“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.
By the way, check out that movie poster. Who is that woman? There are no women in the movie! Imagine the disappointment of women who went to this movie. False advertising!!! Also, this is not "the everlasting story" of the Marine Corps.
BACK-STORY: “Gettysburg” is a war movie that began as a TV miniseries produced by Ted Turner. The finished product pleased the millionaire so much that he decided to release it to movie theaters. It may be the longest American movie (254 minutes) ever to appear in theaters. It appeared in a limited number of cinemas and did not recoup its cost, but the publicity was golden and when it was first shown on Turner Broadcasting Network, it was the most viewed basic cable program up to that time. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The title was changed to the battle name after it was discovered that potential viewers thought the original title indicated a motorcycle gang movie. The National Park Service allowed filming on site, although much of the action was lensed at a nearby farm. The film made use of over 5,000 reenactors. There are also cameos by Ted Turner and Ken Burns. Turner is killed during Pickett’s Charge (rumor has it by Jane Fonda masquerading as a Union soldier). Burns plays an aide to Hancock.
OPENING: The movie opens with a map tracing the paths of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac as a voice-over explains the strategic situation in June, 1863. The assumption that most of the viewers would be ignorant of their Civil War history is appropriate. The movie will take great pains to inform the historically-challenged.
A lone horseman spies the Union army on the march northward. He turns out to be an actor/spy named Harrison who works for Confederate General Longstreet (Tom Berenger). He reports the surprising news that the Union army is much closer than was believed. Longstreet passes the information on to a skeptical Lee (who has been blinded by the loss of contact with Stuart’s cavalry) and Lee decides to concentrate the army at a sleepy little crossroads named Gettysburg.
SUMMARY:(Note: since the movie is over four hours long, I’ll mercifully hit only the highlights) Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) is handed a hot potato in the form of some mutineers from another Maine regiment. As commander of the 20th Maine he is tasked with taking the mutineers along and shooting them if necessary. He gives an inspired speech about the importance of the upcoming battle (“we are here to set men free”) and his empathetic approach convinces most of the unhappy crew to pitch in.
Outside Gettysburg, a Union cavalry unit led by John Buford (Sam Elliot) blocks the road leading to the town. Buford assesses the terrain and realizes his outnumbered brigade must attempt to “hold the high ground” until the main body of the army arrives. He soon makes contact with Confederate infantry heading for Gettysburg. The movie jumps to Lee (Martin Sheen) who is still in the dark about what is transpiring, but follows Napoleon’s advice to march to the sound of the guns. Lee reluctantly orders a general attack knowing the battle you get is not often the battle you want. The first of the movies set piece battles chronicles Buford’s holding action and subsequent retreat after being flanked in spite of the arrival of Reynold’s corps. The highlight is the death of Reynolds by sharpshooter.
The movie introduces a major theme as Lee and Longstreet disagree on strategy. Lee, ever the aggressor, wants to end the war with this battle and intends to attack the Union army no matter their defensive position. He has supreme confidence in his soldiers and exhibits a tiredness that influences his decisions. Longstreet, ever the defensive-minded, wants to maneuver around the Union position to force the Union to attack them on advantageous ground. This back and forth will reappear later in the movie with Longstreet playing the petulantly obedient subordinate.
The 20th Maine is marching toward destiny. They encounter a runaway slave which gives Chamberlain the opportunity to expound on his liberal professorial views against slavery. His earthy Scottish sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway) argues the war is a class war to ensure that Americans are judged by their ability, not their lineage. To Chamberlain’s belief that all men have a “divine spirit”, Kilrain refers to men as “killer angels”.
Longstreet’s brigade commanders discuss the war around the camp fire. They are all agreed that the war is about states’ rights and Northern aggression. A British observer named Fremantle listens to the speechifying with a “hey, I’m only here to watch the killing” look.
