The film was directed by Lewis Milestone, stars Dana Andrews and features Richard Conte, George Tyne, John Ireland, Lloyd Bridges, Sterling Holloway, Norman Lloyd, Herbert Rudley and Richard Benedict, with narration by Burgess Meredith.
In 2016, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry
In September 1943, the diverse group of fifty-three soldiers comprising a lead Platoon of the Texas Division anxiously await their upcoming Allied invasion of Italy on a beach near Salerno, Italy. A landing barge carries them to their objective during the pre-dawn hours, and the increasing danger of their situation is demonstrated when their young platoon leader, Lieutenant Rand (Robert Lowell), is wounded by a shell fragment that destroys half of his face. Platoon Sergeant Pete Halverson (Matt Willis) takes over command and orders Sgt. Eddie Porter (Herbert Rudley) to lead the men to the beach while he tries to find the company commander and confirm their orders.
First aid man McWilliams (Sterling Holloway) remains with Rand, and the rest of the men hit the beach and dig in while trying to elude the shelling and machine-gun fire. Sgt. Bill Tyne (Dana Andrews, a corporal in the novel) wonders what they will do if Halverson does not return, and after the sun rises, the sergeants send the men into the woods to protect them from enemy aircraft. Tyne remains on the beach to wait for Halverson, but learns from McWilliams that both Rand and Halverson are dead. Soon after, McWilliams is shot by an enemy airplane when he goes to a bluff to view the aerial attack on the beachhead.
Tyne walks to the woods, and there discovers that three other men have been hit, including Sgt. Hoskins (James Cardwell) who was the senior surviving NCO. Hoskins' wound means he cannot continue and Porter as the next senior NCO is forced to take command. Hoskins warns Tyne as he is leaving to keep an eye on Porter because he suspects Porter is going to crack under the pressure of command.
Porter, Tyne and Sgt. Ward (Lloyd Bridges) then lead the men in three squads along a road toward their objective, a bridge that they are to blow up that is near a farmhouse. Porter knows that the six-mile journey will be a dangerous one, and grows agitated. He warns the men to watch out for enemy tanks and aircraft. As they walk, the men shoot the breeze and discuss their likes and dislikes, the nature of war and the food they wish they were eating. Enemy aircraft appear and one of them strafes the platoon as they run for cover in a ditch. Some of the men are killed while one while is wounded, Pvt. Smith. Porter grows increasingly agitated.
Afterwards Porter is distracted when two retreating Italian soldiers surrender to the platoon and confirm that they are on the right road. The Italians warn them that the area is controlled by German troops, and soon after, the platoon meets a small reconnaissance patrol of American soldiers. After the patrol's motorcycle driver offers to ride to the farmhouse and report back, Porter becomes even more edgy as minutes pass without the driver's return. Finally Tyne tells the men to take a break while he sits with Porter. As machine gunner Rivera (Richard Conte) and his pal, Jake Friedman (George Tyne), razz each other, Porter begins to break down and tells Ward (also called Farmer) that he is putting Tyne in charge. Porter has a complete breakdown when a German armored car approaches, but Tyne's quick thinking prevails and the men blast the car with grenades and machine-gun fire.The bazooka men, who Tyne had sent ahead to search for tanks, blow up two tanks and another armored car, but expend all of their bazooka ammunition.
Tyne leaves a private named Johnson to guard the still-crying Porter, Tyne pushes on, and as the men march, Friedman tells Rivera that he is a traveling salesman who is "selling democracy to the natives." The men finally reach the farmhouse, but when a small patrol attempts to crawl through the field in front of the house, they are shot at by the Germans, and two men are killed. Tyne and Ward are baffled about what to do next when Windy (John Ireland), a calm, introspective soldier suggests circling around the farm via the river and blowing up the bridge without first taking the house. Tyne sends two patrols, headed by Ward and Windy, to accomplish the mission, then orders Rivera to strafe the house while he leads a column of men in an attack on the house, which he hopes will distract the Germans. The remaining men nervously wait for their comrades to reach the bridge, until finally Rivera opens fire and Tyne and his men go over the stone wall and into the field. Tyne's sight blurs as he crawls toward the house, and when he comes across the body of Rankin (Chris Drake), one of the fallen men, still cradling his beloved Tommy-gun, the platoon's constant refrain, "Nobody dies," resounds through his head.
