Midway through the 1943 World War II combat film So Proudly We Hail!, one of the protagonists is caught between a rock and a hard place: besieged on the island of Bataan by advancing Japanese troops, the American military unit trying to make its retreat is pinned down by an enemy fighting force. In a desperate bid to save the lives of everyone in the unit, one brave fighter urges the others to flee, and then rushes headlong into a group of Japanese soldiers with a live grenade. While the helpless bystanders look on, watching their compatriot’s sacrifice, the grenade explodes, taking the martyr and a group of soldiers with it. The scene is raw, intense and emotional, and befits similar sequence in a number of combat films produced both during and after World War II. Scenes of this type are, whatever their individual level of effectiveness, certainly not rare for war films.
This moment in So Proudly We Hail!, directed by Mark Sandrich, is unique because the person with the grenade is Veronica Lake. She plays Lt. Olivia D’Arcy, one of a number of the ensemble film’s protagonists, most of whom are U.S. Army Nurses pressed into service in the South Pacific in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Though Lake’s D’Arcy is killed in the above-described moment halfway through the film, her narrative arc forms the basis of the film’s general intent, which is to inspire a nervous nation to support the war effort both in word and deed. So Proudly We Hail! joins the likes of Howard Hawks’s Air Force, Zoltan Korda’s Sahara, Delmer Daves’ Destination Tokyo and Tay Garnett’s Bataan, all in 1943, as the latest entries in Hollywood’s contributions to the war effort; these films are quintessential pieces of inspirational wartime propaganda designed to maximize the American public’s faith in American values. Hawks, Korda, Daves and Garnett, unsurprisingly, chronicle the sacrifices of men in battle — the all-male fighting forces of the American military and their allies in their struggles against the Germans, Italians and Japanese. Sandrich’s So Proudly We Hail! stands out as a remarkable artifact of rare note — a film about women in combat — that remains virtually alone in mainstream American cinema.
One year prior to the release of So Proudly We Hail!, William Wyler earned tremendous acclaim for his film Mrs. Miniver (1942), which tells the story of a British family struggling through the Luftwaffe’s terrible bombing raids over London, starring Greer Garson as the title character; Mrs. Miniver is a dignified woman who still manages to find love amidst the horror, clinging to her English “stiff upper lip” and serving as an example to audiences of women’s role in supporting the war effort. Stateside, films like Edward Dmytryk’s Tender Comrade (1943) would similarly explore the homefront in a story of a female factory worker (Ginger Rogers) who goes to work to support the military manufacturing supply chain. Though the film would come under scrutiny after the war when Dmytryk and the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, were hauled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and held in contempt of Congress as members of the Hollywood Ten, at the time, its patriotism was its reason for existing. The film sensitively portrays Rogers’ Jo Jones (Jo a name suggestive of her male, G.I. counterparts) who, along with the women with whom she shares a house, find themselves struggling to maintain their resolve in the face of their husbands’ absence. Many other wartime homefront films fulfill similar ideological goals, paying tribute to the women’s sacrifices while also reminding the audience of the necessity of their suffering; if the war is to be won, these women will just have to wait patiently and contribute how they can.
When women have been portrayed in combat more recently, in films such as Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire (1996) and Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane (1997), they are tokens of an ideological battle for equality, overtly aligned with a feminist cause. In Courage Under Fire, Army investigator Nat Serling (Denzel Washington) reconstructs the circumstances of a deadly combat mission in which helicopter pilot Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) lost her life, for the purposes of determining whether she should be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. In death, Walden has proven herself, saving the lives of a number of male members of her unit, sacrificing her life for the greater good. The film ultimately affirms her nobility and she receives the honorific, though she will obviously not be around to collect it. Scott’s G.I. Jane centralizes Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore), a woman who aspires to join the elite U.S. Navy SEALS, but is frustrated in her efforts by the increasingly sadistic methods of a hard-as-nails training officer, Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen). Urgayle subjects O’Neill to a series of torturous feats of physical endurance and verbal harassment, which she ultimately overcomes. In death (Walden) and in life (O’Neill), the women prove the male representatives of the military’s power structure wrong for doubting them in uplifting stories about these characters’ ability to excel in traditionally male environments.
