Between Heaven and Hell

aka: Between Heaven and Hell [Movie]
aka: The Day the Century Ended [Book]

Between Heaven and Hell is an American motion picture about combat soldiers during World War II. Produced by 20th Century Fox in 1956, the film was based on a 1955 book called The Day the Century Ended, which was written by Arkansas author Francis Irby Gwaltney.

Born in Traskwood (Saline County) in 1921, Francis Irby Gwaltney published eight novels between 1954 and 1974. Most of them dealt with the American South and Southern themes. After enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942, Gwaltney served in the Philippine Islands during World War II. He was awarded several medals for his service in the Philippines. While there, he met fellow soldier and future bestselling author Norman Mailer, with whom Gwaltney became close friends. Returning to Arkansas after the war, Gwaltney eventually joined the faculty at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville (Pope County). There, he was co-founder of the school’s creative writing program. Gwaltney’s wartime experiences became the basis for his book The Day the Century Ended, which is considered his most successful, both critically and commercially.

Both Gwaltney’s book and the subsequent movie version have been compared favorably to Mailer’s bestselling 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead, itself made into a 1958 hit film. The gritty portrayal of military life during wartime by both Gwaltney and Mailer went against the popular Hollywood image of soldiers during World War II. In movies produced during the war in the 1940s, American soldiers were depicted as clean-cut, noble, and patriotic, with stock characters of various ethnicities embraced by their buddies in the platoon. In the books by Gwaltney and Mailer, the brutality of combat against the enemy is matched by the harshness of the American soldiers against each other. Officers are depicted as incompetent and often acting sadistically to their own troops, who in turn become foul-mouthed and cruel amid the cauldron of combat.

However, Gwaltney’s work adds other layers to the war story. Both the book and the movie follow one young soldier, possibly representing his own alter ego, and his growth into a better man, moving from small-town prejudices to a wider respect for fellow human beings.

Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film was a faithful re-telling of the book. Like the book, the movie’s plot is told in flashback. It focuses on the life of a young enlisted man, Sam Gifford (played by Robert Wagner), from his pre-war life as an arrogant, affluent Arkansas landowner through his service in the Pacific during World War II. During the course of the story, Gifford forms a close friendship with one of his former sharecroppers (played by Buddy Ebsen, later of Beverly Hillbillies fame), acknowledging that due to his social position before the war, he never would have even considered such a friendship. Gifford retains the friendship when they are both shipped back to the United States, offering the sharecropper a good home and job in his company after the war.

The first writer hired by the studio to transform Gwaltney’s novel into a movie script was fellow Philippines war veteran Rod Serling. Serling’s screenplay was rejected for being too long, although Serling soon found success with his iconic creation The Twilight Zone, a landmark television series that ran from 1959 to 1964. A few other writers were then assigned to work on the script for Between Heaven and Hell. Gwaltney himself was brought to Hollywood for a year, serving as an advisor for the production of the movie, which had a budget of about $1.5 million. The filming for Between Heaven and Hell ran from May through July 1956. The movie was shot primarily at the 20th Century Fox ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains of southern California. The action-filled beach landing sequence was filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

The film version also follows Gwaltney’s book by symbolizing the transformation of the Old Confederacy, much as writer William Faulkner did in subverting the nostalgic view of the South. Gwaltney’s book title, The Day the Century Ended, references the symbolic end of the Civil War century of the 1800s, making way for the modern world. The hero realizes he must face the final demise of the Old South in which he had lived and become a man of the twentieth century, whether he likes it or not.

When 20th Century Fox bought the rights to Gwaltney’s novel, it retained The Day the Century Ended as the film’s working title. However, for the finished movie, it was renamed Between Heaven and Hell, which was more in keeping with the era’s emphasis on action amid the war-is-hell ethos of the 1950s. The title Between Heaven and Hell also lent itself more to the film’s original advertisements, sensationally printed in all capital letters: “THE FIERCE FIGHTING FLAMING FURY OF THE SOUTH’S FINEST…THE DIXIE DAREDEVILS WHO BECAME THE HELL-FIGHTERS OF THE PACIFIC!”

Between Heaven and Hell premiered in New York City on October 11, 1956, with a running time of ninety-four minutes. After it went on to wide release across the country, the U.S. box office take was about $2 million, making it profitable, if not a blockbuster hit. Some observers noted that the film’s title refers to the religious concept of Purgatory, a place that is neither heaven nor hell, which may have been in keeping with the memories of many World War II veterans. During the nationwide run of Between Heaven and Hell, a new tagline was added—“If I’m old enough to fight, I’m old enough to love!”—presumably in an attempt to attract other segments of the ticket-buying audience. The movie’s musical score by Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for an Academy Award.

For additional information:
Between Heaven and Hell.” Internet Movie Database. (accessed February 22, 2023).

Gwaltney, Francis Irby. The Day the Century Ended. New York: Rinehart, 1955.

Loving, Jerome. “The Day the Century Ended: Francis Irby Gwaltney’s ‘Sequel’ to The Naked and the Dead.” The Mailer Review, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015.,_2015/The_Day_the_Century_Ended:_Francis_Irby_Gwaltney%E2%80%99s_%E2%80%9CSequel%E2%80%9D_to_The_Naked_and_the_Dead  (accessed February 22, 2023).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society


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