Republic’s 1940 feature Women in War is rare enough that you won’t ever happen upon it on television, and are unlikely to see it at all short of a concentrated effort to do so. It tallies a mere 15 votes on IMDb, alongside three user reviews, two of which are by fellow completist Arne Anderson — one of which reports that the film is utterly unavailable, the second written after he managed to track it down — as I recently did. After years of wistfully staring at this title on my to-see lists, I was awfully disappointed by it when I finally got the chance.
Set in Britain in the heady early days of the conflict, Women in War tells the story of Pamela Starr (Wendy Barrie), a party girl charged with manslaughter after shoving a drunken RAF pilot over a balcony. Pamela’s long-lost mother, Matron O’Neil (familiar-face Elsie Janis), now in charge of the nurses’ corps, secretly engineers a deal with the courts in the hope that by taking her tough-cookie daughter into the war effort, she can provide the affection and discipline needed to allow her to turn the corner. But the chip on Pamela’s shoulder just grows larger after the other new nurses, who remember only the newspaper gossip from her trial, spurn her. Pamela copes by striking up a casual romance with another flier, Larry (Patric Knowles), which only makes things even worse for her in the barracks — he’s already engaged to Gail (Mae Clarke), one of her fellow nurses. Isolated and bitter, Pamela’s refuses to stop seeing Larry, and their relationship grows to the point that he decides to leave Gail, who retaliates by trying to kill Pamela during a midnight trip to the front lines. Huddled underneath an intense artillery barrage (the filming of which earned an Academy Award nomination for Special Effects), the two women retreat to the cellar of a church, while O’Neil searches frantically for them amidst the cascading shells…
Women in War is emblematic of the naïvely casual and overly romanticized outlook the movie-going public had in those months of 1939 and early 1940 that historians now refer to as the “phony war,” before Dunkirk, when the situation changed dramatically. During the very same week that this film was released to theatres, global newspaper headlines told the horrific story of the British Expeditionary Force’s chaotic evacuation from France, which forced the public to reformulate its attitude and its commitment to the total war effort. It’s unlikely that a film such as this, which employs a wartime milieu without the gravity it demanded, would have even been made had it been scheduled for production just a few months later. The spate of nursing pictures — even the overtly romantic ones — that would soon issue from the studios went out of their way to not only demonstrate the value of nurses, but also the incredible risk and toil required to be one.
The film does lip service to realities of war, as early on O’Neil tells her recruits:
“I hope none of you have come here with the beautiful notion that war is noble and romantic. Some of you dewy-eyed creatures may be under the impression that it will be your function to soothe the fevered brows of handsome young men when on duty, and to philander with the convalescents when you’re off. Unfortunately, war isn’t like that.”
Yet that seems to be precisely the notion that all of the nurses have, and the film does nothing to dispel them. There are no wounded soldiers to tend to, no tragedies along the way, and no sour news from other fronts. The war seems terribly far away, if it’s even happening at all. All our nurses have time to do is chase fliers, and all they have to be concerned with are the most immature aspects of their schoolgirl romances. The film’s finale is its most damning sequence: When the nurses are ordered to drive desperately needed medical supplies to the front, Gail — our ‘woman scorned’ — childishly forsakes her duty in order to exact revenge on Pamela. She diverts their vehicle into an evacuated French village that is under heavy bombardment, hoping to get them both killed. When O’Neil realizes what has happened, she too drives her truck into the village — showing audiences that as far as these nurses are concerned, the needs of the wounded on the front lines finish a distant second to their own personal drama. And when the shells really start dropping, too many of the nurses lapse into hysterics.
In June 1940 the Battle of Britain was in the offing, and the terrifying nights of the Blitz would then follow. It was a time when English and Canadians — and soon Americans — of all ages and from all walks of life were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of their nations and one another. Women in War is a shallow film that fails to measure up to the requirements of its time. Its women are shallow, silly, and incompetent rather than confident, devoted, and strong. When inspiration was needed, it stooped merely to entertain.
Women in War (1940)
Directed by John Auer
Starring Wendy Barrie, Mae Clarke, and Elsie Janis
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time: 71 minutes
Availability: very rare