April 17, 2016 by smumcounty
Political movies are not a real genre these days. In our politically divided environment, studios can’t risk alienating large swaths of the audience with one political axe to grind or another. But back in the 30’s when going to the movies was like watching TV today, when there was a yawning maw of theater chains that needed to be fed, the occasional film with a political message could sneak through, even at the largest studios. In this vein you find the fascist love letter of “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933), the collectivist answer to The Great Depression in “Our Daily Bread” (1934) and then the oddly mixed message of “Men Must Fight”.
Flyer Lt. Geoffrey Aiken (Robert Young) has an affair with Nurse Laura Mattson (Diana Wynward) during the Great War and as these things go during wartime, they fall instantly in love, though having known each other for only a few days. Unfortunately, Geoffrey is shot down during his first sortie against the enemy and later dies in the hospital, attended to by Laura. Laura’s bad luck doesn’t end there. She soon discovers she is pregnant from their brief affair. She’s all ready to be sent back home in disgrace when longtime suitor Edward (Ned) Seward (Lewis Stone) suggests that he marry her and they raise the child as their own. Laura accepts and the war comes to an end soon after. Laura is understandably shaken by the horrors she’s witnessed declaring that if there should be another war her son would take no part in it.
Jump ahead to the future world of 1940! (Remember this film came out in 1933.) Their son Robert (Phillips Holmes) is now a young man and is contemplating marriage to Peggy Chase (Ruth Selwyn). Ned and Laura are still happily married and Ned has advanced to become Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, however, he has his hands full. The envoy sent to the signing of a peace treaty has been assassinated and the world seems on the verge of war again. Laura, still the peacenik, is scheduled to appear as the principal speaker at a massive peace rally. Ned has a different view of the crisis. He feels if war is inevitable we’ve got to be prepared and for him preparation means research into poison gas. He wants Robert to put his degree in chemical engineering to good use and join the chemical division of the military. Ned asks Laura to not appear at the rally. “Any talk of peace now is not only cowardice, it’s treachery.” But she refuses, “My first duty is to my son and to every mother’s son.”
Public sentiment seems to be more on the side of those determined for war. The peace rally is broken up by ruffians who later march on the Seward’s home, throwing bricks through the windows. But Robert shows himself to be his mother’s son, refusing to take any part in the coming war, while his friends march off in uniform. Even after losing his fiancé over his anti-war views, he sticks by them, telling his parents that it is because he is a Seward that he must do what his conscience tells him to do in order to live up to that name. Ned, somewhat perturbed at his family’s anti-war views, flatly tells Robert that he has no right to the Seward name. “You’re a member of this family through courtesy.” Ouch! With the cat out of the bag, Laura tells her son about his real father and about his sacrifice during the last war.
When the war finally begins, it goes very badly. We lose 300,000 men in the first three weeks and another 100,000 are lost when the enemy takes the Panama Canal. Eventually, the home front is bombed. The Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building are destroyed and bombs spewing poison gas rain down on the populace. Laura is injured during the raids. The special effects for these scenes are actually pretty impressive for 1933. The combination of seeing the war hit so close to home and learning of his true parentage work on Robert to cause a change of heart. He realizes that his anti-war views are great in theory but if he doesn’t stand up and fight, someone else will have to take his place, so instead of a safe position in the chemical division as Ned was hoping for, he enlists as a flyer, just as his father had done in the last war. The last shot of the film shows Robert flying over Manhattan in his biplane as his mother, grandmother (May Robson), and newly reunited fiancé watch.
“Men Must Fight” was based on a Broadway play of the same name from the previous year by Richard Lawrence and S.K. Lauren but the film is so prescient in many aspects you wonder if Nostradamus didn’t have a hand in its creation. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 was certainly an easy call from the viewpoint of 1932 and the film is good at getting some small things right, showing a television broadcast when the peace rally is shown televised from a local bar and demonstrating a videophone which was decades ahead of its time. But those are nothing to the prediction of the outbreak of war in 1940, only a year off from the actual start of World War II. One can only imagine that the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 30’s and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 was enough to indicate to the playwrights which way the winds were blowing. The film makes clear that this is what was on the minds of the authors during the peace rally. As Laura is giving her big speech we see images of men marching holding flags with swastikas on them and of schoolchildren waving Japanese flags.
The movie gets some things laughably wrong. Seeing squadrons of biplanes flying against the Manhattan skyline is just plain cute. Ned’s focus on poison gas is quaint from our viewpoint. “One cloud of it spread over the sky like a smokescreen and fifty bombers wiped out.” Not quite, but that’s not to say there weren’t worse things in store for the expected war as in his insistence that any future war would involve every member of society, not just the soldiers. “…not only destroy soldiers but civilians as well. No city, no community will be safe.”
The film makes a pretty even-handed argument both for and against war. I was really curious to see what side the film would eventually come down on, though the title should have been a dead giveaway. But in the end, the film is really making a call for the world of the 1930’s to be prepared for whatever might come. “We let them get ahead of us… All these years we’ve sat around and waited, talked peace and disarmament. It’s cost us the lives of thousands of our men.” Doesn’t seem like a hard sell these days but in 1933 there were a great many people who felt that we had no business getting involved in any future European conflict. When doing research for this film, I saw many posts speaking of “Men Must Fight” as an anti-war film but I think a real peacenik would take exception to that designation. I think it’s really a film that speaks to the realpolitik of the early 30’s world, when it wasn’t hard to imagine that war in Asia and Fascist tendencies in Europe could eventually bring trouble even to America.
- Director Edgar Selwyn was co-founder of Goldwyn Pictures in 1916 along with Samuel Goldfish. Goldwyn would later be merged with Loew’s Metro and Louis B. Mayer Productions to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
- Ruth Selwyn who played Robert’s fiancé was married to director Edgar Selwyn.
- In April 1912, director Edgar Selwyn had a ticket to New York on the Titanic but did not make the trip since he had a prior engagement to hear the reading of a new play.