In spite of its stiff, reverential tone, and cringe-worthy Male Chorale underscoring, Robert Montgomery’s docu-flavored WWII bio-pic, with James Cagney as Admiral Halsey, makes for an unusual, and unusually interesting, war pic. Told almost entirely behind-the-scenes, it’s an action-free look at war’s boardroom decision makers, talky as hell, believably so. What else would these officers do other than talk thru the ramifications of a strategic move to the right or the left? The acting is deliberate, carefully parsed out, and when the staging threatens to go flat, the constricted space of shipboard situation rooms keeps the players nearly on top of each other. As Halsey, freshly appointed, with the Guadalcanal crisis already closing in, Cagney’s portrait is all balance, determination & decency; a company man not averse to risk, and comfortable with his instincts. Calmly powerful, with no grandstanding, Cagney still has what he called ‘a goodie’ up his sleeve, making Halsey an awful lot like Harry S. Truman, the little man in the big job. It’s an acting choice that must have amused his director/co-producer, Robert Montgomery, a longtime Hollywood Republican who had been Eisenhower’s White House image consultant. The film is never quite as good as it wants to be, and the constant narration (some by Montgomery) drones on nearly as much as the four-part a cappella harmonies, but it’s not your typical war pic. You root for it to work.
DOUBLE-BILL: Montgomery co-starred with John Wayne in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/’45, John Ford’s remarkable (and remarkably underappreciated) WWII/Philippines drama.