The Moving Image: American Suicide Bomber

By: John Locke, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School

There is a distinction to be made between the WWII-WWII movie— that is, a movie about World War II made during the war—and the postwar WWII movie.1 In the WWII-WWII movie, the characters in the film and the film's contemporary audience were both in doubt as to the war's outcome; in the postwar film, only the characters can be in doubt. The difference in feel between the two eras is palpable. The grittiest of the WWII-WWII movies, especially the early ones, convey a sense of rapidly expanding apocalypse. They are about individual and national survival. By the 1960s, one class of WWII movies had transformed the war from an event into a genre: purely fictional films like The Guns of Navarone (1961) narrowed the narrative possibilities to a set of action-adventure motifs. Another class, exemplified by films like The Longest Day (1962), offered re-creations of famous battles in which the fascination with historical detail offset the lack of suspense about the outcome.2

A prime example of the WWII-WWII movie is So Proudly We Hail, which went into general release in September 1943.3 It has the further distinction of being a "woman's picture," which makes it a rarity among the typically maleoriented war movies. Producer Mark Sandrich had made his name directing five of the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers dance-musicals of the 1930s. So Proudly We Hail shows him venturing into the action field while incorporating his expertise in romance. Despite the film's appeal to women, Sandrich nevertheless didn't shy away from the violent consequences of war; he even included material that has a strangely prophetic relevance to today's fight against terrorism. The film, inspired by the story of eight nurses evacuated from Corregidor Island in the Philippines to Melbourne, Australia, in April 1942, centers on the experiences of U.S. Army nurses during the Battle of the Philippines: the retreat from the Bataan Peninsula and the fall of Corregidor.4

Sandrich risked taking the time to produce a quality film, which bucked the prevailing wisdom on two counts. First was the assumption that a film could not be produced and exhibited as fast as the war was progressing; its subject, therefore, would no longer be topical by the time of the film's release. The second notion insisted that large segments of the film audience were ambivalent toward war films because they read more than enough unsettling news in their daily papers and preferred the escapism of Westerns, musicals, and comedy. Sandrich hedged his bets by building romantic subplots into the script.

An additional distinction of the WWII-WWII movie, including So Proudly We Hail, was the infusion of propagandistic elements. These often came about through a combination of the screenwriters' initiative in reflecting or shaping public sentiment and the suggestions offered by the Office of War Information (OWI), a federal department created to influence the messages included in popular entertainment media such as movies, radio, and magazines. The OWI's Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) opened a Hollywood office in June 1942, inaugurating a cooperative venture between government and the film studios that avoided First Amendment and censorship issues. Sandrich submitted the first script of So Proudly We Hail to the BMP in October of that year, initiating a dialogue between BMP officials, Sandrich, and his screenwriters. BMP suggestions were woven into the final screenplay.5

The film's leads were the powerhouse trio of Claudette Colbert (Lt. Janet Davidson), Paulette Goddard (Lt. Joan O'Doul), and Veronica Lake (Lt. Olivia D'Arcy). Although all of the Army nurses shared the same rank, Davidson was the senior in charge. The story opens with a flashback to late November 1941. The nurses are shipped on a transport from San Francisco to Hawaii, but the attack on Pearl Harbor diverts them to the Philippines. As they see other ships in the convoy blown to smithereens by torpedoes, horror is visible on the faces of the witnesses. Throughout the film, the violent imagery is shocking, even by the jaded standards of modern cinema.6 The filmmakers repeatedly conjure a sense of imminent and extreme danger for their audience.

After being rescued from one of the destroyed ships, D'Arcy is brought under Davidson's command. D'Arcy's high order of coldness and bitchiness creates immediate consternation among her fellow nurses. Davidson bunks with D'Arcy because no one else will. On Christmas Day 1941, the ship's chaplain delivers a speech on faith and the necessity of fighting to the death. Back in their cabin afterward, under Davidson's pressure, D'Arcy finally breaks down and speaks her true thoughts: "I'm going to kill Japs, every bloodstained one I can get my hands on." D'Arcy reveals that she was to be married that very Christmas Day, but that she had seen her fiancé gunned down on an airstrip during the Pearl Harbor attack: "Sixty bullets … his face was gone … I couldn't see him anymore. … They must be punished, and I'm going to punish them." Two other nurses, attracted by the commotion, stand in the hatch, aghast. D'Arcy's confession is as shocking as the torpedo attack. The inflammatory language, the use of "Japs," the lurid imagery, the high-pitched emotions—all are characteristic of these early WWII-WWII films. War films from the second half of the war, when the final outcome started to look like a foregone conclusion, tended to be tamer. The suffering remained, but the desperation melted away.

The nurses are ordered to Bataan. Idle time onboard the ship affords time for romance to bloom between nurses and soldiers. Davidson is courted by a Navy doctor.

When he attempts to kiss her for the first time, though, she backs away, declaring, "I can't love you. We've got jobs to do." It's a message about the higher love that all Americans should be cherishing: love of country.

On Bataan, Davidson is introduced to Ling Chee, a Chinese guide. He wears glasses and is demonstrably intelligent and calm, a sharp contrast to the Japanese, who are consistently shown as bestial and immoral. Chee is there really only to remind the audience of the difference between the allied Chinese and the enemy Japanese. Later in the story, a Filipino surgeon demonstrates his courage by persevering through an operation while his wood-framed clinic takes a bomb from above, another message about the character of the Allies. More or less superfluous to the main plot, these are the kind of insertions routinely suggested by the BMP. Other plot points in the film deal with war shortages—the limited diet on the islands, nurses' uniforms that don't fit, and so on—reminding the home audience that they must make do in far less tough conditions without complaint. Unraveling all of these messages from the plot, and attributing their sources, is an intellectual treasure hunt.

Inside the nurses' tent, away from Davidson's ears, D'Arcy asks the head nurse: "Do you have any Japanese wounded? I'd like to handle them." She lies about wanting to learn the language. It's an ominous note; we immediately understand that she's contemplating murder. She is assigned to the appropriate ward, where she relieves an overworked nurse and is left alone with the patients. When Davidson hears what has happened, she runs there in panic: "D'Arcy with the Japanese wounded!" But she finds D'Arcy slumped in defeat: "It's alright. I couldn't do it. … I couldn't kill even a wounded rat." The message is that Americans, even in their lowest moments, are incapable of war crimes.

As the Japanese push southward toward the encampment, the nurses hear about the "bravery at the front," which credits the Allied forces for fighting without assessing blame for the disastrous outcome. Retreat by the nurses becomes inevitable but is mistimed, leaving a group trapped while Japanese soldiers overrun the encampment. One nurse warns the others, "We'd better kill ourselves. I was in Nanking. I saw what happened to women there … I've seen 'em fight over a woman like dogs." Unnoticed, D'Arcy stashes a grenade in her blouse. She addresses the group: "It's one of us or all of us"; that is, it's better that one should die than all should be raped. And, given the seeds sown by the plot, the one would have to be D'Arcy, whose grief and hatred are incurably deep. She wanders out of hiding and down the street, one arm raised over her head, the other in her blouse. She times her act perfectly. As a group of Japanese soldiers surrounds her—perhaps lulled by her femininity into dropping their guard—she disappears in a violent ball of flame, and the film quickly cuts to the next scene.

It's a disturbing image, unquestionably a suicide bombing in the modern understanding of the term. Of course, acts of self-sacrifice are common in war films: a soldier charges a machine-gun bunker, is shot, and tosses a grenade through the horizontal slit before dying. But D'Arcy's act seems qualitatively different. She is a woman, a noncombatant, and the ultimate efficacy of her act cannot be known—all traits that could be attributed to many modern-day suicide bombers. Conventional suicide, it should be noted, is condemned under a broad consensus: it is illegal under the law, considered a betrayal of faith under the beliefs of religion, and seen as a cowardly act in society when used as an escape from personal problems. The term suicide bomber, with connotations of religious extremism and pointless terrorism, is thus a super pejorative. All of this raises the question of whether D'Arcy's act provoked any moral outrage among viewers at the time. The film reviews of seven major city newspapers across the U.S. offered one way to gauge contemporary reactions. Given the moral and legal strictures, labeling the act a suicide would tend to undermine its sense of nobility, and in fact, only one review, in the Los Angeles Times, used the word: "… the suicide of a certain nurse [is] theatrically effective drama."7 Indeed it is, and if it is effective as drama, absent of any contrary point, it must be laudable as behavior. In only one review was the scene pointedly characterized; Bosley Crowther's plot summary in the New York Times said merely: "[D'Arcy] finally eliminates herself as a human bomb," without further comment.8 The audience of 1943, with accounts of the actual events still fresh in their minds, accepted the extreme danger of the nurses' predicament, the hopelessness of D'Arcy's life, and the complete lack of redeeming merit in the enemy—a setting in which a suicide bombing could be viewed as reasonable, or even noble. The current fight against terrorism gives the act fresh resonance.9

