Must men fight? Not according to Men Must Fight (1933), although it stacks the deck against two of its pacifist protagonists. Peace is a tough sell in the best of times, and here pacifism crumbles in the face of war. It's a film unable to escape its stage origin. While stopping just short of wielding a didactic sledgehammer, it's quite talky and although Cedric Gibbons' art deco flat, where most of it unfolds, is sleek with style, it does end up reminding us that the narrative is pretty static. Under Edgar Selwyn's direction, it would, in fact, be little more than a solidly accomplished period piece, except for one aspect that catapults it into the astonishingly prophetic and even visionary.
It opens during World War I as an Allied flier (Robert Young) and a nurse (Diana Wynyard) enjoy a night of passion before he must fly his first combat mission at dawn. He dies. She's pregnant. A dignified rejected suitor (Lewis Stone) proposes marriage and a safe haven for her baby son, whom she swears will never fight. All are united on this point. Cut to 1940 and a startlingly prescient outbreak of hostilities, considering they first surfaced in 1932 in a Broadway play by Reginald Lawrence and S.K. Lauren, transferred the following year to film. Stone's Edward Seward, now Secretary of State, is celebrating a peace treaty he has negotiated. But it's scuttled when a U.S. ambassador is assassinated (shades of World War I!) and the U.S. goes to war with "Eurasia."
There follows a montage of the mothers of the world stoically steeling themselves as their respective countries mobilize. Included among the visuals are the Nazi Swastika and Japan's Rising Sun! There follows a short but vividly effective sequence that's as good as any FX-heavy post-9/11 film has thrown at us. Squadrons of giant biplanes do a bombs-away over Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building are reduced to rubble. Also, gas bombs start felling the panicked mobs running through the streets. We know they're using scale models, but the scene still gets to us much more than any of the King Kong shenanigans, released the same year! Soon afterward we're told that the Panama Canal has fallen to the enemy, too.
In the face of the sudden massive pressure to respond in kind, the ex-nurse's now grown son (Phillips Holmes) reiterates the pacifist beliefs learned at his mother's knee. With his country under attack, they frankly begin to sound less noble and a bit hollow. Left unsaid, but not for long, is that somebody has got to step up, even if he won't. Stone's statesman pays stiff-upper-lipped service to his (adopted) son's beliefs, but bemoans the fact that America's post-World War I pacifism allowed its enemies to arm themselves while we did not. He's just a bit too principled himself to push his son, but clearly he wishes the young man would join the army's chemical division so we can poison the enemy back. A couple of things undermine the pacifist side, though.
Holmes's Robert simply doesn't project enough spine to fully convince as a man who will stick to his principles to the end, although he does accept the breaking of their engagement by his fiancée, Peggy (Ruth Selwyn, Mrs. Edgar Selwyn in private life). She can't marry a man who won't fight for his country, sharing the patriotic sentiments of her haughty mother (Hedda Hopper, who reminds us she had a movie career before she became a gossip columnist and Louella Parsons' rival). The strongest character is Wynyard's Laura, who proceeds (despite her husband forbidding her) to an anti-war rally at which she's the main speaker until a mob breaks it up and follows her home. They throw rocks through the Sewards' plate glass window until Stone's Secretary of State appears on the balcony amid the broken glass and calms the mob down, reminding them that the U.S. believes in freedom of speech and conscience. Will the young man stick to his principles? Or will he turn out to be his (biological) father's son? That's the question on which the film pivots, turning it into melodrama rather than the uncompromising, tough-minded play of ideas it could have been.
In their ways, the men are brave, but Laura is braver, even if there is a dimension of self-interest in her pacifist stand, based on her passion for shielding her son from the same fate as his father, her lover. Although best known as the stage artist she primarily considered herself, England's Wynyard looms over the rest here by virtue of the depth of feeling in her performance. The others sometimes sound like placards. She never does. She's the fiercest warrior here, the only full-blooded character. Coincidentally, in Noel Coward's Cavalcade (1933), released just prior to Men Must Fight, Wynyard was nominated for an Oscar® as another pacifist mother. Also, one cannot write of Men Must Fight and war's death toll without noting that Holmes, who enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II, died in 1942 when a transport plane carrying him and six other RCAF graduates from a training base to Ottawa collided with another plane.
Stone (1879-1953), who fought in the Spanish-American War and World War I, made some 200 films, mostly for MGM, including a handful with Greta Garbo. He built his career on the strength of a string of lawyer, doctor and family confidant roles. Today, he's best remembered as the wise, kind judge and father who counseled and put up with Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy in the many successful films in that series. The film also reminds us of the period's studio system wealth of character actors. Only Alan Mowbray came close to portly Robert Greig's hammerlock on butler roles, again on exhibit here. Australia's May Robson excelled as crusty dowagers, and it's hard to fault with her emphatically stated belief here that woman should be running the world. Robert Young, whose feature film career began only two years before this film, reminds us that it can be a break to be killed off early, as he is here in the role of Laura's briefly airborne lover. It helped him get five more films made in 1933, before he want on to a long career climaxing in two beloved TV series: Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.
VIEW TCMDb ENTRY