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July 04, 2007

The John Ford Blog-a-thon: What Price Glory?

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John Ford - 1952
20th Century Fox DVD

As much I like, or even love, some of the films directed by John Ford, I choose not not embrace all of Ford's films as some of my peers have. I have given Donovan's Reef at least three viewings and have never found the film to be particularly funny or charming. What Price Glory? is one of Ford's films that eluded me over the years, never seeming to appear on any late night telecast, nor in any kind of revival screening. With the film's availability on DVD, I was able to add another notch to seeing as many Ford films as possible. To some extent, I wish I hadn't bothered.

I'm not familiar with Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stalling's original play or the earlier 1926 film version from Raoul Walsh. Even disregarding that Ford essentially jettisoned the authors' original intentions, What Price Glory? still comes off as a too boisterous, overacted and false celebration of military life. The falseness of the film is evident from the opening shot of a French battlefield that is clearly a studio set. It could be the choice of working with Technicolor betrays whatever serious intentions Ford had, especially comparing What Price Glory? with the much better They were Expendable. Even setting aside Ford's views of men and war, What Price Glory? pales next to such idealized portraits of military life as The Long Gray Line or The Wings of Eagles.

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While Ford briefly acknowledges the original message of the play, of youth sacrificed in the name of some abstract ideal, he is more interested in portraying men, perhaps more accurately, over-aged boys, who who would rather fight each other when not fighting the designated enemy. Fisticuffs aside, James Cagney and Dan Dailey are more in love with each other than either of them are with Corrine Calvet. Given the opportunity to run off with Calvet, they both choose to go off together to fight the Germans. Even military lifer William Demarest ignores the discharge papers he finally receives, choosing male comradeship and possible death.

There is one effective scene in What Price Glory? The soldiers are finally marching into battle, observed by the French civilians. In a long shot, Marisa Pavan is seen running up to Robert Wagner, grabbing a brief kiss before letting him go back into formation. Pavan runs up towards the camera, stopped by an MP who sticks his left arm, acting as a barrier between her and Wagner. Pavan looks over the arm which she is able to lower, expressing the foreboding that she may never see Wagner again.

Ford's Madonna/whore dichotomy is unmistakable in What Price Glory? as the film ends. Pavan is seen with a shawl over her head, a virgin in mourning, unsullied by sex. Calvet is shown making herself available to virtually any man in uniform, officers preferred. For Ford, Calvet's character is only good for two things, one being laundry. Neither Cagney nor Dailey is serious in their marriage proposals to Calvet. As soon as it's convenient, they would rather be caught dead with their comrades-in-arms rather than alive in the arms of a woman of questionable reputation.

More on Ford can be found at Inisfree.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 4, 2007 12:33 PM


Thanks for this contribution. Have you chosen this movie because it takes place in France ? Anyway, it is a rare Ford's movie in our country and it just issued in DVD this year. So, i'm a little ashame to admit that i never saw it. And i like Corinne Calvet a lot since "The far country". Thanks again.

Posted by: Vincent at July 4, 2007 05:20 PM

Merci, Vincent. I chose this film primarily because I hadn't seen it before, and was interested in covering one of the less seen Ford films. The French location was purely coincidental.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at July 4, 2007 08:38 PM

The trouble with idolizing any artist (or anybody) is you have to twist yourself into a pretzel trying to find good things to say about nonsense. (Hmm, sounds like about 90% of film criticism.) John Ford was pretty corny in his best movies; with stuff like "What Price" you need to be drinking steadily from a quart bottle of corn whiskey if you're going to enjoy it at all.

(PS, thanx for sticking my humble blog on your roll, you nut!)

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