The MGM publicity department must have had quite a chore promoting Men Must Fight. For if any movie could rightly be described as schizophrenic, Men Must Fight is it. How do you properly promote a movie that spans the genres of romance, sci-fi, pro-war, anti-war, family drama and social uprising? A movie made in 1933, but takes place in 1918 and 1940? The answer: apparently not very much. I couldn't find one poster or lobby card online. And this from a blog that found material for Inflation, The Devil with Hitler and How Doooo You Do!!! (I never tire of writing that title.)
So much happens in Men Must Fight's 72-minute running time that a simple outline doesn't do it justice. After a three-day affair with a nurse, World War I pilot Geoffrey Aiken is killed during his first flight. The nurse, named Laura, discovers she's pregnant with his child. Edward Seward, an older officer
|One man's baby is another man's bad memory.|
It's the details that make the unjustifiable-obscure Men Must Fight so fascinating. The very first scene is the essence of pre-code honesty: Laura and Geoffrey getting dressed after what was obviously a night of lovemaking. As for the future, in 1940 people Skype and watch television. Elevators open into apartments. Seward's condemnation of Laura's pacifist speech -- "Any call for peace is not only cowardly but treachery" -- would be echoed in the post-9/11 era. Yet pilots are still flying World War I-era biplanes. Guess the crystal balls in the special effects unit weren't working that day.
|Bombs over New York.|
Or does it? In the final scene, Bob files off to war as his mother, grandmother and wife Peggy watch from below. Laura and Peggy try to be optimistic, but Grandmother Seward is more clear-eyed, preferring that women rule the world, leaving the men to "crow and strut and be ornamental like roosters. That's the function of the male." Peggy then unknowingly echoes Laura's vow made years earlier: "If I ever have a child, he'll never go through this." Replies Grandma, "Fat luck you'll have anything to say about it. You'll be just another mother." Rarely has a movie ended on a more cynical yet honest line of dialogue. And yet the closing theme, a jolly military march, negates that powerful message. It's as if studio didn't exactly know what to make of its own production.
|"I love you, mom -- er, sweetheart."|
(Off-topic: Wynyard's final TV appearance, in 1960, was in a series with what is now my favorite title, Armchair Mystery Theater. Are sofas any more tangible?)
|If you believe this photo, Lewis Stone's character is using a Skype that doubles as a time machine: While he's in 1940, his wife is still a nurse in 1918. (In the movie itself, he's talking to his stepson.)|
|"Handsome? Who, me?"|
The casting of Phillip Holmes as Bob is sheer genius. Look at that glamorous puss: he really could be Robert Young's son. Bob Seward's relationship with his stepfather, played by Lewis Stone, is genuinely heartwarming, with Edward treating him as his own offspring... until the boy decides war isn't cool. Bob insists that he's following the Seward tradition of thinking for himself, but Edward doubts the kid's perspicacity. He uses the moment to tell Bob the truth about his parental heritage with an honesty best described as brutal: "You have no moral right to use the name Seward. You're a member of this family through courtesy." Courtesy! Oof. Yow. Jeez. And just to make sure the kid gets the message, he adds, "You're not a Seward and you don't belong!" Of course, Bob continues to live at the family's Wrigley Field-sized apartment anyway to continue spouting off his anti-war manifesto.
Not to worry, though -- once Bob volunteers for certain death, he's back in stepdad's good graces. It's an unspoken irony that Edward originally arranged to have him serve on the homefront "where he's needed" rather than in combat. Just another perk of government service!
|Come to think of it, I wouldn't move out of this place, either.|
For another example, take the post-movie career of Phillip Holmes. The actor -- who, as Bob, played the pacifist-turned-air corpsman -- volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. Did it cross his mind that his onscreen father in Men Must Fight died in action while serving in America's corresponding military branch during wartime?
We'll never know. Holmes died in a mid-air collision while still in training.
From Men Must Fight: the bombing of New York.