by Warren M. Sherk
(Fifth in an occasional series on Tiomkin’s lesser-known film scores)
“The dramatic story you are about to see was actually filmed on the battlefields of Korea,” declares the opening title card for Cease Fire, a 1953 Paramount film from producer Hal B. Wallis. Underscored by a drum roll, the music segues to an energetic prelude that accompanies the Paramount logo. The first shot of the film follows, dominated by the jet-black hole of a Howitzer cannon gun barrel that moves slowly down from the top edge of the frame to take direct aim at the audience.
Hold that image in mind and imagine you’re sitting in a movie theater during the film’s initial release 60 years ago. Jutting out from the screen, the gun barrel fills your field of vision and you are tempted the reach out and touch the metallic circular “O” because you are watching one of the earliest 3-D films of the 1950s. As the barrel beckons, the music holds a second for dramatic effect before a special effects explosion obliterates the image and the film gets underway.
Good luck trying to view Cease Fire in 3-D today. Even if it can’t be seen in it’s original dimensional version; however, it is worth viewing in standard format if only to examine composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s approach to the music score. Six months before composing the music for Cease Fire, Tiomkin picked up two Oscars®, one for the music score for High Noon and one for the film’s song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin” with lyrics by Ned Washington. The song famously functioned as commentary and dramatic underscore in High Noon and Tiomkin takes a similar approach to Cease Fire wherein a military march song serves variously as instrumental underscore and as a background vocal throughout the film. The song, “We Are Brothers in Arms,” is briefly introduced under narration as onscreen text sets the scene at the opening of the film. From here to the end expect to hear the theme/song three dozen times, in varying lengths from four-second snippets to minute-long versions. Interspersed are a number of Tiomkin’s dramatic music cues with descriptive titles that when read together act to synopsize the storyline: Panmunjom, Patrol Is Formed, Enemy Territory, Patrol in Action, Charge, and Objective Secured.
Cease Fire is in black-and-white 3-D, not a widely known or projected format. (The Creature from the Black Lagoon is probably the best-known example.) To gain the effect, moviegoers wore cardboard glasses with colorless polarized lenses, not the more iconic red and cyan glasses used for color films. This is because 3-D films in the early 1950s used polarization, in which rays of light exhibit different properties in different directions. To produce the dimensional effect two slightly different perspectives of the same image are projected. Without polarized glasses the stereoscopic image appears as two overlapping images. Polarizing filters in viewing glasses enable each eye to see the same image from slightly different perspectives to create dimensional space.
In addition to the film’s opening shot of the Howitzer cannon aimed at viewers, there are montages that exploit the dimensional effect and add realism, such as the aerial shots from helicopters and tracking shots obtained by mounting the 3-D cameras atop a motorized military tank.
After Cease Fire, Tiomkin went on to score Dial M for Murder, filmed in 3-D and color by director Alfred Hitchcock. Viewing the 3-D version of that film has always proved difficult, but not impossible.
Cease Fire was produced and photographed entirely on the battlefields of Korea in cooperation with the Department of Defense, with whom director Owen Crump had a relationship from past work. The advertising tag line summed up the 75–minute film, “Out of the fading hours of the Korean struggle…comes the powerful story of a handful of G.I.’s on their last patrol.
Among the “actors” were 14 soldiers from the Army’s Seventh Infantry Division. The G.I.’s who appeared in the film did not receive screen credit, although their names do appear in newspaper coverage at the time of the film’s initial release. The film’s action unfolds on the final day of hostilities before a truce is reached and was filmed between late June 1953 and the Armistice signing on July 27 at Panmunjom, Korea. Cease Fire premiered less than four months later in November and was placed in general release early in 1954.
Director Owen Crump was a natural for the project. Just prior to World War II, he researched and wrote eight Technicolor films at Warner Bros. to fulfill the studio’s contract with U.S. Army Public Relations to introduce and show off the military to American audiences. Crump went on to serve as an officer in the Army Air Force and to supervise film production for the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. After the war Crump’s interest in military films did not wane, and in 1951 he produced One Who Came Back, a film sponsored by the Disabled American Veterans, in cooperation with the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and the Association of Motion Picture Producers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award® in the documentary short subject category.
RELATED: Academy Oral History with Owen Crump
For Cease Fire, Crump once again teamed up with the DoD, this time focusing on the military hot spot du jour, Korea. “Our purpose,” Crump explained, “was to show how the fighting looked to the individual soldier.” The New York Times called the result the first three-dimensional motion picture of actual warfare. Although sometimes characterized as a dramatized documentary, which it really wasn’t, the film created or recreated scenes that may have been typical during the war. While studio publicity, and even Crump himself, made it sound as if the soldiers came up with their own dialogue, a quick review of the final script before production began proves the dialogue scripted for the film prior to shooting is heard nearly verbatim in the released film.
