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Few leading men from Hollywood's golden age seemed to have a smaller ego than Van Heflin. The Oklahoma native had parlayed his success on Broadway before World War II into a contract with RKO, and later MGM, who groomed him for star roles in B films and second leads in more prestigious pictures. From the beginnings of his film career, Heflin seemed to subspecialize in playing wretches and weaklings - for every jocular Athos in The Three Musketeers (1948), Heflin turned in three performances of almost painful vulnerability: the alcoholic pilot in Flight from Glory (1937), the shamed war veteran in Act of Violence (1948), the LAPD patrolman led by lust into lawlessness in The Prowler (1951) and the failure who plots to blow himself up for the insurance money in Airport (1970), which marked his final feature film appearance. Even in Shane (1953), in which his pacific prairie farmer is etched in semi-heroic shades, Heflin is a portrait in passivity and gnawing regret, watching his wife (Jean Arthur) fall in love with the gunman (Alan Ladd) who is teaching their son (Brandon de Wolfe) how to be a man.
Cry of Battle (1963) found the fiftyish Heflin in one of his most despicable portrayals, a merchant seaman who uses the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941 to serve his own ends. The production was shepherded by independent producer Joe Steinberg, whose brother was a wealthy Manila landowner amenable to footing the below-the-line costs of an adaptation of Benjamin Appel's 1951 novel Fortress in the Rice. A Hell's Kitchen-raised Polish-American novelist with an interest in social issues, Appel had served as the Special Assistant to the US Commissioner for the Philippines after the war, drawing upon his experiences to decry the treatment of the Third World by agents of the ostensibly more enlightened West. To adapt the material, Steinberg called upon Bernard Gordon, an American writer blacklisted after being subpoenaed by the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Gordon had heretofore spent his blacklist years cranking out such B-movie titles as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Hellcats of the Navy (1957) under the pseudonym "Raymond T. Marcus." Cry of Battle would mark Bernard Gordon's return as a properly credited screenwriter.
In support of Heflin, a 1943 Oscar® winner for his work in Johnny Eager (1941) and a then-recent recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was fresh-faced actor James MacArthur. The adopted son of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Charles MacArthur and stage actress Helen Hayes, MacArthur was enjoying a cinematic full court press that had landed him featured juvenile roles in Disney's Kidnapped (1960) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and opposite Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara in Spencer's Mountain (1963). Cry of Battle itself was pitched initially as a coming-of-age film, tentatively titled To Be a Man and concerned with the political awakening of MacArthur's character, the decent but nave son of a plantation owner who is saved from the Japanese by Heflin's ugly American and then must balance his gratitude with his horror at his savior's actions. MacArthur would attain pop culture immortality as a star of the long-running cop show Hawaii Five-O and continued to play Jack Lord's poker-faced sidekick Dan "Dan-O" Williams for eleven of twelve seasons.
Cry of Battle's leading lady Rita Moreno came to the Philippines to play a distaff freedom fighter and James MacArthur's love interest on the heels of her highly-regarded supporting performance in Robert Wise's West Side Story (1961). The Humacao, Puerto Rico, native had already weathered a more than ten-year film career, with small but memorable parts in Singin' in the Rain (1952) at MGM (where her birth name was changed by studio fiat from Rosita to Rita) and The King and I (1956) at Fox, in addition to a wealth of performances on episodic television and a spot on the cover of Life magazine in 1954. During production of Cry of Battle in and around Manila, Moreno had to fly back to Los Angeles to accept her 1962 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for West Side Story. For the event, the actress wore a black silk gown with a bateau neckline, embroidered with metallic orange and gold chrysanthemums. The dress had been made for her by Jose "Pitoy" Moreno (no relation), who became the first Filipino designer to dress an Oscar® winner. Despite the honor of accepting the statuette (Moreno was only the second Latina to claim Oscar® gold), she was on a plane back to Manila the following day.
Upon its release in October 1963, Cry of Battle received surprisingly high marks from peppery New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who praised the direction of Irving Lerner and the performances of Heflin and MacArthur while averring that "there are scenes in this acerbic and action-charged account of the two men's perilous adventures in trying to save their lives that seem so substantial and authentic that they cause your eyes to bug." Although reasonably successful, the film was swiftly forgotten as the nation moved towards the end-of-year holidays. Cry of Battle might have been forgotten entirely as a blip on the career radar of all involved had it not been booked on a double bill with Burt Topper's War Is Hell (1962) at the Texas Theater in Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for assassinating United States President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (as well as Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit) on November 22, 1963. Filmmaker Oliver Stone recreated the capture for his film JFK (1991), to the point of including a snippet from Cry of Battle for the sake of added authenticity.
Producer: Joe Steinberg
Associate Producer: Eddie Romero
Director: Irving Lerner
Writer: Bernard Gordon, based on the novel Fortress in the Rice by Benjamin Appel
Cinematography: Felipe Sacdalan
Music: Richard Markowitz
Art Direction: Benjamin Resella
Cast: Van Heflin (Joe Trent), James MacArthur (David McVey), Rita Moreno (Sisa), Leopoldo Salcedo (Manuel Careo), Sidney Clute (Colonel Ryker), Marilou Muoz (Pinang), Michael Parsons (Captain Davis), Liza Moreno (Vera), Oscar Roncal (Atong).
by Richard Harland Smith
Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (University of Texas Press, 1999)
The Gordon File: A Screenwriter Recalls Twenty Years of FBI Surveillance by Bernard Gordon (University of Texas Press, 2008)
"Oscar Awardee Wore a Pitoy," Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 23, 2000