Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman, 1933)

In a mere 70 minutes, William A. Wellman brilliantly captures the maddening dilemma facing American families on the brink of economic collapse. Wild Boys of the Road takes place during the Great Depression, but its themes and motifs are just as pertinent during today’s financial crisis. In the opening moments, wise-cracking teens Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) attempt to sneak into a dance, their problems amounting to impressing girls and cruising the downtown strip. As each boy watches their parents lose jobs, wrestle with bills, and await impending eviction, they decide to leave home in search of a job, hoping to take the pressure off their families.

Part social manifesto, part tragic coming of age story, the film follows the boys as they meet other children of their ilk in freight cars and shanty towns on the fringes of middle America. Amazingly, these resilient kids form a strong collective in the face of staggering economic and social odds, watching as the world dismisses them despite their growing numbers. Like Wellman’s later great films Battleground and Island in the Sky, Wild Boys of the Road shows a group of characters in extreme distress, creating a new family dynamic to fend off imminent death. But with Wild Boys the protagonists are children, making the story both heart-breaking and inevitably filled with hope.

Battleground (Wellman, 1949)

Battleground doesn’t concern itself with military tactics or visceral battle sequences. In many refreshing ways, it’s completely about the men, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division who fought and defended Bastonge in WWII, otherwise known as The Battle of the Bulge. William A. Wellman follows these assortment of personalities from an Army camp post Normandy onward, unsuspecting of the magnitude of what’s to come, to the fateful battle with the German Panzer Corp. Other films have portrayed the battle itself with far more conviction to the human toll of this bloody ordeal, but Battleground makes it’s casualties stick with greater intensity, since we’ve come to know and care for them as people. This is an odd war film, in that it doesn’t try and seduce the viewer with a star presence, or epic, heroic action scenes, but lets it’s deceivingly simple story play out as if we were right in the fox hole with Van Johnson and co. Wellman allows you to be invested in the outcome of their cold, brutal journey, mainly through the camaraderie of the men and the way this life is introduced to newcomers, here represented by Pvt. Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson). His indoctrination to the group begins slowly, even harshly when he thinks some soldiers don’t even know his name. But a great moment occurs shortly after the battle begins. After a mortar shell almost takes out half the platoon, Layton makes sure one of his commanding officers does know him by name. The man replies, “I know who you are.” Layton smiles, finally believing he’s one of the group. Layton’s experience, along with all the rest, signifies a respect for brothers in arms and the honor one can share while serving alongside them. Simple and beautiful stuff. Wellman directs this film with little show, but plenty of heart, dashing the cliché’s of the John Wayne war picture with true character development and sadness, a sublime outlook on friendship and loss. Battleground might not be the most visually stimulating war film, but it’s certainly one of the most fleshed out pieces on entrenched soldiers in combat. Also, it’s small does of comedy provide ample laughs and relief, but always remain based in the wintry environment of war. A fact not lost on the soldiers themselves as Nazi bombs explode all around.

Island in the Sky (Wellman, 1953)

A real stunner of an aviation picture, much more focused on character development and haunting location shooting than the previous Wellman I just screened. Island in the Sky fits beautifully as a great John Wayne performance and survival story, concerned primarily with the process of analyzing a desperate situation and anticipating human reaction to the dire experience. Wayne’s airplane pilot must keep his men psychologically sound as they await rescue from their snow packed crash site, all the while battling his own panic. Wellman juxtaposes the frozen tundra with the skill and dedication of the searching pilots who scramble to search for Wayne’s character without a shred of doubt or hesitation. It’s a great implication of friendship and respect, which ends up producing a deep look at an unwritten code amongst those of the same profession. The character’s dependence on past experience is shrouded in the expected randomness and brutality of nature, the only real villain in the film, and this dynamic adds to the tension of human survival and the creeping realization of death.

Yellow Sky (Wellman, 1948)

A deathly straightforward western from director William A. Wellman, one that wastes Gregory Peck’s charm and an interesting minimalist set-up. Peck and his band of thieves come across a deserted mining town only to find out it’s last two inhabitants, tom boy Anne Baxter and her old grandpa hold the key to an active gold mine. Greed, passion, and good intentions get muddled together and the overall result is strikingly mediocre. Having seen other Wellman films packed with intensity, be it Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident, or even Track of the Cat, it’s disappointing Yellow Sky harbors few moments of convincing drama and character. Just more of the same old genre traits.