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The film's working titles were The Admiral Halsey Story and Bull Halsey. The Gallant Hours closes with the following written statement: "Sincere appreciation is acknowledged for the cooperation extended by the United States Department of Defense and, most specifically, by the United States Navy and Marine Corps."
According to a June 1960 Los Angeles Examiner article, director Robert Montgomery came up with the idea for the film while attending the seventy-fifth birthday party of Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey (1882-1959). In May 1957, Hollywood Reporter reported that Montgomery and his good friend James Cagney had acquired the rights to Halsey's life story and would form an independent company, Cagney-Montgomery Productions, to produce it. Cagney wrote in a Los Angeles Mirror-News article that although he had met Halsey twice before filming, he deliberately attempted to eschew the man's mannerisms. Many contemporary sources describe Cagney's in-depth research process, which included interviewing hundreds of men who had served under Halsey. As noted in the Los Angeles Examiner article, Cagney and Halsey were very similar physically. Cagney later referred to the role as his most difficult; it was his last starring role in a dramatic film. He starred in one additional film, the Billy Wilder-directed comedy One, Two, Three in 1961 (see AFI Catalog of Feaure Films, 1961-70) before retiring, then had a brief appearance in Ragtime in 1981, his last film before his death in 1986. Cagney's son, James Cagney, Jr., had his only film role in The Gallant Hours.
Halsey graduated from the Naval Academy in 1904, won the Navy Cross during World War I, and during World War II led the task force that attacked Japanese forces in the Gilbert Islands. He was promoted to admiral in 1942 and soon after took control of naval operations in Guadalcanal, taking command of the South Pacific Force in 1943. After his retirement in April 1947, he became a successful businessman, and died in August 1959, just months after The Gallant Hours finished production.
Montgomery had served under Halsey in the navy in World War II. The prominent actor began directing when John Ford became ill on the set of the 1945 picture They Were Expendable, and went on to direct and star in Lady in the Lake for M-G-M in 1947 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 for both). That film garnered much praise for its experimental use of a subjective camera, known as the "Camera I." The Gallant Hours marked Montgomery's last directorial effort and his last involvement in film or television.
As in Lady in the Lake, Montgomery used innovative techniques in The Gallant Hours. In voice-over narration, Montgomery introduces characters with a brief biographical sketch, including personal details and information about how they will be wounded or die in upcoming battles. The Japanese characters speak Japanese rather than English, and Art Gilmore, in voice-over narration, describes what they are saying. The Roger Wagner Chorale sings the score throughout the film, most of which is a long flashback, framed by Halsey's retirement ceremony. Reviews noted that the filmmakers' decision not to include any battle scenes marked a dramatic departure from most war films. In The Gallant Hours, all of the action takes place in Halsey's offices and headquarters, with major military maneuvers taking place offscreen. Another novel aspect of the film was in its focus on a mere five weeks in Halsey's life, despite the admiral's long, multifaceted career as a brilliant military strategist.
As noted in a June 1959 Daily Variety article, the battleship interiors were shot using a new construction technique in which sets were hung from overheads grids so walls could swing in and out, making it easier to light the cramped sets. Hollywood Reporter news items add the following actors to the film's cast: Jim Jacobs, Larry Thor, Warren Frost, Peter Miller, Bob Holten, Roy Taguichi, Bob Kino and Bob Ozaki. Their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
The film's Washington, D.C. premiere on May 13, 1960 was sponsored by the Navy League in a tribute to Halsey. Some reviews called The Gallant Hours overlong, but most were laudatory, with the New York Times critic stating that "So detailed and fascinating is it that this might be a standout documentary film." Cagney received high praise for his quiet, unaffected performance.