Between Heaven and Hell (1956)

“I’ve heard about you, Gifford. First you go get yourself a silver star, then you get busted to private. Oh, it’s a rough war, ain’t it?”

Between Heaven and Hell Poster

Synopsis:
A spoiled Southerner (Robert Wagner) serving under a sadistic commander (Broderick Crawford) experiences a fundamental attitude shift.

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Review:
Starring matinee-idol Robert Wagner, this unassuming WWII-era film (based on a novel by Francis Gwaltney) offers yet another perspective on the brutal ravages of war. Unfortunately, the ostensible focus of the film — arrogant Sergeant-turned-Private Gifford (Wagner) learns to love and respect his fellow soldiers, regardless of their station in life — comes across as somewhat heavy-handed, given that the brief flashbacks to his life as a callous plantation owner (married to Terry Moore) aren’t lengthy enough to give us a really good sense of who Gifford once was (or why). Much more effective is director Richard Fleischer’s ability to show us how the random brutality of wartime violence — starting with the death of his beloved father-in-law (Robert Keith) — has a deeply powerful effect on Wagner’s psyche; the type of PTSD he experiences wasn’t explored nearly enough in other wartime films of the era. Broderick Crawford is appropriately unhinged as a Kurtz-like commander slowly going off the deep end (with a weirdly homoerotic attachment to his two buff young henchmen, who often roam around shirtless). My favorite performance in the film, however, is given by Buddy Ebsen as Wagner’s lower-class “buddy”, who quietly befriends him and helps him see the good in himself. Much less fortunate is the casting of Harvey Lembeck as — what else? — an obnoxious wiseacre; fortunately, his role is relatively small. Note Hugo Friedhofer’s Oscar-nominated score, which draws heavily — and to nice effect — upon the “dies irae” motif.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful portrait of the effects of wartime death on soldiers
    Between Heaven and Hell Still

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look, and WWII film fans will certainly want to check it out. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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