HALLS OF MONTEZUMA, tautly directed by war movie expert Lewis Milestone, hits the beach like a barrage, announcing itself with a stirring rendition of “The Marines’ Hymn”, which composer-arranger Sol Kaplan likewise bookends at the rousing climax of this 1951 semi-classic WW2 saga.*
“Slattery!–take the point.” During the battle for Okinawa, a veteran squad of Marines take a patrol to capture Japanese prisoners (hard to do) and pinpoint where a hail of rockets are coming from. Few return.
Alloted generous production assistance from the Corps (give those naive Korea-bound recruits at Camp Pendleton some noisy practice), mixing some documentary color footage of the real thing in with brightly shot recreations (Winton Hoch’s camera doing a good job suggesting glaring tropical heat), augmented with blasting sound effects (excellent job from the Fox crew), it made for a fairly vivid action immersion at the time, earning $5,850,000, spot #15 for the year.
“All right, Conroy, repeat slowly after me,’Hope is the Mother of all Men‘”.
Richard Blankfort’s screenplay is interesting in that, after a few situation establishing flashbacks (thankfully absent the typical phony romance blather inserted in war movies to supposedly coax women into a flick they’d otherwise cross the street to avoid) it takes clichés and upends them to micro-explore aspects of fear, fatalism and determination that can propel ordinary flesh-and-blood guys into the extraordinary and probable conversion to simply bloody flesh. Even the Japanese, who for a full decade since Pearl Harbor had been uniformly portrayed as little more than detested vermin, are given some human-scale variety.** The script does indulge in several last-breath speeches, has one character whose presence is unlikely (the Brit interpreter sergeant played by 47-year old Reginald Gardiner–how’d he get there?) and sometimes Milestone errs by bunching the men together so that an elderly geisha girl with a fan could take them all out, but the weak points are erased by the excellence of the cast.
After playing villains in six of his first nine pictures, on the heels of one of the most vicious (No Way Out), Richard Widmark moves assuredly into his tough-hero persona as the migraine-afflicted lieutenant who somehow has to keep it together even as he agonizes over his men being picked off one by one. Though not as flashy as some of his other work, this part remains a key piece of his image and his fanbase legacy.
Backing him is a superior lineup of fresh faces: Karl Malden, Richard Boone (debut), Jack Palance (second film), Neville Brand, Jack Webb, Richard Hylton, Robert Wagner (debut,20), Skip Homeier, Bert Freed, Martin Milner, Philip Ahn and Frank Kumagai. They’re all solid (Palance maybe overdoes it a little, but that’s a given). For young pup Wagner, fate more than talent would align for a rich kid who happened to be dating Darryl F. Zanuck’s daughter and–presto!–4th billing (that muttered, he does okay). “Come on, men, give ’em Hell-ll !!”
* Lewis Milestone was renowned as director of the early talkie WW1 classic All Quiet On The Western Front. During WW2 he worked the reins on Edge Of Darkness, The North Star, The Purple Heart and A Walk In The Sun and later commanded one of the best movies about the Korean War, Pork Chop Hill. The rank of “semi-classic” mentioned at the top fits, in that, while successful and well-reviewed, this trailed 13 months after the landing of the more profitable, more discussed, more influential Marine epic Sands Of Iwo Jima, and bobbed in the box office wake of the later Battle Cry.
“The Hollywood Reporter” noted that a company of Marine recruits were sworn in at the San Francisco premiere (destined for the frozen ridges of Korea). Aside from the title credits and wrap-up, the movie isn’t exactly a commercial for combat, but you can’t underestimate the ardor of youth. If that generation of lads was stoked by Wayne’s ‘Sgt.Stryker’ and Widmark’s ‘Lt.Anderson’ to volunteer for action in Korea, to be sure a new crowd were fired up seeing this revived via NBCs Saturday Night At The Movies on Dec 11, 1961. That’s when I first saw it, and the lusty stanzas of the Marines’ Hymn combined with the intensity of Richard Widmark, who I’d just seen as Jim Bowie in the heroic spectacle of The Alamo: this memory-fused his image with the figure of John Wayne and movie valor. Succeeding Saturday nights had Widmark fighting the yet-mysterious Japanese in Destination Gobi and The Frogmen. It’s a wonder—and was a mighty relief to my parents—that I didn’t end up discovering how fiction met reality in Vietnam, face down in a rice paddy of the Mekong Delta. You may be a quiche-slurping liberal (like the greater part of me is now) but only an actual twerp would not recognize The Marines Hymn as being one god-damn stirring tune. That French dame belting ‘La Marseillaise’ in Casablanca had Allied competition.
Ironic that the quiet, politically leftist Widmark would have nearly as much effect on enlistment as the vocal, hawkish Wayne. Widmark’s perforated eardrum kept him out of WW2, but co-star Neville Brand was a highly decorated veteran of the fighting in Europe. Brand’s laconic quote on being badly wounded, pinned down by enemy fire,nearly bleeding to death—one day before Germany surrendered—“I knew I was dying. It was a lovely feeling…like being half-loaded.”
** While the script allows its Japanese characters some range for belonging to the human race, it also accurately has the Marines referring to them as “Japs” and “Nips”, which no doubt will bother some who watch today. Aside from reading a little history, we suggest to p.c. panickers that you try Getting Real. Warriors, in a no-holds-barred fight to the finish, decades ago, are shooting, stabbing and burning each other to death—and you are upset that they hurl some slurs? Kono kyanpu kara no esukêpu wa sonzai shimsen. If you wish to focus a disgust beam where it might shine light, give homage to composer-conductor Sol Kaplan. A one-time child prodigy and concert pianist, he bore an array of film credits during the 40s and 50s (including Niagara and Titanic) before being blacklisted because he was a “friend” of John Garfield and had the temerity to invoke the Bill Of Rights and demand of his cowardly accusers that they name who finked him. Fox fired him. No Marines Hymn played for that costly island of history.