“Halls of Montezuma” is a war movie released in 1951. It was directed by Lewis Milestone and was inspired by a short film entitled “Objective – Prisoners” which was about the necessity of taking prisoners for interrogation purposes. It was filmed at Camp Pendleton, California with the full cooperation of the Marine Corps. The movie is dedicated to the Marines and was later used as a recruiting film. It opens with the “Marine Corps Hymn” which, of course, starts with ”From the halls of Montezuma”.
The seven surviving members of a platoon are on a troop ship headed for an unnamed Pacific island circa 1943. Lt. Col. Gilfallan (Richard Boone in his film debut) gives a speech emphasizing the need to take prisoners. (In reality, this speech would have gone over with a yawn from Marine vets who had seen or heard about the results of trying to take prisoners.) The leader of the unit is Lt. Anderson (the always reliable Richard Widmark) who is suffering from psychological migraines due to combat fatigue. Through a flashback we learn he was a science teacher before the war, so the war experience is pretty foreign (a theme of the movie). He pops pills given to him by the medic (Karl Malden). It’s your typical “quit your preaching and give me the pills, doc” situation. (It’s unclear what message the Marines were hoping to send with this subplot.) In spite of his own problems, Anderson is able to convince an ex-student, who he had helped overcome stuttering, to fight on in spite of his fears. (A message for Marines in Korea?)
The landing in amphtracs is well played and includes a seamless blending of color archival footage. We get old school deaths sans the blood. Those are real Shermans spouting flame. “Spray the whole hill, it’s lousy with Japs.” After the initial combat, we get some character development for our heterogeneous small unit. This is done through flashbacks and realistic soldier talk. Strangely, I was shocked to hear the comment “They can kill me, but they can’t eat me” for the second time in a war movie. Wait, what? The ensemble cast is first-rate and includes Jack Palance, Neville Brand, Jack Webb, Martin Milner, and a very young Robert Wagner as Coffman.
When Coffman is killed in a Japanese rocket barrage, Anderson pops some more pills and we realize we are in a “who will survive?” war movie. One down, how many more to go? Anderson is sent by Gilfallan on a mission to bring back some Japs hiding in a cave. The location of the rocket site must be discovered because the frontal attack must go on. Accompanying the squad is a Brit named Johnson who speaks Japanese and knows their culture and psychology. Played by Reginald Gardner, he appears to have wandered in from North Africa, but is droll and adds color. They take several prisoners including a wounded officer (we’re the humane ones) and head back to headquarters. In the process, Pretty Boy (the resident psychotic) goes crazy and is killed accidentally when he yanks on a buddy’s gun (that’s original, anyway). Death #3 is the medic. The rest make it back. However, Conroy (the stutterer) dies from shrapnel, sending Anderson over the edge. Fortunately, a letter written to him by the doc reminds him of his duty to his men and he throws away the pills and gets his act together.
The movie slows down appreciably at this point as deduction is necessary to pinpoint the rocket site. A big clue comes from the pompous Japanese officer. The attack goes off as planned and as the rockets come raining down, Corsairs swoop down to take them out.
This movie is definitely second string Milestone. The acting is pretty good, especially Widmark. It’s also a kick to see the recognizable faces. The back-stories are not particularly compelling, but it is a commendable effort to flesh out the warriors. In fact, the movie is a part of the second wave of WWII movies which spend more time on the effects of war on the soldiers and admit to dysfunctions within units. In spite of the cooperation of the Marine Corps, the film is not a jingoistic flag-waver.
The action is fine and the actual footage adds to the authenticity. The weaponry is accurate. The location (Camp Pendleton) must have been convenient, but the terrain does not look like a tropical island. The plot is not strong. The two main plot points – take prisoners for questioning and find the rocket site – are not very realistic to the war in the Pacific. In all my reading about the war in the Pacific, I never ran into Japanese rocket barrages as being a problem. Another problem is the ending. It does not appear all the trouble of discovering the site is put to use. The attack is launched and comes under rocket fire. The Corsairs taking out the rocket battery is not contingent upon pinpointing them on a map. The movie would have been better if the unit had gone on to take out the site after questioning the Japanese found in the cave. The dead could have more effectively died going after the site than returning to base.
“Halls of Montezuma” is worth watching. It is entertaining and has good performances. However, it is definitely not one of the 100 Best War Movies.