To look for feminist messages that meet contemporary standards in Classic Hollywood cinema is bound to be frustrating because the search inevitably runs aground against the institutionalized patriarchy that dominated the industry; that way lies madness. However, So Proudly We Hail! explores the competing tensions and expectations set for women in Hollywood and in 1940s America, especially in a time of war. Told in an extended flashback that exemplifies David Bordwell’s observations about the proliferation of non-linear narrative cinema in 1940s in his book Reinventing Hollywood, So Proudly We Hail! gives voice-over narration to many of its main characters, who collectively tell the story of their orders to serve on the island of Bataan and their eventual hasty retreat to the nearby Corregidor before being pushed out there, too. Not many 1940s films are narrated by women; Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) and Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) are noir exceptions, each situated firmly in the quiet confessions of their troubled heroines, women driven mad by misplaced devotion to loved ones who will not or cannot return the favor. So Proudly We Hail! goes further because it does not merely privilege the subjectivity of one woman, but the female collective, making it a rare treat: a film told as “we,” when the “we” means a group of women.
And yet, So Proudly We Hail! also demonstrates the reductive ways in which the male-dominated studio system viewed the kinds of stories available to women. For all the stunning sequences of combat, during which the nurses acquit themselves heroically and admirably, there are extended sections devoted to the more traditionally melodramatic narrative conventions associated with “women’s pictures.” Many of the nurses develop romantic relationships with the enlisted men, and the war comes to stand in for the global forces that conspire to keep them apart. Call this the Casablanca-effect: the contemporaneous influence of Michael Curtiz’s 1942 drama, which makes the dissolution of a great romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) the condition for winning the war, cannot be overstated. In the final moments of Casablanca, it is Rick’s sacrifice that sends Ilsa aboard the plane with her brilliant but unromantic husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid); for all of its romance, it denies Ilsa the agency of her own choice. Just before, she believed that only Victor would be boarding the plane out of Morocco, and that she would be staying with Rick, the man she loves. Rick takes the choice away from her, delivers the iconic “We’ll always have Paris” line that dismisses how Ilsa feels in the moment, and sends her on her way while he makes plans to join the fight against Hitler in his own way. The romantic conclusion of Casablanca seems to drive much of the structure of So Proudly We Hail!, as it is told in flashback aboard a Navy ship bound away from the Americans’ disastrous defeat in the Philippines. The nurses’ commanding officer, Lt. Janet “Davy” Davidson (Claudette Colbert), is conspicuously silent, rendered catatonic after the escape and confined to a stretcher. As the narrative goes on, the voice-over and flashbacks reveal the source of her trance: uncertainty over the fate of the man she has fallen in love with and, in a secret, technically-against-policy ceremony, married. Lt. John Summers (George Reeves) led a mission to attack the Japanese, giving the remaining personnel the time to escape, and has disappeared. The film takes their separation as its central premise — though it is only belatedly revealed — in an overt nod to the war-torn lovers forever saying goodbye at the end of Casablanca. Her fellow nurses tell the story in voice-over, with So Proudly We Hail! occasionally checking back into the framing device that finds them on the deck of the cruiser, looking over at their helpless, formerly fearless leader, torn asunder by the loss of her love.
With the knowledge that So Proudly We Hail! rests on the foundations of romantic melodrama, it is still a remarkably brutal combat film. Like many of the war films produced during the conflict, it feels shockingly immediate. It took five years after the conclusion of the eight-year war in Vietnam for any Hollywood filmmakers to take it on directly, with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), but both of those films spent significant portions of their running times focused on the homefront rather than combat. Even Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) offered a twisted, funhouse mirror version of Vietnam that might be regarded, for those who wanted to avoid its politics, as a drama about man’s capacity for evil rather than the war itself. It is likewise nearly impossible to imagine films about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the 2000s being produced during the heat of battle. During the summer of 2005, when the war in Iraq really started to turn bad, it seems unfathomable that Hollywood filmmakers would have made a rally-the-troops film like those which proliferated during the early 1940s, and not just because of the perceived ideological differences between the liberal-caricature film business and the George W. Bush administration. World War II and Iraq were not on equal moral ground, but the post-9/11 mood that dominated American culture in the early 2000s is probably the closest historical analog to the post-Pearl Harbor 1940s. And yet, there were no Afghanistan or Iraq combat films, quite unlike the spate of works produced within the studio system during World War II. So Proudly We Hail! is just one example of a number of films, especially those made in 1943, that were unafraid to show the horrors of war, but did so in service of a larger ideal: to inspire the viewing public to acknowledge the sacrifice of those serving in combat, and to contribute to the war effort however they could.
As a result, a number of these films gain increased independence, however fleetingly, from the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code, the censorship restrictions that governed film content from 1934 until 1966. In Hawks’ Air Force, John Garfield’s tail-gunner Winocki stares out the window of the plane at the wreckage left behind at Pearl Harbor, still flaming: “Damn them. Damn them,” he says, breaking the Code’s prohibition on profanity to express a profound sense of moral outrage. In each of these films, it is not uncommon to see blood — in black and white, but blood nonetheless — which would be a rare sight in major studio films queasy about depicting violence too graphically. The 1943 combat films seem motivated to show the destruction, both of physical property and of bodies, to make an argumentative point. They do not go as far as later films, of course — this is not the bloody, dismembered, disemboweled carnage of the D-Day Normandy beach invasion of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) — but they approach their depiction of the horrors of war in a much more intense way than many combat films made after the conclusion of the fighting in 1945.
Winocki’s “Damn them” speaks to the genuine sense of moral outrage that runs through the 1943 combat films, especially in their darker moments: the righteous indignation at the Japanese sneak attack often gives way to outright racism, something that will be no surprise to those who have examined contemporaneous propaganda posters. Several moments in So Proudly We Hail! offer an unintentional explanation for the hatred and othering that could lead to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps around the country. Though the film contains a Pearl Harbor sequence, like many war films produced in Hollywood in 1943 and beyond, it takes place far from the Hawaii base: a group of the central characters gather around the radio as news filters in, their disbelief giving way to shock then giving way to bloodlust. On Bataan, So Proudly We Hail! restages its own miniature Pearl Harbor when a group of Japanese planes mount a sneak attack on an ad hoc medical station. The fighters strafe the encampment, despite the overtly labeled tents marked with a medical insignia, and drop bombs on impromptu patient wards, killing the defenseless wounded. Davidson, one of the film’s heroines, looks at the sky and curses the pilots of the passing planes, calling them “apes.” Though Pearl Harbor takes place off screen, sequences like this create a permission structure for the audience to relive it, restaging the perceived dishonor in microcosm, and motivating the characters’ desire to fight back, going so far as to excuse their racism as rooted in genuine betrayal. So Proudly We Hail! further underlines the Japanese fighters’ dishonor when one of the nurses, Lt. Rosemary Larson (Barbara Britton), is killed while assisting an operation on a wounded man when a bomb hits the operating theater.
Sequences like this exemplify the film’s boldness, if not its moral purity. So Proudly We Hail! is unafraid to place women in the line of fire, portraying their willingness to pay the ultimate price in combat, just like their male counterparts. In this way, the film anticipates the depiction of women in combat during the 1990s in Courage Under Fire and G.I. Jane; those films’ portrayals of women share a great deal with the micro-trend of “the action chick,” personified most clearly in the work of James Cameron. In Aliens (1986), his action-packed sequel to Ridley Scott’s horror-minded Alien (1979), Cameron refashions Sigourney Weaver’s lone survivor Ripley into a gun-toting, flamethrower-spraying bad-ass mother lioness, protecting Newt (Carrie Henn), the surrogate daughter she finds on the planet when she arrives with a coterie of Space Marines. Likewise, Jennette Goldstein’s Private Vazquez wears close-cropped hair and is as tough as any of her fellow soldiers. Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), the company loudmouth, asks her “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” while she does performative pull-ups on one of the spaceship’s exposed pipes. “No,” she says. “Have you?” In Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has taken on more than a bit of Cameron’s Ripley, having transformed from the unassuming, bewildered waitress on the run from a killing machine in Cameron’s original The Terminator (1984) into a suburban commando with a bandolier of shotgun shells and aviator sunglasses. Cameron’s approach to “action chicks” suggests to women-in-combat filmmakers that the best way for women to succeed in the military is to become more like their male comrades.