The bridge is blown up, and despite heavy losses, the platoon captures the house. Then, at exactly noon, Windy, Ward and the remaining men wander through the house as Farmer fulfills his dream of eating an apple and Tyne adds another notch to the butt of Rankin's pet Tommy-gun.
Actor Burgess Meredith, who eventually narrated the film, persuaded his friend Samuel Bronston to produce a film based on the book by Harry Brown. Due to problems with creditors, Bronston had to shut down production and the project was taken over by Superior Productions, which included the director Lewis Milestone Bronston filed a lawsuit, and in an out-of-court settlement received 21.25% of the film's profits. The film was shot at 20th Century Fox's ranch, alongside that studio's production of A Bell for Adano.
The Army assigned Colonel Thomas D. Drake to the film as technical advisor. Drake had risen from private to sergeant in World War I. He was later commissioned and eventually commanded the 168th Infantry Regiment of the 34th Infantry Division in the North African campaign, where he and his regiment were captured by the Germans at the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Drake had recently been exchanged as a prisoner by the Germans due to his ill health, returning to the States in 1944.
Because of war-time shortages, US vehicles and aircraft stand in as enemy vehicles; most notably an American half-track is painted as a German half-track, and a P-51 plays the role of an "enemy" aircraft (probably intended to be either a C.205 or Bf-109). Later, P-38s (as American aircraft) engage a radial engined "enemy" plane (an T-6 Texan posing as a FW-190) during the film's climax.
In January 1945, Milestone showed the film to the U.S. Army for their approval. The Army was pleased with the film but requested two changes. They suggested that a remark be placed in the film explaining why the bazooka was not used during the attack on the farmhouse. Milestone complied with this request by shooting a scene where the bazooka crew reported that they used up all their shells in a battle with enemy tanks. The Army also requested a briefing scene at the film's beginning to explain the platoon's mission. They believed the film gave the impression that the platoon meandered about without an objective. Milestone authorized the shooting of such a scene but whether it was filmed but later edited out of the release no one is sure; however, a brief scene in the landing craft has the platoon sergeant explaining to the men, and the audience, that they had been briefed on their mission.
Though several film companies showed strong interest in acquiring the film, 20th Century Fox acquired the film for release in July 1945 so as not to compete with Fox's A Bell for Adano released earlier. However, when Japan surrendered, Fox's head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, stopped production of all war films. The film was released in June 1946 to critical and popular acclaim but also a strong critique of the film from director Samuel Fuller, which he sent in the form of a letter to Milestone.
Robert Rossen's screenplay follows Brown's book very closely. Milestone also recommended that Brown become a screenwriter in Hollywood, which led to a prolific career.
Milestone commissioned ballads from Millard Lampell and Earl Robinson to accompany the action at intervals throughout the film. The songs, which were sung by Kenneth Spencer, replaced much of composer Freddie Rich's original instrumental score. The ballad in A Walk in the Sun predates the ballad in High Noon, which also accompanied the film's narrative. Robinson and Lampell wrote other ballads that were deleted from the final print of the film due to objections, not only from composer Rich, but due to the comments of several preview audiences, who did not like the songs.
Songs composed for the film include -Ballad of the Lead Platoon
One Little Job
The Platoon Started Out
Texas Division Blues
They Met Hitler's Best
Walk in the Sun
Traditional musicThe Army Goes Rolling Along by Edmund L. Gruber
A Walk in the Sun was reissued by Realart Pictures in 1951 as Salerno Beachhead. In the 1980s the film was released on VHS tape.