Home of the Brave

James Edwards (center) stars in 1949's "Home of the Brave," now out on DVD and Blu-ray. (Courtesy of Olive Films / May 9, 2014)

In advance of a major offensive on a Pacific island during World War II, disturbingly young Major Robinson (Douglas Dick) is assembling a team to sneak onto the island to prepare crucial maps. When Pvt. Moss (James Edwards), the new topographer, arrives from another unit, one of the men turns out to be an old schoolmate and greets him enthusiastically, but two others simply snub him. The problem: Moss is — as Robinson soon complains on the phone to the general — “colored.”

“What color is he?” the general impatiently demands. “I don't care if he's purple. We need him for this mission.”

By the time the movie ends, “colored” is far from the worst label pinned on Moss. Yes, the N-word is used repeatedly; to have omitted it would have made the film pointless.

The film opens after the mission: The traumatized Moss is being treated by an Army psychiatrist (Jeff Corey) for amnesia and hysterical paralysis. With the aid of a new hypnotic drug, the shrink helps Moss recall the mission in flashbacks that constitute the bulk of the film. We see moments of Moss' earlier friendship with Finch (Lloyd Bridges), the disdain heaped on him by casual racist T.J. (Steve Brodie), and the slightly less chilly reception by Sgt. Mingo (Frank Lovejoy). While on the island, the pressure reveals more of the motivations of all involved, Moss most particularly.

It's astonishing that “Home of the Brave” came out in 1949 and no less astonishing (and a bit disturbing) that it holds up as well as it does. Given the subject, it's no surprise that “Home of the Brave” was independently financed. Stanley Kramer — later to become Hollywood's leading director of “issue” films — produced; Carl Foreman (“The Guns of Navarone,” “Bridge on the River Kwai”) based his script on a play by Arthur Laurents (“Rope,” “West Side Story”). Director Mark Robson was coming off of several excellent Val Lewton horror films, but the quality of his subsequent career (which included “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls”) was far more variable.

In Laurents' original play, Moss was Jewish, not black; but a few films confronting anti-Semitism had recently been released. Among the greatest benefits of the ethnic alteration was to provide a lead role for Edwards, a powerful actor who rarely, if ever, got to display his range again. He worked on TV and showed up in smaller roles in Sam Fuller's “The Steel Helmet” (1951), Fred Zinnemann's “Member of the Wedding” (1952), Stanley Kubrick's “The Killing” (1956), and John Frankenheimer's original “Manchurian Candidate” (1962).

“Home of the Brave” may be important for a number of historical reasons, but its inherent qualities can't be denied. Despite some dated hokum toward the end, its view of racial interactions is strikingly nuanced, even by current standards.

Home of the Brave (Olive Films, Blu-ray, 29.95; DVD, 24.95)

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).