Sunday, May 28, 2017

Halls of Montezuma (20th Century-Fox, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a considerably less exalted but still interesting film: Halls of Montezuma, made by 20th Century-Fox in 1951 and oddly poised between your typical rah-rah war movie of the time (six years after the end of World War II, while the Korean War — or as it was euphemistically called, the “police action”) was still going on and the Cold War was at its peak, and something deeper and richer. Producer Robert Bassler decided to splurge on three-strip Technicolor and managed to get the full cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps in the making of the film, including supplying the producers with actual documentary footage of the real-life Battle of Okinawa which the movie was reproducing. Indeed, the Marines were so taken by the results they actually used the movie as a recruiting tool! At the same time Bassler hired Lewis Milestone as his director, working from a script by Michael Blankfort (though other writers, including an actual Marine officer, were on the project before Blankfort was), and since Milestone’s best-known credit was the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front he wasn’t exactly your go-to guy for a pro-war movie. As a result, Halls of Montezuma is poised between a rah-rah war movie and a war-is-hell movie. It’s centered around your typical gung-ho commanding officer, Lt. Carl Anderson (Richard Widmark), who’s about to lead a Marine platoon onto a hotly contested island (the island is carefully unnamed in the film, but the alternate title under which it was released in some countries, Okinawa, gives it away), and in the early parts it flashes back to the pre-service backgrounds of some of his men. 

Before the war Anderson was a high-school chemistry teacher, and he remembers one of his current troops, Conroy (Richard Hylton), as a stutterer whom Anderson broke of that habit by sheer force of will. Now Conroy, having already participated in the bloody battles at Guadalcanal and Tarawa, is suffering from what would then have been called “shell shock” and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Anderson is once again taking a no-nonsense position with him, ordering him to participate in the latest landing and once again pushing him by sheer force of will to do what he’s most afraid of. Other men in the outfit include Pigeon Lane (a tough-as-nails Jack Palance, here billed under his original first name, Walter, with Jack in parenthesis); Pretty Boy (Skip Homeier, who first attained his 15 minutes fighting World War II in the movies on the other side, as the brainwashed Nazi kid in both the stage and film versions of Tomorrow, the World!); Coffman (Robert Wagner in his first credited role, though he’d appeared unbilled the year before in the film The Happy Years), Lt. Col. Gilfillan (Richard Boone in his first film), medical corpsman Doc (Karl Malden, surprisingly restrained and effective) and the rather preposterous character of Sgt. Johnson (Reginald Gardiner), who looks both too old (middle-aged) and too British to belong in a U.S. Marine Corps unit. (One expects a line of dialogue explaining that he’s on loan from the British military because he can speak Japanese, which none of the U.S. military men can do, but that’s not explained in the film itself.) At first the Marines think they’re going to be able to establish a beachhead on the island and occupy it with little resistance, but they soon learn better as the Japanese begin opening fire from machine guns in pillboxes, snipers, and ultimately battlefield rockets, which bedevil the Americans because they can’t figure out where the rockets are coming from and if they’re not found and destroyed within nine hours they’ll decimate the rest of the invading U.S. troops. 

One of the messages the Marine Corps especially wanted this film to communicate to Marine recruits as well as civilians was the need to take as many prisoners of war as possible. As Anderson explains in the film, “We used to say, ‘The only good Jap is a dead Jap.’ We were wrong. A dead Jap can’t be interrogated and can’t give us any information.” He has to deal with Coffman, who before his own death in the battle goes crazy and wants to kill all the prisoners out of hatred and revenge. He also has to deal with the Japanese themselves, including Nomura (Richard Loo, the Chinese actor who’d found his niche playing dastardly Japanese officers in movies made since World War II and no doubt was not happy about still being typecast this way six years after the war was over!). It turns out that instead of stationing the rockets on the far side of the mountain the U.S. Marines were trying to take, Nomura, a civil engineer before the war, worked out a system of tunnels so the rockets could be kept hidden inside the mountain, safe from enemy attack, brought out whenever needed and quickly hidden away again. (This is historically accurate and one reason why the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa were so costly in terms of U.S. lives.) Once Anderson and company figure this out, they radio the information to the aircraft carriers stationed offshore and the carriers launch raids with dive bombers to close up the openings in the mountain so the Japanese can’t bring out their rockets and the Marines can charge ahead with minimal resistance — though the closing shot of the film isn’t the successful conclusion of the battle, but simply one of the Marines marching across the battlefield as the soundtrack belts out the “U.S. Marine Hymn” (the one that begins, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” and which actually took its melody from the operetta Geneviève de Brabant by French composer Jacques Offenbach) and we’re obviously supposed to take this as a stirring patriotic conclusion.  

Halls of Montezuma is a schizoid film, reflecting in part the studio’s attempt to make a one-sidedly patriotic film of Cold War inspiration and in part the darker, deeper ideas director Milestone had about war. There are a lot of visual motifs he’d used in his other war movies, including the use of bombed-out farmhouses and other ramshackle buildings as improvised military command centers à la All Quiet and the long scenes of servicemembers marching into battle through lovely pastoral countryside, the beauty of the landscape ironically contrasting with the brutality of what’s going on in it (something Milestone had done big-time in A Walk in the Sun and King Vidor had done before that in the 1925 silent The Big Parade). Milestone’s idea of war was a dirty, nasty business almost no one got out of alive, and through much of the movie he actually tones down the usually shrieking hues of three-strip Technicolor and gets an almost “black-and-white in color” effect much like what became standard in the late 1960’s, when Technicolor introduced a process called “denatured color” that reduced the intensity and vibrancy of its colors and therefore made color seem suitable for more “serious” film stories that had previously been done in black-and-white. Having said that, through much of Halls of Montezuma I found myself wishing it had been in black-and-white; the vision of war in Milestone’s direction and Blankfort’s script cries out for the chiaroscuro, almost noir look of classic black-and-white and instead gets a less vibrant but still not altogether appropriate color scheme. Those rousing opening and closing renditions of the U.S. Marine Hymn and John Philip Sousa’s march about the Corps, “Semper Fidelis” (a year before 20th Century-Fox made their Sousa biopic Stars and Stripes Forever) may say war is a wonderful enterprise all red-blooded American boys (not girls, yet!) should want to join in, but what we get in between is a dirty, nasty business in a movie that’s hardly at the level of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Walk in the Sun but certainly has its points — even though, quite frankly, I’d rather see the movies in which the studio promoted Widmark as the next James Cagney (Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck had signed Cagney to Warner Bros. in the first place in 1930 and then lost him three years later when he was forced out of the studio, though he landed Cagney as a free-lancer in 1946 for the World War II spy drama 13 Rue Madeleine) than the ones in which, as here, they were trying to make him into the next John Wayne!