What Price Glory? (1952)

Posted on October 29, 2014

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Couldn't find a poster to use.

Couldn’t find a poster to use.

Synopsis

Captain Flagg (James Cagney) commands an infantry company in France in World War I. He’s fallen for the innkeeper’s daughter, Charmaine (Corinne Calvet), but he’s not the marrying kind. His new First Sergeant, Quirt (Dan Dailey), is an old rival of Flagg. While Flagg is away in Paris on leave, Quirt takes up with Charmaine. She quickly makes it clear that she’s angling for a husband, turning the tables on the two men. When Flagg returns, he railroads Quirt into marrying the innkeeper’s daughter. When the unit gets a mission to capture a German officer, Flagg hopes to further humiliate Quirt by leaving him behind…

Short Version

I love this movie. Here’s a funny bit about curing Captain Flagg’s hangover. Yes, that’s a young Harry Morgan holding the coffee.

Long Version

If you think the First World War is a strange setting for a comedy, you’d be right. It’s an even stranger setting for a musical comedy, which is how it started on Broadway in 1924. It was a silent movie in 1926, and then a Technicolor picture in 1952.

From the 1926 film.

From the 1926 film.

It’s important to remember that, in 1924, anti-war sentiment was very high in the United States. World War One devastated a generation, and the United States was deep in an isolationist mindset. As a result, plays and films that mocked war were quite common.

Jump ahead 28 years, and the US was in a different place. WWII droved patriotism to new heights. Millions of people felt like the US could do anything, and if the rest of the world wasn’t willing to do something then we would jump in and lead the way. Thus our involvement in Korea. As a result, the 1952 film is largely de-fanged politically and played more for laughs.

Don’t get me wrong. Between the banter and the comic fistfights, Flagg is very concerned about going back into the trenches with a bunch of green recruits. As much as he personally dislikes Quirt, Flagg knows Quirt is the best first sergeant in Europe, and just the man to whip the new kids into shape. The war is deadly dangerous, and not at all a heroic quest for glory. Flagg and Quirt know it, but the kids don’t.

Director John Ford had been making movies for over forty years when he directed this. It’s not his best effort. It’s origins as a stage play are obvious in the set designs. There’s none of the glorious camerawork of The Searchers, or even She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It lacks the tension of other Ford movies like Fort Apache or Sergeant Rutledge. It does have the gentle humor found in The Quiet Man.

The second act of the film is the most serious, set during the mission in the trenches. Flagg’s fatherly feelings for his soldiers takes a backseat to his drive to accomplish his mission. A disillusioned, wounded, lieutenant berates his commander: “What price glory now, Captain Flagg? What price glory now?” Ford’s direction perks up here. A liberal who often clashed, politically with ultra-conservative John Wayne, this act gives Ford a chance to express his anti-war sentiments.

Then we’re back from the front and in the French village, resolving the conflict between Flagg, Quirt, and Charmaine. They haven’t much time, as the Big Push is coming fast. Battered, bruised, and in Quirt’s case, shot, they struggle into formation and march back to war.

Flagg asserts that there’s something mysterious about the military. Once it’s in you, you can’t shake it. It’s like a religion.

The cast of this movie is fantastic. If you’re not a James Cagney fan, you will be after seeing this movie. He’s a riveting screen presence with absolutely no fear. he exhibits every quality of a great actor in this role.

How could you not love that face?

How could you not love that face?

War stories are so common because they provide both context and conflict. Writers provide characters, and move on from there. In many ways, war stories are man-against-nature stories because war, when you’re in it, is like a force of nature. It’s easy to write man-against-man stories set during wartime as well. Whether your opposing characters are on opposite sides or in the same unit, the conflicts are inherent in the context.

That’s one of the things I like, as a writer, about What Price Glory. Flagg is torn between his oath to follow the orders of his duly appointed superiors and his love for his soldiers. His greatest desire is to get home alive, and his greatest fear is that accomplishing that will mean the death of his troops.

Note that he personally doesn’t fear death. He fears leading his men into death. Similarly, Quirt has no fear of dying. He’s more afraid of getting married than he is of dying. It’s a whimsical moment when he realizes that he wants Charmaine for himself rather than just to spite Flagg.

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Flagg’s romantic rivalry with Quirt livens up the film and gives us something to laugh at, rather than having Cagney brood and agonize over the conflict between his fear and his desire.

As a side note, there is some confusion in the movie about Marines vs. Soldiers. Normally, “soldier” refers to someone serving in the US Army. If you think that’s trivial, try calling a Marine a “soldier” some time…but have your running shoes on when you do!

The US deployed two brigades of Marines to Europe during the war. One, the Fourth Brigade, was part of the US 2nd Regular Army Division. I suspect that Flagg’s outfit was meant to be part of the Fourth Brigade, and could (I suppose) have been referred to as “soldiers” because they were part of the Army’s 2nd Division.

Conclusion

If for no other reason, rent this movie to see William Demarest (Uncle Charley in My Three Sons), Robert Wagner, and Harry Morgan (yes, from M*A*S*H) early in their careers.

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Posted in: Movies