So Proudly We Hail! (1943)
This is a movie about the brave men and women but especially the nurses who fought in the early years of World War II in the Pacific when the outcome of the war was far from being known. Claudette Colbert plays the “head nurse” a Lieutenant in charge of a group of nurses which includes Paulette Goddard (who earned her only Academy Award nomination for her Supporting role) Veronica Lake and others. The film’s Original Screenplay was also Oscar nominated as were the Special Effects (and deservingly so as well!) and B&W Cinematography.
The film opens with little more than a handful of nurses arriving in Australia having just been evacuated in the nick of time from the fall of the island of Corregidor to the Japanese. They are battle worn from three grueling months under siege in the Bataan region with Nurse Joan O’Doul’s (Ms. Goddard) first wish a tomato after the ordeal. Lt. Davidson “Davie” (Ms. Colbert) is the last to exit the plane having to be carried off after collapsing from physical and emotional exhaustion. When next we see the ladies they are being treated royally onboard a ship (going home?) for their exemplary service but Davie is wheelchair bound and still “out of it”. Her attending doctor (John Litel) is distraught unable to help her and asks the women to tell their story in hopes that it will help him to revive her. The rest of the film is told in flashback narrated by the ladies as they relate what happened.
Their journey began on a ship heading seemingly nowhere in particular as they headed west towards Pearl Harbor but were then diverted elsewhere (we later find out their destination was to be Manilla). Before they boarded the ship we got to know a little bit about a couple of the women: Joan is popular with the guys engaged to two at the same time ‘cause she can’t say no; young Rosemary (Barbara Britton) is there with her folks (Byron Foulger uncredited plays her father) who ask Davie to look out for her. While Joan is boarding she turns the head and meets another soldier “Kansas” (Sonny Tufts) who ends up as her friend/love interest throughout the film. The action begins when the nurses witness several ships in their convey exploding after being hit by torpedoes from unseen Japanese submarines. Their ship takes on several surviving passengers including Nurse Olivia D’Arcy (Ms. Lake) and Medical Technician Lt. John Summers (George Reeves). D’Arcy is a cold fish Davie asks Joan to room with since Rosemary is still homesick and rooming with her in an adjoining berth. Summers is a stubborn patient that Davie must handle when he resists a sponge bath from Joan (like that would ever happen;-) Shortly thereafter though against her will to “not get involved” Summers wins over Davie and becomes her love interest. From there on much of the film’s plot and tension involves Joan’s & Davie’s separations from and reunions with Kansas and John (respectively) as we find out whether they’ve survived different battles or not.
Still onboard the ship it’s now Christmas which is led by the Chaplain (Walter Abel). We then find out that Olivia’s remoteness is due to the fact that she witnessed her fiancé being shot dead with 60 bullets such that his face was unrecognizable by the Japanese as he was running to his plane. When the ship finally reaches it’s destination of Bataan Olivia volunteers to be assigned to the prisoner of war tent where we suspect she will exact some revenge. However she overcomes her hatred (out of a sense of professionalism?) but later there is an opportunity for her to save her fellow nurses and “kill two birds with one stone” – sensationally! Understandably given the time it was made and the demonization of the Japanese then there are several racial slurs sprinkled throughout the film. However although you do notice them – a monkey is called Tojo because of it’s resemblance the native Allies are all called “Joe” – they are infrequent and do not interfere with one’s enjoyment of the film (unlike some other movies of the time).
The real heart of the film other than the aforementioned relationships is the portrayal of the nurses and their travails during the war. At times it feels a lot like M*A*S*H the TV show or the movie. The narration used throughout gives locational details and some perspective to the events (e.g. when MacArthur is ordered to leave for Australia). And though the film is perhaps 15-20 minutes too long as the drama plays out it is certainly worth watching. Plus the special effects are terrific especially when one considers that this movie was made almost 45 years before Star Wars and without CGI!