Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cry Havoc - 1943

“Cry Havoc” (1943) transports us to a strange world.  We cling to what little seems familiar, and are forced to either bravely face the terrifying unknown, or just close our eyes to it, waiting to submit to it when it catches up with us.  A compelling stage play/film, it teeters between the rigid spatial boundaries of theatre, and the anything-is-possible artifice of Hollywood.  Most unusual, we are given a glimpse at world where the courage and fortitude of women are honored, and men are largely absent or helpless victims dependent on the women.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and we continue our four-part look at women in the armed services, begun here Mondaywith “Keep Your Powder Dry” (1945).  Where that film shows us the sorority atmosphere of basic training for the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in the clean and orderly world of stateside army posts, “Cry Havoc” drops us in the maelstrom of the Philippines during the Japanese invasion. 
Even the title card means business.  I won’t go play by play, but there’ll be some spoilers.
Only two of the women here are military.  Fay Bainter and Margaret Sullavan play Army nurses.  The rest of the ladies are refugees, most Americans, two British, and one Filipina, from towns farther north who were evacuated to the last American stronghold on Bataan.  They become volunteers at the jungle hospital.
It’s a varied lineup.  Marsha Hunt as the head volunteer with hospital experience to show them the ropes.  Ella Raines is a glamour girl, Ann Sothern is a smart-mouthed dame down on her luck who loves to give the others a hard time.  Joan Blondell is the sassy ex-stripper with the heart of gold.

We have the usual innocent Southern Gal played by Diana Lewis, with the most adorable dimples.  She reminds me of Judy Holliday.  Wife of William Powell, it was her last film before she retired from acting. 

Two sweet, gently bred British sisters played by Heather Angel and Dorothy Morris, both students of art and music seem more suited to a rose garden than this hell on earth. 

Connie Gilchrist is on board as the camp cook, dishing out sympathy and lots of rice.
Young Robert Mitchum has a brief spot as a wounded soldier, but the men are the little seen in this film. 

However, it’s worth noting that among the men they treat in the camp hospital are several Filipino soldiers.  The most intriguing male is one we don’t see, except in a distance shot. He is the lieutenant in charge of the communications shack.  We see his name painted roughly on his crude office door in the hut where the women relay radio messages.  Ann Sothern is interested and visits him in his lair, but learns she has competition for his affections from Margaret Sullavan.
It’s not really Sullavan’s film, despite the top billing and the character of central importance that she plays — the head nurse in charge of the women.  Her screen time is intermittent; we spend a lot of time on the back stories and interactions between the other women.  However, Margaret Sullavan captures our attention, and our understanding, every time she pops her head in the room. 

