Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., when we commemorate members of the American armed forces who have lost their lives in war. Among the many films which would aptly illustrate the experiences of the armed forces in various conflicts, one film seems particularly poignant in its ability to reach audiences today. Perhaps because parts of the film are so eerily prescient of our modern struggle with its ironic lack of national purpose and idealism. This is “So Proudly We Hail!” (1943), the story of the Army Nurse Corps experiences on Bataan and Corregidor during World War II.
There is much to recommend this film: some fine dramatic performances from Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake, an excellent supporting cast and very fine special effects in the battle scenes. The story moves swiftly along and we are caught up in many subplots that inevitably take a back seat to the war itself. What is especially interesting is the script. Written by Allan Scott, who had teamed with this film’s director Mark Sandrich, on so much lighter fare in the 1930s, such as several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, Scott’s script is surprisingly lean and muscular. There are several bits of dialogue, soliloquies we should actually call them, which illustrate the feelings of the characters regarding their place in the war. These speeches are labeled today as the stuff of propaganda, but they are clear, clean, well-written, and deserve special notice today.
On the ship that takes the Army nurses to the Philippines in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the chaplain, played by Walter Abel, addresses the Christmas Eve party of officers and enlisted men: “This is the night before Christmas, and because it is, you must forgive me for being sentimental. We are a sentimental people. And I think we’re proud of it. Despite the fact that our enemies deride us for it, it makes us the stronger.”
The chaplain exhorts them to have, “Such faith in mankind that we are tough about the things we believe in, that we will make those tender and spiritual beliefs, like Christmas, a reality forever.” There are close-up shots of the young men with serious faces listening to him. Then from somewhere a swing version of “Jingle Bells” gets the party going. This, too, like sentimentality, is seen as typically American.
Another speech is given by Colbert after the nurses are stranded on Corregidor, and a nurse wearily complains, “Why are we here anyway?” Colbert responds, “Why? Why isn’t there any quinine? Why isn’t there any food? Why aren’t there any supplies? Why are we waiting here like rats in a cage waiting for the man to come and pour scalding water over us? Why is nothing done? Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s our fault…because we believed we were the world. That the United States of America was the whole world. Those outlandish places, Bataan, Corregidor, Mindanao, those aren’t American names. No. They’re just American graveyards.”
After the initial shock of admitting our own ignorance about the world has left us vulnerable, Miss Colbert’s speech becomes a warning to the stateside audience in the darkened movie theater. One of her nurses wonders why they can’t be removed from Corregidor, and Colbert replies, “They can’t get us off. We’ve become what they call a delaying action…I hope to God the people back home aren’t losing it for us. Do you remember what the chaplain once told us? It’s our present. We’re giving them time.”
These speeches address the past and the present aspects of American military consequences, but their chief nurse, Captain “Ma” McGregor, played by Mary Servoss, mourns her son and addresses the unimaginable future to which these young women, and their country, plod along,
“Like his father, he died for what he knew was right. He was right. My son and his father. And this time, if we don’t make it right, my son and his father and all our dead will rise up and destroy us.” This is reflected more hopefully in George Reeve’s letter to his new wife, Colbert at the end of the film, “This is our war now and this time it’ll be our peace.”
We are less clear today on purpose and ideals, and in a more cynical world, less equipped with the idealism that makes purpose seem clear. There is another image from “So Proudly We Hail!” that lingers, horrifically, in its prescience of 21st century warfare. Veronica Lake becomes a suicide bomber in a scene still shocking today. Her character has witnessed the death of her fiancé at Pearl Harbor, and her barely concealed hostility for the enemy, as well as her fellow nurses and the world in general, is finally broken under the camaraderie of her fellow nurses and the greater cause of fighting the war and keeping themselves, and their patients in the jungle hospital, alive.
When the nurses are trapped by the sudden advance of a Japanese patrol, Lake stuffs a grenade in her uniform blouse, bids a stoic goodbye to Colbert, and loosens her trademark long, wavy blonde hair from its neat military bun. She walks towards the enemy, a mixture of sex and sacrifice, her hair softly cascading over her face and shoulders and she pulls the pin to the grenade nestled hidden beneath her breast. The Japanese approach her to take her into custody, and we are meant to assume she will be raped. Then she explodes, and they are all killed. The nurses escape.
Such a scene has different connotations to us today, and is more distasteful than heroic. It may have an even stronger impact on us today than it did in 1943, for different reasons, just as the impassioned speeches have a lesser impact on us today. When we take this Memorial Day to reflect on the bravery of our fallen service personnel, we should also reflect on the idealism that made them so brave.