As a result of D'Arcy's sacrifice, the nurses are able to evacuate to Baguio, in the mountains well north of Bataan.10 D'Arcy's act remains a lesson in self-sacrifice, about doing everything in one's power for the war effort. It's a reminder to the audience that the true hardships are happening abroad.

Many of the incidents in the film were taken from news stories and melded into a single plot. The love lives of Davidson and D'Arcy appear to be derived from the experiences of one of the actual Bataan nurses, Juanita Redmond. She met her fiancé on a ship going from San Francisco to the Philippines in June 1940—that's her contribution to Davidson's character. The fiancé died in a fighter plane that was shot down during a Japanese raid on Port Darwin, Australia, on 19 February 1942—that's D'Arcy's trauma. The suicide appears to be the creation of the screenwriters. Redmond returned to San Francisco in June 1942, and ultimately published a book about her experiences.11

Another incident "ripped from the headlines" is depicted in So Proudly We Hail as well. At one Bataan hospital base, personnel laid white sheets on the ground in the form of a cross in the hope that it would spare the facility from Japanese air bombings. On 10 April 1942, however, the base was attacked, wounding medical practitioners and soldiers in their hospital beds.12 In the film version, while the cross is being laid out, the nurses speculate as to whether it will spare them from attack—or make them a target. Echoing the news reports, the latter turns out to be the case, because they are "bombed without mercy." The film, though, omits a key detail: following American protests, the Japanese High Command at Manila apologized for the attack, calling it unintentional. Regardless of the truth of their assertion, such nuance could have found no place in a film of the WWII-WWII era because it would have contradicted the uncompromising portrait of the enemy as a subhuman aggressor. The BMP, in its advisory role, tried unsuccessfully throughout the war to dampen racist characterizations of the Japanese. From the BMP's point of view, the fight was not about white versus yellow but about ideology: democracy versus fascism. Fascism could be defeated, an interpretation that offered hope for a lasting peace.13

The final act of So Proudly We Hail covers the Americans' evacuation to Corregidor, a widely covered news event, and the island's eventual occupation by the Japanese. On the island, Davidson makes a surprising observation to the assembled nurses about why the war had sent them to places with foreign names that had become "American graveyards": "It's our own fault … because we believed we were the world, that the United States of America was the whole world." It's a rebuke of the isolationist policies that had delayed U.S. entry into World War II. She further explains that their role is to be a "delaying action," to take heat while buying time for Allied forces to advance elsewhere. D'Arcy isn't mentioned by name, but clearly her act of self-sacrifice has been expanded into a metaphor: the American suicide bomber thus becomes the symbol of heroism for the entire campaign.

The film was generally well received. The main complaint, from the predominantly male reviewers, was that the romantic subplots, seemingly plucked from the Hollywood screenwriter's trick bag, detracted from the larger story of the war, even though, as is clear, these story lines were often adapted from actual news stories. The feature film will always focus on the experiences of individuals; the documentary plays by a different set of rules.

As to the film's dramatic moments, if they are shocking now, then they must have been doubly so in 1943. Reviewer descriptions of the film bear this out: "a shattering impression of the tragedy of Bataan"; "death in its most terrifying aspects"; "grim, glorious, heroic and harrowing, a story that can be told only with sweat and blood and torment … sheer, heart-shaking tragedy"; "grim as war itself, [it] will leave you limp."14

America fought its way from desperate straits to victory and postwar prosperity. Wartime agencies like the OWI were dismantled and forgotten. The BMP influenced the content of hundreds of films; the films remain, but many of the records are missing. Good times have a way of burying bad times.

