Thursday, January 31, 2013


Tell me a movie is strange, and I'm interested. Tell me the movie is strange and forgotten, and I'm there. Tell me the movie is strange, forgotten and pre-1940, and, brother, I'm clearing my calendar, breaking out the beer and putting all calls on hold.

The MGM publicity department must have had quite a chore promoting Men Must Fight. For if any movie could rightly be described as schizophrenic, Men Must Fight is it. How do you properly promote a movie that spans the genres of romance, sci-fi, pro-war, anti-war, family drama and social uprising? A movie made in 1933, but takes place in 1918 and 1940? The answer: apparently not very much. I couldn't find one poster or lobby card online. And this from a blog that found material for Inflation, The Devil with Hitler and How Doooo You Do!!! (I never tire of writing that title.)

So much happens in Men Must Fight's 72-minute running time that a simple outline doesn't do it justice. After a three-day affair with a nurse, World War I pilot Geoffrey Aiken is killed during his first flight. The nurse, named Laura, discovers she's pregnant with his child. Edward Seward, an older officer
One man's baby is another man's bad memory.
 who's always been in love with Laura, proposes marriage in order to provide both she and her child a stable, comfortable life. 

In 1940, Seward, now Secretary of State, sees his peace treaty with the country of Eurasia go up in flames when our ambassador is assassinated. Still haunted by her lover's death, Laura organizes a major peace movement. In turn, her son Bob (who believes that Seward is his real father) refuses a military commission that would see him create a powerful chemical gas to use on the enemy. Only when his hometown of New York comes under attack by Eurasian forces -- and he finally learns his father was a war hero -- does Bob shake his pacifist ways. He accepts the commission after all -- not as a chemist on the homefront as intended, but a pilot on the front lines.

It's the details that make the unjustifiable-obscure Men Must Fight so fascinating. The very first scene is the essence of pre-code honesty: Laura and Geoffrey getting dressed after what was obviously a night of lovemaking.  As for the future, in 1940 people Skype and watch television. Elevators open into apartments. Seward's condemnation of Laura's pacifist speech -- "Any call for peace is not only cowardly but treachery" -- would be echoed in the post-9/11 era. Yet pilots are still flying World War I-era biplanes. Guess the crystal balls in the special effects unit weren't working that day.

Bombs over New York.
But when those old planes are flown by the enemy... well, if you're a New Yorker, just try to watch your city getting blown to bits without certain memories blooming like kudzu. That's the unwitting power of Men Must Fight -- tapping into a fear that few, if any, could foresee in 1933. It's a fear that never quite goes away for the rest of its running time. And that's when the shift from anti-war to pro-war sentiments begin.

Or does it? In the final scene, Bob files off to war as his mother, grandmother and wife Peggy watch from below. Laura and Peggy try to be optimistic, but Grandmother Seward is more clear-eyed, preferring that women rule the world, leaving the men to "crow and strut and be ornamental like roosters. That's the function of the male." Peggy then unknowingly echoes Laura's vow made years earlier: "If I ever have a child, he'll never go through this." Replies Grandma, "Fat luck you'll have anything to say about it. You'll be just another mother." Rarely has a movie ended on a more cynical yet honest line of dialogue. And yet the closing theme, a jolly military march, negates that powerful message. It's as if studio didn't exactly know what to make of its own production.

"I love you, mom -- er, sweetheart."
As with so many MGM releases of its time, the main characters in Men Must Fight are rich, beautiful and speak with continental (or at least stage-trained) accents. For Diana Wynyard, as Laura, that came easy enough, being British and everything.  She has stagey moments -- her delivery can be a little florid for film -- but her eyes often convey emotions unspoken. And unlike many movie stars, Wynyard's character aging over a quarter-century is quite convincing, perhaps because here, even at age 27, she looked... well, let's say "mature" and leave it at that. In fact, her onscreen-lover, Robert Young, looks a decade younger despite being only 26.

"Handsome? Who, me?"
The casting of Phillip Holmes as Bob is sheer genius. Look at that glamorous puss: he really could be Robert Young's son. Bob Seward's relationship with his stepfather, played by Lewis Stone, is genuinely heartwarming, with Edward treating him as his own offspring... until the boy decides war isn't cool.  Edward uses the moment to tell Bob the truth about his parental heritage with an honesty best described as brutal: "You have no moral right to use the name Seward. You're a member of this family through courtesy."  And just to make sure the kid gets the message, he adds, "You're not a Seward and you don't belong!" Of course, Bob continues to live at the family's Wrigley Stadium-sized apartment anyway to continue spouting off his anti-war manifesto.

Not to worry, though -- once Bob volunteers for certain death, he's back in stepdad's good graces. It's an unspoken irony that Edward originally arranged to have him serve on the homefront "where he's needed" rather than in combat. Just another perk of government service! 

I wouldn't move out of this place, either.
Ironies and contradictions like these abound in Men Must Fight, one of MGM's most genuinely interesting 1930s releases. You have to give credit to a movie for predicting world war breaking out in 1940 -- one year before our involvement in real life. And if that's not some neat prognostication, the peace rally is held at the New York Coliseum, which opened in 1956! Although "credit" wouldn't be the right word to use when the destruction of the Empire State Building resembles that of the World Trade Center. Whatever audiences thought in 1933, viewing Men Must Fight today is alternately a compelling, amusing and, ultimately, eerie experience.

For another example, take the post-movie career of Phillip Holmes. The actor -- who, as Bob, played the pacifist-turned-air corpsman -- volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. Did it cross his mind that his onscreen father in Men Must Fight died in action while serving in America's corresponding military branch during wartime? 

We'll never know. Holmes died in a mid-air collision while still in training. 

From Men Must Fight: the bombing of New York. 

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