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Martin Milner Mondays: Halls of Montezuma

It’s a new month and that means a new birthday tribute! This week, I’m diving headfirst into a celebration that is a long, long time coming: Martin Milner Mondays! Milner would be celebrating his 90th birthday this year, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t do something. So, every Monday in December, I’ll be spotlighting some favorites in his lengthy filmography. This week, we’re starting with the 1951 military drama Halls of Montezuma.

Halls of Montezuma follows a troop of Marines taking out a cluster of rockets on the WWII Pacific Front. The film features an all-star…err… Kim approved cast including Richard Widmark, Karl Malden, Robert Wagner, Jack Webb, Martin Milner, Neville Brand, and Jack Palance to name a few. Lewis Milestone directs the movie from a script by Michael Blankfort.

Halls of Montezuma hit theaters four years after Milner made his screen debut in 1947’s Life With Father. The next few years saw the teenager landing regular supporting roles, usually in westerns and war dramas.

Looking back on Milner’s filmography, Halls of Montezuma is tremendously important to his early career. This stems from one thing, he co-stars in the war drama opposite Jack Webb. Most classic tv fans remember Milner thanks to his ongoing work with Webb. Their relationship started on this set and the two quickly formed a fast friendship. Webb went on to feature Milner regularly as a guest star during the early years of Dragnet. He would then cast the young actor in an important role when he directed Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955. Milner later starred in Webb’s Dragnet spin-off Adam-12 for seven seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His character (Officer Pete Malloy) would appear across the Jack Webb extended universe in not only Adam-12, but also in Dragnet, Emergency, and The D.A.

Milner is admittedly a supporting player in the dense Halls of Montezuma cast. However, the role is a perfect one for the young actor to shine. The 20-year-old Milner looks much younger than his age. His innocence in the face of the brutality of war is vital to establishing the tone of the narrative.

As mentioned, most classic film fans should recognize most of this cast. At the time of release, Richard Widmark was probably the biggest name. However, he only made his screen debut a few years before in 1947’s Kiss of Death.

At the time of release, many of these performers were just starting out. Robert Wagner and Richard Boone both appear in their credited screen debuts. At the same time, the film is only Jack Palance’s second credited role. Meanwhile, after shooting this film, Karl Malden moved to A Streetcar Named Desire. They’re all babies, but each and every member of this cast carved themselves lengthy careers.

With that being said, Halls of Montezuma‘s problems rest somewhere between Milestone and his up-and-coming cast’s development. Truth be told, the movie is more than a bit melodramatic. It has admittedly been a while since I rewatched this film and these flourishes felt very noticeable this time around. Milestone brings a heavy reliance on voiceover, particularly for Anderson (Widmark) the idealistic teacher turned soldier. In another moment, an emotional Whitney (Milner) delivers the Lord’s prayer from a foxhole.

From an acting perspective, these moments aren’t ‘over-the-top’ per se. Rather, it is through contemporary eyes that they struggle. These are stylistic choices we don’t see made today. However, the choices make sense examining Lewis Milestone as a director. Despite having a career lasting more than fifty years, he is most remembered for All Quiet on the Western Front. The 1930 film is heralded for its anti-war stance. When looking at Halls of Montezuma, these stylistic flourishes prove vital in crafting this movie’s pacifist tone.

At the same time though, this film is equally troubling through contemporary eyes in its handling of the Japanese. Halls of Montezuma hit theaters in 1951, just six years after the end of World War II. As a result, the film’s depictions of its Japanese characters feel tinged with the hostility of wartime. There’s heavy use of racist language now recognized as unacceptable. At the same time, the film crafts stereotypical depictions of Japanese soldiers (Philip Ahn and Frank Kumagai). While this film is anti-war, it is unfortunately still pro-war enough that the Japanese serve as faceless villains.

As mentioned, Halls of Montezuma is very much still a wartime work. Milestone is fully committed to utilizing his cast’s youth and innocence to show the horrors of war. As such, there must be a villain. No one in the named cast is the hardened soldier archetype so often seen in war movies (Errol Flynn, John Wayne, etc).

Widmark is the closest to having played this type in his career. He spent his early years portraying hardened noir villains in films like Kiss of Death. However, Halls of Montezuma immediately crafts him as a sensitive academic. This isn’t his war. The same is true of Karl Malden’s more grizzled “Doc”. Meanwhile, Milner and Richard Hylton come to life as little more than wide-eyed schoolboys. They don’t want to fight. In fact, they’re terrified at the battle waiting for them. Heck, even Neville Brand portrays a young man barely holding it together after being blinded in battle. As we all know, Neville Brand came into this world hardened and grizzled. In the eyes of this film, anyone who would do this to our boys must be a “bad guy”.

Halls of Montezuma is exactly what it sounds like, an immediate post-WWII military picture, coming with all the drama and struggles one might expect. It’s a challenging viewing that does feel problematic through a contemporary perspective. However, as a student of Hollywood history and star persona, it is a fascinating film to watch. Almost every member of this cast was a screen-newcomer, yet each of them would go on to decades-long careers. For a movie that doesn’t earn much love, watching this talent come together on-screen is a pleasure to watch.

Come back next week for a look at Martin Milner’s supporting work in the film noir Sweet Smell of Success.

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