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So Proudly We Hail!

So Proudly We Hail!(1943)

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Recently, and very quietly, Universal Home Entertainment released onto DVD So Proudly We Hail! (1943), an exceptional WWII picture that demands wider recognition. Not only is it a powerful and moving time capsule of the era, but it's fascinating for movie buffs since it melds two big genres: the combat film and the woman's picture.

It would seem a strange, unwieldy blend. Movies in the "woman's film" genre of the time tend to revolve around individual women somehow trapped by society because of their gender, and their stories deal with issues like love, romance, career, motherhood, sex, and fashion. Combat movies, on the other hand, are obviously about groups of men in war fighting to achieve objectives, and the screen is filled with action, guns, killing, uniforms, and so on.

So Proudly We Hail! is a perfect combination of the two. It follows a group of nurses through their time on the islands of Bataan and Corregidor, both the sites of major battles (and defeats). Their group is made up of a mix of types found in combat films, from a parental figure (Mary Servoss) and a loner (Veronica Lake) to a wisecracker (Paulette Goddard) and an innocent newbie (Barbara Britton). Claudette Colbert plays the resilient hero of the piece. All are plopped right smack in the middle of a combat setting fairly quickly into the movie, and though they are nurses, they even fight - just look at the way Veronica Lake takes care of some attacking Japanese soldiers, a shocking scene that made an especially big impression on moviegoers in 1943. But through it all, the aforementioned woman's film issues are still front and center. Our view of war is simply channelled through them.

We have, for example, a wedding, a honeymoon (in a foxhole, no less), a dance, childbirth, mother-son scenes, and even a negligee which figures prominently in the plot. One nurse is distraught over losing her husband at Pearl Harbor. Another falls in love with a soldier on Bataan (played by George Reeves), and a third has a semi-comic relationship with another GI (Sonny Tufts). One major combat worry is rape. Combat itself is always present or nearby, however, and So Proudly We Hail! does not shy away from hard-hitting scenes of battle and its aftermath. The bottom line is that consciously or not, the filmmakers clearly knew that the way to get audiences to accept a story of women in combat was to take what made a woman's film a woman's film, and transpose it credibly to the war zone. Telling the story of the nurses on Bataan without including those issues could very likely have had far less resonance and impact to audiences used to seeing the issues in other women's films. Film historian Jeanine Basinger has written much more on this subject in her book The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre . "When the question of why we fight does appear," she writes, "it emerges from the woman's point of view. We fight because we are mothers, to keep our sons safe."

The cast is exemplary. Goddard received an Oscar® nomination (as did the film's script, special effects and superb cinematography), but really all the women here are equally good - even Veronica Lake, who is often criticized for being more of a pretty face than a real actress. Colbert has perhaps never been better. One running joke which is even funnier in hindsight has Goddard explaining the comic book character of Superman to some native kids. If he's so great, they ask, why isn't he fighting this war? He is, says Goddard - he's on the front line going by the name "Kansas" (meaning Sonny Tufts). The joke now, of course, is that George Reeves - the real future "Superman" - is also playing a soldier on the front line.

So Proudly We Hail!reflects America's mood of the time, and in spotlighting the toughness, decency, resilience and optimism of its nurse characters, it seems to say that those qualities embody the best of America in 1943, and that's why we will win the war. Even for those of us who weren't around back then, it's a touching experience and a real visceral link back to that time.

Universal's DVD, part of their Cinema Classics series, comes with an intro by Robert Osbourne and a trailer, and the film is in fine technical shape.

For more information about So Proudly We Hail, visit Universal Home Entertainment. To order So Proudly We Hail, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold