***½/**** Image A Sound B
starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Reginald Gardiner, Neville Brand
screenplay by Michael Blankfort
directed by Lewis Milestone
by Walter Chaw Released in 1950, Lewis Milestone's Halls of Montezuma is gritty and fascinating, free of a good deal of the jingoism that flavoured earlier WWII studio productions and as influential as they come within the genre. A haunting sequence set during a nighttime rocket attack and lit only by occasional strobes while an unseen enemy screams out at frayed Marines recalls a similar one from Coppola's Apocalypse Now, while Richard Widmark's reluctant Lt. Anderson (a quiet former schoolteacher beset by doubt and anger) and Neville Brand's Sgt. Zelenko are clearly the prototypes for Tom Hanks's Capt. John Miller and Tom Sizemore's Sgt. Horvath, respectively, in Saving Private Ryan. The film's most impressive to the war-movie vocabulary is its ambiguous philosophy: Halls of Montezuma is alive with the creeping suspicion that war may not be all it's cracked up to be--that it might in fact be hell. While there's certainly nothing shocking about that sentiment in our post-Vietnam, post-Korea psyches, that kind of philosophical dissention was rare in the pre-Korea 1950s, and in regards to the unflagging "popularity" of WWII, uncommon even today.
Lt. Anderson (Widmark) pops painkillers like candy, drugs that are begrudgingly provided him by "Doc" Jones (Karl Malden, in another soulful paladin role). In a series of nice, if clumsily-introduced, flashbacks, we meet and understand Anderson's torturous duty as a leader in a situation--the storming of a Japanese-held island in the midst of the war in the Pacific--where many of his men will die. Under Anderson's command are: Pvt. Coffman (Robert Wagner) the radioman, Sgt. Johnson (Reginald Gardiner) the British interpreter, Dickerson (Jack Webb) the journalist, good guy Pigeon Lane (Jack Palance), Pvt. "Pretty Boy" Riley (Skip Homeier) the lunatic, and grizzled vet Zelenko. When the marines are pinned down under a vicious rocket attack, Lt. Anderson and his small unit of men are sent on a mission to discover the source of their torment and bring back prisoners.
Of all the directors who might have taken a cue from this and Milestone's other seminal war film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), I think first of maverick Samuel Fuller and his no-nonsense 'tabloid' approach to cinema, particularly as it manifested in 1980's mutilated but nonetheless powerful WWII elegy The Big Red One. (Fuller himself would work with Widmark on Hell and High Water (1954) and Pickup on South Street (1953).)
Though not without its dated moments (notably, the rear projection of the initial touchdown, where the shadows of the soldiers in the landing craft are actually cast on the backdrop), awkward dialogue, and mannered performance, Halls of Montezuma is amazingly dust-free some fifty years after its initial release. A brief archival shot of a Japanese soldier on fire after an American tank attack along with battle sequences executed with verve and suspense go a long way towards preserving the film's shocking relevancy. Consideration of battlefield mercy, the humanity of the enemy, and a brief mention of the plight of Japanese-Americans on the mainland make Halls of Montezuma something courageous and unexpectedly fine.
Released as part of the Fox War Classics series, extras-deprived, workmanlike DVDs, Halls of Montezuma looks flat-out miraculous. The fullscreen transfer (obviously not from the original Technicolor elements, but no worse for that) is so clear and vibrant that the grain of archival inserts stands out. Another minor problem occurs in the early instances of rear-projection, where, in addition to the actors standing out in austere relief from their environment, a strange green halo surrounds them. As this effect is limited to the landing sequence (and as this set-piece remains powerful), the complaint is a minor one. The film is presented with remastered Dolby 2.0 stereo and mono tracks that sound fine and an interesting Halls of Montezuma theatrical trailer as its lone supplement. Originally published: November 13, 2001.