Originally released in 1929 in both a silent version and with a synchronised score of music, sound effects and a few songs, Henry King’s World War I epic was re-released in 1939 with a new introduction posing the question of whether Americans should again fight in Europe. Given that King’s film presents a powerfully hellish vision of war, this hardly seems like a neutral gesture. Bizarrely, the 100-minute film was chopped down to roughly 50 minutes and stripped of all intertitles.
Contemporary reviews explain that the heroine (Eleanor Boardman) is a snobbish society girl who goes overseas as a canteen worker, discovers at the front that her wealthy boyfriend is a coward, and turns instead to a working-class man she had previously scorned. When the ‘yellow’ fiancé gets drunk just before his unit is mustered, Boardman dons his uniform and gas mask and takes his place in the ranks, witnessing combat first-hand.
The re-release cut is a jumble of fragments, jumping from soldiers marching through seas of churned mud to the tragic silent star Alma Rubens, all too clearly marked by the ravages of drug addiction, singing and playing the ukulele with lugubrious cheer. Tender close-ups and harrowing shots of injured soldiers alternate jarringly with comic mugging by Al St. John, no more subtle here than he was a decade earlier in third-banana roles in Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle shorts. (At one point, our heroine flees a foxhole in the midst of a battle, evidently preferring machine-gun fire to being molested by St. John.) The longest and most memorable sequence follows the agonising progress of tanks through walls of flame, and the suffering of the soldiers packed into the dark, broiling interiors. Whether all this might have hung together in its original form is something we will never know. What remains plays like a wounded soldier’s feverish dream.
Imogen Sara Smith
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal racconto omonimo (1929) di Rupert Hughes. Scen.: Howard Estabrook, Fred De Gresac, John Monk Saunders. F.: John P. Fulton, Tony Gaudio. M.: Lloyd Nosler. Scgf.: Albert S. D’Agostino, Robert M. Haas. Mus.: Modest Altschuler. Int.: Eleanor Boardman (Joan), John Holland (Tom Pike), Edmund Burns (Reggie), Alma Rubens (Rosie), Al St. John (Bill), Glen Walters (Katie), Margaret Seddon (madre di Tom), Yola d’Avril (Yvette). Prod.: Inspiration Pictures, Inc.. DCP. D.: 50’. Bn.
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