General Trimble (Morgan Sheppard) visits Lee to complain about his corps commander Ewell’s failure to take “that hill”, Cemetery Ridge. Lee defuses his anger, but obviously empathizes with his frustration. Meanwhile, on Cemetery Ridge, Gen. Meade arrives to ask if his subordinates have put his army in a good defensive position. Buford and others assure him it is “good ground”. Buford pats himself on the back for “holding the high ground”.
the 20th Maine defends Little Round Top
Rebels advance up Little Round Top
The second big set piece takes place on Little Round Top where the 20th Maine is stationed on the very end of the Union line. Chamberlain is ordered to hold his position at all costs. The situation is clearly outlined for the audience through some more speechifying. The subsequent series of assaults by Alabama infantry that culminates in hand to hand fighting and finally in a bayonet charge are the high water mark of the film. The second day ends with the Union still holding its fishhook line on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top.
The last day is portentously set up by the melodramatic story of pre-Civil War BFFs Gen. Armistead (Louis Jordan) and Union Gen. Hancock. Armistead tells Longstreet of their teary parting at the beginning of the war and his desire for a reunion in the midst of the battle. This effectively adds a human element to the next day’s carnage. At Lee’s headquarters, the joy-riding Stuart returns to a wood-shed moment from the fatherly Lee. The encounter accurately reflects Lee’s command style of giving his generals lots of room for initiative and then gently scolding them if their decisions are flawed.
The third set piece is the famous Pickett’s Charge. It is shown in what seems like real time. The plan is outlined by Longstreet to his generals (and the audience). The theme of Longstreet’s reluctance to launch what he is sure will be a failed attack reappears. The 30 reeanactor cannons fill in noisily for the actual over one hundred. The 5,000 reenactors fill in for the actual 15,000 in Pickett’s Charge. There is a long stretch featuring tracking shots that has no dialogue and relies on the beating of drums that evolves into the score. The Rebels march stoically into a metal storm of first shrapnel, then canister, and finally volleys. One has to admire the dedication of those men. As to why they did it, there is a telling moment when Armistead bucks up a cringing youngster with the question “what will you think of yourself in the morning?” He responds with “I won’t think too highly of myself, but at least I’ll be alive to think!” Just kidding – he continues on after properly being shamed into doing the honorable thing.
The movie reaches a second climax (the first being the bayonet charge) with Armistead (hat on sword) reaching the Union line but falling mortally wounded. Jordan gets to chew the scenery with his death scene including a wheezing begging of forgiveness from Hancock. On the other side of the corpse strewn field, Lee rides among the survivors taking the blame for the disaster and encountering the distraught Pickett who cannot reform his division because “General Lee, sir, I have no division”.
CLOSING: Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas embrace as the sun goes down. The closing credits tell us what happened to the main characters. Pictures of the real historical figures make you feel guilty for laughing at the seemingly ridiculous facial hair of the actors. They actually looked a lot like their characters.
Acting - 6
Action – 9
Accuracy – 9
Realism - 9
Plot - 9
Overall - 10
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Only if they are a Civil War buff. This movie is the anti-“Gone with the Wind”. There is absolutely no romance (except between Armistead and Hancock – which is thankfully unrequitted). In fact only one female speaks in the movie. Interestingly, the line by a Northern belle (“I thought the war was in Virginia”) is uttered by director Maxwell’s daughter. The movie does have a lot of talking and is not graphic in its violence. It is also very educational which might be appealing to some females.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: It amazes me that some critics question the accuracy of the movie. Trust me, you are not going to get more accuracy than this movie. The small faults can be excused by the fact that the movie is technically based on a novel, but the novel is a masterpiece of imagining around historical facts. Shaara imagines conversations and thoughts of the historical figures that populate the movie, but all of it rings true. The movie is faithful to the book and few have questioned the accuracy and authenticity of the book.
The Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most important battle ever fought on American soil. It lasted three days and involved well over 100,000 men. It would be impossible for any movie to cover the battle in detail. The screenwriter wisely focuses on one key action per day. Buford’s holding action, the defense of Little Round Top, and Pickett’s Charge are adeptly reenacted. The three set pieces are much better and more enjoyable than any documentary could do.
The strategy and tactics are true to the battle. The command decisions are accurate. The movie does a great job of showing the hows and whys of the battle. There is no historical revisionism here. The motivations of both sides and of the individual leaders are clear, although the movie can be faulted for downplaying the South’s desire to maintain slavery.
