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They Gave Him a Gun (1937) begins by giving the audience a gun, or rather a gunshot, right in the face. Square-jawed soldiers load a shell into a World War I cannon, then turn it toward the camera, and blam! you know this movie has definitely started. The gimmick worked for The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and it worked again for this MGM melodrama in 1937. What follows it isn't always so rousing, but the picture is an interesting specimen of a slightly offbeat genre: a quasi-antiwar movie.
The story opens in 1917, the year Congress empowered the federal government to fortify the armed forces with a draft. The first draftee we meet is Fred P. Willis, a carnival barker who looks on service in the Great War as just another opportunity to travel around and see how long his luck holds out. Moments later we meet his newest acquaintance, Jimmy Davis, a rural kid who's thoroughly confused by the unfamiliar things all around him, and so scared by combat training that he faints during a bayonet lesson. Fred takes Jimmy under his wing, but acclimating the youngster to army life turns out to be quite a challenge, especially when it dawns on Jimmy that killing people doesn't square with the commandments he learned at church. "I'll work for my country and live for it and be any kind of a cockeyed good citizen they want," he says, "but when they order me to dress up like a monkey and travel 3,000 miles to butcher somebody, I'm walkin' out." And he would walk out a prison stretch for desertion wouldn't be nearly so bad, he reckons if Fred, no sucker for pacifistic twaddle, didn't sock him on the chin and talk him around. Before long Jimmy is acting like a real soldier, finding that he has a talent for marksmanship, and telling Fred that shooting at people would be much more interesting than target practice. He gets his chance when they're shipped off to the French front lines. Ordered to cross a danger zone and secure a church under fire, he enters the building more to hide from the action than to root out the enemy; when he sees one of the enemy inside, he throws up his hands in surrender, only to realize the soldier is safely dead. Feeling a lot better now, he climbs to the steeple and picks off a nest of German machine-gunners who have no idea who's shooting at them.
This earns Jimmy a couple of medals, and also a stay in a field hospital, since he was gravely wounded when the steeple blew up after his semi-heroic act. In his hospital bed he falls in love with Rose Duffy, a nurse whose inner goodness is matched by outer gorgeousness, and he won't listen when she says she only wants to be friends with him. There's another complication, too: Fred has also met Rose at the hospital, and they've fallen madly in love. Jimmy's hopes for romance seem doomed until Fred is lost on the battlefield and declared officially dead. Stricken with grief and no longer caring what her future holds, Rose marries Jimmy out of sympathy and apathy. And then what a surprise! Fred turns up alive, well, still crazy about Rose, and still a decent enough guy to realize that he has no right to interfere with her new life, even though she'd clearly ditch Jimmy in a second if Fred would whisk her away.
They Gave Him a Gun starts as a war movie, and when Rose enters the picture it becomes a love-triangle drama. Now the main characters return to America and the picture morphs into a film noir. Fred and Jimmy run into each other by chance, and Fred now the proud proprietor of his own circus notices that Jimmy is wearing a mighty expensive suit. Wondering what his old pal does for a living, Fred gets a large clue when he realizes that a gangland killing took place just moments earlier at the very building where he bumped into Jimmy, and according to a local police officer (who happens to be their old wartime sergeant) it took first-rate marksmanship to do the hit. Hmm. Fred pays a visit to Jimmy and Rose, confirms his suspicion that Jimmy has turned his army sharp-shooting into a murderous civilian trade, and reveals this to Rose, who hasn't figured it out for herself. Always a model citizen, she tips off the police to Jimmy's next job, thus getting him arrested. He's miffed at first, but in the middle of his trial he gazes into her eyes, hears the voice of conscience, and confesses to the court that he's guilty, guilty, guilty. While serving time in prison, he falls prey to temptation and busts out with another inmate, making his way back to Rose, who's now working with Fred and waiting for Jimmy's release. But the cops have tracked him down and the three are surrounded. Once again Jimmy's conscience rises belatedly to the occasion, leading to the bittersweet finale that every alert moviegoer will have expected from the second or third reel on.
At times, They Gave Him a Gun appears to have a genuinely antiwar message, especially when we see Jimmy's military training give him a taste for killing and push him toward a criminal career in peacetime. Yet this moral is diluted by the film's enthusiasm for Jimmy's slaughter of the German gunners, and by the absence of any real argument to back up its occasional hints of a pacifist viewpoint. The reviewer for Time raised another good point when the picture premiered, writing, "As a preachment against war [the film] would be more persuasive if it did not permit the impression that experience in the trenches may have improved Fred about as much as it weakened Jimmy."
Such shortcomings aside, They Gave Him a Gun gains a reasonable degree of dramatic power from Spencer Tracy's down-to-earth depiction of Fred, a lovable goof whose brash manners and dese-dem-and-dose vocabulary mask an upright personality and a hefty supply of common sense. Franchot Tone seems too refined as Jimmy, but he makes the unsophisticated rube a good foil for Tracy's plainspoken Fred, and Gladys George does the same with Rose, even if the self-sacrificing nurse is too conspicuously virtuous to be believed. The director was W.S. Van Dyke, who keeps the somewhat repetitious story moving at a good clip and takes advantage of MGM's renowned technical resources without letting production values get in the way of what's essentially a gritty, naturalistic tale. The lesson that "war breeds gangsters" is not a "particularly startling thesis," as the Time critic observed, but it's a good one to ponder, and They Gave Him a Gun deserves credit for taking it at least halfway seriously.
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: W.S. Van Dyke II
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum, Maurice Rapf, based on William Joyce Cowen's book
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Montage Effects: Slavko VorkapichWith: Spencer Tracy (Fred), Gladys George (Rose Duffy), Franchot Tone (Jimmy), Edgar Dearing (Sergeant Meadowlark), Mary Lou Treen (Saxe), Cliff Edwards (Laro), Charles Trowbridge (Judge).
by David Sterritt