Watched this one having read Donald Bogle's book and curious about James Edwards, MGM's first black leading man in the 1940s. Bogle paints Edwards as a dangerous rebel, skilled in New York acting techniques and like other newcomers to the screen, Brando and Clift, striving to bring a new realism to glossy studio confections. And in the period there seems to have been a shortlived interest in producing progressive, "social awareness" pictures that inevitably included racial struggle. All of the Hollywood studios made one or two apiece during a single year, and MGM turned out this one (along with INTRUDER IN THE DUST, an old fashioned, classic film compared to the B-movie innovations of HOME OF THE BRAVE). It is a curious piece of work, but Edwards' performance is transfigurative. He rips up the screen as Private Peter Moss, a black serviceman attached to a white volunteer platoon of engineers assigned to mao out a dangerous Pacific atoll at the height of World War II.
Blacks weren't integrated into the larger Armed Services, and only later would Harry Truman force the policy of integration down the army's throat, but of course there were individual liberals and "social conservatives" everywhere, even during the 1940s. Lloyd Bridges plays a boyhood friend of "Mossy," and he seems genuinely, even freakishly colorblind, not understanding why Moss has a problem being his friend. For him, racism doesn't exist except if individual people see it as a problem. His character, Finch, a warm volkstümlich type of guy, gets captured by the Japanese on the island and the rest of the platoon, in hiding while surveying. Were the Japanese so cruel as this movie makes them out to be? To lure the remaining men out of the underbrush, they pierce Finch with bayonets to make him scream, over and over again. No wonder Mossy suffers from post traumatic stress and loses the ability to walk again!
A kindly yet gruff psychiatrist (Jeff Corey, authoritative and hammy as Freud himself) is assigned to snap Mossy out of it and return him to society in one piece.
But how can he do that when society itself has race consciousness embedded in it?
It's the rare US film in which a contemporary poem, in this case Eve Merriam's "The Coward," is given a full and dramatic close reading that preciptates the action on the one hand, and on the other helps to characterize one of the other GIs, the gruff sergeant, Mingo (Frank Lovejoy), whose wife supposedly wrote the poem, then a Dear John letter to him.
- Only we two, and yet our howling can
Encircle the world's end.
Frightened, you are my only friend.
And frightened, we are everyone.
Someone must make a stand.
Coward, take my coward's hand.
While Edwards is ostensibly the main character, HOME OF THE BRAVE is Corey's show too, and their pas de deux in the film's last quarter has the genuine power and sweep of director Mark Robson's best work.