“Between Heaven and Hell” is a WWII movie based on the novel The Day the Century Ended by Francis Gwaitney. Gwaitney wrote a screenplay that clocked in at nine hours so the project went to others including Harry Brown (“A Walk in the Sun”). It was directed by Richard Fleischer (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”). The score by Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for an Academy Award which means the film could claim to be nominated for an Academy Award!
The film is set on an undisclosed island in the Pacific in 1945. PFC Gifford (Robert Wagner) is in a stockade for having assaulted an officer. Gifford is a decorated hero so he is given the option of being transferred to a company of misfits in an isolated post. The company is run by a Captain who insists on being called “Waco” (Broderick Crawford). He is a tyrant who is hated by his men, except the two lackeys who lick his boots. Gifford is not in Heaven or Hell, he is in Purgatory.
A flashback informs us that Gifford was a cotton plantation owner before the war. He treated his white sharecroppers like they were blacks. He is married to the daughter of a Colonel and she thinks he is too harsh with his workers. He tells her it’s just business. When his National Guard unit is called up, he goes but for some reason he is only a sergeant. (Shouldn’t a plantation owner be an officer?) He has to share fox holes with cotton pickers – awkward! Queue the empathy and comradeship. Transformation complete when an upper class good ole boy friend sends Gifford and four of his new peers on a scouting mission. The Captain panics and opens fire killing three of the men and earning a butt stroke from Gifford and a trip to a punishment company.
The movie morphs into a Western as Gifford is part of a squad that is put out as Jap bait and sure enough they take the bait. It’s whittling time. Gifford and his new best buddy Willie (Buddy Ebsen) are the last men standing. Willie is a “cropper” and Gifford is one in spirit now. This will impact his relationship with his workers when he gets home. If he gets home.
“Between Heaven and Hell” is a strange movie. It appears to be making some type of social statement about the upper and lower classes in the South. This being a Hollywood movie, Gifford finds redemption in war. He learns the error of his ways when the crucible of war thrusts him into close proximity to the people who he had formerly looked down on. It a small world for planters and croppers in the Pacific. He sees what he was in the Captain that kills his friends and what he would have become in the guise of Waco. All of this is very tritely played. Fortunately the cast is strong and the acting is fine. Wagner is his usual solid self and you can’t go wrong with Ebsen playing a cracker. Who but Crawford to play a villain? The biggest disappointment in the movie is his anti-climactic death.
For a war movie, the film has some good action, but not enough of it. The invasion of the island is well done with footage of shore bombardment and air bombardment. There are lots of landing craft. The assault is intense and realistic. Later, there is a very furious mortar attack with better effects than most war movies. The isolated squad sequences are basically of the enemy are sneaky variety. Were we still at this stage eleven years after the war? The infrequency of combat makes Gifford’s combat shakes hard to swallow. The PTSD subplot seems shoehorned in. Portraying combat fatigue is not really Wagner’s forte. You would think romance would be right up his alley, but the romantic dialogue with his wife is sappy. In fact, the whole script is lame. Pre-war snob learns empathy through camaraderie and combat and returns to America to make the South a better place. Gag!
Forgotten gem? The movie is an average WWII movie that tries to make a statement but does so ineffectively.