Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sam Fuller was never vague about where he stood on the issues of the day. In Pickup on South Street Thelma Ritter tells a cop, "I just don't like commies," a sentiment echoed by Nat King Cole in Fuller's wild Vietnam movie China Gate. The anti-commie action drama Cold War comic book Hell and High Water invents the wildest post-Atomic commando saga Sam Fuller can think of. Fuller was on a roll at 20th Fox, and his boss Darryl Zanuck picked him to move up to CinemaScope and color with this ocean-going epic. Richard Widmark returns for his second Sam Fuller potboiler, joined by the ill-fated Bella Darvi, who debuted in The Egyptian thinking she was going to co-star with Marlon Brando. She made only one more American picture and headed back to France.
Professor Montel (Victor Francen) heads an international peace organization that funds a secret mission to find out what the Chinese are doing on a tiny island in the North Pacific. Ex- Navy sub commander Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) is hired as a mercenary to outfit and sail a war-surplus Japanese submarine provided by neo-pacifist team member Hakada Fujimori (Richard Loo). The rowdy handpicked crew (Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans, David Wayne) at first object to having a woman on board, but sexy Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi) turns out to have helpful multilingual skills and is an atomic energy expert in her own right. The refitted ship defeats a Chinese submarine and searches one Chinese-held neutral island, finding nothing. At a second island Adam and Denise narrowly escape capture but get a glimpse at an American B-29 that the Reds have outfitted with a nuclear bomb. A captured Red Major reveals an inscrutably fiendish plot: The Commies plan to nuke Manchuria or North Korea and ignite World War Three!
In his autobiography Sam Fuller described Hell and High Water as "a sea picture where we never went to sea." Studio executives looking for filler pix to keep sound stages busy could always fall back on a submarine movie. The basic requirements are one fancy sub interior set for the actors, and a lot of toy boat noodling by the prop wranglers at the miniature tank. Hell uses a standard sub mock-up set probably welded together in WW2, backed with a lot of special effects.
The story crosses Terry and the Pirates with Robert Oppenheimer versus the Commies, on a budget. A stock footage orgy of world capitols charts the mysterious disappearance of Montel's nuclear scientist; it's feared that he's defected and is working behind the Iron Curtain. Fuller's strange mix of personal politics invents a group of nuclear egghead peaceniks but doesn't label them as Soviet dupes, something that was happening frequently enough in 1954. Just speaking out the wrong way was enough for a top scientist to lose his security clearance, but Fuller's independent brain trust weirdly shares the same agenda as the F.B.I.. Montel tells reporters that America's Atomic Energy Commission will have nothing to do with his outfit, but he's also quick to 'blacklist' an 'untrustworthy' sailor from Adam Jones' crew. The actor Victor Francen had a strong pacifist background, cinematically speaking, having starred for French filmmaker Abel Gance in both La fan du monde (1931) and the anti-war J'accuse! (1938).
Richard Widmark's tough guy Adam Jones takes the job commanding a no-flag pirate ship out of professional need -- he just wants to be in charge again after having bad luck in his own career. International cooperation is the order of the day as the diverse crew of former enemies bands together against the one "-ism" they all agree must be opposed at all costs.
The voyage is comprised of standard comic-book episodes (battling the Chinese sub, storms, a man losing his thumb in a hatch) and oo-la-la hi-jinks with the heavily accented Denise. Swarthy swab Cameron Mitchell tries to get to cozy with the 'ma'amselle scienteest', something Mitchell seemed to be doing a lot in 1954 (see Garden of Evil), while she proves her indispensability by translating Japanese ideograms on the sub's interior plumbing. As for Widmark's captain, he vetoes Professor Montel's mission-by-committee concept in favor of One-Dude Rule, and barks out a lot of tough-guy orders. He has to, as his civilian passengers are always getting underfoot. There's the expected 'silent running' scene, the gag where they have to hide on the bottom with red lights on and the oxygen running out. Widmark's earlier attentions to Denise would now be considered unforgivable sexual harassment, and now he romances her as both of them gasp for breath in the foul air. I've been on a studio submarine set, and even it smelled like a men's locker room after a few minutes, so this scene is quite a stretch. Denise naturally falls for him, sweat and all.
A 'good' Chinese crewman volunteers to have a talk with a rotten Red Chinese prisoner to get information. He gets his head bashed in for his trouble, which is all the proof Adam and Fuller need to conclude that Commies are just not like you and me -- Montel must remind himself that the Red enemies are human beings. As in Warners' Them! the scientists are completely in harmony with the military -- the United States should have a monopoly on nuclear weapons and anybody else that wants them is an Enemy of Freedom.
