"I've heard about you, Gifford. First you go get yourself a silver star, then you get busted to private. Oh, it's a rough war, ain't it?"
The war film was a popular genre throughout the 1950s and it appeared on all scales from quickly-made B pictures to large-budget extravaganzas. After Fox introduced its Cinemascope widescreen process in 1953 in such films as The Robe and How To Marry A Millionaire, it was evident that action films would be a natural to take advantage of the wider screen. Fox obtained the rights to a moderately successful novel by Francis Gwaltney entitled "The Day the Century Ended" and arranged for a screen adaptation to be written by Harry Brown. The resulting film—Between Heaven and Hell—was released in 1956 in Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound. The film has now made its appearance on DVD as part of Fox's War Classics line.
Facts of the Case
Sam Gifford is a southern cotton plantation owner who follows in his father's footsteps by treating the sharecroppers working on his land with little concern for their welfare. Then he is called to active service in the Pacific when his National Guard unit is mobilized during World War II. He finds himself serving alongside those same sort of men he had treated so disdainfully back home and soon makes several close friendships with them. Then a cowardly lieutenant kills three of those friends and Sam reacts by almost killing him. An ensuing court-martial is averted when Sam is sent to serve with a renegade detachment of soldiers in the hills commanded by a psychotic captain who likes to be known simply as Waco. While in combat with his new group, Sam forms a close attachment to another "cropper" named Willie. After a violent engagement with the enemy, Sam and Willie are the only survivors. Willie is badly wounded and Sam must overcome his fears to go for help.
The psychological western was a mainstay of the 1950s and it was inevitable that a similar approach would find itself applied to war films. Between Heaven and Hell is one example of the result. The film is partially told in a flashback mode with Sam Gifford reflecting on the events leading to his assignment to Waco's group. In those reflections we learn how Gifford has arrived where he is now, including the events leading to his attack on the lieutenant, the accumulated stress of his involvement in combat to date (including the death of his father-in-law, who was also the commander of his National Guard group), and the almost fatalistic air that seems to envelop him now. He is a man who through interaction with others has come to recognize the errors of his past actions, but is now prone to uncontrollable shakes after being under fire. And so, it seems appropriate that he is now assigned to an outfit that is "commanded" by an officer who is so afraid of being shot by a sniper that he insists he only be addressed as "Waco" rather than "sir," and surrounds himself with aides who seem as paranoid as him. Waco seems to recognize how close Gifford is to going over the edge and so he tests him with an assignment that involves searching for enemy troops in a nearby town which is partly behind enemy lines. Gifford handles the assignment competently and strengthens his own confidence, but his success seems to make Waco even madder, so he sends Gifford with a squad that is to relieve an outpost on one of the nearby hills. The events on that hill give a clear demonstration of people inevitably getting what they deserve.
I must confess that I wasn't expecting much from this film, but I found myself fully engrossed in the story and really caring about the Gifford character. A young Robert Wagner stars and manages to give a realistic, gritty performance that avoids any suggestion of the "handsome hunk" syndrome that seemed to overshadow the work of many of the then-current crop of young male actors. Wagner is teamed with actress Terry Moore again. (They had previously co-starred in an earlier Fox CinemaScope production—Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef.) There's no great chemistry between the two, however, although it must be said that their scenes together don't amount to a huge amount of screen time. Broderick Crawford does well as Waco, mainly because the part calls for a blustery sort of performance and that's pretty well the only sort of role that Crawford really excelled at. Buddy Ebsen is very good as Willie, and may be a bit of a revelation for those who only associate him with the Beverly Hillbillies or Barnaby Jones. Look for impersonator Frank Gorshin as a crazed aide to Waco, and L.Q. Jones, Skip Homeier, Robert Keith, and Brad Dexter in other supporting roles.
Richard Fleischer ably directs the film. He handles the action sequences with assurance; they're exciting and well-staged. Also of note is a very fine score by Hugo Friedhofer that is melodic and majestic as appropriate. It was recognized with an Academy Award nomination.
Fox brings us Between Heaven and Hell on DVD in a nice 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation. There are a number of speckles, but otherwise the image looks very good. The film has a wide palette of colours ranging from the grays and browns of Waco's camp to the vibrant colours of the tropical jungle. There's dust and mud at times, and there are bright explosions that superimpose themselves on the background. All are well conveyed by the transfer and contribute to a very naturalistic look to every thing. Colour was by Deluxe and sometimes that can be a recipe for disaster, but not on this film. Skin tones look good and there's no sign of edge enhancement. I don't imagine there was much of a restorative effort here as Fox was fortunate to have source material that was apparently in good shape. Fortuitous or not, thumbs up on Fox's effort with this title.
The sound track is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it provides a very pleasing audio accompaniment to the fine image transfer. There are marked separation effects on much of the dialogue which work well for the most part, although it must be admitted that there are several instances where the results sound a little strange. The action sequences have real punch and the music sounds rich and conveys an air of envelopment at times. Mono sound tracks are also provided in French and Spanish. English subtitles are available.
As with most entries in this series, supplementary content is limited to the original theatrical trailer and trailers for a number of other Fox war films. Those who like to view the trailer first before the film should note that it fails to capture the feel of the film, suggesting a more gung-ho action piece than the film really is.
Between Heaven and Hell is an unexpected pleasure that features fine photography that really takes advantage of the wide screen, good performances in an interesting story, and an enjoyable musical score. Fox is to be commended for releasing one of its more minor titles in such a nice looking and sounding presentation. Recommended to war film fans.
The film and co-conspirator Fox are both much closer to heaven than to hell with this DVD presentation and are free to go. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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