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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Halls of Montezuma (Jan. 4, 1951)

Halls of Montezuma
Halls of Montezuma (1951)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

The American public never really loses its appetite for war movies, it just gets full sometimes and needs to take a nap. That was the situation in 1950. After a few impressive World War II movies were released in 1949, like Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, the only World War II movie I can think of from 1950 that wasn’t a comedy, or a postwar drama like Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, was Fritz Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines.

But the beginning of 1951 saw several war movies hit American movie theaters. Within a month of the premiere of Halls of Montezuma, at least two more war films were released; Operation Pacific, a film about World War II submarine warfare starring John Wayne, and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, the first film about the Korean War.

No matter which war a film depicts, it’s always going to reflect the time when it was made. So while The Steel Helmet might have been the first film to explicitly depict the Korean conflict, the specter of that war hangs over Halls of Montezuma.

Like Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High, Halls of Montezuma is largely about the terrible toll of combat — what used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and what is commonly called “PTSD” today.

Widmark

Halls of Montezuma stars Richard Widmark as Anderson, a former schoolteacher who is now a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He suffers from crippling psychosomatic migraines, and his only relief comes when he gets another little white pill from Doc (Karl Malden).

When the film begins, Lt. Anderson is tired of death. He led a company of Marines through the bloody battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima, and only seven men in his original command are still alive. (Halls of Montezuma might be meant to depict the battle on Okinawa, but I don’t think it’s ever directly stated where it takes place.)

Just like Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Halls of Montezuma integrates real footage of the war. Unlike Sands of Iwo Jima, the documentary footage in Halls of Montezuma is in color to match the Technicolor of the film, and while it often looks spectacular, it always took me out of the narrative, which is the same problem I had with Sands of Iwo Jima.

For instance, early in the film there’s a scene where the Marines are blasting Japanese sniper’s nests and pillboxes with tank-mounted flamethrowers. Lt. Anderson gives a command into his radio, “Spray the whole hill, it’s lousy with Nips.” We see huge arcs of fire hitting a ridge, then real footage of a (presumably Japanese) soldier running, his body on fire. Halls of Montezuma is an impressively staged film, but nothing in it can quite pass for reality when laid side-by-side with documentary footage.

I’m sure that some of my recognition of the fakery of the film is based on the passage of time. In Bosley Crowther’s review of Halls of Montezuma in the January 6, 1951, issue of The New York Times, he praised the film’s documentary realism and called it “A remarkably real and agonizing demonstration of the horribleness of war, with particular reference to its impact upon the men who have to fight it on the ground.” After enough time passes it’s easier to see how a movie has been constructed. No matter how “agonizingly real” a film might look at the time of its release, it just won’t fool anyone 64 years later.

Brand and Webb

Lewis Milestone also directed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), about the First World War, and A Walk in the Sun (1945), about American soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II. Halls of Montezuma is similar in some ways to A Walk in the Sun, including the use of occasional voiceover narration to tell the audience what various characters are thinking.

Halls of Montezuma is an earnest and well-made war movie, but it had too many clichés and inauthentic moments for me to call it a great war movie.

The interior sets look like sets, too many of the exteriors look like Southern California (which they are), the Japanese soldiers don’t look Japanese, and too many of the characters seem like “types” rather than real people, like the British interpreter played by Reginald Gardiner or the sadistic and gun-crazy punk “Pretty Boy,” played by Skip Homeier.

There are some great performances in Halls of Montezuma, though. Widmark is completely convincing as a battle-weary officer, and Richard Boone (in his first feature film role) is brilliant as Lt. Col. Gilfillan. When he asks combat correspondent Dickerman (Jack Webb) if he can fire an M1 Garand and then sends him out on a mission to take Japanese prisoners, Boone says with resignation, “I suppose I’ll be the villain of your great American war novel.” It’s one of those moments that would seem too “written” coming from another actor, but Boone sells it.

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The 10 Best Films of 1950

23rdOscars

Here’s the countdown of my 10 favorite films from 1950.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment…

Caged10. Caged

Caged is one of the first true “women-in-prison” films. It’s a tough, tragic, intelligent film that’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

The Gunfighter9. The Gunfighter

For my money, this is the movie that ushered in a new era of realism and adult drama for the western at the dawn of the 1950s. It prefigured the structure of High Noon and tackled the idea of myth vs. reality in the Old West head on.

Stage Fright8. Stage Fright

Stage Fright was Alfred Hitchcock’s most purely enjoyable and crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment since Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946). It’s a tightly paced melodrama full of intrigue and humor, and is a great example of how adept Hitchcock was at manipulating an audience.

Gun Crazy7. Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endlessly fascinating one. It’s a fast-paced piece of pulp that’s not shy about linking sex and violence, and tells its story through a weird mix of slightly unreal soundstage sets with hyper-real location shooting.

In a Lonely Place6. In a Lonely Place

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place makes some radical changes to its source material — the 1947 novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes — while retaining the novel’s exploration of toxic masculinity. Humphrey Bogart is terrific as an angry and deeply unhappy man who is unable to control his rage, and Gloria Grahame is equally terrific as the woman who loves him.

All About Eve5. All About Eve

All About Eve is one of the most sophisticated and darkly humorous films of all time. And its story of an aging actress being supplanted by a ruthless young ingenue is more relevant than ever.

The Asphalt Jungle4. The Asphalt Jungle

Heist movies have been with us since the birth of cinema, but The Asphalt Jungle is the granddaddy of the modern heist film, and its DNA runs through everything from Rififi (1955) and The Killing (1956) to Heat (1995).

Sunset Boulevard3. Sunset Boulevard

Like All About Eve, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a film about how difficult it is for dazzling young actresses to grow old. Unlike All About Eve, it’s specifically about the transition from silents to talkies. It’s one of the greatest movies Hollywood has ever made about itself; a liminal masterpiece that constantly flirts with being a horror film.

Los Olvidados2. Los Olvidados

Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados is an exhilarating masterwork about the “lost children” of Mexico City’s slums. It’s filled with moments of incredible beauty and brief scenes of pure surrealism that only increase the power of the film’s unflinching depiction of poverty and violence.

Rashomon1. Rashomon

The breakout film not just for director Akira Kurosawa, but for Japanese cinema in general, Rashomon is an uncomfortable meditation on the elusiveness of truth. It exposes the world as a kind of hell, because human beings cannot even be honest with themselves. But it is also a deeply sensuous experience, and an utterly beautiful film.