A nurse and an American flyer fall in love on the front lines of the first world war, but he is killed and she is left with their baby. An old suitor marries her but, by 1940, the war drums are rumbling again and the family are caught up in both the political and personal ramifications of the threatened conflict…
Unusual slice of 1930s prophetic Science-Fiction that qualifies for the label simply because the majority of the events depicted are set seven years into the future. And you have to concede that, at least in some ways, it’s a fairly accurate prediction of what was to come. The film opens in the past, on the allied front in France. Frightfully proper British nurse Diana Wynyard has fallen for the charms of pre-stardom Yank aviator Robert Young, and the two have indulged in relations without the benefit of matrimony. ln pre-code Hollywood (i.e. before the censorship crack down that began around 1937), that was ok so long as you didn’t show anything more than a couple getting ready to go out on the morning after.
So, when Wynyard’s left in the family way after Young cracks up on his first mission, at least we are spared any tiresome moralising about her situation. Still, she does get hitched almost immediately to old flame Edward Seward (Lewis Stone) so that the new baby can have a family name. And what a name it proves to be! Stone rises from the military ranks to be the U.S. Secretary of State; advocating world peace, together with the politically active Wynyard.
By now, ‘their’ son has grown up to be nothing but a young gadabout (Phillip Holmes) who doesn’t take life very seriously but strongly supports his mother’s pacifism. When an assassination (apparently carried out by Bolsheviks) fans the flames of war, public opinion turns strongly in favour of military action. Stone abandons his peaceful principles almost at once (because ‘Men Must Fight’ after all) but Wynyard sticks to her guns, even after her peace rally is attacked by protestors and their family home is threatened by a mob.
This is an interesting film in many ways, although it should be acknowledged that few of them have anything to do with its entertainment value. This is a dry, talky piece with the only real action occurring with some early well-realised flying scenes and the climactic bombing raid on New York, which is sporadically impressive. No, this is a film about ‘issues’ and it makes no bones about it. After losing the love of her life in the Great War, Wynyard is determined not to lose her son in the same way and is just as motivated to ensure that no other mother goes through such a trauma.
The film does push her pacifist viewpoint quite strongly, and laudable though that is, the lack of a reasoned, contrasting opinion does harm the film somewhat. For a start, we never really find out anything about the political situation, so it’s impossible to judge if the rush to war is justified or not. Instead, we’re just presented with an unthinking, flag-waving mob and Stone’s stiff-shirt statesman, all of whom seem determined to sacrifice anything (and anyone) to maintain their national honour. Also, there’s no discussion of the economic and strategic benefits that the conflict may give to the winners, factors which are almost always the primary motivators behind any armed conflict in the modern world.
However, there are some intriguing, if rather dated, gender politics, which are hinted at in the film’s title. The final scenes strongly suggest that women would never sanction such foolishness and would provide more measured and level-headed leadership than their aggressive male counterparts. It’s a fine notion, but naive and ill-informed as events have subsequently proved. The United Kingdom has now had two female Prime Ministers, both of whom exhibited zero empathy for others, and actively sought to target and victimise the disadvantaged and under-privileged in British society.
lnevitably, the film is a little creaky when viewed today. Wynyard is probably the worst offender, her performance far too mannered, especially in scenes of strong emotional conflict. This was perhaps inevitable given her theatrical roots and the fact that it was less than a year since she had made her screen debut in Irving Thalberg’s controversial production of ‘Rasputin, The Mad Monk’ (1932). Similarly, Holmes is ineffective as her son, perhaps because the script initially presents him as an upper-class twit, then as a seriously conflicted ‘angry young man’, and finally as a gung-ho ‘Roger Ramjet’ who cheerfully abandons all his apparent deeply-held beliefs. It would have taken a far better actor (and far better writing) to make that transformation convincing over the brief 75-minute running time.
Somewhat thought-provoking but crucially flawed in the presentation of its central argument. An interesting curiosity from a bygone age.