Assorted characters trapped in a perilous situation, each with his or her own motivations, backstory, hopes and fears, the sort of story ("The Flight of the Phoenix," for instance) that I find irresistible. Thirteen characters, all women - men are entirely peripheral, practically stage props - find themselves trapped in a perilous situation. For that, any danger could do. Here the peril is war. Will they survive? Will they escape? We know (dramatic irony) that even if they survive they will not escape. Very little action occurs. It is not required. We understand the situation. No need to show it dramatically. The story, originally a stage play, is character driven. The situation encompasses everything. How will the women react, each according to her own character, its weaknesses and strengths? That is the strength of "Cry Havoc." That is what makes it compelling. If you prefer a war movie with non-stop action, or a wartime love story, switch to another channel.
It is a women's picture in the true sense, akin to "The Women," "Stage Door," "Tender Comrade," "Caged." Men make fleeting appearances. There is no love story. True, the unseen Lt. Holt is a presence. But he is not a focus. He serves merely to create dramatic tension, to illuminate the characters of two women, Smitty (Margaret Sullavan) and Pat (Ann Southern), whose mismatched personalities clash. The women reveal themselves as they confront the enveloping menace. Andra (Heather Angel) displays courage, Connie (Ella Raines) fear, Sue (Dorothy Morris) intensity, Flo (Marsha Hunt) serenity, Nydia (Diana Lewis) insouciance. The desperate Smitty alone and the commander Capt. Marsh (Fay Bainter), resigned to her fate, realize what is to come. Luisita, the only Philipina in the group (dancer and actress Fely Franquelli) also seems to know. Surrender approaches. Only she hides her face in despair.
We know more now than the screenwriters knew then. We know what awaits: the death march, mistreatment, possibly rape, evidence that only became apparent at the war's end. The Japanese, perhaps for that reason, but surprisingly for a war movie in wartime, are not completely demonized. They are hardly virtuous. They bomb hospitals. They strafe unoffending people bathing in a stream. Still, I have seen far worse denigration in other films. At the end a voice calls out in accented English for the women to surrender. It is not a caricatural voice, not lewd or sinister. The enemy, like the wounded soldiers and Lt. Holt, are a backdrop. The psychological focus remains on the protagonists, their characters, their response to a perilous situation.
"Cry Havoc" was not alone in 1943. Hollywood's other nurses-on-Bataan movie, "So Proudly We Hailed," came out in the same year. It cannot match "Cry Havoc." "So Proudly's" long, rambling tale, told through a flashback with a clinical, newsreel-like voiceover narration, is principally propaganda (the title gives it away) sweetened with a love story. The enemy are emphatically demonized. Men, and how to attract them, are the nurses' constant preoccupation. The story sends its heroine (Claudette Colbert) on an unblushingly sappy, soap-operatic journey. Husband is reported killed. Claudette succumbs to a morbid catatonic depression. She stares unblinking, for weeks. (It's not even clear when or how she enables herself to eat.) She wills herself to die. Of course, husband pops up alive and well, well enough to write her an interminable cloying letter, which we endure until the music mercifully swells to conclude proceedings. Nurse Olivia (Veronica Lake) hates the enemy with such implacable vehemence (her husband had the misfortune to be at Pearl Harbor) that she blows herself up to kill them, hand grenade tucked into her pocket. One film develops character, the other caricature. One, like Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (Heather Angel was also briefly a passenger on that raft), transcends a war movie. The other remains a wartime curiosity.
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