I’ve always been wary of the uncomplicated patriotism in World War II era movies. It makes me cringe when I sense that a patch of propaganda has been plunked into the middle of a scene, because I can just feel myself being pulled out the story. However, viewed through the filter of the times, I can imagine how important this kind of message must have been to audiences of the day.
I’m fond of this pair of movies, because while they do have their share of propaganda, they are not overwhelmed by their message moments:
So Proudly We Hail (1943)
This passionately patriotic drama, starring Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake, follows a group of Red Cross nurses who struggle to survive a two-year tour of duty in the Philippines. Colbert is typically solid, but the real stand-outs are Goddard and Lake in performances which demonstrate that both actresses had more depth than their roles usually required of them. With her peek-a-boo bang tucked carefully away, Lake is childlike and wearily fragile as a nurse haunted by a personal tragedy, while Goddard bolsters her happy-go-lucky persona with deeper compassion and strength than she has typically shown on the screen. The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, and a surprising number of characters get a chance to shine, if briefly. If you took away the setting and the action, this would be an entertaining women’s picture, and it is that unusual element that gives this gritty, chaotic, and often harrowing movie an added sheen.
John Hodiak, Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban head another strong ensemble cast in this quieter, less-rousing drama about a group of soldiers who find themselves trapped by the Germans in foggy Bastogne. As it was filmed after the war, there is not quite the focus on fighting the good fight as there is on the grim struggle for survival. Though the dialogue is sharp, the movie’s most powerful moments come from its striking images: Hodiak choking back a cry at the sight of an empty pair of boots, the slow drop of a hand nearly hidden from view, and the beautiful, but dangerous fog and snow that envelopes the weary soldiers. A running gag with Johnson and a helmet full of eggs doesn’t quite succeed as comic relief (though he is charming), but Montalban is infectiously joyful in his lively portrayal of a Mexican-American frolicking like a schoolboy in the first snow he has ever seen.