Between Heaven and Hell (film)
Between Heaven and Hell is a 1956 20th Century Fox Cinemascope color war film based on the novel The Day the Century Ended by Francis Gwaltney that the film follows closely. The story is told in flashback format detailing the life of Sam Gifford (Robert Wagner) from his life as a Southern landowner to his war service in the Philippines during World War II.
|Between Heaven and Hell|
Theatrical release lobby card
|Directed by||Richard Fleischer|
|Produced by||David Weisbart|
|Screenplay by||Harry Brown|
|Based on||The Day the Century Ended|
by Francis Gwaltney
|Music by||Hugo Friedhofer|
|Edited by||James B. Clark|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$2 million (US rentals)|
In 1945, on a Pacific island, Sergeant Sam Gifford (Wagner) is demoted to the rank of private after striking an officer. He is transferred to a punishment company, run by the dictatorial (and delusional) Captain Grimes, who insists on being called "Waco" in order to prevent his own death by Japanese snipers. Through flashback, we learn Gifford's backstory -- his civilian status as a wealthy cotton farmer, married to the beautiful daughter of his State Guard commander, who is also a well-to-do plantation owner. After their reserve unit is sent to the Pacific theater, Gifford becomes close buddies with several of his own sharecroppers -- people he had never socialized with at home. As a sergeant, Gifford capably leads his platoon, earning himself a medal for valor. Occasionally, however, Gifford outwardly exhibits signs of fear, battle fatigue, and neurosis. These weaknesses intensify when his father-in-law is killed by a sniper. Another officer, a wealthy landowner disdainful of his men both as workers and as soldiers, machine guns Gifford's friends out of cowardice and panic. Gifford attempts to beat him to death with the butt of his rifle. The flashback ends when Waco calls Gifford into company headquarters.
Waco orders Gifford to lead a six-man patrol to check a town believed to be the location of a Japanese headquarters. The patrol finds the town abandoned, but the patrol spots a platoon-strength unit of the Japanese Imperial Army, equipped with mortars, heading towards the hills near Waco's headquarters. On returning, as Gifford reports his findings to Waco, a heavy barrage from Japanese mortars commences. Afterwards, Gifford is sent by Waco to outpost duty with a lieutenant nicknamed Little Joe (Brad Dexter). There he forms a friendship with another former sharecropper, Willie Crawford (Buddy Ebsen). After an attack, the outpost loses radio contact with the company and Gifford is sent back to company HQ for fresh batteries. He arrives to find that Waco has been relieved of command when several wounded men informed battalion headquarters of his behavior. Waco, in formal uniform including rank insignia as he prepares to leave, is shot and killed by a Japanese sniper when he demands that his soldiers salute him.
Gifford returns to the outpost, which is hit with another attack in which Little Joe is killed. Gifford and Crawford are the sole survivors. With Crawford wounded in the leg, Crawford orders Gifford back to warn the Company of an impending massive Japanese buildup. At first Gifford refuses to leave the injured Crawford behind, but Crawford insists, pointing a pistol at Gifford. Gifford fights his way through Japanese lines but is wounded along the way. Upon reaching the company he finds that most of the Battalion has launched a new offensive. Gifford warns them about the Japanese units massing in the hills. He demands that help be sent to rescue Crawford. Just at that moment a patrol arrives with Crawford on a stretcher. Crawford and Gifford are told because of their wounds they are being shipped home. Gifford tells Crawford that he wants Crawford to live with him and his family at his mansion back home and he can have a job at Gifford's company.
- Robert Wagner as Pvt. Sam Gifford
- Terry Moore as Jenny Gifford
- Broderick Crawford as Capt. 'Waco' Grimes
- Buddy Ebsen as Cpl. Willie Crawford
- Robert Keith as Colonel Cousins
- Brad Dexter as Lt. Joe 'Little Joe' Johnson
- Mark Damon as Pvt. Terry
- Ken Clark as Morgan
- Harvey Lembeck as Pvt. Bernard "Bernie" Meleski
- Skip Homeier as Cpl. Swanson
- L.Q. Jones as Pvt. Kenny
- Tod Andrews as Lt. Ray Mosby
- Biff Elliot as Lt. Tom Thumb
- Bart Burns as Pvt. Raker
- Frank Gorshin as Pvt. Millard (uncredited)
- Scatman Crothers as George (uncredited)
- Sam Edwards as Soames (uncredited)
Arkansas-born Francis Irby Gwaltney soldiered in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry that served throughout the Pacific doing several amphibious landings. During this service he formed a friendship with Norman Mailer whom he met there.
The Day the Century Ended was Gwaltney's most famous novel. When Fox picked the 1955 novel up for filming they assigned it to Philippine veteran Rod Serling famed for his American television plays. Unfortunately Serling's first screenplay was nine hours long and the project was given to other writers, notably Harry Brown who had written the book A Walk in the Sun.
Between Heaven and Hell is one of the 1950s depictions of the US Army that did not paint a recruiting poster image and was more in tune with many soldier's memories such as From Here to Eternity, Robert Aldrich's Attack or Samuel Fuller's films.
Fleischer uses the Cinemascope widescreen format well, notably in views of hills lit up by a firefight.
When the film was first released, The New York Times panned the film, writing, "To be just as blunt about it as Twentieth Century-Fox, Between Heaven and Hell, a World War II drama, lands accordingly, with a pretty dull thud. This curiously rambling, unconvincing and often baffling picture, opening yesterday at Loew's State, very sketchily suggests the regeneration of a hard-headed young G. I. on a Japanese island in the Pacific...Except for the sideline skirmishes with the Japanese, and one fine, big beachhead battle staged by director Richard Fleischer, the action focuses on the outpost, where a brutal, slightly demented company commander, Mr. Crawford, reigns supreme. Mr. Wagner not only manages to survive some snarling comrades, most of whom are wiped out, but also the enemy in a series of lagging, disjointed clashes, verbal and physical, that shed little light on anything or anybody."
- Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p250
- Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p226
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture web site. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
- Between Heaven and Hell on IMDb
- Texas Military Forces Museum web site. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
- Life magazine at Google Books. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
- Gamma Magazine, first edition, 1963. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
- The New York Times, film review, October 12, 1956. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.