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Best friends Kenneth Reynolds and Raymond Jordan are U.S. Navy officers, and Kenneth is engaged to Raymond's sister. But the eruption of the Civil War divides them, as Raymond stands by his native Virginia while Kenneth remains on duty as a Northern officer. Kenneth's uncle, John Ericsson, designs a new kind of ship, an ironclad he calls the Monitor. Eventually the war pits Kenneth, on board the Monitor, against his friend Raymond, serving aboard the South's own ironclad, the Merrimac (as it is called here). A naval battle ensues, one that will go down in history. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(Opening dedication) This is a story of ships and men -- iron ships and men of iron -- the monitors of liberty. To the first "Monitor" of them all, to the gallant men who fought for and against her, this picture is respectfully dedicated. See more »
'Hearts in Bondage' is a Civil War drama placing fictional characters at the centre of real events. First, some background: in the first month of the American Civil War (April 1861), the Confederate navy attacked some Union ships at Gosport shipyard (near Norfolk, Virginia). The Union steam frigate USS Merrimac was sunk in this engagement. The Confederates later raised the hull and refitted it as an armourclad. Meanwhile - at Greenpoint, Brooklyn - US naval engineer John Ericsson was building an ironclad warship, the USS Monitor. On 9th March 1862, these two vessels squared off in an engagement that has been known ever since as 'the Monitor and the Merrimac'. In strict accuracy, the refitted Merrimac had been christened the CSS Virginia. But, among the other spoils of war, the winning side gets to pick the nomenclature. So, the Virginia is still known as the Merrimac, just as a certain Civil War battleground is now known as Bull Run (the name the Union favoured) rather than Manassas (the Confederates' name).
SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. James Dunn and Mae Clarke (badly miscast) portray lovers circa 1861 who meet for trysts on the banks of the Potomac near Washington. As the nation gins up for the Civil War, their relationship is threatened because he's a US Navy officer but her brother is sympathetic to the Confederate cause. The brother is played by David Manners, a Canadian actor who was very British in his on-screen demeanour (Manners claimed to be a descendant of William the Conqueror!), so it's distressing to see him here as a son of the South, y'all.
Dunn serves aboard the Merrimac during the battle of Norfolk. When the battle goes in the Confederates' favour, Dunn is ordered to set fire to his own ship so she doesn't fall into Confederate hands. Instead, Dunn sinks the ship so that (he hopes) the Union can raise her later. (The movie gets its facts slightly wrong here: in reality, the Merrimac *was* fired, and she burnt to her waterline. When the Confederate navy raised her hull, the Merrimac's ammunition - in watertight casings - was intact and undamaged, and was promptly added to the Confederacy's ordnance.) When the Confederates raise the Merrimack, Dunn is disgraced for having disobeyed a direct order.
The fictional character played by Dunn is the nephew of (real-life) naval engineer John Ericsson. To get back into the navy's good graces, Dunn goes to Brooklyn and assists his uncle in the construction of the Monitor. And Dunn is aboard the Monitor during her historic battle with the Merrimac. Meanwhile, guess who's aboard the Merrimac: yes, David Manners. After Manners gets killed, Dunn (his reputation restored) meets with Clarke once again. Their tryst is interrupted by none other than Abraham Lincoln, played by Frank McGlynn (who specialised in playing Lincoln). I found it slightly ludicrous that Lincoln would be walking about in wartime with no Secret Service escort - especially on the banks of the Potomac - but I guess it's possible. He offers a few encouraging words to the lovers, then saunters off while the soundtrack plays 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'.
The most intriguing thing about 'Hearts in Bondage' is that it's directed by Lew Ayres, an actor who (in real life) was extremely antipathetic towards warfare. (He was a conscientious objector during World War Two.) Ayres's direction of this material is workmanlike but not in any way distinctive. The scenes of naval warfare are staged with miniatures, but look quite convincing. The USS Monitor was famously described as 'a cheesebox on a raft', so the miniature ship here (a rotating turret on a flat platform) is crude but strongly resembles the crude design of the actual Monitor. Fritz Lieber gives a dignified performance as the real-life John Ericsson. (Full disclosure: Lieber's son Fritz Jnr was a friend of mine.) Gabby Hayes and Charlotte Henry do not do well in their roles, and Irving Pichel is a bit too wild-eyed. James Dunn is quite good in his role here; notwithstanding his Academy Award, Dunn is a very underrated actor. Overall, I'll rate this movie 8 out of 10. It's hokum, but enjoyable hokum.
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