Saturday, January 23, 2010


“Violent Saturday” director Richard Fleischer’s explosive, bullet-riddled epic “Between Heaven & Hell” combines the plot about clashes between subordinates and their superior officers set against the backdrop of World War II combat in the Pacific with the problem melodrama about Old and New South social consciousness. Robert Wagner starts out as an elitist, bourbon & branch water swilling, Southern cotton gin operator who displays no sympathy for his poor sharecroppers. Before this sturdy 94-minute, Cinemascope movie fades out, the protagonist turns over a new leaf and becomes a more considerate individual who is concerned about the welfare of his workers. The clash between officers in Fleischer’s film reached the screen a mere six days before director Robert Aldritch’s cynical wartime thriller “Attack.” “Between Heaven and Hell” came out October 11, 1956, while “Attack” debuted October 17, 1956. Nevertheless, “Attack” ranks as a more compelling outing because Robert Wagner’s NCO doesn’t kill the pusillanimous officer, while Lt. Harold 'Harry' Woodruff (William Smithers) in “Attack” kills a cowardly officer. Interestingly enough, Buddy Ebsen appeared in both movies as a G.I. Unlike “Attack,” “Between Heaven and Hell” confronts the issue of inequity between poor whites and affluent whites in the Old South. Actually, “Attack” surpasses “Between Heaven and Hell,” but the latter picture adds weight to the trend in American World War II movies about clashes between commanders and subordinates. Like the Aldritch film, “Between Heaven and Hell” painted an unsavory portrait of life in the military that showed American soldiers with feet of clay that films such as “The Naked and the Dead,” “Tarawa Beachhead” and “The Victors” would build on in later years.

The Fleischer film opens with two soldiers escorting Private Sam Francis Gifford (Robert Wagner of “Titanic”) to see Lieutenant Colonel Miles (Frank Gerstle of “D.O.A”) about a disciplinary problem. The military authorities have arrested Sam for attempting to kill a superior officer, Lieutenant Ray Mosby (Tod Andrews of “In Harm’s Way”), who ironically was one of his closest drinking buddies before the war broke out. Matters are complicated somewhat because Sam has received a Silver Star for dangling himself off the side of a cliff to sling explosives into a Japanese machine gun emplacement in a cave, a setting that suggests that this exploit occurred on Guadalcanal. Since Sam has won the medal, Miles prefers to send him to serve with George Company rather than imprison him in Leavenworth. The grim dialogue between Sam and the driver of the jeep, Private Willie Crawford (Buddy Ebsen of “Parachute Battalion”) suggests that prison would be preferable. Crawford observes as he hands his M-1 rifle to Sam. “Go ahead and kill someone, I don't care. How did you get in this outfit?" Sam replies without enthusiasm, "It was that or Leavenworth." Crawford shrugs, "Shoulda taken Leavenworth."

Sam meets his new superior officer, Captain 'Waco' Grimes, Commanding Officer, who stipulates that nobody can call him by his rank. Waco dreads that a Japanese sniper will kill him, so he insists that nobody refer to him by his rank. Waco keeps two Thompson machine-gun wielding soldiers at his sides at all times, Private. Swanson (Skip Homeier of “The Gunfighter”) and Private Millard (Frank Gorshin of “Batman”), and they wear only t-shirts on this upper chests rather than proper combat fatigues. Waco makes Sam his radio operator and Sam leaves to wander the new camp. He stretches out on the ground after Waco dismisses him and stares into a mud hole. The surface of the mud hole ripples when Sam tosses a pebble in it and the film shifts into flashback mode some 15 minutes into the action to take us back before Pearl Harbor to the South when Sam was a heartless but well-heeled cotton gin operator who had married Jenny (Terry Moore of “Mighty Joe Young”) and they were living high off the hog. We learn that Jenny’s father, Colonel Cousins (Robert Keith of “Branded”), commands Sam’s National Guard outfit and organizes it to mobilize overseas.

Before his call to duty after Pearl Harbor, Sam reprimands the laziness of his sharecroppers and treats them like dirt. Sam becomes buddies up with several G.I.s, and they become fast friends, foremost a down-to-earth country boy named Private Crawford. They really bond when Pvt. Bernard "Bernie" Meleski (Harvey Lembeck of “Stalag 17”) pretends that he is an officer to obtain two case of beer. Lieutenant Mosby sends Sam and his friends in to check out a village. The sight of a snake sends a chill down Mosby’s spine. Caught up short by a case of frayed nerves, Mosby accidentally fires the machine gun after Meleski knocks down a porch awning. The sight of watching Meleski and his friends getting mowed down propels Sam headlong toward Mosby. He clobbers the lieutenant with his rifle butt and ends up behind the stockade.

According to the American Film Institute, John Sturges was scheduled to helm it. Guy Madison was up for the Robert Wagner role and Twentieth Century Fox contract actress Joan Collins was considered for the role that Terry Moore inherited. “Between Heaven and Hell” suffers minimally from the usual idiocy that afflicts many Hollywood World War II movies. Specifically, American officers wear their rank on the front of their helmets—rather than the rear--making him easy for vigilant Japanese snipers. Unlike most World War II movies, an officer here who dons his helmet with his rank prominently on show dies from a sharpshooting enemy marksman. Top-notch photography by “The Day the Earth Stood Still” lenser Leo Tover gives “Between Heaven and Hell” a sprawling, virile appearance, that belies its actual location at the Twentieth Century-Fox ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, while “Dead Reckoning” composer Hugo Friedhofer received an Academy Award nomination for his orchestral score. Fleischer conjures up commendable suspense and excitement primarily with the standard theme of friendship; soldiers who buddy up suddenly have to confront the loss of their new-found friends. Meanwhile, this above-average combat opus boasts a cast of first-class thespians that includes Broderick Crawford, Buddy Ebsen, Brad Dexter, Ken Clark, Frank Gorshin, Skip Homeier, and Harvey Lembeck. Fleischer and “D-Day, The Sixth of June” & “A Walk in the Sun” scenarist Harry Brown, who adapted Arkansas-born novelist Francis Gwaltney’s 1955 fiction book “The Day the Century Ended,” give their military fans more than enough firefights to past muster. Interestingly, Rod Serling tried without success to adapt the Gwaltney novel. Moreover, Gwaltney was a Pacific campaign veteran. Fleischer refrains from demonizing the Japanese and presents them as an impersonal but dangerous enemy.