Miss Sullavan brings her long stage training with her; you can see she does not play to the camera, rather she plays off her other scene partners.  That’s a trait among stage-trained actors.  Also, because she is stage-trained, she uses her whole body to express herself, whereas screen actors of the time with no stage experience tended to emote more with the face, which was sort of a technical requirement, and style then, anyway.
She did not make many films, as she really preferred the theatre, but what a great thing it is watch her move from patient to patient when we first see her.  Slumping, slouching, no rigid graceful posing from her.  Nothing seems choreographed.  Her movement is completely natural and appears unrehearsed.  A quick, impatient glance at a chart, a darting glance around the hospital hut.  When she smiles briefly at a patient or a fellow worker, it is a flash, a sparkling nanosecond of some self-deprecating mirth that tells us there is a great deal of charm and a possibly a goofy sense of fun buried in this overworked, intensely focused woman.
We would never know she is dying of malignant malaria.
As we mentioned in the previous post, “Cry Havoc” has many similarities with “So Proudly We Hail”, but Sullavan is a far more stressed leader than the always-elegant Claudette Colbert, and her charges are far more ill-equipped to this life of service.
Though we have scenes of soldiers lying in the dirt by the hospital tent awaiting treatment, and huts in the background ablaze from the latest bombing run by the Japanese, most of the movie takes place in the underground bunker that serves as the women’s dorm.  Crude bunk beds around a common table, a few lanterns hanging from the log roof.  We can sense the dankness and chill in this room, even in the heat of the jungle.
The women have their personal struggles to overcome: the need to conquer fear, the need to feel useful, the need to give back, the need to prove themselves.  Ann Sothern comes the farthest in her character development.  She starts out as rather sullen and bitter, ever spoiling for an argument.  A poignant scene where she must collect the personal belongings of deceased patients and catalogue them for shipment back to their families in the States helps to knock the chip off her shoulder a little.  She is not completely converted to a mensch until the very end when she and Sullavan face some hard truths.
The younger British girl gets to give “The Speech” about why we are fighting, in a soft-spoken, cultured voice that is notable for its matter of factness in someone who seems to have had such a sheltered life.  She talks of the survival of the free people of the world, and her words may echo in our heads when she is lost during a bombing raid.  She is found, days later, half crazed in a tangle of dead bodies.
Her anguished older sister can hardly bear the heartache, but amazingly rebounds with a warrior’s enthusiasm when she grabs an anti-aircraft gun from a wounded soldier and shoots down an enemy plane (off camera).  She glows when she describes her deed to the others, like she’s won a carnival prize.  If this were an English foxhunt back home, we might say she had been “blooded”.  No one ceremoniously smears blood on her forehead, but it seems as if someone should.
Just as in “Keep Your Powder Dry” we have another scene of water nymphs bathing in the river.  No Cokes to drink here; just strafing from the enemy that results in the murder of one the girls.
We get “The Speech” again at the end of the film, this time a hard-as-nails version from Ann Sothern, who uses a map of the Pacific as a visual aid for her show-and-tell.  No dewy words of inspiration this time.  The ladies, by now, understand full well that the only way to win the war is to make the enemy work twice as hard for every inch of ground.  “A delaying action,” Claudette Colbert put it in “So Proudly We Hail,” but here the reality is put more bluntly.  The Japanese are getting closer and closer to their position, and there is no longer any hope of escape, or of reinforcements to wage battle.  They are starving, the hospital is overrun with wounded and malaria cases, and General MacArthur left for Australia.  The ladies will be killed or taken prisoner in a matter of days.  The most noble sacrifice they can make for the war effort is to just wait for it.
Earlier Miss Sullavan gave them the chance to escape to Corregidor (not much of an escape it would prove to be anyway), but they all refused.  As Joan Blondell replies, “A man died in my arms tonight, and now I wouldn’t leave if I knew it was my last day on earth.”
Sullavan remarks to Fay Bainter, “They’re Americans.  They believe in happy endings.”
Miss Bainter responds quietly, “I’m an American.  I don’t.”  She is the picture of a career nurse, an officer in the Army who has seen too much to believe in miracles, but carries on with thoughtful, gentle stoicism.
The Japanese invasion of their camp is dramatically effective, the more so because we do not see caricatured villains.  We see nothing; we only hear single rifle shots, snipers in camp.  The ladies, gathered in their underground quarters, perk their ears and listen.  They know what it is.  Then a sudden burst or two of machinegun fire, and they know the enemy is “mopping up” outside.  Then a shout, an order for them to identify themselves and come out.
That the movie ends with the slow procession of tired, dirty females, arms raised, quietly submitting to a fate they’ve been imagining for the last hour and a half is a tribute to all the times this actually occurred in war zones all over the world, to women all over the world.  I suppose we can’t blame Hollywood for throwing in a few strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as former enemies and romantic rivals Ann Sothern and Margaret Sullavan walk out together.  Most of the film has been fairly schmaltz-free.
Another scene admirable for its restraint — when the male lieutenant is killed, and we have already been told that he is really Margaret Sullavan’s husband, she quietly enters his crude office and we see his world without him in it.  Maps, documents, radio equipment — and his officer’s cap left on a shelf.  Sullavan, a picture of stunned grief and stillness, regards his cap.  It represents him in this matriarchal jungle world where men are hardly seen.
There could have been a greater dramatic exploitation of the story of these women, and would be if this were filmed today — however, that’s one of the elements of this movie that makes it refreshing.  But it was not the director’s forbearance keeping the movie from showing more fear, more vulnerability, more skin, more torture, more rape.  It was the studio’s delicacy in fearing to offend the public.   
What we do see are a group of women we never really get to know well, but we know enough.  Sullavan is an intriguing mystery.  The others are too weary and too wary of attachment with death hovering in the bush to get to know each other that well.  We settle for a few common gripes, and a few helpless tears.  We never really get to know what happens to them when they leave the bunker at gunpoint.
Maybe it’s better that way.
Though we are presented these women as flawed but ultimately grand girls representing the best of civilized democratic nations — most of them American, we are not given the same idealistic message we see in so many other war films of the period.  Instead, we are haunted by what we see, and if that’s not a reason to buy war bonds, I don’t know what is.
Also refreshingly absent are condescending platitudes about women taking only gender-appropriate roles in the war.  These kids may have arrived in summer frocks with Panama hats or picture hats with floppy brims, but they slip into over-sized coveralls and spend the rest of the film with their hair tied back and a constant grimy film of perspiration on their faces.  No crisp uniforms for them, they look like garage mechanics. 
The well-trained WACs of “Keep Your Powder Dry” only wore such outfits when they were fixing the general’s car on the post.  Even if they serve overseas, will likely never find themselves close enough to the battle lines to be overrun by the enemy. 
Both films, along with “So Proudly We Hail”, for any flaws we see at the distance of more than six decades, lend dignity to their varied representations of women in war.  Next week, we’ll take two films made in the early 1950s, “Never Wave at WAC” (1953) and “Skirts Ahoy” (1952).  Though the Korean War was going on at the time, these films do not present a serious discussion of women serving their country, but rather take a lighter tone.  The first is a comedy, the second a musical.  We might never know we were at war.


