Saturday, August 15, 2015

Between Heaven and Hell (1956)

Director: Richard Fleischer                                 Writer: Harry Brown
Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer                              Cinematography: Leo Tover
Starring: Robert Wagner, Terry Moore, Broderick Crawford and Buddy Ebsen

Between Heaven and Hell is a World War Two film that sort of gets lost in the shuffle and is rarely seen on television. The reason probably has to do with the fact that fully half of the film is incomprehensible, though for me it’s still better than From Here to Eternity. The film was based on the novel by Francis Gwaltney called The Day the Century Ended. The author was a Southern landowner who had been in the Philippines and the book is based on his experience and the friends he made that changed his way of thinking. The novel was purchased by 20th Century Fox but had a rocky beginning. The screenplay was first offered to Rod Serling, on the strength that he had also served in the Philippines, but he couldn’t get the story down to a manageable length. Then it was passed along to several other writers before it landed on the desk of Harry Brown, whose novel A Walk in the Sun was the basis for the film of the same name ten years earlier. Whether it was the original source material or Brown’s choice of what to use from it, the novel doesn’t translate well to the screen and other than the flashbacks, makes little sense. Director Richard Fleischer would make some other interesting big-budget pictures, including another World War Two film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, but there wasn’t a lot he was able to do for this film other than shoot some beautiful scenery, some of it on Kaua’i. Hugo Friedhofer’s score was the only part of the film nominated for an Oscar.

The film begins on an unnamed island in the Pacific during the last year of the war. Robert Wagner is in the stockade for assaulting an officer and called on to see the colonel, Frank Gerstle. Apparently Gerstle doesn’t want to turn Wagner over to a court martial just yet because he’s earned the Silver Star. So he’s being reassigned to an isolated company high up in the hills. The driver is Buddy Ebsen and when he takes him to the company headquarters Wagner meets the captain, Broderick Crawford, who doesn’t wear stripes on his uniform and insists on being called Waco instead of Sir, so he won’t be shot at by Japanese snipers. Crawford makes him a radio operator and sends him out to find a foxhole to live in. There he meets Brad Dexter, a lieutenant from the same part of the country back home. Dexter asks about a deceased colonel, Robert Keith, and learns Wagner is married to his daughter. Then Wagner flashes back to being back home on the plantation with his wife, Terry Moore. He’s mean to his white sharecroppers and she doesn’t like it very much. The portrait of a bigot emerges as he talks to his wife and reinforces a view of the past that goes back to slavery. He returns briefly to the present before flashing back to his first island landing with his National Guard unit, commanded by Keith. It’s here that Wagner earned his Silver Star when his company is hit by hidden gunmen and he climbs up above their position and drops down on them with grenades.

The friends he makes in the trenches happen to be just the kind of sharecroppers that he had abused on his own farm, but now sees as his equal, especially Buddy Ebsen. It’s this realization that is at the center of the drama, as well as the reason for his arrest. The title of the film comes from the disparity between Robert Wagner’s flashbacks with his wife Terry Moore, and the jungle fighting during the war. Wagner plays the role with the kind of disdain for authority that was beginning to creep into films after the propaganda of the late forties was wearing thin, and he does a decent job. Nevertheless, the problems with the screenplay are insurmountable as Broderick Crawford’s role makes absolutely no sense. In his island outpost the men behave as if he’s some kind of Kurtz-like character who has gone rogue, and yet his insistence on trying to avoid a sniper’s bullet seems very reasonable. The script has him ranting and raving, with soldiers like the crazed Frank Gorshin at his side amplifying the effect for no discernible reason, which simply makes him look ridiculous. Other than a couple of attacks by Japanese patrols, and some mortar shelling, there’s very little in the way of warfare, save the island landing from Wagner’s flashback. The photography is undeniably gorgeous, but again, it’s not enough to save a severely flawed picture. Between Heaven and Hell is best appreciated by fans of Robert Wagner, and is interesting for the character arc he goes through, but as a World War Two drama it’s sorely lacking.

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