I’ve been reading up on World War I memoirs and watching silent films trying to get some sense of depictions of the war during the lifetimes of those who were actually there. I was looking forward to watching What Price Glory?, as it was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings. Based on the title and the credentials of the writers, I figured it had to be a serious anti-war movie. That it features Victor McLaughlin (who was so great in The Informer) and Edmund Lowe were again pluses in its favor (although I was a bit dubious at the prospect of Dolores Del Rio playing a French woman). And it’s directed by Raoul Walsh, who just two years before directed The Thief of Bagdad and two years after Sadie Thompson, both movies I love. — Well, maybe I was expecting too much, because I was completely let down
What Price Glory? tries to make war look fun. Except for about twenty minutes of battle scenes, it’s a string of gags about sleeping with French girls and/or soldiers laughing at their superior officers. I guess if it wasn’t a war movie, I would have found some of this pretty funny — though even at that, the jokes wear thin, since they’re awfully repetitive. It’s frustrating, really, because this movie should have been good. McLaughlin and Lowe are both excellent as rivals for pretty much everything, particularly the affections of women. McLaughlin is a big dumb lug (of course) who is entertaining to watch; Lowe is the handsome, serious soldier.
The movie picks up considerably in the second half — once we really get into the war. That’s when it finally shifts out of the farcical tone and lightweight character development into the real point of the film. This isn’t to say that even then the film loses its humor; it’s that the humor no longer dominates or seems forced. Director Raoul Walsh seems to be more confident and involved, and there are a number of great moments. The battle scenes, while done quickly and not entirely realistically (I was always aware of being on a set), still manage to give a bit of a sense of trench warfare. (There’s mostly, though, quite a bit of “blowing stuff up” — not nearly as boring as World War I actually was). The later scenes with Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) are sometimes moving as she wonders which of her suitors she will be with and what will become of them both. There’s a good risque moment when it’s clear that she and the sergeant plan to sleep with one another; it’s handled well — it’s clear but subtle enough to slip past the censors, and really quite sweet. And the scene when she visits the soldier’s grave is lovely and genuinely moving. Victor McLaughlin is particularly excellent throughout this part of the film; in fact, he carries it. HIs emotions are quietly handled, revealed through quick expressions covered by a show of humor or anger. Even the cinematography becomes more interesting. The dialogue is still way too heavy-handed and speech-y, possibly because it’s adapted from a stage play. But at least it’s trying to finally live up to the promise of its title.
I kept wishing I could rewrite this movie, and I found it strange that so many cliches could come from a play by two good writers. (And I think these were cliches even back then.) The men who turned the play into intertitles must have been slumming. Of course, since the film is silent, we’re not going to “hear” most of the dialogue, so it’s possible that much of the real wit and tragedy was lost in the transference to silent film. It shouldn’t have had to be that way, though; certainly there were extremely effective silent war movies, including some adapted from novels. It made me curious enough try to find the actual stage play. Except – wait….It’s very difficult to actually find this play. It’s out of print and there seem to be no digital copies lurking around on the internet.
Finally I’ve come to accept that I can appreciate the film for its good moments and for its historical value. The play was, after all, a huge hit on Broadway, so perhaps the humor-battle mix was something that people felt they needed then. And I think I’m fascinated with the way it uses a kind of unironic slapstick humor and tries to meld it on to a war film with a message. That doesn’t mean I’d go out of my way to watch it again, though.
This film isn’t currently available on DVD except for some cheap-o versions on movie fan sites (which is how I got mine).