Far preceding Cameron’s influence, So Proudly We Hail! allows its women to stay women. When D’Arcy rushes the group of Japanese soldiers, she fulfills her desire for vengeance against those who killed her fiancé, but she also does it to give her fellow nurses the chance to escape. Though the Production Code would not permit it outright, the intimation of the scene where the nurses huddle inside a hut while the Japanese sneak into the camp is that if they are captured, they will almost certainly be raped. This plays into the film’s often lapses into ugly racial stereotypes, of course, but also serves as a reminder of specific dangers that women in combat face, frequently from their own comrades. Documentaries like Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War (2012) illustrate the long-ignored epidemic of rape in the U.S. military, but small gestures towards this danger in So Proudly We Hail! demonstrate its sensitivity to its female characters. Its women are allowed to be vulnerable; in later women-in-combat films like Courage Under Fire and G.I. Jane, vulnerability is generally regarded as a weakness. When it is permitted, their female characters must marshal their vulnerability into sacrifice. In Courage Under Fire, Walden dies so that her fellow soldiers can live; in G.I. Jane, O’Neill ignores orders to save Urgayle’s life; both follow the example set in So Proudly We Hail!, when D’Arcy creates an opportunity for her unit to escape by she giving her life. However, the senselessness of Larson’s death, killed in the line of duty by dastardly pilots bombing a hospital, leads to genuine vulnerability among the nurses.
In this way, the romantic subplots serve as a counterbalance, preventing the women of the nursing unit from turning into traditionally male-coded subjects. Richard Thorpe’s film Cry Havoc, also released in 1943, dramatizes the same events on Bataan and is also focused on a group of nurses. Its action is much less spectacular than the combat sequences in So Proudly We Hail!, as most of its narrative stays relatively confined to the dugout the Army nurses and their civilian volunteers occupy. Cry Havoc mostly explores its nurses’ interpersonal relationships, including a love triangle among Lt. Mary Smith (Margaret Sullavan), Pat Conlin (Ann Sothern) and the unseen Lt. Holt. The film powerfully captures Smith’s weariness, and boldly allows its other nurses to be decidedly unglamorous, dirtying their faces and frizzing their hair. So Proudly We Hail! goes further, relentlessly battering its female characters, sparing them no suffering, a striking counterpoint to the often reverent treatment of women –in stories and in the way they are lit — in a number of Classic Hollywood films. On Bataan in So Proudly We Hail!, the commanding officer of the nursing unit is Captain “Ma” McGregor (Mary Servoss), a tough-as-nails older woman whose somewhat ironic moniker makes her into the kind of stern, disciplinarian matriarch the younger nurses need. The film strips away Ma’s hardscrabble exterior, however, when her son is gravely wounded during a bombing raid and both of his legs are amputated. She ceases to be Ma and becomes a mother when she stands over his hospital bed, standing vigil while he succumbs to his wounds and dies. This moment has echoes of so-called “maternal melodramas,” in which the central female character’s maternal relationship takes center stage; the most famous of these films, King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), ends with the titular heroine, played by Barbara Stanwyck, watching her daughter’s beautiful wedding through the bars of a fence, stuck in a working class life while her daughter moves up in the world. She strides away, both defeated at the loss of her relationship with her daughter and triumphant that her maternal sacrifice has created a life of opportunity for her. In So Proudly We Hail!, when Ma looks down at her dying son, she both mourns the loss of his life and admires his sacrifice: the cause is just, even if the cost it extracts is high.
Because So Proudly We Hail! was released in 1943, that cost cannot be too high. The film’s propagandistic aim requires that it remain fundamentally inspirational and affirmational in its final moments. As many Classic Hollywood films worked to resolve two stories at once — the main plot, or the A-storyline, and the romantic plot, the B-storyline — so does So Proudly We Hail! After the film circles back around to the end of the escape from Corregidor and the nurses’ retreat to the Navy cruiser, Davidson is brought back around by the receipt of a letter from Summers, who not only survived the mission to delay the Japanese and give the survivors the chance to escape, but is now shipping out to win the war, apparently singlehandedly. His voice intones over the soundtrack as he speaks the contents of the letter, his ghostly face framed on one side of the screen while Davidson’s emotion grows in her face on the other. Endings like this not only resolve the narrative in the manner typical of Classic Hollywood, but also illustrate the crucial demand placed on combat films released during the war. Because World War II is well-ensconced in history, it can be easy to think about its outcome as a foregone conclusion. In 1943, Allied victory was very far from certain. A number of films, So Proudly We Hail! included, chronicle a moment in then-very recent history when defeat seemed like a much more probable eventuality. The retreat from the Philippines was a psychological blow to the nation’s war effort, and Hollywood did its part to dramatize those events, paying tribute to those who lost their lives but refusing to lie down. While a number of combat films released in 1943 focus almost exclusively on the male war effort, So Proudly We Hail! finds nobility, heroism, anger, racism, sacrifice and camaraderie in its female characters.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.