Calum Reed said...

"However, Margaret Sullavan captures our attention, and our understanding, every time she pops her head in the room."

I could not agree with this more. "Cry Havoc" was my first experience with this actress (still got her Oscar nomination in "Three Comrades to come) but her presence and depth is something I was in awe of. She's similar to Ida Lupino, although far less trying to watch.

You're right about the film's dignity and general celebration of women, as "Millions Like Us" also did in that same year. I think that was when people were recognising how great the female war effort was.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Well, put, Calum: "...her presence and depth is something I was in awe of." Sullavan is a rare actress who manages in this film to step way beyond typical posing for the camera. She's exciting to watch.

There are some very interesting stories of women's participation in the war effort, including flying planes in the Army Air Corps. A shame most of them were never told on film.

Caftan Woman said...

Long after the individual scenes and stories of "Cry 'Havoc'" start to fade from memory, the atmosphere of fear and isolation remains. Also admiration for the women in the Pacific theatre.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hear, hear.

Page said...

I'm really enjoying the films you've chosen to spotlight, pay tribute to women in the armed services. I'm sure you know that I was in the Navy as a nurse so these films touch me even more.

Cry Havoc was the perfect choice leading up to Pearl Harbor Day. Your reviews are so beautifully written.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Page. Most especially, thank you for your service to our country.

Yvette said...

"Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war..." I think, that's the quote. From Shakespeare, of course. What isn't?

I love this post, Jacqueline. I don't know that I would see the film - this is one I'd DEFINITELY have to be in some sort of mood for. (Although with me, you never can tell.) But reading your review, I feel as if I might.

Though something tells me I've already seen this years ago on television. I know I saw the Claudette Colbert movie as well.

Probably. More than likely.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

That's it, from "Julius Caesar".

Thank you, Yvette. I think you're right, a person really does have to be in the mood to watch this one, but it's well worth the time spent. It'll stay with you for a long time.

Rachel said...

I've really been enjoying your series on these "women-of-war" films. I haven't seen this one but any movie with a cast like that deserves attention. Sothern is a particular favorite of mine.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Rachel. I hope you can see this one sometime, Ann Sothern gets some good dramatic scenes.

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