Monday, February 13, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Battle Cry" (1955)

First of all, they should've called it "Training Cry." Because the bulk of this 1955 so-called war drama takes place during training for a group of World War II Marines. The film's first -- and only -- battle doesn't arrive until the two hour and 10-minute mark. And it's absolutely horrible stuff, some of the worst battle scenes in a Hollywood movie, ever.

Or maybe "Love Cry," since most of the story is about the various romances the soldiers fall in and out of. I'm all for a little female presence in war movies, if for no other reason than to add some context about what the men are fighting for back home.

But "Battle Cry" is so laden wish mushy kisses and jealousy and tortured romance, it plays out like a soap opera with bayonets. Watching it, I kept feeling like the kid from "The Princess Bride," who expects his grandfather to read him tales of adventure and death, and keeps complaining, "They're kissing again."

Mostly, the title of this terrible picture should have just been "Cry" -- because that's what I felt like doing while watching it.

It's based on a novel by Leon Uris, who also wrote the screenplay, who used his own experiences as a Marine as the basis for the story. All I can say is, military life in his depiction seems to consist mostly of frequent, lengthy leaves of absences. Though there are a few depictions of the drudgery of boot camp -- marching, etc. -- most of what happens takes place while the men are on leave.

Raoul Walsh is considered one of the great classic Hollywood directors, but I can't say I thought much of his work here. Although it's generally a nice-looking film -- helped by the vivid colors and CinemaScope photography of cinematographer Sidney Hickox -- the acting is almost uniformly hammy. And the brief war sequence is staged so ineptly, one suspects a film school junior could do better.

You may say that they're typical of that era, but when I think of great war films of the 1940s and '50s, like William A. Wellman's "Battleground," the fighting in "Battle Cry" seems very stagy and hokey. Everyone who dies clutches their chest or whatever dramatically, then slowly collapses to the ground like they're goddamned Hamlet or something.

Speaking of "Battleground," that (vastly superior) movie also starred James Whitmore. Here he plays a sergeant named Mac, who also acts as the narrator. Mac is gruff and tough, but genuinely regards his recruits as more than just soldiers, sticking his neck out to help them out of their romantic entanglements on several occasions. Notably, Mac is the only major character without a wife or girlfriend.

His boss is Major (later Lt. Colonel) Sam Huxley (Van Heflin), aka "High Pockets." He demands much of his Marines -- taking them on two back-to-back 60-mile forced marches for no other reason than to break the local time record -- but also fights for them when he feels the 6th Marine Regiment isn't getting the choice assignments.

In that sense, "Battle Cry" can be given credit for depicting how decidedly unglamorous life could be during WWII. Huxley's Harlots, as they are called, are repeatedly given only mop-up duty in major Pacific battles like Guadalcanal and Tarawa. People forget that the vast majority of people enlisted in the military are in non-combatant roles, and even the fighting corps spend most of their time waiting for battle.

The soldiers are the usual, familiar (to use the kind term) mix of different ethnic and regional types. You've got your cowboy strumming a guitar, Southern loudmouth, tough street kid with a dicey past, upstanding All-American type, the quiet bookworm, the American Indian, the loudmouth Lothario, etc. Virtually every war movies does this, but it's still a pain to endure.

The story essentially plays out with one Marine's romance taking center stage at any given time, until they yield the floor to the next guy. I have to confess that by the time the last smoochy story rolls around, I had pretty much forgotten the first one -- which involved "Ski" Wronski, a penny-pinching guy saving his dough to bring his girl out to California, who gets a Dear John letter.

For me, the most interesting character was Marion Hotchkiss, dubbed "Sister Mary" by his fellows because of his spectacles and constantly having his nose in a book. Marion prefers to ride the ferry than go bar hopping while on leave, and talks openly of writing a book about his wartime experiences. He falls for a gal he meets on the ferry, only to have his heart crushed when's revealed as a floozy. I was disappointed with the way his death is handled; we learn through Mac's laconic narration that he bought it.

It's a testament to the weak storytelling throughout this movie that a minor character can be brought to the fore, his love story occupying center stage for a good chunk of the film, and then his passing is dismissed with a line of dialogue.

The longest romance tale involves Danny Forrester, a blond kid from Baltimore played by Tab Hunter. Danny has a sweet girl-next-door type back home, but falls hard for Elaine Yarborough, the older wife of Navy man who's never home. She's played by Dorothy Malone, who had an interesting career playing good girls and then suddenly morphed into a femme fatale type.

Malone wears tight sweaters with those prototypical torpedo bras of the 1950s that result in a very, um, horizontal profile. (That probably looked out of place in 1942.) Hunter and Malone's scenes are the only ones in the movie with any real heat. (Ironic, since Hunter was a gay actor forced by the studios to stay in the closet until late in life.)

The least interesting romance for me is the last one, involving the lumberjack Andy Hookens, a strapping guy who doesn't believe in getting tied down by just one girl, until... well, you know. His love interest is Pat Rogers (Nancy Olson), a New Zealander whose husband was killed in the fighting in Africa.

Andy is played by Aldo Ray, who definitely looks like a lumberjack. He's built like a linebacker, with a bull neck and wide shoulders, but has a curiously pinched face, with slightly buggy eyes. His raspy voice sounds like he screamed until his voice box shattered.

He's also blond, which is notable in that four of the main actors -- Heflin, Ray, Hunter and Lupton -- are fair-haired. As I've discussed before, yellow-haired performers had a better chance of making it in Hollywood a few decades ago than they do now.

1.5 stars out of four

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