I was looking for the typical World War II film when I came across “Beachhead” on a cable movie channel recently. After all, it was made in the 1950s and didn’t have the reputation of classics such as “From Here to Eternity,” so I was expecting the typically cheesy combat scenes of the era with a rah-rah war theme that was so prevalent in those days. However, you’ll find yourself surprised at both the depth of the characters and the near-good work of its actors. “Beachhead” is less a combat film and more an emotional study. I think you won’t go wrong if you find this one on your movie grid schedule in the future (check out Turner Classic Movies or another oldies film channel). Plus – it has Tony Curtis!
(1954; 90 minutes; rated “approved;” directed by Stuart Heisler and starring Tony Curtis, Frank Lovejoy and Mary Murphy)
SOLDIERS CAN SHOW SOME EMOTIONAL RANGE, TOO
“Beachhead” was made for the price of a good supporting actor today ($445,000) and made a modest profit (at $1.4 million, according to Wiki, that’s nearly tripling its investors’ money), but it didn’t crack the top 20 films of 1954 at the box office. It is certainly a much better film than you’d probably believe – and it actually has soldiers touching a bit of the anti-hero character that you would find coming into their own in the late 1960s and early 1970s with roles such as “Hawkeye Pierce” in the “MASH” film.
You’ll immediately recognize the film’s headliner: Tony Curtis. He’s a Hollywood legend and does a very solid job here as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific. The other actors you most likely won’t remember at all, even though co-star Frank Lovejoy did good work (mostly in detective films) and the female lead, Mary Murphy, who did “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando the year before “Beachhead” and would go on to do “Junior Bonner” with Steve McQueen.
The plot of “Beachhead” is straightforward: a small unit of Marines on an island near Bougainville are sent on a mission. The Marines are on the island as a diversion to a bigger invasion set for Bougainville, but there is some information from a behind-the-lines civilian spy that could help steer the invasion fleet through minefields. The unit sets out on its mission and then the personalities take as much center stage as any action (which is very good against the standards of the day).
Lovejoy plays “Sgt. Fletcher” and he’s not very well respected by his troops because of his actions in previous combat. He’s not always perceived as tough but he leads the mission to an ultimate successful conclusion. Curtis, who plays “Burke,” is a Marine in the unit and he and Lovejoy are soon the only Marines left in the mission. They find the civilian, a French planter, and, unexpectedly, his daughter is with him. The group then must make its way with the critical information while being pursued by the Japanese, especially one who is a sniper.
Both Curtis and Lovejoy fall in love with the daughter (naturally) and the trio are the only survivors in the end. Along the way both men must examine their true emotions about a variety of things and the daughter is anvil on which both men sharpen their personalities. It is good work by all three, but Curtis does come out on top.
“Beachhead” certainly is not as good as “The Caine Mutiny” from the same year (click here for my review). The latter’s cast, headlined by Humphrey Bogart, is simply tremendous, but the work by the former’s cast is almost as energetic — still, they do not possess the talent of the cast of the better-remembered film.
Here’s a quick rundown of the key members of the “Beachhead” cast:
- Curtis does a good turn here as the competent Marine who finds love on the battlefield – just not in some convoluted way that other films tried to use. He’s earnest and competent in a range of emotions, but his performance is nowhere near the one he gave in “Operation Petticoat” with Cary Grant (click here for my review). He died at age 85 in 2010.
- Lovejoy give a solid foundation to the film as the sergeant with problems. He solves them (of course) but the actor surprises with good work dealing with the character’s personal issues. Lovejoy was also in “The House of Wax” and did a number of television series until his death in 1962 at the age of 50 of a heart attack.
- Murphy plays “Nina Bouchard,” who is the French planter’s daughter and the spark for the two Marines. Murphy has a surprisingly tough role (tough for a woman on screen at the time) and pretty much handles it well. However, she is the weakest link of the trio of co-stars and doesn’t manage a range of emotions as well as an actor who would have been better suited to the role. Murphy was also in “The Desperate Hours” with Humphrey Bogart and she died at 80 in 2011 of heart disease.
- Eduard Franz plays “Bouchard” the French planter with the critical information about Japanese minefields. Although he gets good screen time, Franz doesn’t show the ability to take command of a role. He’s somewhat wooden in his delivery and does not do a very memorable turn here. He was also in “Hatari!” with John Wayne as well as “The Ten Commandments.” He died at the age of 80 in 1983.
The actors playing the two other Marines on the mission do not really do much of a job and pretty much are nothing but boilerplate stereotypes and are not worth a mention here.
Two actors who play Japanese military men do good jobs in limited roles:
- Sunshine Akira Fukunaga (he would later drop the “Sunshine”) plays a terrified Japanese sailor who surrenders to the Marines. His character is so obsequious that he nearly licks their boots. He winds up as a human payment to a native islander (played by Steamboat Mokuahi), who gives him a fatal whack with a parang off screen – you hear his scream, though. From his work here, Fukunaga could certainly do obsequious. He was also in “Hell’s Half Acre” from the same year and had a brief Hollywood career of three roles. He was a native of Hawaii and died at 74 in 1991.
- Dan Aoki played the tenacious Japanese sniper who tracks the Marines and has a showdown with Lovejoy in the jungle. It is a limited role for Aoki, who appears here in his only screen credit. Aoki, too, was a native of Hawaii (the filmmakers used a number of locals in the film). He died at 68 in 1986.
Finally, the combat scenes are economical and since they do not attempt to replicate huge battles – they’re more tactical than strategic – they have something of a bit of verisimilitude that others of the day do not. Don’t watch this film if you want non-stop action. There’s a lot of interplay among the characters and you’ll be disappointed if you’re looking for something else.
OK, here’s my boilerplate explanation about the “approved” rating: It comes from Hollywood’s rating system known as the “Hays Code” from the name of its chief censor, according to Wiki. From 1938 through 1968 films were evaluated and either deemed approved or disapproved (“moral” or “immoral”). Although officially abandoned in 1968 in favor of the start of the initial version of the rating system you see today, the “Hays Code” had pretty much disappeared in the 1960s due to the influence of television, edgy directors and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, according to Wiki.
- Curtis’ real name was Bernard Herschel Schwartz.
- According to Wiki, the U.S. Marine Corps refused to cooperate with filmmakers since the Marine unit in the film suffered 50-percent casualties (two of its four-member team) and this was too high and the Corps was in a new marketing phase trying to employ a “less danger seeking image.”
- IMDb.com’s trivia page has only one entry and it has a glaring fact error. It mentions that a key scene with a pier was filmed on Hanalei Bay “in the state of Hawaii.” The film credits note the film was made on the “territory” of Hawaii (it did not become a state until Aug. 29, 1959). The film was released in 1954.
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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