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War movies, just like Westerns, cover a wide array of topics and themes, but canactually be broken down into just a few basic formats. Take the HighGround (1953), a Korean War picture starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden, is one of the more common types - one where everyday civilians aremethodically transformed into real soldiers. This story has been aroundforever, and may have reached its apex with Stanley Kubrick's brutal FullMetal Jacket (1987). But that's how it is with genre pieces. The funlies in seeing what different actors and directors can bring to the same set ofsignifiers.
Widmark, who was born to play this kind of role, is Sgt. Thorne Ryan, ahard-as-nails taskmaster who realizes he has a limited amount of time towhip a bunch of raw recruits (including West Side Story's (1961) RussTamblyn) into the kind of shape necessary to survive the rigors of combat.There's often a good cop/bad cop situation in these pictures, so Karl Maldenplays the benevolent Sgt. Holt. The sergeant is more responsive to the men as humanbeings than Ryan is, and he even confronts his hardened fellow officer about it.But he still understands that the hard-ass tactics are necessary. Throw in whatthe soldiers' wives have to endure while their loved ones are training forwar, and there's more than enough discord to go around.
The recruits, as you might expect, are a cross-section of stereotypes:there's "Tex" (Jerome Courtland) from Texas, an African-American (WilliamHairston) from the inner city, an overtly cowardly recruit (Robert Arthur) who finallymanages to shape up, etc. But director Richard Brooks orchestrates their conflicts by focusing on their shared humanity. In that sense, the stereotypes are shattered to reveal something far more powerful than what you might expect. Brooks' care with character construction places Take the High Ground several notches above the usual warmovie.
Brooks was already something of an old movie-making hand at this point, andhe learned the ropes from one the greats. He broke into the film industryby writing stories and scripts for the legendary producer, Mark Hellinger.Brooks' work on such tough Hellinger films as The Killers (1946), TheNaked City (1948), and Brute Force (1947) are as hard-hitting asthey come.
Even after leaving Hellinger, he continued to film testosterone-drivenpictures in a frank, declamatory style that eventually led to his gripping,pseudo-documentary adaptation of Truman Capote's novel, In ColdBlood (1967). He claimed the best piece of filmmaking advice he ever got camecourtesy of John Huston, who directed Brooks' script for Key Largo (1948).Huston's advice? "Get to the point." And that's what he did, throughouthis long, celebrated career.
Director: Richard Brooks
Producer: Dore Schary
Screenplay: Millard Kaufman
Editor: John Dunning
Cinematographer: John Alton
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principal Cast: Richard Widmark (Sgt. Ryan), Karl Malden (Sgt. Holt), ElaineStewart (Julie Mollison), Russ Tamblyn (Paul Jamison), Carleton Carpenter(Merton Tolliver), Steve Forrest (Lobo Naglaski), Jerome Courtland (ElvinCarey)
C-102m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara