B Roll is a regular feature that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, the brilliant. This week, writer Nathanael Hood takes time out on Memorial Day to wax poetic about Delmer Daves’ woefully underrated WWII melodrama, Kings Go Forth.
In his beautiful and heartfelt reminiscence on the career of his friend and colleague, director Bertrand Tavernier wrote of Delmer Daves: “The true Davesian hero is one who seeks; who educates himself through the study of various races and cultures, and who fights prejudice…” Certainly one of the best Davesian heroes would then be 1st Lt. Sam Loggins in his 1958 film Kings Go Forth.
Played by Frank Sinatra, Loggins is a war-weary, cynical soldier engaged in the World War II “Champagne Campaign”—America’s unglamorous military operations sweeping up the remnants of the Third Reich in the South of France. While the GIs up North get their pictures taken parading the streets of Paris, Loggins and his men get picked off by Nazi stragglers. Predictably for a ’50s war film, there are numerous scenes of battlefield heroics. We watch as soldiers brave mine-fields to rescue new recruits who missed the warning signs. A wave of men get cut down charging a machine gun bunker. Loggins and another soldier, Corporal Britt Harris (Tony Curtis), sneak into a Nazi-occupied town at night to gather intelligence and targets for Allied bombings.
But the beating heart of the film is the love triangle between Loggins, Harris, and Monique Blair (Natalie Wood): a beautiful girl born in America and raised in Paris to a white mother and a black father. In Monique, Loggins finds the peace and tranquility he never could. But as Harris’ affections for her become more apparent, Loggins resigns himself to the shadows. But why? Because he realizes that Harris makes her more happy? Or is he feeding a fatalistic self-loathing? “He was born rich and handsome, I was born poor and not handsome,” he monotones at one point. But more likely it had to do with his own reticence in romancing a “half-Negro.”
The most admirable part of Kings Go Forth—available now in a gorgeous Blu-ray release courtesy Twilight Time—isn’t that it was a romantic melodrama that spoke out against racism and miscegenation; it was that it had the courage to have a protagonist who seriously struggled with these prejudices. When Monique reveals her mixed heritage to Loggins, his reaction is one of horror and confusion. Heartbroken, she spits, “I guess ‘nigger’ is one of the first words you learn in America, isn’t it?”
Cut to Loggins sitting in a captured Nazi bunker. He thinks to himself: “Monique was wrong. [Nigger is] not the first one you learn, and some kids never learn it at all…I learned it early and used it often. It showed just how tough I was…Why? I don’t know why, except a lot of people need somebody to look down on. Or they think they do.”
In our current political climate of hashtags and social media updates beginning with “I’m not racist, but…” this brazen admission seems shocking. We’re used to protagonists in modern media who react immediately and decisively against racism and all its mutations. But Loggins isn’t so sure. It is something he must work through and struggle with.
This struggling is what makes Kings Go Forth so inherently Davesian. Like his contemporaries Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray, Daves used the trappings of genre films like Westerns, war flicks, and noir to explore psychological interiors. So Kings Go Forth juxtaposes scenes of intense combat and suspense with high melodrama and emotion, treating both with equal respect and attention.
The most violent moment of the film doesn’t take place on a battlefield—it’s when Loggins forces Harris to reveal to Monique his less-than-noble motivations for romancing her. For Daves, this scene is both the climax and the turning point for his narrative.
Kings go Forth is just more proof that Daves remains one of the most crucially overlooked directors of the classic Hollywood studio system.