Sunday, May 27, 2012


Based on a popular play of the time (which was successfully revived on Broadway a couple of years ago), this is a character study of a group of men in the trenches in WWI. The respected commander Stanhope (Colin Clive) has been on the lines for three years; his nerves have reached the breaking point but he remains stoic on the outside, largely because he's become an alcoholic. His second-in-command, an older man known as "Uncle" (Ian MacLaren), is quiet, likeable, and helps Stanhope keep an even keel. There's an easy-going lieutenant (Billy Bevan) who's always ready with a laugh, and a cook who complains about his constraints—his tea tastes like onions and he grouses like hell when he gets canned apricots instead of pineapple. The men go about their days and nights at the front, only a hundred yards away from the Germans, with a grudging sense of fatalism, the only exception being Hibbert, a nervous youth who wants to get medical leave because of his headaches. Stanhope tries to talk him out of it, then shame him out of it, and eventually has to use the threat of shooting him as a deserter. But Stanhope is thrown for a loop when Raleigh (David Manners), a younger school friend of his, arrives for his first stint in the trenches. Stanhope is in love with Raleigh's sister and he's afraid that Raleigh will catch on to Stanhope's deteriorating mental state and write back home about it.

There’s not a strong narrative here—mostly we watch the soldiers talk and laugh and bicker, and get through the endless hours of boredom with the distant sound of guns and bombs in the background until something happens, and nothing much happens until the end; the men carry out a quick sabotage mission, cutting through wire in the German lines so they can carry out a information-gathering raid the next day, and of course not everyone survives. Though stagy, with most of the action occurring on a single set, and a bit too long, this is still  a fairly compelling drama thanks to good dialogue and strong performances from all, especially Clive who manages to seem neurotic and stable at the same time. It's a pre-Code movie, but I was still surprised to hear so many "damns" and "hells," given the huge controversy over one little "damn" nine years later in GONE WITH THE WIND. James Whale, who directed this on stage in England, came to America to make the movie and apparently never looked back. Clive (pictured above tending to a wounded man) worked with Whale again, most notably as the meddling scientist in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. [YouTube]

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