TAKE THE HIGH GROUND! seized more of a gully in 1953, coming in 99th place at the box-office. Somehow it coughed up an Academy Award nomination for Millard Kaufman’s script, mercifully losing to Titanic. At a production cost of $1,166,000 (helped by full-throttle co-operation from the US Army) the gross of $2,855,000 did allow a profit of $244,000. No heights are gained, however, from the script, direction or performances.
Richard Brooks directed, but this, his fifth turn at the helm, rates as one of his worst pictures; its nearly daffy unreality has hardly anything in it that feels convincing. It’s also a low point for star Richard Widmark.*
After a brief opening scene in the Korean War (the hills looking suspiciously like scorched West Texas: it was shot near El Paso, mostly at Fort Bliss), ‘Sgt. Thorne Ryan’ (Widmark) takes his veteran’s combat edge and career-honed sarcasm to train Army new recruits, with help from more easygoing sarge pal Karl Malden. Once more, a group of hapless stumbling clods are harassed into disciplined, “about-face!”-mastering infantrymen, but the clownish situations (a pillow-fight, for cryin’ out loud?–while guys in the audience just came back from the Real World meat-grinder of Korea?), stupid attitudes, doltish behaviors and general all round clumsiness of the entire enterprise–with a dismal, dismissive romantic subplot, and an awful title tune for extra irritation—too often leaves you gob-smacked by the waste of talent in such crummy material (see: the Army). Among the squad of military flicks that deal all or in large part with training, this has got to be the cheesiest—ostensibly serious, it’s practically Gomer Pyle. **
Producer Dore Schary originally commissioned Kaufman’s script off an article on rugged Marine Corps training, but the USMC, sensitive to criticism, passed. The man-hungry Army acquiesced, and the literal pillow-fight softening seems intended to accomplish three goals (1) soothe worried Moms about how their offspring might be treated by those bullies with stripes, (2) show-off the basically swell Army in general, and (3) take some heat away from the release of the less-flattering barracks reveal From Here To Eternity.
The badly shoehorned romance goo comes through dew-eyed starlet beauty Elaine Stewart, who does look thoroughly–and miserably–soused in her drunk scenes: it’s the best acting in the film. Dimitri Tiomkin provides the score, which, aside from having to come up with music for the terrible Ned Washington lyrics in the title tune, has patches of his flamboyance that feel more at home in one of the epics he’d later enhance.
101 minutes, with gusto, at the least, exhibited from Russ Tamblyn (allowed to go wild with his acrobatics and general goofiness), Carleton Carpenter, Steve Forrest (as ‘Lobo Neglaski’), William Hairston ***, Bert Freed, Robert Arthur (the wound-too-tight type), Jerome Courtland, Regis Toomey, Maurice Jara, one-time Captive Wild Woman temptress Acquanetta (unbilled, as a bar girl) and in his first bit part, 17-year-old James MacArthur. The advertising tagline used was “Gripes ! Gags ! Girls ! Guts ! Guys !” They left out ‘Goop‘! As it was, with the elegant writing for Titanic capturing the Oscar, and From Here To Eternity marching away with eight wins of its thirteen nominations, as well as thirty million bucks, the high ground was taken right out from under this formula balderdash.
* For Brooks, this curious junk was a light-year away from the quality he brought to Blackboard Jungle, The Last Hunt, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals and In Cold Blood. File this with his few outright tankers: Battle Circus, Flame and the Flesh, Wrong Is Right. The hard-boiled director had been a Marine, and was not known as any kind of establishment softsoaper: his novel “The Brick Foxhole” had enraged the Corps—it became the film Crossfire—so it’s galling to see him depict the training so absurdly.
The soft-spoken, liberal Widmark played hardassed military men a dozen times—usually to excellent effect—Halls Of Montezuma, Time Limit, Judgment At Nuremberg, The Bedford Incident: this one, alas, bunks with Flight From Ashiya and The Swarm (at least that had camp value.)
Screenwriter Millard Kaufman had also been in the Marines. He’d made it through Guadalcanal, Guam and Okinawa (talk about immortal), was married for 66 years and died in 2009, at 92, two years after publishing his first novel, “Bowl Of Cherries”. Before WW2, while studying at John Hopkins University, he earned spending money volunteering as a guinea pig for medical tests on cobra venom. He scripted the classic Bad Day At Black Rock and the very good The War Lord, as well as co-creating “Mr.Magoo” —so maybe he was just deep-ribbing the Army with this? A quote from the man: “I spent World War II fighting fascism and found it flourishing when I came home. I was absolutely outraged.”
** Full Metal Jacket, of course, eats this for breakfast—without “the decency of a reacharound“. Other, much better candidates for “Atten-Shun!, you PUKE!” would be The D.I., Tribes, The Boys In Company C and Tigerland.
*** The first and only movie appearance for William Hairston, of the esteemed Hairston clan of artists. He drew renown as an author, playwright and poet, and did feature, also in 1953, in Harlem Detective, the first TV drama with an African-American leading role. The series was canceled after 13 episodes because star William Marshall was accused by he right-wing rag “Counterattack” of being a “an active supporter of the two most important fronts set up to entrap Negroes in the Communist movement [Committee for the Negro in Arts and the National Negro Labor Council]”. Marshall’s acting career took its turns, but Hairston’s stopped, and he turned to literary endeavors. He’s pretty good in Take The High Ground! and it’s to the credit of Brooks and Kaufman that his ethnicity goes unremarked.