“The Dark Angel” (1935) is perhaps one of the first films set during World War I that does not carry themes of the wastefulness of war or the tragedy of the political failings of that war, despite the tragic experiences of the leading men, two soldiers. It does not present the soldiers of that war as dupes or victims of heartless or corrupt governments. It seems to be one of the first films that depicts the soldiers of that period as romantic heroes, and that war as a romantic and noble gesture, albeit a doomed one.
The Lillian Hellmann screenplay tells the story of three friends from childhood, a winsome girl growing up in a genteel English country home, and the two boys who are her playmates. The two boys are cousins, and she has a crush on one of them, leaving the other to quietly nurse his own crush on her.
Years later they grow up to be Merle Oberon; Fredric March as the boy she loves; and Herbert Marshall as the boy who wishes he were Fredric March.
The cinematography is all stock Hollywood images of what the English countryside should be: picnics in a sheep meadow, a breeze playing at the curtains, a roaring fire, mannerly servants, and a sense of noblesse oblige.
Then the Great War breaks out and the two young chaps (played by much older actors) manfully take up their duty as officers. Mr. March is still in his matinee idol period of his career, still exuberantly boyish and occasionally mugging. It is a wonder to consider that in ten years’ time he will be the tired, war-weary middle-aged American sergeant returning to his family in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
Home on leave, Fredric March and Merle Oberon decide to wed. Herbert Marshall, with his stiff-upper-lip is particularly moving as he congratulates them while stifling his own sense of rejection. A quick wedding is made impossible when the boys are recalled to the frontlines. Merle Oberon accompanies Fredric March on a secret tryst to spend one last night with him at a seaside inn. It is interesting in scenes like these, in films like these, to observe the delicate balance Hollywood struggles to keep when deliberately trying to create an atmosphere of romantic desire and yet maintain an aura of innocence. As the night grows on, and sense of dread increases as they sit in a darkened room hours later, cuddling by a window with distant sounds of cannon fire, we are left to imagine for ourselves whether or not they have consummated their love. The Code of the day decrees that while such an occurrence could be suggested for minor characters even if not graphically shown, nevertheless it could not even be suggested if the happy couple are to remain the film’s hero and heroine. It is an amusing and cowardly bit of fence sitting.
A snide gossip later jokes about Mr. March’s romantic last night with some woman, to a shocked Herbert Marshall, who is appalled that March would take up with another woman while being engaged to Merle Oberon. There is a split between them, doubt, suspicion and resentment grows while we are given the iconic image of English World War officers boarding a fog-enshrouded transport ship in their trench coats. (The trench coat was named for the place where English officers wore their all-weather long coats - the trenches.)
So miffed is Herbert Marshall with what he perceives is his junior officer Fredric March’s swinish behavior, he denies him temporary leave, after which March, spitefully volunteering for a dangerous mission, is lost on the battlefield after a big explosion, and presumed dead.
Marshall blames himself, confesses his guilt to Merle Oberon, who in turn confesses that it was not some trollop that Fredric March chose to amuse himself with his last night on English soil, it was her.
The movie could have ended here with this O. Henry type ending and we could have had a different story, but a further melodrama is added when Fredric March turns up in a hospital, blind.
After his rehabilitation, he chooses not to return home and be an object of pity, but hides out in a country inn where his suicide attempt is aborted by three nosy children who have never seen a blind man before. (Fay Chaldecot plays the engaging little girl with a charming natural quality.) From his encounter with the kids, and subsequent afternoons amusing them by telling them stories, he becomes a successful children’s book author. Not as successful as J. K. Rowling, but enough so that he can buy a little cottage of his own in the country and grow roses.
Meanwhile, Mr. Marshall and Miss Oberon, who comfort each other after the loss of their friend, get engaged. By this time it is more or less foregone that they will meet with Fredric March again, and Miss Oberon will dump Mr. Marshall for her old love. Poor old Herbert Marshall. His quiet nobility and silent pain is more affecting than all the romantic promises and occasional overacting both by boyish Mr. March and the lovely Miss Oberon.
More Hollywood England is applied with a trowel for good measure: a fox hunt, teatime, the strains of World War I songs, a benign village vicar. All we are missing is a blustering retired “Major” and a Cockney chimney sweep.
“The war did something to me. I’ve changed,” Fredric March tells us, no less a fact for not being very original. What is poignant about the film is that the sense of resentment for the war, the rueful disgust, is not displayed here as it is famously illustrated by films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), and most other films made from the end of World War I to the early 1930s.
In three years after this film was made, the Nazis would invade Poland and begin World War II. Already the seeds were being sewn in Spain and Ethiopia, and Manchuria and Korea. You can almost sense in this film the new era to come. Even if one were not able to predict the coming war, there was evidently a atmosphere, as evident in this film, of rehabilitation over the former resentment of War I, and even a sense of wistful nostalgia for the romantic past of 20 years ago. Even men who were really were victims of war, like the character played by Frederic March, blinded in battle, would no longer be seen as dupes and victims, but as romantic heroes.
This is also one of the first films which shows a man with a physical impairment not being an object of pity. He is shown here living independently on his own, earning his own living, and still the preference of the woman he loves. Contrast this with the sweet but utterly helpless blind World War I vet played by David Manners in “The Miracle Woman” (1931), who is more dependent on those around him.
Another irony to the film is that Herbert Marshall, whose character is unscathed by the war, actually served in the British armed forces in World War I and lost a leg. His film career, like his previous stage career, was performed, unknown by most audiences of the day, on a prosthetic leg.