (b/w): Joe MacDonald
Sound: Carl Faulkner
Scoring (Drama or Comedy): Hugo Friedlander
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context
In 1958, “Gigi” was the only musical movie to vie for the Best Picture Oscar. The other nominees were: “Auntie Mame,” the Rosalind Russell stage vehicle; “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” adapted from the Tennessee Williams play; Stanley Kramer interracial drama “The Defiant Ones,” and the old-fashioned “Separate Tables,” based on the stage play from Terence Rattigan, adapted to the screen by him and John Gay.
The b/w Cinematography Oscar went to Sam Leavitt for “The Defiant Ones,” and the Sound Award to Fred Hynes for the musical “South Pacific.”
Dmitri Tiomkin won the Score Oscar for the Spencer Tracy drama, “The Old Man and the Sea.”


Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando)
Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift)
Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin)
Hope Plowman (Hope Lange)
Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush)
Gretchen Hardenberg (May Britt)
Captain Hardenberg (Maximilian Schell)
Simone (Dora Doll)
Sgt. Rickett (Lee Van Cleef)
Francoise (Liliane Montevecchi)
Brant (Parley Baer)
Lt. Green (Arthur Franz)
Private Burnecker (Hal Baylor)
Private Cowley (Richard Gardner)
Captain Colclough (Herbert Rudley)
Corp. Kraus (John Alderson)
Private Faber (Sam Gilman)
Private Donnelly (L.Q. Jones)
Private Brailsford (Julian Burton)
Rabbi (Robert Ellenstein)
Concentration Camp Officer (Kurt Katch)
Medic (Nick King)
Produced by Al Lichtman.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk.
Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the novel by Irwin Shaw.
Photographed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald.
Art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler and Addison Hehr.
Edited by Dorothy Spencer.
Musical score by Hugo Friedhofer.
Running time: 167 Minutes.
Box Office:
Released on April3, 1958, “The Young Lions” was popular with audiences, grossing in domestic rentals $4.48 million.
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