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Douglas Fairbanks Jr.,
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Whale's debut came via this filmization of a classic war-themed play by R.C. Sheriff (for its 1976 remake ACES HIGH, the milieu of grimy trenches was changed to accommodate the aerial dog-fights!), which he and leading man Colin Clive had actually originated on Broadway (with Laurence Olivier taking the lead in its run at London's West End!). I purchased the book during a local book fair in the mistaken belief I would never get to watch the film in view of its rarity which I then acquired via an old but serviceable Channel 4 TV broadcast complete with intermittent publicity spots! A British production, it was however shot in Hollywood and, following its success, director and star stayed on, re-teaming not long after for FRANKENSTEIN (1931) which obviously cemented their reputation.
For the record, the same year as this one saw the release of two other major anti-war films i.e. Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and G.W. Pabst's WESTFRONT 1918. Whale's effort, albeit rather thin for a 2-hour movie, compares quite favorably in spite of its necessarily talky nature (oddly enough, what the various characters seem mainly concerned with is nourishment!) and staginess (not to mention the fact that it was made by a debutante). Though rarely straying outside its central underground setting (Whale's background as a set designer invariably came in handy here), with resultant static camera-work, its one battle sequence is magnificently staged (in this respect, at least, it is clearly superior to Whale's subsequent and generally more fluid war effort THE ROAD BACK ).
Being an early Talkie, I was afraid that the all-important dialogue would suffer from the primitive Sound technique; however, this came off reasonably clearly most of the time. Equally pivotal was the casting: interestingly, this would incorporate numerous actors who would come to be associated with the horror genre not just Clive but David Manners (DRACULA , THE MUMMY  and THE BLACK CAT ), Anthony Bushell (THE GHOUL ) and Billy Bevan (DRACULA'S Daughter )! All gave solid performances: that said, Manners' rookie hero-worshipping Clive interestingly, their relationship parallels that of Richard Cromwell and John King in THE ROAD BACK is not really any deeper than his romantic leads in the horror pictures. Bevan has a sizeable part for once, while Bushell plays a cowardly officer who arouses Clive's contempt and ire even if the latter, still a young man himself despite the weathered look (augmented by mellifluous voice and a perennially tortured demeanor), admits to submerging his own fears in drink. Tragically, this form of solace was undertaken by the actor himself (following Whale's own advice!) which would turn into a chronic vice soon enough and claim his life seven years later at just 37!
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