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Let's get the awful jokes for confirmed filmheads out of the way first. Cry 'Havoc' is not something Gypsy Rose Lee said to her sister, and it's not the first film in a trilogy, followed by that slapstick favorite And Let Slip. It is, however, one of the more sober pictures of WW2 intended as propaganda for boosting morale and increasing productivity back home. 1943 was the "hate Japs" year for American movies, as hard facts were just beginning to filter back about the barbaric treatment of prisoners in the hands of the Japanese victors in places like the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.
Cry 'Havoc' is perfect material for a stage play, as the cast is almost completely female. An Army hospital on Manila Bay struggles to tend the wounded while the Japanese advance comes closer and bombing raids more frequent. Nurse Lt. Mary Smith (Margaret Sullavan) is stricken with malignant malaria but refuses to leave; against Army regulations, she's secretly married to an officer (not seen). Nurse Captain Alice Marsh (Fay Bainter) dispatches Nurse Flo Norris (major blacklist victim Marsha Hunt) to pick up as many volunteer nurses as she can in soon-to-be-overrun Manila. Flo returns with nine untrained but willing women, who soon find themselves working around the clock, dealing with pain and suffering while eating little more than rice.
The movie plays out mostly in the Nurse's underground bunker, and predictably stays on the glamorous side of reality. The women have smudges on their cheeks and wear hand-me-down military duds, but they also maintain their makeup. The story shows how they toughen up while accenting personal rivalries. Stripper Grace Lambert (Joan Blondell) is an easygoing type, but even she locks horns with hard-nosed waitress Pat Conlin (Ann Sothern), mostly over their interest in the same officer. Tall Helen Domeret (Frances Gifford) can also get catty at times, while young journalist Connie Booth (Ella Raines of Phantom Lady) has a difficult time under the pressure. The women also work the telephone switchboard and hear all the war rumors. It's mostly bad news: the Japanese advance, General MacArthur retreats to Austrailia. Relief convoys and trucks never arrive but morale is such that none of the nurses ask to be evacuated, even when permission is granted.
The women talk about seeing terrible things but the movie shows nothing realistic about conditions in frontline medical camps; that would have to wait for M*A*S*H, thirty years later. But stories of the Bataan Death March had already circulated on the home front, and 1943 audiences were surely on the edge of their seats worrying about what will happen to the women when the camp falls to the enemy. The nurses avoid talking about such things, as if it weren't an issue. Joan Blondell instead makes an Alamo-like big pitch about how resisting now will help the war effort, even if they all die.
The play and screenplay introduce an interesting political issue or two, only to immediately revert to standard patriotic rhetoric. Heather Angel and Dorothy Morris play the West sisters, Andra and Sue. In the first discussion of "what the war means", they come right out and assert that it's the beginning of a "world revolution". Before that can be explained further, they add that neutrality is impossible because this war is a fight for survival -- if we lose, we'll become slaves. We wonder if the original play had more talk about reforming society once the war is won... a common sidebar theme in war films by scribes like Dalton Trumbo. One of the West sisters is buried by a bomb for several days, and emerges with her mind gone ... which means that she behaves sort of ethereal / ditsy, and condsiderately stays out of sight in a storage room.
Other more subtle messages are there too. The only "non-white" presence in the entire story is a token Philippina nurse, Luisita Esperito, played by familiar-face-don't-know-the-name Fely Franquelli. Joan Blondell cracks over the phone line that she's "free, white and 21" indicating the status of black Americans in the war effort. The strongest "anti-Jap" scene may have been added for the film. Gorgeous Ella Raines takes a leisurely swim in Tarzan's old grotto and is strafed by a rogue Japanese fighter plane ... in the back. This is of course followed by a Group Hate in which Joan Blondell (herself wounded) swears to get revenge.
I can see this play being "eminently produce-able" on stage or screen in 1943, when many of the biggest name male actors were in the service. Among the very briefly glimpsed faces of wounded and dying are William Bishop, Richard Derr and Richard Crane. The most unintentionally amusing moment in the film occurs when a nurse turns over a freshly-wounded Marine, only to see him to die almost immediately. It's Robert Mitchum, just in the door at MGM and taking whatever parts are available.
Even when the sentiments are simplistic, WW2 era movies have an ideological bite that modern political pictures do not. These beautiful actresses (reason enough to see the movie) may have had fun filming Cry 'Havoc' on the MGM backlot, but they were in the war effort up to their necks -- if the Germans or the Japanese won, theirs would be the faces on the screen cursing dirty Japs and Nazis.
Cry 'Havoc's main attraction for the curious is the knowledge that the nurses aren't going to escape. MGM probably wasn't up to producing anything really shocking, and it's likely that the war office responsible would quietly disapprove scenes involving women being molested or tortured. Cry 'Havoc' sublimates its Production Code-threatening jeopardy under female rivalries and disputes ... Margaret Sullavan looks more miserable as the movie goes along, with her sickness and romantic difficulties 'subbing' for physical torture. The stagey final scene, not helped by world-class MGM hack Richard Thorpe's bland direction, leaves the nurses' fates in grave doubt. In this case, avoiding direct suggestions of rape and torture steers Cry 'Havoc' away from irresponsibly screaming its message of vengeance. 1
The group of actresses assembled here is a good one ... Joan Blondell and Ann Sothern get the lion's share of the good lines and juicy scenes, but Cry 'Havoc' allows underrepresented lovelies like Marsha Hunt and Ella Raines more good moments than usual. It's interesting that modern movies have a free rein to present Evil Nazis of all stripes in dramas, true stories, escapist war fantasies and even comedies, when PC considerations have more or less stopped most screen depictions of Japanese war crimes. My theory is that a collective guilt trip is in force over the U.S. treatment of its Nisei Japanese-American population.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Cry 'Havoc' is a very good re-mastering of this intense drama directed in a somewhat dated style. The image is good enough to analyze matte effects and admire a few excellent rear projection scenes of planes crashing, etc.. Obviously made to fill a specific wartime propaganda need, the film holds up as a drama about women in peril.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cry 'Havoc' rates:
1. Less classy examples? Hitler's Children stages a torture scene when Bonita Granville's balks at bearing out-of-wedlock babies for the Nazis. Her bare back is whipped by Nazi sadists ... with young Tim Holt in attendance. Cry 'Havoc's direct competition was Paramount's So Proudly We Hail, which likewise has good actresses playing nurses captured by the Japanese, and is said to be a true story, to boot. But some scenes now come off as just too contrived, as when Veronica Lake helps her fellow nurses escape by greeting the Japanese while holding a live grenade. It's been a long time since I saw that one.
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