AVA 3001: Topics in Film and Media Arts
31 May, 2005
Gender Roles in War Film
Through movies, one can glamorize any job from plumber to prostitute. However, filmmakers also have the power to acutely critique values viewed as humane. In an effort to popularize the war effort, our government formed the Bureau of Motion Pictures under the Office of War Information (OWI). The agency insured that films produced during the Second World War would help win the war not disparage war efforts. The goal was to create films conveniently sympathetic to the war, not to create blatant propaganda. The product was propaganda none the less. The following will explain how So Proudly We Hail prescribed Americans new wartime gender roles.
The war films made under the OWI instill patriotic morals personified by characters like Superman, for example. So Proudly We Hail draws explicitly from this patriotic image. Joan, played by Paulette Goddard, reads to children stories of Superman then refers to her love interest as a superman. The audience sees her superman, Kansas, as a fearless heterosexual willing to die for the American life. The only other male principal embodied superman just as well. Lt. John Summers (George Reeves), Lt. Davidson's lover turned husband, presented such a strong image of a superman he later played Superman. Summers made the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow Americans and on the day after his wedding no less. Even the real life General MacArthur holds a mythical superhuman aura. References to the General imply he has a messianic power and that hope is lost upon his withdrawal from Japan.
What makes So Proudly We Hail stand out from other wars movies is the idea that America needs both supermen and super-moms to win the war. As one of the only films to portray women on the front, SPWH gives audiences a glimpse of women's direct role in fighting. While no women fired a gun, one did sacrifice her life. Her act serves to convey the needs of the many over the needs of the few. Olivia's ( Veronica Lake) transformation remains motherly even in killing. She did so for the sake of the other women who will get away to save more soldiers.
Most of the ladies sacrificed in the name of mercy and nurturing. Unlike typical depiction of female roles on the home front, these women display acts of hyper-parental care. The most striking images of selfless caring come from Joan who passes out from exhaustion, and Davidson burning her hands to save the doctor. Davidson, still with injured hands, gives of herself so much that later she holds the hands of Summers while he has a bullet removed. Think about how painfully tight that grip would be.
Just as the Superman role of Kansas was explicit so is the mom role for the head nurse. The soldiers not only lovingly call her 'Mom' but also she is a mom. First, her son becomes mortality injured and the audience sees her maternal compassion. Then, her son dies. It's as if she no longer has reason to go on without a son to mother. The film reinforces this idea in Olivia and in Davidson. Finally, 'Mom' finds a new reason to live in her grandson thus sealing women's role as mother. 'Mom' can be nothing else but a mom.
These feelings of maternal care differ from typical roles of women more closely resembling male norms. Women accept the more masculine roles for the sake of the country but would rather be back home in traditional roles. Joan wears her feminine night gown to keep morale high. She wishes for a cosmopolitan life of high heels and styled hair. At one point the commanding officer tells Davidson she can’t pull out because the troops need the girls for morale. This statement articulates the notion of women in tradition roles and in wartime roles. The women must sacrifice and remain not only as caregivers but as symbols of peacetime femininity.
The basic patriotic values like self sacrifice and maintaining high morale apply to both genders. Characters such as the chaplain and the doctor verbally present American values in their monologues. The audience understands the total devotion needed to win the war. Characters often refer to the lack of time as in Davidson's courtship or lack of resources as when Summers goes out to find more. Having little shows audiences again how important it was for everyone to sacrifice and not to waste.
The preservation of American life involves a separation of the sexes. The dichotomy presents itself when Kansas fights back an air raid while Joan helps the injured. There are, however, moments of role reversals such as Olivia’s finale. Other instances include Joan knocking out Kansas to get him on the boat and the helpless son dying.
The message is simple. There is no room for flighty men and women. Everyone must act as guardians, though differently depending on gender. With women invoking maternal instinct on one side and men fighting on the other, everyone works together efficiently to win the war for humanity. Like a two-part assembly line, the sexes must work within their roles knowing that both roles are equally important for maintaining the American way of life.