“Take the High Ground!” is set in the Korean War, but it stays on the home front to cover only training. It was directed by Richard Brooks (“Battle Circus”) and released in 1953. It was shot at Fort Bliss with Army cooperation after the Marines backed out due to the feeling that it showed their training program in a bad light.
The main character is Sgt. Ryan (Richard Widmark) who was a Korean War hero, but is chafing as a drill instructor at Fort Bliss in 1953. He greets a new crop of recruits and we scoot to the edge of our seats anticipating the reaming they are about to get, especially since there is a wisecracking college cheerleader and a hick. Yawn, Ryan is no worse than your grumpy grandpa.
In a trip to a Mexican border town to teach Sunday school or get rollicking drunk, Ryan meets a girl named Julie (Elaine Stewart). She is buying drinks for four of the recruits at a bar. Wait, isn’t that backwards? The sappy music suggests romance will bloom between Ryan and this prize catch. Julie had left her soldier husband before he got shipped out to inevitable death in Korea. She has a rep.
The movie covers a lot of training scenarios. We get the obligatory obstacle course, but we also get the rare gas mask drill. Nice touch. The life ammo drill is well done. Ryan: “This is my rifle and not your gun; it’s made for shooting and not for fun.” (This is 1953 and not 1987; it's said by Ryan and not by Hartman). Another way to realize you are not watching “Full Metal Jacket” is a barracks scene where the recruits actually have a pillow fight that is choreographed like a high school production of “Grease”. Ryan walks in and does not go ballistic or throw up.
A major plot arc is the conflict between Ryan and his partner Sgt. Holt (Karl Malden). Holt thinks Ryn is too hard on the men. He did not let the men have cookies after the pillow fight. There is also a love triangle dynamic involving Julie. A potential tryst to the blinking of a street sign does not go well when Ryan brings up the tramp issue. It’s a love / loathe relationship.
Whether it’s a right cross from Holt or guilt feelings about Julie, Ryan seems to be mellowing and when one of the recruits goes AWOL, he uses compassion to bring him back into the fold. When he hears Julie is leaving town, he rushes to the train station and proposes. She turns him down because he’s married to the Army (like Sgt. Stryker). Besides, he already has Holt. Bros before hos, as they used to say in 1953.
Take a trip back in time with this movie. In 1953 Hollywood, Ryan is supposed to be a horse’s ass who is a martinet. One soldier goes to the Chaplain to complain about how horrible Ryan is. You can hear the film’s technical adviser laughing in the background. Here’s one difference between PG and R when it comes to war movies, R allows you to be more realistic. Who should be the poster boy for Drill Instructors – Ryan or Hartman? I theorize that the movie was meant to reassure American mothers that if Ryan was the worst their boys would face at boot camp, it was okay to give their sons to the Army. The Marines must have anticipated the howls of laughter from its veterans if the movie had been about Marine training.
The plot does have some interesting twists. The guy does not get the girl. However, the subplot of differences in philosophy between Ryan and Holt is undeveloped. The love triangle does not work. The acting by Widmark and Malden is good, of course. Elaine Stewart is in over her head. Russ Tamblyn was cast as a recruit and then gets to show off his gymnastics skills and provide comic relief. I wanted to slap him. He would have been eaten alive by a real DI. The dialogue is inconsistent. Widmark gets some snappy lines, but he also has to utter some sappy crap that makes you feel sorry for him. I do not like feeling sorry for Richard F’in Widmark! The soldier talk is G-rated and lame. The best thing about the film is it is a good tutorial about basic training activities.
Forgotten gem? Forgotten yes, gem no. It can be entertaining if you have seen “Full Metal Jacket”. You will spend a good bit of the time shaking your head and grinning. Did I mention there is a song about Julie in the movie?grade = C+