From the Hudson River to Hollywood: West Point on Film, Part II

Maureen O’Hara and Donald Crisp pose in costume at West Point while filming The Long Gray Line in spring 1954. Image provided by the Signal Corps Collection of the USMA Archives.

By Michael G. Arden

Audiovisual/Reference Librarian

The 1950s was the golden decade of West Point as captured on film, including three popular movies from the first part of the decade, plus a definitive television series from the second half, featuring a number of unknown actors who would soon emerge as major movie and television stars.  Perhaps the most essential West Point film of all is The Long Gray Line, directed by Hollywood great John Ford, treating the life of Academy legend, Marty Maher.

After the 1950s, two filmed stories of real life cadets and the dramatic events surrounding them were released in the 1970s and 1990s respectively.  Finally, a classic musical from the 1960s is included in the list because it was partly filmed at West Point despite never being identified as such.

As with the previous list, if the Library owns the movie, a link is provided within the text to the catalog.  Films not currently available are linked to their records in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

The West Point Story (1950) James Cagney, Doris Day (DVD/VHS)

Anyone who saw James Cagney’s spirited performance as showman George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy knows that the Warner Brothers’ tough guy was also the quintessential song and dance man.  In fact, he was frustrated that he didn’t get more chances to strut his stuff due to his often being typecast as a mobster.  Luckily for The West Point Story he gets to put on his dancing shoes to electrifying effect.  Once again the “100th Night” production is featured in the plot, as a down-on-his-luck Broadway director, Elwin “Bix” Bixby, reluctantly comes to West Point with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Eve, his level-headed personal assistant.  Under pressure from a Broadway producer, Bix is sent up the Hudson River to stage the cadets’ annual musical.  His real assignment is to lure the male lead to Broadway, and Bix uses his beautiful movie star friend, Jan, as bait to try to get him to resign from the Army.  A decorated Army veteran, Bix is still a wise-cracking rebel disdainful of what he regards as military officiousness.  After he blows up at a cadet late to a rehearsal due to more pressing duties, Bix is forced to live as a plebe, creating some humorous scenes. Talented musical actors including Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson, Virginia Mayo and newcomer Doris Day give spirited performances, overcoming a sometimes corny script.  One musical number makes outstanding use of Flirtation Walk, and the many views of West Point as it was at mid-century make this extra fun to watch.  Look for Alan Hale Jr., later the skipper on Gilligan’s Island, in an amusing role as an overweight cadet cast in the all-male show as a princess.

Francis Goes to West Point (1952) Donald O’Connor, Barbara Atwood (VHS)

This is the third film in the Francis the Talking Mule series, in which an Army mule lends crusty but capable assistance to his naïve soldier companion, Peter Stirling, played by Donald O’Connor.  Good-natured Stirling is incapable of telling anyone anything but the truth, openly crediting Francis with stopping a saboteur, for example, thus causing everyone to regard the soldier as a lunatic.  In this film Francis coaches Stirling through cadet basic training at West Point, where the chronic bumbler faces intimidating drills, fearsome hazing and a forbidden romance to boot.  Francis manages to bail out both Stirling and the Army football team when the chips are down.  O’Connor was known for his singing and dancing in addition to his comedic talents, although he doesn’t perform any musical numbers here. Considered by some to be a weaker entry in the series, marketed squarely as wholesome family entertainment, much of the footage was shot at West Point.  Francis is voiced by Chill Wills, best remembered for his wizened Western roles.  And watch for a small uncredited speaking role by Leonard Nimoy as a football player.

The Long Gray Line (1955) Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara (DVD/VHS)

This is the West Point movie to take to a desert island with you.  Legendary director John Ford, who coached John Wayne to cinematic greatness from his “B” Western beginnings, sets the personal story of legendary Irish athletic instructor, Marty Maher, “in the big, warm frame of a West Point that looks beautiful in CinemaScope and color and has the excitement of parading cadets and thumping bands,” to quote noted New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther.  Tyrone Power stars as the scrappy Irish immigrant whose fifty-year career took him from dishwasher to NCO and athletic instructor as well as mentor to the likes of Cadets Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley, among many others in the Long Gray Line over his remarkable career.  Maureen O’Hara, one of Ford’s favorite leading ladies, skillfully inhabits the role of fellow Irish immigrant, serving girl Mary O’Donnell, who becomes Maher’s betrothed. All the professionalism and skill of Ford and his stock company come out in the top-notch production, filmed at West Point.  Famed character actors Donald Crisp and Ward Bond bring to life Marty’s father, Old Martin, and Master of the Sword, Capt. Herman J. Koehler, respectively, and Harry Carey, Jr. portrays Dwight Eisenhower as a cadet. As a testimony to the fully successful collaboration between the filmmakers, the Army and West Point, the entire Corps of Cadets – all 1,900 of them – were bused down to Manhattan in 56 buses provided by Columbia Pictures.  They marched from Central Park West to the Capital Theater on Broadway, where Marty Maher stood, as they passed in review to honor him.  Don’t miss this one!

