Monday, 2 January 2012

Not half bad... She Goes to War (1929)

You have to be a glass half full person to really enjoy She Goes to War. Originally the film ran for an hour and a half but the version available today was cut down to barely 50 minutes. Not just the intertitles have been removed but also a lot of background for the characters with the remaining focus on the action.

From the introduction it looks like this version was cobbled together in the early 1940s as American citizens were again preparing for war. They left the sound but not all of the sense intact and you have to work out what is going on from the playing and a few snatches of dialogue.

The film would presumably have been similar in structure to The Big Parade template, with the characters being established first from patriotic stirrings, conscription, the journey to France and then showing their development as they face up to the realities of the war.

Instead this version starts with the boys' send off and shifts very quickly to the front. Some of the soldiers are joined by their women who work as nurses, cooks and cleaners.

Eleanor Boardman plays Joan Morant a socialite aiming to support her beau Reggie (Edmund Burns). In a sub-plot not too apparent in this version, Joan is resented by Reggie's commanding officer, Lieutenant Tom Pike, played by John Holland, who sees their social standing as irrelevant in the circumstances of war.

Reggie proves this by succumbing to fear of the battle to come and drinking himself into a stupor. In an attempt to protect his honour, Joan takes his place as the troops march off to the fight. Initially disguised by her gasmask, Joan covers her face in dirt and tries to pass herself off as a man, just about fooling her comrade Bill, played with energy and humour by comedy veteran Al St John.

There's an horrific battle sequence as the Germans roll barrels of oil at the soldiers who are forced to retreat. The Americans take the fight back using tanks which crawl through the wall of flames as the soldiers inside are almost cooked. The enemy are almost routed but pin down the soldiers using machine gun fire.

It is here that Joan learns the full horror of battle and finds the courage that Reggie could not. Saving the day she is carried back to base by the lieutenant, more in (totally) exhausted resignation than triumph.

She Goes to War obviously had a message and by involving a female character in combat broke some ground. Directed by the estimable Henry King (director of silent classics such as Tol'able David and Stella Dallas through to many talkies including Carousel), it features some good action sequences and looks well made from the fragments that are left.

Eleanor Boardman, one year on from The Crowd, gives a typically excellent performance, in spite of the unlikely nature of the story and is well photographed by King who gives her plenty of close ups to show what she can do. It's a shame that we don't see more of her character's roots and motivations. The cast list references a number of characters from the home front who no longer feature including Joan's aunt and maid as well as Lieutenant Pike's mother and the regimental major.

There's also a great little turn from Alma Rubens who sings to the soldiers in one scene and then plays out the part of mother to one dying boy in the film's most powerful moment. Sadly this was Rubens last film and she was to soon succumb to drug addiction. She was certainly very talented from what she shows here.

This is well worth seeking out but you have to hope that the original, full-length version is still extant and will someday get released. In the meantime, the truncated version is available on Amazon or directly from Grapevine.


  1. I am intrigued. It is against the Chivalric Code for women to bear arms although, as I found to my cost, women can diminish a man's chivalry by offering us a green girdle in dubious circumstances...

  2. Ah but by accepting the lady's green girdle you proved yourself to be human and capable of error. There is greater nobility to be gained in accepting one's mortal frailty sir knight.

  3. This movie is not easy to sit through...there are a lot of incomprehensible sound sequences. Alma Rubens steals the show somewhat.

  4. This film really moved me, the full version should be very powerful so I wish we'll be able to watch it some day! in the meantime have a nice week end!

    1. Eleanor Boardman can make any situation believable - the full-length version must have been something. Maybe one day...

      Have a good weekend too!