The novel and film follow the war stories of three different soldiers - two Americans (Noah Ackerman, a Jewish young man and Michael Whiteacre - a Broadway guy) and one German (Christian Diestl).
My memory of the book isn't that clear, but I gathered that the film departs drastically from Shaw's uncompromising conclusion, in which Diestl kills the wholly-admirable Noah Ackerman, and then Whiteacre the heel shoots Diestl. In the book, Diestl becomes a cold-hearted, animalistic, amoral Nazi after starting as an idealistic, charming young man.
In the film, Diestl is portrayed by a platinum-blond Marlon Brando. This isn't as bad as it sounds. He actually looks pretty darn godlike and is referred to as such by the females he naturally attracts. Whether or not you are interested in WWII topics, this film is also interesting in that it features two of not just the most famous, but best, actors of their generation: Marlon Brando as Diestl, and Montgomery (post-accident) Clift as Noah Ackerman.
In the original novel, Diestl morphed into a villainous, dislikeable character. This never happens in the film. I read some review material that indicated that Brando's vanity dictated that Diestl be portrayed as a naive charmer with high ideals that didn't wither throughout the film. The King Nazi in the movie is Diestl's superior officer, portrayed by the definitive Nazi, Maximilian Schell, in his first Hollywood role. I learned that gifted Swiss actor Schell did not speak English at this time, and spoke his part phonetically. This film effortlessly makes use of unbelievable acting power.
In the war of humanity, however, mirrored by the acting one-upmanship in this epic film, it is Montgomery Clift and his character Noah Ackerman who wins. As I noted some reviewers pointing up, The Young Lions was filmed at close enough proximity to the actual war (14 years later) that no one questioned what our troops encountered when they liberated the concentration camps. Diestl in the film is completely destroyed upon staggering into a smaller camp at the end of the war. Starving, bedraggled and desperate, he gnaws a piece of bread and slurps coffee as the camp Commandant (not as portrayed in Hogan's Heroes, either) matter-of-factly describes the logistical problems of exterminating 1,500 camp residents a day (he lists the various categories - Jews first, of course, followed by Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents and other undesirables). Brando's look of disgust and horror is priceless as he gradually realizes what is being discussed - where he is, and exactly what sort of shameful hell he has wandered into.
The parallel story of Noah Ackerman, played by Montgomery Clift is not very subtly contrasted with that of the Aryan God, Diestl. Shy, self-effacing and genuine to his inner core, which proves to be that of a real hero, Noah Ackerman illustrates America's experience with Jews during WWII. His story interestingly mirrored my own, in that Noah falls in love with a very "white" New England blueblooded girl played by Hope Lange, whose father has never even met a Jew before Noah shows up on the bus to ask for her hand in marriage. Her very decent, humane father walks with Noah around the Jew-free Vermont town where his family has lived for generations, and Noah truthfully discloses to him that he has no family, no family plot in a cemetery, and he is a poor Jew who earns $35 a week, and to top it all off, is 1-A in the draft. He also says he loves Hope and will always love her. By the end of the walk, Hope's father has decided that he will invite this alien stranger home for a turkey dinner. Hope knows, and the father has already explained to Noah, that this means he is "all right" and can ask for her hand in marriage.
Noah, as played by the amazing Montgomery Clift, who could not have been thinner without hospitalization, is a thin, awkward, burning sliver of a man with the heart of a lion. He overcomes blatant anti-Semitic prejudice in his basic training barracks with no complaints, courageously enduring beatings that are far more difficult to watch, and satisfying to see overcome, than similar scenes in From Here to Eternity. Then of course, and it's not overstated until the explicit concentration camp liberation at the end of the film, Noah is the ultra-courageous hero who successfully battles the horrible Nazis to free Europe.
The overarching message is that - America certainly had and has its flaws, but it allowed Noah's story to occur. In the opening scene of the film, Brando as Diestl explains to Barbara Rush (who turns out to be the girlfriend of the third main character, Michael Whiteacre, portrayed by ever-cool Dean Martin) why Germans would support Hitler. Having previously shown himself to be the quintessential Bavarian Alpine consort to vacationing wealthy American girls, Diestl tells her that "In Europe, it's difficult for a man to rise above his station." He confesses that at one time, he desperately wanted to be a doctor, but that his family lacked the funds to put him all the way through medical school. In the off-season from being a ski-gigolo, he says, he works as an assistant shoemaker in his father's shop. He believes that Hitler will change all of this - Hitler has promised, he says. When he is confronted with Hitler's warlike plans, including stating he would conquer the whole world, Brando/Diestl says "Let's not have this political discussion. They just go round and round and nothing is ever solved."
Well, seven years later, the guy ended up shot dead in the forest outside the concentration camp that forced him to face exactly who and what Hitler really was. Forced him to look the nightmare of Nazism full-on, and forced him to see what he had done with his young, initially thoughtful and idealistic life. Instead of the promised university education, which would have enabled Christian to save lives, instead, he has spent his life taking lives despite his squeamishness.
Bad, bad leader. And bad follower. That is why it must have really sucked to be a Nazi.