Fox // 1952 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // September 3rd, 2004
It's a lousy war, kid -- but it's the only one we've got!
What Price Glory proves that just because a movie is old, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is at all worth watching. This rare misfire from director John Ford (Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley) features the legendary James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy) as Captain Flagg, the cynical, hard-drinking commander of a company of Marines in France in 1918. Flagg has a love-hate relationship with Sgt. Quirt (Dan Dailey, My Blue Heaven), his First Sergeant and chief rival for the affections of the lovely Charmaine (Corinne Calvet, The Far Country), daughter of a local French innkeeper and raging...well, I'll say flirt, although I had a stronger term in mind.
What follows is a sort of harsh, unfunny attempt at a wartime comedy. Imagine what Hogan's Heroes would have been if Colonel Hogan had been a drunken, abusive martinet. Imagine a Marx Brothers comedy like Duck Soup where the Marx Brothers have been replaced by a swaggering Napoleon clone. I've never been the biggest fan of James Cagney, but I respect the work he was able to do in his Warner Brothers years. The problem is, his snide, ornery gangster persona simply doesn't translate well to this picture. We get histrionics usually reserved for someone playing Adolf Hitler in better movies than this one. Cagney attacks the role with gusto, happily leaping over the top and into the no-man's-land of unintentional self-parody. The other actors do what they can, but make no mistake, this is a Cagney vehicle from the get-go.
The script, very loosely adapted (read: completely freaking rewritten) by Henry and Phoebe Ephron from a stage play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, is somewhat reassuring; it shows us that 21st century screenwriters do not have an exclusive claim to horrible writing. Jokes throughout the movie fall flat, and the love triangle of Flagg, Quirt, and Charmaine comes across as desperate and mean-spirited and not in the least bit charming or romantic. Countless details that would have been easy to get right are annoyingly wrong here. Even simple military jargon, so important to making a credible war picture, is severely mucked up; as a small example, I doubt that Marines ever refer to themselves as "soldiers" or their organization as an "army." To make either of these mistakes around a Marine is probably an invitation to get your teeth rearranged. The script also makes disconcerting jumps in tone, from hard-boiled sardonic humor to maudlin sentimentality to outright bitterness and back again, often within a single 30-second scene.
Even John Ford's legendary direction falls flat here, as shooting almost entirely on a soundstage robs him of the scope and scale for which he is best known. The picture feels cramped and claustrophobic throughout. While I wish I could say that this was a brilliant, clever attempt to reproduce the feel of First World War trench combat, this is clearly not the case.
When Technicolor is done right, it can produce some of the most brilliant, lifelike colors available anywhere. When it is done wrong, you get a garish, red-toned, washed-out, overly dark picture like What Price Glory. Every character's skin tones are so ruddy that it seems they have all been drinking, or in the sun too long, or drinking in the sun too long. How much of the trouble comes from the DVD transfer or the original print is anyone's guess, but in addition to the above problems, the picture is soft throughout. Shadowed areas (really, anything except scenes shot in direct sunlight) show no detail at all, dropping off into an oily, heavy blackness that robs the film of any sort of subtlety or contrast in the lighting.
Audio is up to par. The stereo mix is pretty much indistinguishable from the mono. Both of them do a decent job with music and sound effects. Dialogue is a little harder to make out, but that is at least due in part to Cagney's tendency to alternate mumbling and blustering. I did not notice any blaring or distortion in the audio, and no noticeable hiss underneath.
Special features consist of two trailers and a small sampling of bonus trailers for other Fox Flix.
What Price Glory? I don't know, but I know watching this flick is too high a price to pay.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers