El Paso, Texas is home to Fort Bliss, where a new group of Army recruits are arriving for training in the spring of 1953. Sergeant Laverne Holt (Karl Malden) and Sergeant Thorne Ryan (Richard Widmark) will be the drill instructors for these young fellas.
Sgt. Ryan has little faith in the new recruits, but Holt is confident that he can make good soldiers out of them. Ryan just wants to get the training over with and get back to the Korean front. He’s applied for transfer several times.
It’s not all bad for Ryan, though. He and his recruits get some recreation time, which often takes them across the border to Mexico. There, the men meet Julie Mollison (Elaine Stewart), a mysterious woman who likes to buy drinks for the soldiers.
Throughout the sixteen weeks of training, Holt and Ryan clash over Julie, and over their differing ideas on how to treat the recruits.
Richard Brooks directs 1953’s Take the High Ground!, shot on location at the real Fort Bliss. The film was written by Millard Kaufman (Raintree County).
Take the High Ground! is often quite serious in tone, with a lot of strong tension throughout.
Much of this tension is built by Richard Widmark, who gives a stellar performance as a tough grump of a sergeant who seems to absolutely hate his job as an instructor. His anger seems about two seconds from boiling over at any moment. At the same time, however, he seems to be driven by a need to genuinely prepare these young men for what they will face in war — what he has faced, in his own battlefront experience. There’s a softer side to him, but it’s hidden very deep under that angry exoskeleton! He acts tough to make sure his recruits become tough enough to survive in war.
Elaine Stewart is another highlight of the film’s cast. Though I wish she was given a bit more to do, she portrays her character very well. *MILD SPOILER* Julie, as it turns out, was married once but lost her husband to battle. *END SPOILER* Stewart gives Julie a strong sense of melancholy which is present in just about every scene in which she appears.
Though I watched this film for Karl Malden’s Summer Under the Stars day back in August, I didn’t find his performance too memorable — one of few complaints I can make toward the film! He’s simply overshadowed by the powerful Widmark, who completely owns the film, though admittedly he does seem to get quite a bit more screen time than Malden, too. (I didn’t track their screen time, but Widmark gets many a solo training scene with the recruits, solidifying his spot as the film’s lead.)
Performances aside, location shooting at Fort Bliss also works greatly in the film’s benefit, making the scenes of training and life at camp feel very authentic. The young supporting actors never once come across as actors, but always as Army recruits, going through the experience of basic training.
It’s a pretty good watch overall, but Take the High Ground! is a definite must-watch for Richard Widmark fans. His strong performance anchors the film, both in its romantic scenes and in its military coming-of-age tale.