On his familys plantation, Sam Francis Gifford (Robert Wagner) is a pretentious man whos unsympathetic to the less fortunate. But when World War II strikes, Gifford finds his inherited wealth does nothing to improve his rank in his National Guard unit. As the horrors of war and camaraderie with his fellow soldiers affect him, Giffords attitude begins to shift toward egalitarianism. Still, Giffords new outlook causes him to clash with the unstable Capt. "Waco" Grimes (Broderick Crawford).
Between Heaven and Hell is a 1956 20th Century Fox Cinemascope color war film based on the novel The Day the Century Ended 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, Buddy Ebsen, Terry Moore, and Broderick Crawford, was directed by Richard Fleischer and was partly filmed on Kauai.
The films score by Hugo Friedhofer that included elements of the Dies Irae was nominated for an Academy Award.
Sam Gifford remembers : In prewar years he was an arrogant southern cotton plantation owner, married to the daughter of a colonel. At the beginning of the war he was mobilized with his National Guard unit as a sergeant. Came the day when, revolted by the cowardice of his lieutenant, who had fired at his own men, he hit him. Downgraded, he was sent to a disciplinary battalion. Sam now discovers his new detachment, his new commanding officer, just another cowardly brute, Captain Waco Grimes. While in combat, Sam will gradually become closer to the privates, working-class people he used to despise. He will become another man, a better man.
In 1945, on a Pacific island, Sam Gifford (Wagner) is busted from platoon sergeant to private and reprimanded by his battalion commander for striking an officer. Because he had earned a Silver Star, he is given a choice of being sentenced to the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth or transferred to George Company, a de facto punishment company assigned to a dangerous area of the front lines. Gifford chooses the punishment company, which is commanded by Captain Grimes, a former First Sergeant (Broderick Crawford). Captain Grimes insists everyone call him "Waco", wears no rank insignia and forbids military salutes lest he become a target for snipers. Everyone in George Company hates Waco except for some pre-war regular army comrades-in-arms Millard (Frank Gorshin) and Swanson (Skip Homeier), who act as Wacos personal bodyguards. Impressed by Giffords combat record, Waco offers him a membership in his private circle as a radio operator. This ends when Gifford beats up Swanson for making suggestive remarks about his wifes photograph. Waco burns the photograph. The incident triggers flashbacks in which Sam relives the path that brought him to this purgatory.
Before the war Gifford was a wealthy cotton farmer in the South who treated his sharecroppers with callous disregard for their personal lives. When the United States gets involved in the war, Giffords National Guard unit is called to active service with the United States Army. Giffords father-in-law, Col. Cousins (Robert Keith), is also his regimental commander. Despite Giffords wealth and commanding position in civilian life, he is not a commissioned officer but a platoon sergeant. His close association with his former croppers under miserable and dangerous conditions changes Giffords perspectives and he becomes close buddies with several of them. Though capably leading his platoon earns him a medal for valor, 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, a wealthy landowner disdainful of his men both as workers and as soldiers, machine guns Giffords friends out of cowardice and panic. Gifford attempts to beat him to death with the butt of his rifle. The flashback is broken 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. Gifford takes the name plaque off the front door of the towns church. During the patrol Gifford and his men spot a platoon strength unit of the Japanese Imperial Army equipped with mortars heading towards the hills near George Companys Headquarters. Gifford reports his findings to Waco. Waco accuses Gifford of not going to the town but hiding in the hills but Gifford tosses the plaque on Wacos desk as proof. The headquarters receives a heavy artillery barrage from the Japanese mortars that Gifford warned Waco about in which Millard is killed. Sam 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). After an attack, the outpost has lost 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. Waco, in formal uniform including rank insignia as he prepares to leave, is shot and killed by a Japanese sniper when he demands that his soldiers salute him.
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 make it through the lines alone to warn the Company of an impending large attack. At first Gifford refuses to leave Crawford behind, but Crawford insists, pointing a pistol at Gifford and saying its an order. Gifford fights his way through Japanese soldiers to make his way back to the Company but he is wounded along the way. Upon reaching the company he finds that most of the Battalion has come up to begin a new offensive. Gifford warns them about the Japanese units massing in the hills. He demands that help be sent to rescue Crawford. Just at that moment a patrol comes in 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 Giffords company.Robert Wagner as Pvt. Sam Gifford
Terry Moore as Jenny Gifford
Broderick Crawford as Capt. Waco Grimes
Buddy Ebsen as Cpl. Willie Crawford
Robert Keith as Colonel Cousins
Brad Dexter as Lt. Joe Little Joe Johnson
Mark Damon as Pvt. Terry
Ken Clark as Morgan
Harvey Lembeck as Pvt. Bernard "Bernie" Meleski
Skip Homeier as Cpl. Swanson
L.Q. Jones as Pvt. Kenny
Tod Andrews as Lt. Ray Mosby
Biff Elliot as Tom Thumb
Bart Burns as Pvt. Raker
Arkansas-born Francis Irby Gwaltney soldiered in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry that served throughout the Pacific doing several amphibious landings. During this service he formed a friendship with Norman Mailer whom he met there.
The Day the Century Ended was Gwaltneys most famous novel. When Fox picked the 1955 novel up for filming they assigned it to Philippine veteran Rod Serling famed for his American television plays. Unfortunately Serlings first screenplay was nine hours long and the project was given to other writers, 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 Aldrichs Attack or Samuel Fullers films.
Fleischer uses the Cinemascope widescreen format well, notably in views of hills lit up by a firefight.
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 Loews 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."