Take the High Ground! (1953): Richard Brooks’ War Movie, Starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden

Richard Brooks directed Take the High Ground!, a Korean war tale, starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden as drill sergeants tasked with transforming a group of young men into into tough soldiers.

Grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)

Take the High Ground!
Take the High Ground.jpg

In May 1953, a new group of Army recruits at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, encounter their drill sergeants, SSG. Laverne Holt (Karl Malden) and the troubled SFC. Thorne Ryan (Richard Widmark).

After Ryan’s caustic appraisal, Holt vows to make soldiers out of them during their basic training. The two men served together in Korea and are combat veterans; Ryan, though, resents his duty and repeatedly applies for transfer back to combat.

Crossing the border to Mexico for recreation, Ryan and Holt see in a bar the beautiful Julie Mollison (Elaine Stewart) buying drinks for young recruits. Later that evening, the two sergeants escort the inebriated Julie to her apartment.

Ryan exposes the men to tear gas as preparation for harsh conditions of battle.

Ryan and Holt return to the bar one night, and find Julie sitting alone. When the crude MSG. Vince Opperman (Bert Freed) insults Julie, Holt comforts her. Opperman reveals that Julie was married to a soldier killed in Korea shortly after she left him.

Recruit Lobo Naglaski (Steve Forrest) visits the camp chaplain to confess his murderous feelings toward Ryan.

Tensions arise between Ryan and Holt, over Ryan’s callous treatment of the men and Holt’s relationship with Julie.

Ryan puts his men through increasingly tough drills; during field training, a bitter confrontation erupts between the two sergeants, and Holt slugs Ryan.

Ryan fall for Julie, and when she resists his further advances, he casts aspersions on her virtue, chiding her for having given her husband “the brush.”

Recruit Donald Quentin Dover IV (Robert Arthur) refuses to throw a hand grenade and, after the group has bivouacked as part of more field drills, he “goes over the hill”, intending to desert. Ryan tracks him down and gives the young man a second chance, confessing that his own father had been a deserter.

Ryan finds Julie and Holt at the train station, apologizes for his behavior and asks her to marry him, but she points out he is married to the Army.

Outside the train station, Ryan and Holt reconcile in a silent but effective ritualistic scene, in which the former offers a cigarette and the latter lights it.

The men finish basic training, and as new soldiers march by during graduation exercise, Ryan proudly points them out to fresh recruits.

Richard Widmark as SFC Thorne Ryan
Karl Malden as SSG Laverne Holt
Elaine Stewart as Julie Mollison
Carleton Carpenter as Merton Tolliver
Russ Tamblyn as Paul Jamison
Jerome Courtland as Elvin Carey
Steve Forrest as Lobo Naglaski
Robert Arthur as Donald Quentin Dover IV
Chris Warfield as Soldier
William Hairston as Daniel Hazard
Maurice Jara as Franklin D. No Bear
Bert Freed as MSG Vince Opperman

Oscar Context:

The film was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay, but it lost to Titanic.


Directed by Richard Brooks
Produced by Dore Schary
Written by Millard Kaufman
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography John Alton
Edited by John Dunning
Production and distribution: MGM

Release date: October 30, 1953

Running time: 101 minutes
Budget $1,166,000
Box office $2,855,000


TCM showed the movie on Jan 23, 2021