Friday 4 September 2020

Movie Review: Cry 'Havoc' (1943)

A World War Two drama, Cry 'Havoc' features an all-female cast in a story of nurses supporting the desperate defence of Bataan.

In the Philippines, US troops are under increasing pressure from Japanese forces in the Bataan peninsula. At a hospital supporting a forward army base, Lieutenant Mary Smith (Margaret Sullavan) is working herself ragged as the lead nurse. Her Captain Alice Marsh (Fay Bainter) is unable to convince Mary to slow down. With the assistance of civilian nurse Flo Norris (Marsha Hunt), they recruit nine volunteer women from a nearby camp for foreigners displaced by the war.

The new recruits include the sassy Pat Conlin (Ann Sothern) and playful Grace Lambert (Joan Blondell), plus the hesitant and fearful Connie Booth (Ella Raines) and sisters Andra and Sue West. The women come from different backgrounds and have to quickly acclimatize to a war zone. They tend to wounded soldiers and endure frightful bombing raids and the threat of malaria as supplies run short and hope of relief fades, but they still find time for petty jealousies.

An adaptation of the play by Allan R. Kenward, Cry 'Havoc' adopts the unique perspective of women near the front lines. With the actual Battle of Bataan having only concluded in April 1942, the film benefits from the realism of an ongoing global conflict with an uncertain outcome. The propaganda moments are limited, and indeed director Richard Thorpe, working from Paul Osborn's script, infuses the women with a sense of isolation and detachment from events back home.

The diverse pre-war experiences of the women offer rich terrain for exploring various reactions to the hell of war. From burlesque strippers to professional women and all the way to the sheltered life of simply waiting for a husband, the volunteers share a distinct unpreparedness for war. Bonds and barbed fences are built as both friendships and enmities are forged under fire.

Thorpe is unable to extricate the story too far away from its stage origins. Most of the scenes are confined to the women's communal sleeping-living-eating underground quarters, with the occasional quick trip to the hospital or communications hub. The hair and make-up departments also stay busy, the actresses not subjected to much deglamourization beyond drab military nursing outfits.

Perhaps suitable for the era but still disappointing, some of the women are quick to trade disrespect and descend into frivolous contests competing for the attention of the (mostly unseen) men. The film also surprisingly veers away from showcasing or celebrating any emerging esprit de corps. 

The lead actresses are all fine and the script provides most of them at least the one highlight scene. Margaret Sullavan has the most to work with as the military nurse pushing herself to the edge, and critical revelations in the third act help define her grit. Ann Sothern is her counterpoint, an abrasive woman who has already seen too much of life to be bothered by a war.

The male actors are extras to fill the hospital with wounded men, although Robert Mitchum makes an impression with a single mournful line in a brief early and uncredited appearance.

With battlefield setbacks looming, the women of Cry 'Havoc' are all about doggedly standing their ground, new sisters by their side.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.


  1. Of this type of film this is my favorite. Even though as you said they aren't really ruggedly deglamorized the women are simply presented and there's no incongruous scene where one of them gets all prettied up for a date with a soldier or some such other nonsense considering the setting. The closest this gets is Andra sneaking out for secret anti-aircraft shooting lessons!

    They're going through hell and dealing with it the best they can. Scenes like the one where the two women are cataloging the possessions of the lost soldiers while sharing memories shows both how they deal with things and why their guards are always up leading to the different conflicts. And the ending leaves little doubt that their troubles aren't nearly over.

    Plus what a great group of actresses! They even managed to cast an actual Filipino actress, Fely Franquelli, and though she doesn't have a great deal to do she isn't presented as any different from the other women-just as capable and intelligent.

    1. The film is at its best in those poignant moments. Margaret Sullavan barely holding herself together on the phone call is another excellent highlight.

    2. I love Maggie Sullavan! She's terrific in that scene, she could transmit so much meaning with that amazing voice and those wonderfully expressive eyes of hers. I've seen all her films-not that she made that many unfortunately-and she's always wonderful. Too bad she hated Hollywood and didn't like filmmaking very much preferring the stage but while the films she made are a mixed lot she makes all of them worth seeing.

    3. She definitely caught my eye in The Shop Around The Corner. I look forward to catching up with her other roles.


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