Part social commentary, part war movie, 1956’s Between Heaven and Hell is all of one thing: dark. Not that dark is bad, and in this case, actually makes for one hell of a good film.
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The story revolves around one Francis Gifford (Robert Wagner), an affluent plantation owner in “the South.” As luck would have it, he’s shipped off to the Pacific, and in the process, becomes a wholly changed man.
The combat scenes in this movie are quite impressive and to-the-point, probably as good as you’re going to get from any film from the 1950’s. The beach landing ranks right up there as far as beach landings go. But the combat is not the point of the film at all.
Gifford goes from being a typical well-to-do rich kid with connections and influence, to becoming close “war buddy” friends with the same people, the sharecroppers, he bossed around so unforgivingly back home. When they’re killed in a stupid accident, he’s knocked back down to private due to his vengeful actions, and sent off to be a part of a remote outfit led by the overbearing “Waco.”
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Throughout the picture, Gifford’s propensity for “shell shock” gets progressively worse, but only after the fact of combat. During the fight he’s all there, and manages to pull off heroic feat after feat, ultimately saving another of his new close friends (and sharecropper) Willie (Buddy Ebsen) in a selfless mad dash down a Japanese-infested hillside….
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Sure the entire film is dark and broody, but so is Gifford, and its through his trying to come to terms with everything that’s happened to him that at the end, we finally get that ray of light. Wagner pulls off the introspective and just plain pissed-off character quite well.
The soundtrack is a bit heavy-handed, but then again, what 1950’s war movie doesn’t have that kind of track. You will quickly lose sight of that, though. Points also go to the production and effects team, for pulling off some totally believable (for the time) combat scenes and long-shots, not to mention a few sets that are quite amazing.
Between Heaven and Hell isn’t exactly a Saturday afternoon popcorn muncher. If you aren’t prepared for the mood, you’ll likely get bored quickly, but the payoff is well worth it. And yes, I’m aware of the potential racial issues that should have been brought up in this picture. I don’t think 1950’s America was ready for it (do you?), and the film probably wouldn’t have been made anyway.
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Watched it on the trusty Netflix Instant Watch via my Roku Player, and it went off without a glitch. A bit blocky in spots, but otherwise good.