Between Heaven and Hell (film)

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Between Heaven and Hell
Theatrical release lobby card
Directed byRichard Fleischer
Screenplay byHarry Brown
Based onThe Day the Century Ended
1955 novel
by Francis Gwaltney
Produced byDavid Weisbart
StarringRobert Wagner
Terry Moore
Broderick Crawford
CinematographyLeo Tover
Edited byJames B. Clark
Music byHugo Friedhofer
Color processColor by DeLuxe
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • October 11, 1956 (1956-10-11) (New York City)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2 million (US rentals)[2]

Between Heaven and Hell is a 1956 American Cinemascope war film based on the novel The Day the Century Ended[3] by Francis Gwaltney that the film follows closely. The story is told in flashback format detailing the life of Sam Gifford (Robert Wagner) from his life as a Southern landowner to his war service in the Philippines during World War II.

The film stars Robert Wagner, Terry Moore, and Broderick Crawford, and was directed by Richard Fleischer. It was partly filmed on Kaua'i. The film's score by Hugo Friedhofer, which included elements of the Dies Irae, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.[4]


In 1945, on a Pacific island, Sergeant Sam Gifford (Wagner) is demoted to the rank of private after striking an officer. He is transferred to a punishment company, run by the dictatorial Captain Grimes, who insists on being called "Waco" in order to prevent his own death by Japanese snipers. Through flashbacks, we learn Gifford's backstory—his civilian status as a wealthy cotton farmer, hard and uncaring towards his employees, and married to the beautiful daughter of his National Guard commander, who is also a well-to-do plantation owner. After their reserve unit is sent to the Pacific theater, Gifford becomes close buddies with several of his own sharecroppers—people he had never socialized with at home. As a sergeant, Gifford capably leads his platoon, earning himself a medal for valor. Occasionally, however, Gifford outwardly exhibits signs of fear, battle fatigue, and neurosis. These weaknesses intensify when his father-in-law is killed by a sniper. Another officer, disdainful of his men both as workers and as soldiers, machine guns Gifford's friends out of cowardice and panic. Gifford attempts to beat him to death with the butt of his rifle. The flashback ends when Waco calls Gifford into company headquarters.

Waco orders Gifford to lead a six-man patrol to check a town believed to be the location of a Japanese headquarters. The patrol finds the town abandoned, but the patrol spots a platoon-strength unit of the Japanese Imperial Army, equipped with mortars, heading towards the hills near Waco's headquarters. On returning, as Gifford reports his findings to Waco, a heavy barrage from Japanese mortars commences. Afterwards, Gifford is sent by Waco to outpost duty with a lieutenant nicknamed Little Joe (Brad Dexter). There he forms a friendship with another former sharecropper, Willie Crawford (Buddy Ebsen). He admits that he has been very hard on those not of his social class. But from the experience of making friends with other soldiers in his unit he promises to be a better person. After an attack, the outpost loses radio contact with the company and Gifford is sent back to company HQ for fresh batteries. He arrives to find that Waco has been relieved of command when several wounded men informed battalion headquarters of his behavior. As he prepares to leave, Waco, wanting to show that he is still an officer, dons formal a uniform including rank insignia and is targeted and killed by a Japanese sniper.

Gifford returns to the outpost, which is hit with another attack in which Little Joe is killed. Gifford and Crawford are the sole survivors. With Crawford wounded in the leg, Crawford orders Gifford back to warn the Company of an impending massive Japanese buildup. At first Gifford refuses to leave the injured Crawford behind, but Crawford insists, pointing a pistol at Gifford. Gifford fights his way through Japanese lines but is wounded along the way. Upon reaching the company, he finds that most of the battalion has launched a new offensive. Gifford warns them about the Japanese units massing in the hills and demands that help be sent to rescue Crawford before he collapses. After he regains consciousness, a patrol arrives with Crawford on a stretcher. Crawford and Gifford are told because of their wounds they are being shipped home. Gifford tells Crawford that he wants Crawford to live with him and his family at his mansion back home and he can have a job at Gifford's company.



Arkansas-born Francis Irby Gwaltney soldiered in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry that served throughout the Pacific doing several amphibious landings.[5] During this service he met and formed a friendship with Norman Mailer.[6]

The Day the Century Ended was Gwaltney's most famous novel. When Fox picked the 1955 novel up for filming, they assigned it to Philippines veteran Rod Serling, famed for his American television plays. Unfortunately, Serling's first screenplay was nine hours long, and the project was given to other writers,[7] notably Harry Brown, who had written the book A Walk in the Sun.

Between Heaven and Hell is one of the 1950s depictions of the US Army that did not paint a recruiting poster image and was more in tune with many soldiers' memories, such as From Here to Eternity, Robert Aldrich's Attack or Samuel Fuller's films.

Fleischer uses the Cinemascope widescreen format well, notably in views of hills lit up by a firefight.


Critical response[edit]

When the film was first released, The New York Times panned the film, writing, "To be just as blunt about it as Twentieth Century-Fox, Between Heaven and Hell, a World War II drama, lands accordingly, with a pretty dull thud. This curiously rambling, unconvincing and often baffling picture, opening yesterday at Loew's State, very sketchily suggests the regeneration of a hard-headed young G. I. on a Japanese island in the Pacific...Except for the sideline skirmishes with the Japanese, and one fine, big beachhead battle staged by director Richard Fleischer, the action focuses on the outpost, where a brutal, slightly demented company commander, Mr. Crawford, reigns supreme. Mr. Wagner not only manages to survive some snarling comrades, most of whom are wiped out, but also the enemy in a series of lagging, disjointed clashes, verbal and physical, that shed little light on anything or anybody."[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p250
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p226
  3. ^ Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture web site. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
  4. ^ Between Heaven and Hell at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  5. ^ Texas Military Forces Museum web site. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
  6. ^ Life magazine at Google Books. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
  7. ^ Gamma Magazine, first edition, 1963. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.
  8. ^ The New York Times, film review, October 12, 1956. Last accessed: February 14, 2011.

External links[edit]