West Point: The Complete Series (1956-58) Chuck Connors, Leonard Nimoy (DVD)

West Point likely had a higher profile in American popular culture during the 1950s than in any other decade before or since.  The whole nation seemingly was in patriotic lockstep in those early Cold War years when America’s president, Dwight Eisenhower, after all, was a West Point graduate himself.  Ziv Productions, which was noted for several well-produced anthology series, spared no effort in presenting West Point and its cadets with almost complete veracity.  From the get-go the series was a total collaborative effort with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Military Academy.  Before production started, TV editors in 15 cities around the nation interviewed cadets by telephone, and multiple liaisons were assigned by Ziv and West Point to work together to create realistic scripts based on actual events that transpired at the Academy.  All the effort paid off, because except for some very minor details, the half-hour shows provided the public a realistic portal into the lives of West Point cadets.  The first nine shows were scripted by the greatly talented Gene Roddenberry, later the creator of the original Star Trek series.  Among the young actors who lent their talents to the series, and who would later become famous movie or television stars were Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Barbara Eden, Chuck Connors, Richard Jaeckel, Larry Hagman (uncredited), Martin Milner, Leonard Nimoy, and Robert Vaughn.  The series has been consistently praised for its writing, acting, lighting, camera work, and exciting episodes featuring great location shots of West Point.  The Corps of Cadets, the Army Band, and other post agencies lent manpower to act in, provide effects for, and control traffic during the filming on post.  Actors in costume were sometimes mistaken for real cadets, and upbraided for any infractions of rules.  The first season aired during 1956-1957 on CBS, presented by General Foods, and the second season aired during 1957-1958 on ABC, whose sponsors were Van Heusen Shirts and Carters Products.  Some of the biggest fans were West Point alumni, and President Eisenhower was reportedly “miffed” when the show was eventually cancelled. During the broadcast of West Point there were four other military dramas being aired, including Harbor Command, Navy Log, The Silent Service, and Men of Annapolis.  The series was under wraps for years due to copyright issues, only available on home-recorded VHS tapes. Now, thanks to Timeless Media, all 40 episodes are now available in a four-disc DVD box set released early in 2013.

Hello Dolly (1969) Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau (DVD)

No expense was spared in filming this musical extravaganza, and much of it was shot around the Hudson Valley, including scenes in Garrison (substituting for Yonkers at the turn of the 20th century), the Poughkeepsie train station (New York City back in the day) and West Point.  The wedding scene was shot at Trophy Point, where a chapel façade was constructed and taken down after the filming.  Two librarians presently on staff at Jefferson Hall recall meeting cast members when they were filming on post and across the river in Garrison.

The Silence (1975) Richard Thomas

This made-for-TV movie features Richard Thomas, best remembered as John-Boy Walton on the 1970s TV series, The Waltons, in this dramatization of an actual event in which a cadet is charged with cheating on an exam.  The cadet, James Pelosi, is then subjected to “The Silence,” a policy in which fellow cadets refuse to talk to him or acknowledge his existence, based on the Honor instruction of the time.  He’s not allowed to have a roommate, he is forced to eat at a separate table in the mess hall, and only addressed officially when necessary, and then as “Mister.”  The movie doesn’t try to judge Cadet Pelosi’s guilt or innocence, but focuses instead on how he stood up to the psychological torment of his situation, based on his version of events, after he refused to resign from the academy.  Pelosi stuck it out for 19 months and graduated.  The scriptwriter, Stanley R. Greenberg, based the story on interviews he conducted with Pelosi.  The movie first aired on NBC in 1975, but has unfortunately never been released on video.  James Pelosi happens to be the brother-in-law of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California.

Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker (1994) Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Waterston (VHS)

Johnson Whittaker was an early African-American cadet who in 1880 was left brutally beaten and tied to his bed with burnt pages from his bible strewn around his room, where he was found unconscious and bleeding from razor slashes to his face and hands.  Although he claimed that he was assaulted by three racist white cadets, the Academy moved to expel him, convinced that his injuries were self-inflicted.  The authorities charged that the defendant’s motive was to get out of taking a philosophy exam which he was afraid of failing. This shameful incident is the basis for the 1994 Showtime made-for-TV movie, which at its heart is a courtroom drama.  When the high profile case is brought to trial, tension builds between the two defense attorneys, one a Harvard-educated African-American, Richard Greener (Samuel L. Jackson), and the other an ex-abolitionist, Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston) who believes in emancipation but not equality between the races.  The prosecution is led by the openly racist Major Asa Bird Gardiner (John Glover), who fails to faze the defendant with his aggressive, intimidating tactics.  Nevertheless, when the more sympathetic judge is a no-show on the day of the verdict, the other two judges declare the defendant guilty as charged.  The story ends with old Johnson Whittaker being interviewed by a reporter.  He tells him that his expulsion was overturned by President Chester Arthur, yet the Academy refused to reinstate him on the grounds that he had failed his exam.  He rebounded to have a rewarding career as a school principal.  Johnson also sums up how he regarded his two defense attorneys; he’s respectful of Greener and dismissive of Chamberlain, who Whittaker said was more interested in promoting himself than delivering justice for his client.  This movie spurred renewed interest in Whittaker’s case, leading to his full exoneration by President Bill Clinton the following year.  With no coordination with the Army or West Point, the production was filmed in Virginia where the Academy of 1880 was recreated using movie sets.  The high-powered actors give it their best, although some viewers have been put off by their formal and somewhat stilted diction, which was purposely written and executed that way to mimic public discourse in the post-Civil War era.

There you have it – a legacy of grit and glory, filmed over the last 70 years of the 20th century.  West Point on film is a time capsule of both the Academy’s past and the era when stories were filmed with predictable Hollywood ruffles and flourishes.  The best of them succeed in capturing the unique panache of the West Point spirit.  Undoubtedly, the 21st century will leave its own unique contribution to this legacy.  In the meantime, put some popcorn in the microwave, light a fire in the fireplace, don a souvenir tar bucket (cadet dress parade hat), and enjoy one of Hollywood’s visions of West Point, once upon a time.