(director: Lewis Milestone; screenwriter: Michael Blankfort; cinematographers: Winton Hoch/Harry Jackson; editor: William H. Reynolds; cast: Richard Widmark (Lt. Carl Anderson), Jack Palance (Pidgeon Lane), Robert Wagner (Coffman), Karl Malden (Doc), Jack Webb (Correspondent Dickerman), Reginald Gardiner (Sgt. Johnson), Richard Hylton (Cpl. Stuart Conroy), Richard Boone (Lt. Col. Gilfilan), Bert Freed (Slattery), Skip Homeier (Pretty Boy), Neville Brand (Sgt. Zelenko), Don Hicks (Lt. Butterfield); Runtime: 113; 20th Century-Fox; 1950)

“A more than adequate telling of the standard 1950s hard-nosed war film” 

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An action-packed WW11 film about marines landing on a Japanese controlled Pacific island and overcoming rocket fire while badly outnumbered. A more than adequate telling of the standard 1950s hard-nosed war film, which is helped greatly by an outstanding cast. From its opening moments, the patriotic “Halls of Montezuma” song is played whenever there is a call for flag-waving. Lewis Milestone, the director of this ode to war film, was curiously enough noted for directing in 1930, one of the most renown anti-war films “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

In “Halls of Montezuma,” Milestone emphasizes the lives of the characters in the battle-tested 2nd Marine Company, rather than the battle scenes. In some battle scenes real documentary war shots are added to the film action, which gives the film a gritty look.

The respected company leader is Lieutenant Anderson (Widmark), who was a high school chemistry teacher before the war. He has led these marines through Guadacanal and his aim is to keep the seven survivors from his old platoon alive. But there is something noticeably wrong with him — he is having severe migraines. The film uses a flashback to show how the medical corpsman (Malden) has known about Anderson’s condition for some time, but he has been asked to keep it private because if the authorities found out he would be sent home and he wants to finish the war fighting with his men. The corpsman feeds him pain killers when the headaches get really bad.

On the boat, before the men land on the beach, Cpl. Conroy (Hylton) asks Anderson to give him a discharge saying that he has mentally cracked after the last battle and is afraid of the up-coming one. Milestone changes the voice tone of Anderson’s speech when we are hearing his private thoughts. With the aid of a flashback we see that Anderson while teaching high school, had a student in his class who stuttered. This was Conroy, who through Anderson’s help was able to overcome his fear of speaking. With this in mind, Anderson convinces Conroy to not give in to this fear and to carry out his mission. Both headaches and stuttering are caused, according to Anderson, by fear.

After landing on the beach the men meet little resistance, but when they try to take a ridge they are met with heavy machine-gun fire from the pillboxes above. They secure their position after heavy casualties. Lt. Col. Gilfilan (Boone), their commanding officer, orders them to capture some Japanese prisoners rather than trying to kill them. The reason is that they are being attacked by rockets on the island and want to interrogate the prisoners to see if they can get the location of those rockets.

The colonel gets Anderson to take his squad along with a British-born sergeant, Johnson (Gardiner), who speaks Japanese, and he tells them to bring back some Japanese soldiers hiding in a cave. The danger in this assignment is that the Japanese soldier who told them where the Japanese soldiers were, might be leading them into an ambush.

The men from Anderson’s company are all the typical stock characters found in these types of films: Robert Wagner is a radio man loyal to his fellow soldiers; Bert Freed is a tough marine private who is battle-experienced, but can’t behave properly when there are no battles; Jack Webb is a war correspondent who is writing a book about the war, and is eager to experience a battle; Neville Brand is a tough sergeant who gets blinded, but still believes he is doing the right thing by fighting for his country; Skip Homeier is a troubled boy who doesn’t want to be a nobody and is a little bit gun crazy, who joined the marines to become a man; Jack Palance is a boxer in civilian life, who is grateful that Skip saved his life and tries to straighten the kid out; and, Karl Malden is someone who gets shot and writes a patriotic letter that he wants read to the men, stating that America’s cause is just and that God is on America’s side.

The Japanese are de-humanized, as they are routinely called derogatory names and the officers say “A good Jap, is a dead one.” The film doesn’t pretend to be more than a routine WW11 war film reflecting the political mood of when it was made, that should be pleasing for those who like simpleminded action flicks. It is well-crafted by Milestone’s even-handed direction and it ably presents the men and lets the story build in action after a slow start, so that when some of the men die you at least know who they were.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”