If Kristina from Speakeasy has set a personal goal to get me reaching for a box of kleenex at multiple times during a film of her choosing, then she has accomplished just that with her latest challenge to yours truly.
With no John Wayne or Robert Taylor in sight, Claudette Colbert leads a cast of women stationed on Bataan during the early days of WW2 doing their best as nurses on the front lines to bring comfort and compassion to the men engaged in life and death battles against the forces of Japan.
Both Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake join Colbert in above the title billing in this enthralling film from Paramount studios.
The film is told in flashback from the outset with a group of nurses returning home by ship. Silent and looking rather lifeless in a wheel chair is Colbert. Her story is being told to John Litel in the hope that he can somehow bring her back to consciousness.
We begin with the group setting sail and getting to know some of the sailors which helps set up Goddard as a bit of a flirt under Colbert’s command. Things are light and comical till sirens go off and in a rather unsettling scene, a ship running parallel to theirs explodes. The fun is officially over. This is a stark war film. Fished out of the ocean are survivors including nurse Veronica Lake. She assumes duties under Colbert’s command but is clearly affected by the death surrounding her and harbors a dark secret that Colbert eventually helps bring to the surface.
Along the way to Bataan Goddard meets soldier Sonny Tufts and Claudette is won over by George Reeves. It’s also comical looking back that the the children on Bataan are being told the tale of Superman and they quite naturally want to know when he will be coming. Little did they know that he is already there in the guise of Mr. George Reeves.
Bataan meanwhile is being overrun by the enemy while the nurses are exhausted trying to keep up with the casualties being brought in on a steady basis. Doom surrounds them. When the lines are pushed back the mobile hospital relocates but in doing so we have a sobering casualty among the nurses in a scene that must have been shocking to audiences back in the day. To be honest, it still has the power to haunt. Yes, I reached for the tissue.
Things don’t get any easier for our group of women who suffer through malaria and other maladies right alongside the men they grow to respect and love. Air raids and death surround our nurses on a continual basis. Through all the hardships our leading ladies find love and Colbert and Reeves make a fine on screen couple as each knows that they are living for today with no guarantee of tomorrow. The film plays out with many powerful scenes of emotion that I am not going to spoil here but as I mentioned, keep the tissues handy.
Of all the war movies starring the Duke and other male stars of the studio era, I found it surprising that this film focusing on a group of women may have had the most dynamic and authentic looking battle scenes. Not only are they impressive but they’re downright scary and once you’ve committed yourself to caring about the characters in the film, you’re hooked and sitting on the edge of your seat. A fine directorial job from Mark Sandrich who is mainly known for musicals like Top Hat and Holiday Inn. Sadly he would die in less than two years at the age of 43.
A supporting Oscar nomination went to Paulette Goddard here and it’s fun to see her trying to remain desirable to the men as well as never going without her black nightie. Her scene of goodbyes with the wounded leads to another emotional outpouring.
If it’s true about Colbert only having the left side of her face photographed in close up, then this is great example because that’s pretty much what we get here.
Like any film of this nature during the second world war, we get propaganda creeping in to the screenplay. No different this time out from writer Allan Scott. Having said that, the film isn’t as preachy or quite so obvious as other films of the day could be.
The closing of the film is another beautifully set up scene to pull at the heartstrings and leaves the viewers with hope. It’s not only a rallying cry for the war effort but also for Colbert and Reeves just possibly finding a life together.
So once again Kristina steers me to a solid film that because it doesn’t have a male lead I probably overlooked throughout the years. Big mistake as this is as good a film about the war effort you can watch from this era. Highly recommended.
Now don’t forget to check out the challenge for Kristina over at Speakeasy. It’s not your typical Sam Peckinpah effort.