Rack The (1956)
Directed by Arnold Laven this Stewart Stern (Teresa (1951)) screenplay was based on a teleplay by Rod Serling the Emmy Award winning creator of TV’s The Twilight Zone. It stars Paul Newman as a Korean War veteran who returns home after years as a P.O.W. to face a court martial trial for collaborating with the enemy. It’s a very good drama with an excellent credible performance by Newman and the rest of the film’s notable cast including Wendall Corey as the initially reluctant yet duty bound prosecutor Walter Pidgeon as Newman’s stern “by the book” Army Colonel father Edmond O’Brien as Newman’s more than capable defense attorney Anne Francis as Newman’s sympathetic and recently widowed sister-in-law Lee Marvin and James Best as two of Newman’s accusers and Cloris Leachman (in a cameo) as Francis’s friendly neighbor.
Captain Edward Worthington Hall Jr. (Newman) needs medical assistance to exit the “returning troop” plane at the San Francisco airport. His father Colonel Edward W. Hall Sr. (Pidgeon) and sister-in-law Aggie (Francis) who are there for his return are unable to greet him as he’s loaded into an ambulance and taken to a military hospital by the Golden Gate Bridge. We learn from interaction with her neighbor Caroline (Leachman) that Aggie lives with her father-in-law Edward Sr. because her husband his son was killed in the Korean War. Ed meets with a psychiatrist and later with his family (Robert Blake appears uncredited as a soldier being mobbed by his family) but is unable to say much though he is clearly troubled by something. Still wheelchair bound and recovering in the hospital Ed wheels himself in to watch a movie (featuring Debbie Reynolds mixing chemicals) with others when another patient (Marvin) in crutches himself slips a noose with the word “traitor” around his neck. Shortly thereafter Major Sam Moulton (Corey) is explaining to Ed (who was introduced to him by Dean Jones appearing uncredited) that he’s being brought up on charges for giving aid & comfort to the enemy in time of war which if convicted will mean a court martial. Earlier Moulton had been told by Colonel Hansen (Robert Burton) that the Army must try the most egregious (40) of these cases to set an example when he had objected to prosecuting an Army Captain that had received the Silver Star. However Ed is allowed to stay out of jail with no restrictions given his otherwise exemplary war record.
Physically recovered and released from the hospital Ed returns home to find that his father the Colonel and Aggie have invited all their friends and neighbors over to celebrate his return. Not feeling very cheerful Ed later excuses himself early from the party and retreats to the kitchen where he and Aggie speak briefly. The Colonel later joins him and they have some brief awkward moments together before they are interrupted by a guest such that Ed still hasn’t had a chance to tell his father about the charges. Realizing he probably won’t get the chance that evening Ed goes to bed early. After the party is over a friend of the Colonel’s a fellow Army Colonel Dudley Smith (Fay Roope) arrives and the two old buddies begin to have a drink. Aware of the charges against his friend’s son Smith remarks that the Colonel seems to be taking it well. Pressed for what he means Smith mentions the court martial which prompts the Colonel to charge up the stairs muttering “my son honored me” as he barges into Ed’s room to wake him. Shocked to learn the truth the Colonel yells at his already ashamed son and runs from his room & back down the stairs as Ed gives chase trying to justify his crime.
In the next scene we see Lt. Colonel Frank Wasnick (O’Brien) visiting Ed at a hotel where we find he is now staying and drinking. Wasnick quickly supports Ed saying that the court martial is not the foregone conclusion that he thinks it is and that he would have probably done the same thing under the circumstances. The next thing we know several weeks have passed and the trial has begun. The familiar actor Robert Simon appears at the court’s law officer. One by one as Major Moulton presents his case it seems that Captain Hall willingly collaborated with the enemy. Now civilian Millard Cassidy (Best) testifies that he saw the accused strike a wounded fellow soldier in the P.O.W. camp. Sergeant Otto Pahnke (Adam Williams) says that the Captain tried to get him to sign a leaflet that he had signed which accused the U.S. Government of false pretenses for even being in Korea. Wasnick does a pretty good job negating Pahnke’s testimony however first establishing a 6 month time period in which the Captain hadn’t been seen. Then getting the native Pole to admit that Ed had a frightened look which resembled what he had seen in the eyes of Dachau survivors when he’d finally reappeared and asked the Sergeant to sign the paper. But the most damaging testimony comes from Lee Marvin’s character a fellow Captain named John Miller. Miller had been in charge of a failed escape attempt which he’d later been told was leaked to the enemy by Captain Hall. Miller then described the torture he was subjected to in great detail and testified that the only information the Chinese got from him was his “name rank and serial number!”. He was then allowed to remove his shirt and pants to show what he suffered.
Things looked pretty hopeless for Ed and he returns from a night of drinking to find Aggie in his hotel’s lobby. She’s brought him some clean shirts but her real purpose is to encourage Ed to fight the charges against him. Perhaps inspired by her words Ed takes the stand the next day and tells the other side of the story. I don’t want to spoil what that is or what transpires other than to say that Wasnick begins his defense by introducing the concept that “every man has his breaking point” and that there is a tearjerking moment between father and son. I also want to say that it’s compelling and well worth your time if you get a chance to see this one especially its quick ending.