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Ten years after the end of World War II, Warner Bros. scored a box office hit with Battle Cry (1955), their first financially successful war picture. Ranked at number four among the top money grossers of that year, the movie, directed by Raoul Walsh, was based on Leon Uris's best-selling WWII novel, and was adapted to the screen by Uris. Yet, despite the title, Battle Cry is less a combat picture than a sprawling, episodic soap opera packed with character vignettes and human drama. It is also a quintessential big budget studio entertainment geared for mass consumption during the fifties, highlighted by an all-star cast that combines gifted Hollywood veterans (Van Heflin, James Whitmore, Raymond Massey) with up and coming actors and actresses (Tab Hunter, Dorothy Malone, Aldo Ray, Anne Francis, Fess Parker). During the casting phase, such well-known names as Paul Newman, Margaret O'Brien, Susan Strasberg, Phyllis Thaxter and James Dean, were considered but eventually passed over by the studio.
The story begins as a platoon of recently conscripted Marines enter boot camp in January 1942 and the narrative follows their progress from training through romantic entanglements and personal crises and eventually to the battlefield, climaxing with the bloody beach assault of Saipan. Battle Cry invites comparisons to other war pictures such as Battleground (1949) and Air Force (1943) with its multi-ethnic collective of baby-faced recruits who break down into the usual stereotypes of city slickers, country hicks, bookworms, ladies' men, and con artists - all thrown together as fellow soldiers. Typical of the era, unenlightened sexual attitudes and macho posturing abound but the movie was merely reflecting the current '50s culture and was never meant to be a critique of the Marine Corps or an anti-war picture. If anything, Battle Cry is a celebration of the military and Walsh was granted full access by the Marines to shoot portions of the film on location at Fort Pendleton and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, both near San Diego. In addition, Walsh had literally thousands of Marines at his disposal as extras which accounts for some of the impressive battle scenes and shots of marching columns of men.
Additional scenes were shot at the Warners Ranch in Calabasas, in the Simi Valley and around the Vieques Islands of Puerto Rico. James Whitmore, who plays the gruff Sergeant Mac, also provides intermittent voice-over narration and the rousing music score by Max Steiner was nominated for an Oscar®.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Battle Cry is barely touched on in the film version, according to notes from the American Film Institute web site, which was referring to "the work of the World War II Navajo "code talkers," who sent secret radio messages in their native language, undecipherable by the enemy. Although the recruits depicted in the film were sent to radio school, and several humorous references were made within the story about off-color limericks sent in Morse code, the battle sequences showed those characters fighting as a squad with a battalion of foot soldiers."
While Battle Cry palls in comparison to such classics of the genre as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Story of G.I. Joe (1945), it is often entertaining for its lively ensemble cast alone and the pulpy and often unpredictable story arcs - some characters are simply dropped along the way and we only learn about their fates through overheard conversations or Whitmore's narration. Among the cast Tab Hunter gives one of his better dramatic performances as the All-American boy from Baltimore and, in his film debut, L.Q. Jones (who is billed here as Justus E. McQueen), steals most of his scenes as a wisecracking, fun-loving hayseed. Providing eye candy and sex appeal are Dorothy Malone and Anne Francis, who enjoy brief romantic interludes with Tab Hunter and John Lupton, respectively.
In many ways, Battle Cry was responsible for launching Hunter's popularity among the bobbysocker crowd and catapulted him into leading man status. According to his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential, his brother Walt inspired his performance to some degree: "The character of Danny reminded me of Walt, an upright guy eager to serve his country. By this time, my brother had already been in the Navy for five years. Since I'd emulated Walt all through childhood, it wouldn't be a stretch to base my performance on him. There was plenty of me in there, too." Hunter also recalled the movie's filming, noting that "A planeload of Hollywood soldiers stormed Vieques, Puerto Rico, on February 17, 1954. The island was twenty miles long, five miles wide, and had only three towns. The battalion lived in a tent city, nicknamed Camp Hollywood, where we shared cold showers and outdoor latrines. It teemed with scorpions, field mice and billions of mosquitoes. Thankfully, the schedule called for only eighteen days of location work." As for his co-stars, Hunter said that "Aldo [Ray] emerged as the leader of the dogfaces. He formed an ad hoc drinking society called the FEOLOs, which stood for "F*ck Everybody or Lose Out." He'd captain evening forays into Isabel Segunda, a grungy little town at the tip of the island with a two-pronged economy: bars and whores."
From all reports, Battle Cry was well into production before a completed script was ever delivered to the actors, a situation that led professionals like Van Heflin and James Whitmore to voice their concerns to director Walsh, who encouraged the more experienced actors to make up incidental dialogue as they went along. Rainy weather also contributed to delays in the shooting schedule and eventually Battle Cry's original release date was pushed back to allow for the necessary post-production but also because the Marine Corps convinced Warner Bros. if the film was released in April or May, when enlistment was usually down, it would boost recruitment.
Prior to the film's release, the Marine Corps did cite a problem they had with the film, according to Tab Hunter, "specifically the affair between Dorothy Malone and me. An internal studio memo said: "The Corps feels that Danny Forrester represents an idealistic type of boy...the type of youth they hope to appeal to. Showing him as an eighteen-year-old, humping a married woman twice his age, will have many detrimental aftermaths." Hunter was afraid that some of his best scenes would end up on the cutting room floor but, "In the end, the humping stayed in Battle Cry. After it was previewed for the Defense Department, Raoul Walsh received a letter of commendation: "This is the best Marine picture ever made. Your guys look like real fighting men, not Hollywood actors. In the last five or six Hollywood pictures, they've made the Marine Corps look ridiculous."
Battle Cry's reception was mixed with some critics calling attention to the fact that the real war footage was not well integrated into the Cinemascope-lensed studio scenes and that the combat sequences lacked realism due to the obvious "unmussed uniforms and unscathed equipment" of the soldiers. The Hollywood Reporter called it "a great women's picture" and Variety noted that, "While overboard in length, this comes from the detailing of several sets of romantics, each interesting in itself, plus the necessary battle action to indicate the basis is rather grim warfare....Of the romantic pairings, the most impression is made by Aldo Ray and Nancy Olson, not only because it occupies the main portion of the film's second half....but also because of the grasp the two stars have on their characters."
Regardless of critical opinion, Battle Cry was a smash hit for Warner Bros. and, for its era, an upbeat, patriotic recruitment vehicle for the Marines.
Producer: Jack L. Warner (uncredited)
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Leon M. Uris (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: John Beckman
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: William Ziegler
Cast: Van Heflin (Major Sam Huxley), Aldo Ray (Pvt./Pfc Andy Hookens), Mona Freeman (Kathy, later: Mrs. Danny Forrester), Nancy Olson (Mrs. Pat Rogers), James Whitmore (MSgt. Mac/Narrator), Raymond Massey (Maj. Gen. Snipes), Tab Hunter (Pvt. Cpl. Dan 'Danny' Forrester), Dorothy Malone (Mrs. Elaine Yarborough), Anne Francis (Rae), William Campbell (Pvt. 'Ski' Wronski).
by Jeff Stafford
Tab Hunter Confidential by Tab Hunter with Eddie Muller
Videohound's War Movies by Mike Mayo
The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett