Monday, December 4, 2017

BATTLE CRY: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1955) Warner Archive

With its weighty cast, featuring a who’s who mixture of fifties Hollywood beefcake (Aldo Ray, Tab Hunter), cheesecake (Ann Francis, Nancy Olson, Dorothy Malone), and heavy hitters (James Whitmore, Raymond Massey, Van Heflin), director Raoul Walsh’s Battle Cry (1955), in sprawling Cinemascope and less than glamorous WarnerColor, proved a highly successful war weepy with a lot of soap and a little hell thrown in for good measure. Based on the 1953 novel by Leon Uris, Battle Cry was Warner’s stab to do for the Marines what MGM and William Wellman’s 1949 classic, Battleground had done for the Army; namely, to elevate the stature and prestige for this branch of the Armed Forces while distinctly marking a more sobering ‘war is hell’ motif. Alas, the transition from stylish war epics a la Mrs. Miniver (1942) to a grittier exaltation is not entirely licked in Battle Cry. Whether because of Uris’ (who also wrote the screenplay) distinct ambition to will his literary best seller into another From Here To Eternity (1953) or Walsh’s natural affinity to broach the more philosophical debates in the novel with an almost Hallmark greeting card approach to their depth (or lack thereof), Battle Cry emerges as 2 hrs. and 30 mins. of chaotically compelling melodrama.
It’s the cast who make magic from this otherwise pedestrian filler work; chiefly Van Heflin, as Major (later, Lieutenant Colonel) Sam ‘High Pockets’ Huxley, of the 2nd Company Battalion. and 6th Marine Regiment; an ‘old campaigner’, so ruthlessly consumed by his more personal quest for glory, he makes demands on Major General Snipes (Raymond Massey) for his finely-honed fighting men to be sent to the epicenter of annihilation in Saipan; a sacrifice, later to backfire and claim his own life. Heflin’s unconventional looks likely prevented him from ever becoming a leading man. But his acting chops were not overlooked by studio brass who continued to groom him as a solid contributor to ensemble pieces like Battle Cry or ‘star’ in B-noirs throughout the 1940’s. The actor’s strengths are, in fact, revealed in his intermittent byplay with Master Technical Sgt. Mac (James Whitmore, who also serves as the film’s narrator) and his emotionally compelling declaration to Snipes, fascinatingly delivered with equal dollops of wounded pride and an impassioned desire to attain heroism on his own terms. This latter exchange is, in fact, the high point of Battle Cry, book-ended by some fairly standard romantic badinage having preceded it, and, heavily orchestrated combat sequences yet to follow.
The other genuinely compelling performance in the picture belongs to Aldo Ray as PFC Andy Hookens and his unlikely and uneven romance with New Zealand war widow, Pat Rogers (Nancy Olson). With his gravely hoarse voice, flower pot-shaped head and impossibly chiseled masculinity, Aldo Ray’s natural gift to the movies has remained his ruggedly tough and imposing physical presence. He looks as though his entire physical makeup has been hand-stitched together from the brawniest lumberjacks of his generation. Ray’s girth simply fills the frame, even in the elongated proportions of Cinemascope. Having begun his unlikely career in an athletic B-feature at Columbia in 1951, Ray would have preferred a career in politics to movies. He was, in fact, elected as Constable of Crockett Judicial District in Contra Costa County California at the age of 23, demolishing a 16-year veteran of the political arena with more than 80 percent of the vote. A protégée of Columbia’s Harry Cohn, Ray quickly escalated his cache in pictures, earning critical accolades for his innate, strikingly sincere and imaginative talent.
In many ways, Battle Cry is the Tiffany-set jewel in Ray’s crown, the mutual admiration between Cohn and Ray intact, despite Ray’s increasing bouts of alcoholism. But in 1958, Cohn died. Without a mentor, Ray would quickly discover what a cruel town Hollywood can be. With the subtlest economy, Ray runs the gauntlet of emotions in Battle Cry. Indeed, his Andy Hookens experiences the most dramatic and satisfying arc of any character in the picture; begun as a rather brutish pug who treats all women as objects (okay, furniture) until he meets Pat; the one girl with all the answers to questions Andy has never thought to ask before.  With that trademarked crooked smile, those penetrating eyes that let the light filter in, and an unusual degree of earnestness, Ray makes us believe in a new kind of male machismo; his strength of character superseding his overt masculinity with uncharacteristic intelligence, oft overlooked in later roles meant to capitalize on the cliché of the big, dumb bo-hunk. 
Between Heflin and Ray, the rest of the cast in Battle Cry all settle into a passable mid-register of acting efficiency; John Lupton as Pvt. / Cpl. Marion ‘Sister Mary’ Hotchkiss, an introspective bookworm with a killer right hook; L.Q. Jones, playing it strictly as Southern caricature and for laughs as Pvt. L.Q. Jones; Perry Lopez, an oily con artist, Pvt. Joe Gomez (Spanish Joe) and a guitar-plunking Fess Parker as Pvt. Speedy. None of these actors is really given the opportunity to shine. Yet each somehow manages to carve their niche into the backdrop of our story – some, destined for better roles later on in their respective careers. Less resolved are the women of Battle Cry. Nancy Olson’s ‘good girl’ and Dorothy Malone (as USO Manager, Mrs. Elaine Yarborough) a precursor to Ann Bancroft’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’, are about as dimensional as the ladies get. Malone, in particular, is interesting to watch; a steely-eyed spider set to deflower Tab Hunter’s PFC. / Cpl. Danny Forrester only to have her wickedness cut short by Forrester’s attack of conscience and enduring puppy love for Mona Freeman’s Kathy, the ‘Sweet Polly Purebred’ he left behind. Malone was always good at playing babes of spurious sexual liberation. In Battle Cry, she convincingly escalates from repressed wife to saucy seductress.  Why any man would prefer Freeman’s disposable gal pal to her is anyone’s guess; as is Anne Francis’ Rae – a ‘tart’-let meant to wound Hotchkiss’s heart after he discovers she is a ‘good-time’ gal, at present playing the field with Spanish Joe.
In his first novel, the soon-to-be prolific Uris, who reportedly wrote an operetta for his dearly departed dog at the tender age of six (how precious is that, I ask you?) had also served in the South Pacific with the 2nd Battalion 6th Marines, stationed in New Zealand, seeing combat on Guadalcanal and Tarawa from 1942 through 1944. A good many of his personal experiences found their way into Battle Cry – in hindsight, a very autobiographical novel; not the least, Uris’ affliction with dengue fever, malaria and a recurrence of asthma that delayed his rejoining his battalion at Saipan. Had Uris taken part, he would have likely fallen alongside his decimated compatriots. Barely ten years after the end of World War II, Warner Bros. had a sizable hit on their hands with Battle Cry – the movie; in retrospect, less for its combat and more because of its episodic soap opera atmosphere: the quintessence of all fifties big and splashy entertainments. And it is saying much of the success of Uris’ novel, the studio eventually went with the cast it did, discarding the likes of Paul Newman, Margaret O'Brien, Susan Strasberg, Phyllis Thaxter and James Dean for these meaty roles.
After a stirring and Oscar-nominated overture and main title by Max Steiner, Battle Cry charts the course of several conscripted Marines entering boot camp. We meet the principals, knowing too well their lives are about to change forever. In these early scenes Battle Cry is rather formulaic; mashing together its multi-ethnic collective, recycling stereotypes and typically benighted sexual mores to buttress the dramatic load. However, at its core Battle Cry is yet another exaltation of American military might. Granted total access by the Marines to shoot on location at Fort Pendleton and the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot near San Diego, Walsh was afforded every luxury to make as lavish a picture as he could imagine; Battle Cry jam-packed with wide establishing shots of proud marching men. Additionally, some exteriors were lensed at Calabasas, Simi Valley and the Puerto Rican isles of Vieques. Battle Cry is lively in spots, and unpredictable at others. And its narrative deficiencies are not immediately apparent; a lack of cohesion between episodes, with some characters suddenly dropped from the line-up, James Whitmore’s running commentary making passing references to their fate to tie up loose ends.
Battle Cry went into production before Uris had completed his screenplay, forcing Raoul Walsh to improvise. Van Heflin was not at all impressed by this slapdash approach; his disdain amplified by inclement weather, further to delay production. In hindsight, Battle Cry made Tab Hunter a star; choice beefcake among the swooning bobbysoxer sect who, at least then, knew not that Mr. Hunter preferred men to girls. Hunter based Danny Forrester on his own brother, Walt, whom he adored and was five years into his service with the Marines. While shooting in Puerto Rico, the soldiers, extras and stars of Battle Cry lived in a makeshift tent city, complete with cold showers and outdoor toilets, affectionately nicknamed ‘Camp Hollywood’.  In the evening, Aldo Ray’s predilection for women and booze livened the mood with his frequent arranged visits to Isabel Segunda, a one-horse town with a two-bit economy: saloons and hookers. While the Marine Corps may not have objected to these off camera ‘diversions’, they did launch a strong appeal to Walsh over the fictional Danny Forrester’s dalliances with Elaine Yarborough. Hunter feared his best scenes might be left on the cutting room floor. But Walsh stood his ground. The scenes remained. Afterward, the director received a letter of commendation that read, in part: “This is the best Marine picture ever made. Your guys look like real fighting men, not Hollywood actors.”
After the briefest of farewells from family and sweethearts, Battle Cry’s all-male ensemble begins to form its own alliances under the command of Major ‘High Pockets’ Huxley. Danny pines for Kathy, the girl he left behind, causing him to lose focus of his priorities as a Morse Code operator. He recoups with a drunken binge that lands him at the local USO managed by Elaine Yarborough. She pretends not to find him sinfully attractive. But pretty soon the two are sharing stories about their loneliness that lead to her inviting him up to her apartment for more drinks and a moonlit swim. Hubba! Hubba! Spanish Joe makes a bad enemy of Marion Hotchkiss, mistaking his bookish good nature for weakness; easily dispelled when Marion lands Joe on his keister with a powerful right hook. Meanwhile, PFC. 'Ski' Wronski (William Campbell) suffers a breakdown when his girl writes him a ‘Dear John’ letter. Not only has she since married another, but is about to give birth to twins. Unable to reconcile his pain, Wronski winds up in a tight spot inside a brothel known for stealing the money of its inebriated clientele. Mercifully, Master Technical Sgt. Mac, Andy Hookens and a small contingent from the base take their stance against this crooked establishment, cleaning house and reclaiming their fellow mate and his money in tandem.
A short while later, the introverted Marion meets Rae; a girl who, like him, frequents the ferry to cross into Frisco. The two strike up a friendship. He shares with her his stories, hoping to someday write the great American war novel. She is smitten, it seems, but refuses to meet Marion on dry land. Inexperienced with women, Marion learns the real reason for Rae’s refusal a short while later when she turns up as ‘one of the girls’ Spanish Joe has hired for a little recreation with the boys. Wounded, Marion retreats into his cocoon. From here, the focus shifts to Andy’s growing infatuation with Pat Rogers. The two ‘meet cute’ in the bar she manages. Andy’s disinterest in any woman he cannot immediately take to bed results in Pat making a terrible confession: she lost both a husband and brother to the war. Shaken by the news, and haunted by his own callousness, Andy reforms and, by his own admission, apologizes for his attitude (something he has never done before). This scene is one of the very best in Battle Cry; Aldo Ray, revealing uncharacteristic charm and humility convincingly at odds with what we have come to know about his character so far. Pat is charmed by Andy and the two begin to see a lot of one another. She introduces him to her father (Rhys Williams), and the little farm that ought to have gone to her departed sibling, but now will one day belong to her.
Pat and Andy’s romance is the most appealing aspect of Battle Cry; seemingly genuine and fully ripened by the end of our story. Pat puts on the brakes prematurely after learning she is pregnant. The news, however, turns joyous when Andy, unaware of her condition, nevertheless proposes marriage on the spot. The two are wed and Andy, along with his battalion, ship out for Saipan. Having drilled his men to the brink of exhaustion in preparation for this battle, Huxley and his regiment are overtaken by the Japanese. Both Huxley and Marion are killed in action; Andy, terribly wounded in the knee. Fearing he will never walk again, Andy is overcome by pity, despite reassurances from Mac that Pat will welcome his return with open arms. Indeed, not long thereafter a truck pulls up to Pat’s farm. Andy emerges to meet his infant son for the very first time; the happiest of families reunited. Mac boards a train for the recruitment base, surveying the new line-up of ‘wet behind the ears’ recruits about to enduring the same trial by fire as their predecessors; the cyclical nature of training and sending young men off to war to ensure peace in the world, a very bittersweet reality.  
While a real crowd pleaser, Battle Cry was hardly the darling of the critics; The Hollywood Reporter snubbing it as “a great women’s picture.”  In a mad dash to save some money during the cost-cutting 1950’s, Battle Cry was photographed on single-strip Eastman Kodak film stock; trademarked at Warner Bros. as WarnerColor; one of the most unflattering and utterly flawed systems of photography. WarnerColor’s shortcomings can be distilled into two camps: a visible softening, occasional blurring of the image, and a bias toward blues, browns and beiges, with yellows and reds generally looking quite anemic by comparison. It’s the inconsistencies that are so off-putting; the image looking very crisp and snappy one minute, downright grainy with muddy tones, the next. These lapses are exacerbated by the limitations in Bausch & Lomb’s Cinemascope lenses. The studio’s insistence on using stock footage – some in color/some in B&W – all of it heavily cropped to conform to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, only magnifies the disconnect between the footage shot under more optimal lighting conditions.
We give the Warner Archive (WAC) very high marks for this Blu-ray release of Battle Cry. It looks as good as to be expected. The print used is very clean and sports some excellent color reproduction, particularly when the crude infirmities of the ole WarnerColor process are kept at bay. The anamorphic image is mostly razor-sharp, with a solid smattering of film grain accurately reproduced. The deficiencies of the process are on display also; including one anomaly I suspect is the result of the video mastering process – not inherent in the actual print. During the scene where Danny breaks off his affair with Elaine, Dorothy Malone’s eyes are clearly seen shifting from left to right (almost a separate entity prone to ‘gate weave’ within an otherwise stable frame). I am unable to explain this glitch. But it is present for a mere second or two and an oddity to behold. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about here. WAC’s release features a 5.1 DTS remaster of the original six-track ‘scope’ stereo. It’s aggressive in spots, with a lot of unanticipated spread, especially Max Steiner’s music cues and the epic explosions taking place during battle sequences. This disc’s singular shortcoming: no extras, save a badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Battle Cry is a fairly engaging movie. No masterpiece, but a great way to spend a night at the movies nonetheless. WAC could have achieved no finer results in hi-def. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
0  

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