What Price Glory Review
Though it would please me to state that What Price Glory has earned its “minor John Ford” tag solely because of the run of great pictures it followed – the acclaimed ‘Cavalry Trilogy’, Wagon Master, the underrated When Willie Comes Marching Home - the simple fact is that it is one of the director’s weaker pictures. Adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name, previously filmed by Raoul Walsh to great effect in 1926, it focuses on a company of marines fighting it out in France during World War I and the love rivalries between James Cagney’s Captain Flagg and Dan Dailey’s First Sergeant Quirt.
Of course, the previous What Price Glory was a silent picture and therefore had little difficulty in escaping the theatrical trappings of its source. 1952 being a different era altogether, Ford has to adopt a different approach, one that sees him going for a larger than life mentality which bombards the audience from scene one. Within minutes of its opening credits we have one of the director’s big drunken gatherings, a couple of hearty songs, plenty of even heartier laughter and a fistfight between the two leads. Then again, with Cagney and Dailey occupying the lead roles, should we have expected it any other way?
Those well-versed in Ford’s career will no doubt recognise certain similarities to his later Donovan’s Reef in all this, yet What Price Glory is clearly the lighter picture. There are no bleak underpinnings to be found here despite the material and setting, just comic overpinnings, if you will. Moreover, the characters rarely move beyond the level of ciphers (not that Cagney and Dailey lose out on any of their usual lustre), especially the two female leads, both of whom are expected to simply embody the charming little coquette and that’s about it. Plus the film is able to easily accommodate a lightweight Robert Wagner subplot (are there any other kinds of Robert Wagner subplot?), one that allows for a particularly sickly musical number.
Indeed, it’s often easy to forget that this is a war movie, even when it gets to the front lines. The action scenes are rendered with an artificial Technicolor beauty that seems miles away from the harsh black and white realism of All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, though this was perhaps an intentional means of highlighting the film’s theatrical origins. More worrying is the fact that the lightness of the earlier scenes – set in a tiny French village – appear to have inflected what should be What Price Glory’s harsh centre. The cynicism of Anderson’s original is thus eroded away and with it all of the tension; even as Cagney and Dailey head over the top to capture a German prisoner, they spend most of their time bickering about the girl they’ve left behind.
All of which places What Price Glory on a different level to Ford’s other war-themed efforts. It doesn’t feel like a paean to the military in the manner of They Were Expendable or The Long Gray Line and some may find this an advantage. (It’s certainly far removed from the Goodbye Mr. Chips-style sentimentality of the latter.) And yet this also results in the feeling that Ford isn’t quite as relaxed or comfortable as he should be. The end product is highly strung, and as a result perhaps too loud, too raucous for its own good. You can’t wallow in its comedy in the manner of The Quiet Man, say, or indeed Donovan’s Reef, it’s just too plain irritable for that. Certainly, it’s not a bad film as such, but from the perspective of Ford’s career, it is clearly a flawed one.
Another of the BFI’s releases in collaboration with 20th Century Fox, What Price Glory comes to the UK as a Region 2 disc with a fine presentation but almost complete lack of extras. We get the film in its original Academy ratio and with the Technicolor looking most fine. The print does suffer from instances of damage (sometimes more overt than at others), but for the most part remains clean and has a pleasing clarity. Admittedly, it could do with a remastering job, though given the fact that khaki and Technicolor don’t really mix, perhaps the dinginess is unavoidable. As for the soundtrack, we get the film in its original mono and this remains consistently clear throughout. Indeed, as is the case with the image, there are no technical problems to speak of. The extras, however, are sadly limited to a six-page booklet which contains full credits for the film, plus new liner notes by Philip Kemp (which are particularly interesting when it comes to the troubled production) and a brief biography for Ford. The disc also comes with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.