During the Second World War, Tiomkin’s music direction and scoring of government documentaries for the War Department may have brought him into contact with Owen Crump.
After the war, Tiomkin wrote music for such war-themed films as China’s Little Devils, Home of the Brave, The Men, and just prior to Cease Fire in January 1953, Take the High Ground. Engaged to write the music score for Cease Fire in September 1953, Tiomkin completed composing the song “We Are Brothers in Arms” by October. The Paramount contract orchestra conducted by Tiomkin recorded the composer’s music score on October 16 and 17.
A preview screening for critics was held on November 9. Three days later, plans for the scheduled Broadway premiere on November 23 were jeopardized when the MPAA refused to grant their seal of approval for the film due to dialogue that included “three hells and one damn.”
The production file on Cease Fire archived in the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration records at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library documents the censorship tug-of-war that took place prior to the film’s opening. Production Code administrator Joseph Breen notified Hal Wallis on September 25, 1953, that the film could not be approved because of the aforementioned four instances of profanity. An appeal was requested on October 12, resulting a month later in a special MPAA meeting that upheld the PCA decision. At this point the press picked up the story.
Returning behind-the-scenes with the PCA, Wallis wrote to Breen to ask why “damn” was permitted in Death of a Salesman and The Caine Mutiny and Breen replied. Undeterred, Wallis wrote to Clifford Forster at the National Council on Freedom from Censorship on November 23, the same day the film premiered in New York. The MPAA certificate letter is dated one day later.
Cease Fire may have had a lasting effect on the more liberal use of language in film, as evidenced a year later by a letter from Paramount executive Y. Frank Freeman to MPAA executive Ralph Hetzel regarding the use of “hell” in On the Waterfront. Freeman wrote that it will now be his position that if a producer wishes to use “hell” or “damn” he will authorize it.
The pre-film festivities at the world premiere on November 23 at the Criterion in New York were televised on WNBT-TV. Military and United Nations representatives were joined by civic officials, show business personalities, and the press. Adding to the commotion outside the theater were drill teams, a 60-piece Army band, National Guard troops, and honor guards. The climax came inside the theater with the ascension to the stage of General Mark Clark, formerly of the Far East Command, and a group of the soldiers portrayed in the film.
Not to be outdone by New York, the Los Angeles gala premiere on January 12, 1954, at the Picwood in Westwood—now the site of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall and Landmark Theatres—featured stage appearances by General Clark, the film’s technical advisor and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Major Raymond Harvey, and a couple dozen Hollywood stars from Rock Hudson to Debbie Reynolds, according to local reports. Military bands, Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson, Cecil B. DeMille, and other notables were also present. Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia were among the other American cities that General Clark visited to promote the film at special military-themed openings.
During the film’s regular Los Angeles engagement the film played at seven venues. Three premium theaters located in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Westwood projected 3-D prints with a stereophonic magnetic sound track and the film played in standard format at four outlying drive-ins in Bell Gardens, El Monte, Inglewood, and Van Nuys. It’s probably safe to bet that few people alive today can claim to have seen Cease Fire in 3-D.
A newspaper ad in Los Angeles courted female viewers with quotes from four women with relations to men in the military—each conveniently personifying a specific demographic: a girlfriend, wife, sister, and mother. The film did elicit favorable responses from critics, who wrote: “stirring epic,” “a fine use of the motion picture camera and screen in the interests of entertainment, of information, possibly eventually of history,” and “realism can go no further.”
Tiomkin’s score was singled out by Hollywood Reporter reviewer Milton Luban who wrote, “Enhancing the realism and excitement of the picture is Tiomkin’s pulse-tingling music, his stirring theme, ‘We Are Brothers in Arms,’ with lyrics by New Washington, being effectively used and promising to become a big hit.” The song, published by Famous Music, begins with the lyric “Don’t know their names,” a nod to the anonymity of the cast. The sheet music cover noted “A Hal Wallis Production in 3 Dimension.” Perhaps one day the film’s third dimension will once again be viewable.
©Volta Music, 2013
Updated, with minor edits, October 2, 2013.
- “Hollywood Report,” by Thomas M. Pryor, New York Times, September 27, 1953
- “Dialogue ‘Too Hot’—So GI Film Snafued,” Los Angeles Daily News,” November 13, 1953
- “Cease Fire,” [film review] by Milton Luban, Hollywood Reporter, November 23, 1953
- “NY ‘Fire’ Preem Draws Brass, Braid and Bands,” Variety, November 25, 1953
- “’Cease Fire’ Unique in Genuine Values,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1954
- Cease Fire entry in American Film Institute catalog
- Motion Picture Association of America. Production Code Administration records, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Consulted online at www.oscars.org.
- Academic Films for the Classroom: A History, by Geoff Alexander, McFarland, 2010.
READ: “KIRKLAND: Killed in Korea twice in one day,” by Resa LaRu Kirkland, Washington Times, May 27, 2011