The title of Kings Go Forth is drawn the from Bible – specifically, 2 Samuel 11:1:
“And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle, that David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the children of Ammon, and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed behind in Jerusalem.”
Are the characters in this film the kings? Or are they David? In a sense, they're both: 1st Lieutenant Sam Loggins (Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm) and Corporal Britt Harris (Tony Curtis, Some Like it Hot) are part of “the champagne campaign,” doing relatively easy clean-up work in Southern France near the end of WWII. Occasionally, the Americans are required to engage in combat with the enemy. More often, they're relaxing on the French Riviera: drinking, eating, gambling, flirting with French women and hanging out in a local jazz club. One day, they're living a hedonistic fantasy. Another, they're locked in a fight to the death with Nazis. In a sense, they are straddling the line between heaven and hell.
It's a fascinatingly complicated backdrop, even if the story that's scattered all over the surface isn't quite as consistently compelling. Kings Go Forth was directed by Delmer Daves, who is probably best known for his thoughtful, morally ambiguous westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Broken Arrow) and who brings a similarly murky, meditative quality to this WWII flick. It's fundamentally a tormented melodrama, albeit one that contains numerous scenes that seem to have been hauled in from a much more conventional war movie. Imagine a black-and-white Douglas Sirk film with occasional battle breaks, and you're in the right ballpark.
Eventually, a different sort of war begins to emerge. Loggins meets Monique Blair (Natalie Wood, West Side Story), a young woman who was born in America but has spent her entire life in France. He falls in love with her. She kinda-sorta likes him, but that's about the extent of it. That's more or less enough for Loggins, but just as things are starting to warm up, Harris steps in and steals Monique's heart. The relationship between the two men was tense to begin with (Loggins' no-nonsense professionalism doesn't always blend well with Harris' oily charm), but now things are really messy. When Loggins learns that Harris is simply taking advantage of Monique, violent rage start to seep into the picture. Eventually, we reach a point where these two men want to kill each other, and have ample opportunity to get away with doing so given that the nature of the setting they're in. “I could always just say that a sniper got you,” Harris snarls.
Much of this has the distinct air of cheap paperback fiction, and there are moments when the film's romantic angst verges on self-parody. Even so, the atmosphere Daves creates – emotional and physical violence spreading across a land of beauty and pleasure – has a strangely hypnotic quality. The film's melancholy tone is aided immeasurably by Sinatra, who provides pitch-perfect world-weary narration throughout that adds just the right tone of regretful resignation to the whole affair. There's certainly some absurdity in Sinatra's role – on numerous occasions, we're told that women find him far less attractive than Tony Curtis, which seems absurd – but what matters is that Sinatra plays the part he's given with conviction. He feels like a guy who's never been good at romantic relationships. Curtis' performance is a little less successful, as he never really sells us on his abilities as an irresistible smooth-talker.
To talk about Wood's performance, we must offer a light spoiler (something revealed somewhere around the film's 40-minute mark). Just as the relationship between Sinatra and Wood begins to look like it's turning into something, she feels compelled to offer a confession: she is half-black, as her father was an African-American man. Here, the film arrives at its most dated and most fascinating interlude, as the (relatively progressive, for the era) Sinatra character is forced to go off and wrestle with the realization that he is in love with a biracial woman. His inner conflict might seem laughable to modern audiences, but this was challenging material for viewers of 1958. We're told that the character grew up in the “mean streets” of New York, and that he was raised with a racist view of the world. There's one surprisingly frank meditation on the ugly power of the n-word: “I suppose that's one of the first words you learn in America,” Wood snaps. In terms of the larger narrative, none of this really goes anywhere, as Sinatra eventually shrugs off his prejudice and the tale moves along as if nothing has happened. Even so, it's a riveting detour into the sort of moral conflict viewers were prepared to confront in 1958. Wood's casting feels like a strange sort of compromise: “Maybe they'll accept Sinatra's relationship with a biracial woman if she's played by somebody who looks like Natalie Wood.” The ethics of that decision aside, it's worth saying that Wood plays the material with delicate sincerity.
I'm not sure that much of Kings Go Forth really works, but if it's a failure, it's a consistently interesting failure. In some ways, it feels like a quiet response to other war movies of the era; an uneasy acknowledgment that the collective trauma experienced in WWII hadn't really been reckoned with properly in the genre. The disconnect is subtly accentuated by Elmer Bernstein's score, which offers upbeat jingoism with just a trace of sadness. “Sometimes, people died,” Sinatra sighs during one of his early bits of narration. “Sometimes, they were your friends.” The tone with which he delivers that line informs the whole movie.
Kings Go Forth
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 1958