Historians attempt to rescue the facts and meanings of the past, but films like So Proudly We Hail have great value in conveying elements that are often absent from written history, and are otherwise lost: the vivid moods and emotions that were unique to their times.

About the Author(s): John Locke received a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley and has published books and articles on a variety of topics. In 2006, he started Off-Trail Publications (offtrailpublications. com), which has produced over 30 books on the history of popular fiction. The latest Off-Trail book, The Texas-Siberia Trail, is a best-of collection of the authentic adventure fiction of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman. Locke helps run the Graduate Writing Center at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), and teaches writing to NPS students.


NOTES:

1. The ideas and opinions expressed by the author are his alone and do not represent the official positions of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or any other official entity.

2. These generalizations about the nature of the WWII-WWII movie apply to Hollywood's products, for practical reasons. The majority of the important Hollywood WWII-WWII movies, along with many British films of the era, are now available on DVD. Few foreign-language films of the era, in contrast, are available in the U.S. market; they appeal to a niche audience, and translated subtitles are an extra cost. Nations with vigorous cinema industries whose WWII films would be of particular interest include France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan. Based on a small sample, films from these industries contained propagandistic themes and messages and, like the British films of WWII, are worthy of separate consideration.

3. So Proudly We Hail (Paramount Pictures) was written by Allan Scott with uncredited contributions from First Lieutenant Eunice Hatchitt. It is worth noting that the script was written within months of the events it depicts, while the Japanese armed forces were still conquering Southeast Asia. The movie is available on DVD; see So Proudly We Hail, directed by Mark Sandrich, aired 9 September 1943 (Universal City, CA: Universal Studios, 2007).

4. The Bataan Peninsula is the north arm enclosing Manila Bay on the Philippine island of Luzon. Corregidor Island lies 3–4 miles (5–6 km) from the tip of the peninsula in the mouth of Manila Bay.

5. Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). The establishment of the Office of War Information and the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) in June 1942 is discussed on pp. 58–59. For information specific to So Proudly We Hail, see pp. 98–104.

6. One of So Proudly We Hail's four Oscar nominations was for Special Effects. All six films nominated in this category in 1943 were World War II movies. Paulette Goddard was nominated for Supporting Actress, Allan Scott for Writing (original screenplay), and Charles Lang for Cinematography (black-and-white). The film, however, was shut out on Oscar night.

7. Philip K. Scheuer, "So Proudly We Hail: Heroic Tale of Eight Army Nurses in Pacific War Zone," Los Angeles Times, 3 September 1943.

8. Bosley Crowther, "The Screen in Review: Misses Colbert, Goddard, Lake Seen in So Proudly We Hail as Army Nurses Who Aid the Wounded Men on Bataan," New York Times, 10 September 1943.

9. Koppes and Black, Hollywood Goes to War. While the authors examine the film and the exchanges between the BMP and the producers in detail, they describe D'Arcy's sacrifice as routine for war films without further comment. It is worth noting that the book, which is a valuable resource for movie buffs, was published in 1987, long before the War on Terrorism came into being.

10. The film isn't very detailed about its geography. Whether the nurses actually moved more than a hundred miles from south to north and then back south again is unclear.

11. Associated Press, "Eight Nurses of Bataan Back After Fleeing Japs," Los Angeles Times, 13 June 1942. See also Juanita Redmond's book, I Served on Bataan (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1943).

12. Associated Press, "Bombs on Bataan Hit Hospital Cots," New York Times, 12 April 1942.

13. Koppes and Black, in Hollywood Goes to War, discuss depictions of the Japanese in chapter IX, "The Beast in the Jungle," pp. 248–77. In contrast, the Caucasian European enemy was regarded as a Nazi problem rather than a German problem, leaving room for "good Germans": honorable military men following orders and other reasonable people trapped by a harsh but temporary political system.

14. The quotations, in the order they appear, are from Crowther, "The Screen in Review"; W. Ward Marsh, review of So Proudly We Hail, Paramount Pictures, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2 September 1943; E.L., review of So Proudly We Hail, Paramount Pictures, Richmond Times Dispatch, 2 September 1943; and Pericles Alexander, review of So Proudly We Hail, Paramount Pictures, Dallas Morning News, 10 September 1943.

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