Between Heaven And Hell

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Whether you’ve heard of him or not, Richard Fleischer had pretty much done it all and chances are you’ve experienced part of his robust filmography without even realizing it.
Jumping genres at a rate that would Richard Donner dizzy you can take your pick of any one of the memorable pictures he made. Fancy some brain busting sci-fi? Eat some Soylent Green (although considering the twist, maybe don’t?) or take a Fantasic Voyage. Fancy a chest beating historical epic – how about setting sale with the magnificent The Vikings? Cheesy 80’s fantasy? The Destroyer and Red Sonja has got you, bro. Horror? Thriller? Disney? Amytiville 3D, Mr Majestik and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
However, with such a vast range of titles under his belt (I’ve barely scratched the surface), there’s often a slight danger of being a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none and never is this more evident than entertaining but empty war flick, Between Heaven And Hell.

It’s 1945 and on a war torn Pacific island, we meet Sergeant Sam Gifford as he’s being demoted down to private after bludgeoning a lieutenant with the butt of his rifle. As further penance, he’s carted off to a remote, dangerous, area in the Philippines to join a company led by the bullish Captain Grimes, an unrepentant bully who demands his men call him “Waco” instead of “Sir” in order not to draw the fire of any Japanese snipers in the area.
As Gifford struggles to settle in due to the combative nature of the men and his own troubles with battle fatigue and panic attacks, we get a glimpse of his backstory and find that he was a spoilt, callous cotton farmer who treated his croppers with disdain due to their low class. However, the randomness of war forges strange friendships and Gifford fond his opinions changing as he finds himself becoming good buddies with some of his own employees as they fight alongside each other. Things start to go downhill (so to speak – it is war time after all) with the death of his father-in-law/commander due to a well-placed sniper’s bullet and the slaughter of his pals due to some panicked friendly fire from a cowardly superior officer. It’s this straw that finally shatters the camel’s spine and leads to the assault that’s placed Gifford in the predicament he finds himself in now.
As the questionable leadership of Grimes places Gifford and the other men in unnecessary harm by stationing him at an outpost that’s dangerously close to enemy movements. As the Japanese amass for what seems to be a big push, Gifford makes friends with Willie Crawford, another kindly, former sharecropper who helps him through the worst of his anxiety attacks, but will any of them manage to survive the inevitable attack?

Between Heaven And Hell is a incredibly decent war movie from the man who went on to co-direct 70’s Pearl Harbour movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, but despite its lush, Cinemascope photography, capable leads and competent direction, the movie struggles somewhat when it comes to having anything to actually say. At first you think that maybe it’s going to be a story of redemption when you consider that pre-war, our hero was something of a snobbish, abusive prick whose opinion of those of a lower standing than him borders on sociopathic narcissism, but while we get scenes of him passive aggressively bullying his workers (and their kids) into working on a Sunday, the movie curiously skips over the moments where he crucially makes friends with his workers while at war – he just suddenly is stealing beers and having a laugh. Additionally to this, the movie makes a big deal of his last minute friendship with Buddy Ebsen’s Crawford like its supposed to be some sort of epiphany even though we’ve already seen him “fraternise with the help” in his flashbacks. Plus, the movie doesn’t really shed any particular light on his growing panic attacks as I’m assuming the filmmakers were taking pains to inadvertently portraying the lead as someone the audience might mistakenly brand a coward. Thus we have a soldier who obviously being taken apart through stress, but who also an exceptionally capable fighter once he shrugs it off and you suspect that this is a legitimate attempt to broach the subject while weirdly not having it affect the actual plot too much. It’s this muddled arc that’s the main reason that Between Heaven And Hell fails to engage as much as it could and it’s a pity, because there’s plenty of aspects about the story that work particularly well, such as Broderick Crawford’s fascinating Grimes. Barely hanging onto his brutal persona through bellowing at everyone, lying constantly about his personal life and being flanked at all times by two equally shitty privates who share his negative attributes, there could have been an interesting, Platoon-esque struggle between the characters, but despite bring an obvious antagonist, Grimes is merely just there and isn’t utilised to his fullest capacity.
Still, despite having less focus than a busted telescope, Fleischer still manages to unload some memorable stuff onto the viewer starting with the fantastic world weary attitude the whole movie has. When they learn Gifford attacked his Officer, numerous people shrug their shoulders and nonchalantly state “You should’ve killed him.” and when a driver finds out Gifford could have gone either to Grimes’ George Company or spend 10 years locked up in Leavenworth, he responds with a mirthless chuckle and states “Should’a picked Leavenworth”.
On top of this, Fleischer also knows how to stage a firefight and Gifford’s climactic dash of death through the moving Japanese forces that are swarming the surrounding jungle in order to get help for a wounded Crawford is legitimately edge-of-your-seat exciting.

It’s also genuinely interesting to see Robert Wagner in the lead as I’ve only really seen him playing swaggering, confident/shitheel guys in stuff like Hart To Hart, The Towering Inferno and Number Two in Austin Powers, so to see him fighting off the shakes while mortars claim the life of a shifty looking and uncredited Frank Gorshin is rather novel.
Still, even though the movie is called Between Heaven And Hell, it finds itself stuck between a meandering plot and confused plot arcs.

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