As far as historical realism, anyone who is familiar with historical reenactors knows they are obsessed with authenticity. “Gettysburg” makes fantastic use of this resource. CGI cannot compare to the real thing and reenactors are as close to the real thing as you are going to get. These are people who insist on having the correct buttons on their uniforms. The participation of over 5,000 is incredible. This movie is their shining moment and they have a lot to be proud of. Their participation takes the movie to unparalleled heights of accuracy in tactics, uniforms and equipment, and soldier life. One example will suffice. There is a moment in the Little Round Top scene where a soldier does not use the ramrod to pack down the powder and ball, instead he taps the butt of the rifle on the ground. Only a reenactor would know Civil War soldiers sometimes did this in battle. I have to say that although I still do not know how they decide who will die, these reenactors really stepped up their game in dying. The deaths are not cheesy or ridiculous. Also, some of the reenactors seemingly were given speaking parts and they do a commendable job for amateurs.
Daniels as Chamberlain
CRITIQUE: “Gettysburg” is not a perfect war movie. It has some flaws. The acting is spotty. It appears some of the actors are not motivated by the made-for-TV nature of the production and perhaps their salaries matched their performances. Louis Jordan in particular chews the scenery. This dynamic makes the good performances stand out. Jeff Daniels deserved an Academy Award nomination. Joshua Chamberlain was virtually unknown before the movie and Daniels delivered him the fame he deserves. Chamberlain was a remarkable man and one of the great soldiers of the Civil War. Daniels is brilliant in his portrayal of the reluctant warrior who rises to leadership in the cauldron of battle. He nails the character’s humanity. Tom Berenger’s Longstreet is properly morose (although the movie does not mention the recent deaths of three of his children) and tactiturn. Lang gets Pickett’s flamboyance down pat. Sheen is not great, but his seemingly lackluster performance would have been more acceptable if the movie had alluded to his heart disease.
The movie has been criticized for its pro-South slant. This reflects the book. Shaara obviously found the “Lost Cause” appealing. It must have been fun imagining the stilted speaking style of the Southern aristocrats. The movie actually edits the speechifying commendably. The brushing over of slavery as the key cause of the conflict is upsetting.
The sound effects are superb. The sounds of battle are realistic. The cannon fire in particular (while not nearly loud enough) is as close to being there as you can get. More importantly, the score by Randy Edelman is one of the best in war movie history. The music matches the mood perfectly. Do not forget that the score was meant for a TV movie. That is hard to fathom.
a face full of grapeshot
The combat is well done, thanks again to the reenactors. Unfortunately, due to the PG nature of TV movies (at least ones made in the 1990s), the violence is not graphically realistic. There is little bloodshed. An R-rated version would have been awesome. There is one cool shot where some Rebels get a face full of grapeshot, but there is no spray of blood. The hand to hand combat on Little Round Top is cool.
The movie does a great job in teaching the battle. The narration and map at the beginning establish the situation and the dialogue makes it clear what the big picture is throughout the battle. I can think of no other war movie that attempts to tell the story of a specific historical battle that does a better job in replacing the written word. It is superior to “Waterloo”, “Midway”, “Pearl Harbor”, etc. in this respect.
CONCLUSION: “Gettysburg” has been harshly judged by critics who are not familiar with the Civil War, The Killer Angels, or the way people talked and groomed in the 1860s. I’ll grant you the beards look fake, but if you stick around for the closing credits, you will see that the actors look a lot like their characters. Even a minor figure like Harrison is a lookalike. Such fidelity to accuracy was not necessary, but indicates the care with which the movie was made. If you criticize the screenplay, you are essentially criticizing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The movie follows the book very closely. The dialogue is almost word for word from the book, which is a good thing. The scenes in the book are replicated in the movie with the only significant difference between the book and the movie being the fact that the movie deletes some scenes. It could be argued that the movie improves on the book. There is little reason to read the novel if you see the movie.
“Gettysburg” is very underrated at #46. There are several movies ahead of it which I have seen, but not reviewed yet that are inferior to it. It is a classic example of how a labor of love can overcome a small budget and low expectations. Many military history buffs rank Pickett’s Charge as one of the top moments in their “if I could witness an event” lists. This movie achieves that dream and throws in one of the all-time great battle scenes (the defense of Little Round Top).
On a personal note, I took my History Club on a field trip to see this movie during its brief run in the theaters. We had to travel two hours to see it. It was worth it, although I can't say the students were thrilled with the length.