The excitement picks up considerably with the commando action on the two secret islands. Our peacenik mercenaries duke it out with the goonish Asians and stumble upon a wild scheme that leapfrogs Fuller's film into the outrageous kind of super-crimes we've since come to associate with James Bond villains. The rotten Chinese Reds are willing to risk blowing up the whole world, knowing that their immense population will probably allow them to prevail after the bombs fall. Or perhaps they think that by faking a U.S. attack on China, they can pull off a propaganda coup and convince the U.N. that America is indeed bent on world domination. And they're willing to nuke their own citizens to do it: those crazy Commies just don't have any respect for human life!
I can imagine Communist Party insiders watching a purloined copy of this picture in their secret Kremlin screening room and shaking in their boots. If frivolous & decadent Hollywood can toy with life 'n' death nuclear issues as blithely as this, what crazy extremes could be expected of the U.S. Government?
Hell and High Water is about 30% miniature work, backed by Alfred Newman's loud and repetitive music score. 1 The miniatures are well crafted but poorly filmed by modern standards, as the murky arctic waters are far too clear and the camera viewpoint always seems to be as if we're looking into an aquarium. The secret Chinese islands are matte paintings combined with some live-action fake rocks and caves; a fire scene by the water uses optically enlarged stock shots from the 10 year-old Crash Dive. 2
Several camera tricks are phenomenally successful, however. On the first island, when Chinese machine guns rake our commandoes on the beach, cel - animated tracer bullets light up the scene, a very cool effect. For the Atom Bomb blasts that bookend the film, someone concocts a really good-looking studio pyrotechnic explosion. It's so similar to the blast at the end of Disney's 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea, made the same year, that I'll bet Disney hired the same effects men to do it.
Although it lasts only a few seconds, a single graphic moment in Hell and High Water ranks with the most dynamic images of the cinema of the Cold War. (real spoiler) The bomb-laden B-29 takes off right over our rogue sub. Adam orders every man on deck with a weapon in an attempt to down the low-flying Stratofortress as it passes. We're treated to the sight of about twenty men firing in unison, pivoting like tracking antennas, as the giant bomber lumbers by. It's a wild image, this motley group of idealist mercenaries ( ? ) ... ( ??? ) ... blasting away at what looks like an American plane. Sam Fuller must have loved this idea ... even when it comes to saving the world, you can always count on small-arms riflemen. Made when new economy-sized Hydrogen Bombs were just alerting people to the notion that Cold War aggression could really destroy the world, Hell and High Water is the damndest, most adolescent expression of confused anti-war, pro-war, peacenik, gung-ho insanity to come from a major studio. It's irresistible.
Fox's presentation of Hell and High Water is a sparkling enhanced transfer that shaves a sliver off both sides of the original image; for the first 18 months or so CinemaScope stretched its width to a ribbon-like 2.55:1, before pulling back to the less extreme 2.40 or 2.35, which is roughly what we see here. The picture replicates some of the punch of real Technicolor prints, and has only a couple of brief moments of damage. Audio is in fine shape, with a 4.0 surround track that might be the original mix.
The disc extras are generous, with a still section that shows the cutaway submarine set and the blank cyclorama to accommodate the film's many blue-screen opticals. The text on the over-hyped trailer shouts like a carnival barker: "CinemaScope - the Miracle you see without special glasses!" The interactive press book is worth clicking one's way into, as many of the blurbs are a hoot. Ms. Darvi offers her opinions about tight sweaters, for instance, while we get 'exclusive' comments from accomplished actor David Wayne, whose part is scarcely more than a walk-on. The dependable Richard Widmark is profiled in a full-length Biography episode. Hell and High Water isn't exactly Widmark's finest hour, but his solid effort gives the film a definite lift.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hell and High Water rates:
Movie: Very Good, Excellent, or Silly, or Sinister, take your pick.
Supplements: Biography show on Richard Widmark, interactive pressbook, original trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2007
1. Actually, considering that it's meant to accompany an anti-war peace mission, the main "Let's sail" theme is conventionally martial in tone, tipping the film's hand that its aims are not at all pacifist.
2. Assuming Fox used 'Scope lenses on the miniatures as well, the limited focus and warped optical field would certainly restrict the kinds of angles that could be used, even on a model eight feet long. It's also possible that the underwater scenes were filmed flat and then optically reframed for 'Scope.
As "miniature coordinator" (Ta DAA!) on 1941 I rented a pile of 16mm films to show at Greg Jein's model shop for both morale and research purposes. Spielberg collected the 16mm Technicolor 'Scope print of Hell and High Water and threw it in the trunk of his car, to see at home. When Films Incorporated asked for it back -- weeks later -- the studio apparently made some separate arrangement that allowed the director to keep the print. This, I presume is the same print that Fuller mentions in his autobiography when he talks about Spielberg showing him the Hell and High Water shipping case -- in the trunk of his car!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson