Eleanor Boardman plays a spoiled socialite who volunteers to assist the troops in war torn France. The rigors of war soon toughen her up but there are bigger challenges ahead. When her fiancé turns coward and gets drunk before a big operation, she puts on a uniform and takes his place on the battlefield. Can the society girl survive the horrors or war—or the attentions of Al St. John? Wait, Al St. John?
With the success of films like The Big Parade and What Price Glory, Hollywood fell in love with the Great War all over again. Studios churned out picture after picture, each promising to be the definitive portrayal of one aspect of the war or another. Released as both a silent and a part-talkie (very, very, very “part” as there are only a few seconds of dialogue) at the end of the silent era, She Goes to War opened to mixed reviews and quietly faded away.
This is where things get weird.
A decade passed and war in Europe seemed to be inevitable. At this point, She Goes to War was reissued. Director Henry King was still a big name, why not show the world his view of the battlefield? (The new introduction indicates that the re-release occurred after the start of the Second World War but before the United States entered the fray.)
The idea of reissuing a silent film was not odd of itself. What makes this case strange to modern viewers is how the reissue crew treated the movie.
They took the part-talkie version of the film with its synchronized score and sound effects and cut out all the title cards, as well as a good portion of the character development. The original film was 87 minutes long but the version that is available on home video clocks in at a meager 49 minutes.
This shocking lack of respect for a film may seem unthinkable in our modern age but we must remember that silent films were seen as creaking relics, fit only to be laughed at. Removing the title cards was likely seen as a way to remove the “silent movie” stigma from the film.
Sadly, I can find no evidence of the complete film surviving and the abridged version is certainly the only one to be released on home media. I guess we shall take what we can get.
Because the film was so ruthlessly and amateurishly hacked apart, let’s take a moment to examine contemporary accounts of the film and what they have to say about the story.
Motion Picture News was unimpressed. It called the film a lost opportunity, stated that the story doesn’t ring true on the screen and complained of certain scenes being in bad taste.
The AFI catalog offers further details on the story that did not remain in the later recut.
“Small town social leader Joan Morant, who holds herself aloof from the “common people,” is thrilled when wartime activity strikes her community, and enlisting the support of her uncle, a congressman, she obtains an assignment overseas. Although she loves Reggie, a wealthy sheik, Joan plays with the affections of Pike, a local garage owner, both of whom she meets in France. Tom Pike, transformed by his war experiences, rebuffs Joan’s advances, and she seeks out Reggie, who is living his accustomed life of luxury as a supply sergeant.”
The cut film has a text introduction that rambles on about the coming Second World War, praises She Goes to War as the greatest combat picture (um, so why did they slice it to bits?) and then the story starts.
We are thrown into the story right away with Joan (Eleanor Boardman) bidding farewell to Reggie (Edmund Burns). Neither character is named or described. The next scene, they are both shown to be in France with no explanation. Alma Rubens wanders in and plays the ukulele, there are wounded men, some die, Joan cries. Then there is a call to battle, Reggie gets drunk and strips down to his BVDs. Joan takes his place, her features concealed by a gas mask.
If this sounds disjointed in print, it is just as bad on the screen. As a result, I am not going to weigh the first half of this film heavily in my final opinion. The second half of the film, which deals with the combat stuff, is much more coherent.
Joan’s unit attempts to take a German hill but the German’s roll barrels of explosives down and the field becomes a wall of fire. Armored tanks attempt to carry the troops through but the heat is almost unbearable. This is intense stuff.
Finally, they break through but the battle is not over yet. There is an enemy machine gun nest and the doughboys are getting picked off. Joan manages to shoot the German in the head (yay!) but then promptly faints (boo!) and is carried home by Sergeant Tom Pike, whose earlier scenes were cut but who she loves madly. Girl power?
As you can see, the film has questionable credentials for a flick purported to be celebrating the roles of women in war. One minute, Joan is a heroine. The next, she is a fainting damsel. Other characters have these duality issues but more on them in a minute.
I should also mention that the plot of the film is not particularly outlandish. More than a few women (many of them Russian) managed to join the armed forces of various nations. Most did so disguised as men but a few were allowed to take part openly.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the film is the combat set piece. It looks great and you can almost feel the heat inside the tank as it tries to break through the chemical fire. Everyone is suitably grimy throughout the picture and you do get a sense of how awful the war was.
So, the direction of sets and scenery is good overall. Too bad the performances are a mixed bag.
I don’t really care much for Eleanor Boardman, either as an actress or a person. Her fish stories are responsible for all sorts of confusion and misinformation among silent fans. (Her biggest whopper was her thoroughly debunked narrative of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer when the former was allegedly left at the altar by Greta Garbo.) I have always found her remote on the screen. There’s no there there. In all fairness, the cut-down print of She Goes to War doesn’t show us her entire transition from socialite to soldier but Boardman displays her typical remoteness and I was not unduly impressed with what I saw.
As for the men, Edmund Burns’ role as the cowardly Reggie is cut down to just two major scenes: his departure for the front and his refusal to join his unit. That’s better than John Holland, the ostensible leading man of the picture. He plays Sergeant Tom Pike, whom Joan scorns in civilian life. Basically, we get reaction shots from him here and there and then a grand reunion on the battlefield that makes no sense because Joan and Tom’s back story has been completely cut.
Al St. John plays the comedy relief of the picture, a goofy private. However, the screenwriters made the bizarre decision of turning him into a sexual harasser and potential rapist. When Joan’s identity is revealed in the trenches, St. John becomes aggressive, groping her and pinning her on the ground. This is played for laughs somewhat but then Joan becomes so scared that she runs toward an enemy machine gun position in order to get away from him.
Basically, the filmmakers wanted to have it both ways. They wanted St. John for his comedy chops but they also wanted to create a threat to drive Joan into combat. (Heaven forbid she should go because she is bold.) St. John pulling double duty simply does not work and it makes his character’s subsequent death much less moving than it would have been otherwise. Considering the recent scandals involving unprosecuted rape in the armed forces, this scene plays very badly for modern viewers.
Alma Rubens plays a supporting role in this film as one of the wartime canteen workers who is also part-time entertainer and full-time mother to the doughboys. It was her last appearance on the screen. A little over a year later, her drug addiction took her life. It is horribly obvious how close to death she was. Rubens is skeletal, with sunken eyes and a pinched jawline. Even her singing voice is weak, though this had a bit to do with the primitive sound technology. I wanted to reach through the screen, grab her and rush her to the hospital.
She Goes to War is a frustrating film. We are not seeing it in pristine condition and may never get the chance but what remains is not unduly impressive. The combat scenes are well mounted and suspenseful, the whole thing looks great but the by-the-numbers characters (per contemporary accounts) sink the story. Billed as a tribute to the women who went to war, the melodramatic and unlikely plot was creaky when D.W. Griffith made it in his old Biograph days. The age shows.
It’s worth checking out only for big fans of Henry King or one of the performers involved. Everyone else can safely give this one a pass and not be missing anything. I have to agree with Motion Picture News. A lost opportunity.