During WWII there’s no question John Garfield was integral to the war effort despite having never served in the military. He did yeoman’s work when it came to morale, through his pictures at Warner Bros, originating the famed Hollywood Canteen with Bette Davis, and going on war bond tours with the likes of John Basilone.
No question he was a devoted champion of the Allied cause and so when he learned of the true-life heroism of marine Al Schmid, flipping through the pages of Life magazine one day, he started the wheels turning in Hollywood. Schmid was a Philadelphia native who was deployed in the deadly warzone of Guadalcanal in 1942. He and two mates held onto their gunnery outpost against hundreds of enemy soldiers. Their valor was not without sacrifice.
There are certain stories you could hardly write better for the cinema screen and The Pride of The Marines is one of them. As such, Schmid’s story fits fluidly into three distinct segments. It begins as a bit of a hometown romance. In the opening voiceover Garfield, in character as Al, explains how Philly and the Liberty Bell is all he’s known and although this is his life, it could have just as easily been someone else’s. There’s no missing that Delmer Daves’ film is a universal flag-waver for the whole country to get behind.
Like any red-blooded American, Al’s a confirmed bachelor, though he loves the company of his landlords, the genial Merchant clan. Jim (John Ridgely) is always good-naturedly tinkering on everything with varied success. His wife Ella May (Ann Doran) is just about the warmest beacon of hospitality one could ever meet. And if they are both benevolent spirits, their bubbly daughter Loretta (Anne E. Todd) is equally so. Al is affectionate toward them all, even as he remains fiercely independent. No girl the resident matchmaker tries to set him up with will make him think otherwise.
It’s much the same when he finds a quivering Ruth Hadley (Eleanor Parker) at the front door in the dark. A fuse is blown. The lights are out. The family scurries around as a brusque Garfield lets her in. He’s prepared to tear her apart as she confirms all his assumptions about the typical girl-next-door.
This is the rockiest of meet-cutes but I must say, I like it because there is this instantaneous conflict. No disrespect to Dennis Morgan in The Very Thought of You, but Garfield brings his brand of tougher authenticity that’s far more compelling. The beauty of Parker is not simply being an attractive face — on par with any of the Hollywood starlets of the 1940s — there is an earnestness and a feistiness present in her very being.
It comes out over a miserable bowling date tacked onto their already awful evening. She’s been continually humiliated, and she retaliates with her bowling ball and a forceful march out the front doors, which receives whoops and hollers from all the patrons. This is when we realize we have a story and with it a true love affair.
At first, it’s tentative. The second stint begins as Al prepares to ship out after Pearl Harbor. Nothing has been agreed upon between them. He’s noncommittal. She’s not one to beg and plead, though she has her own private desires. Their hours together are dwindling and in one final burst of emotion, he asks for a promise: to wait for him and he provides a token of his faithfulness. They’re tied together now like we always knew they would be. There were too many sparks for it to be any other way.
The war can really be summed up in one extended scene played out within the morass of war. Enemy “Japs” wade across the divide toward their waiting machine gun encampment, mowed down in the mayhem. They taunt them throughout the night, coming relentlessly, hour after hour, only to be stopped dead in their tracks, piling up everywhere.
I couldn’t help feeling some amount of conflict in witnessing all this. I am an American and I love John Garfield as much as the next fellow but this senseless killing — even in a fairly chaste old Hollywood movie — still feels like too much. The problem is it featuring war at its most intimate.
“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” is a practical axiom, but it also makes hand-to-hand combat far too personal. The film tries, but you cannot keep the enemy completely at arm’s length. Watching something like Fire on The Plains (1959) and we get an idea of what their side of the story might be. In this case, a stir-crazy Schmid holds them off in a gutsy stand that, nevertheless, leaves him without the use of his sight.
Phase three is arguably the most significant yet. He must start to grapple with this new reality, even as he’s rehabilitated in an army hospital in San Diego with some of his wounded buddies. He’s lying to himself, believing an operation will give him back his vision. The letter he dictates to be sent to a concerned Ruth paints much the same tale. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
The best shot comes in the moment of truth when the bandages are off in the darkness and as a flashlight is about to be brought up to his face, the camera focuses on his jet black hair and goes black as the voices keep talking. The image says enough already. We know the outcome without seeing anything or, precisely, because we don’t see anything…
Still, Al’s not ready to come to terms with reality nor is he prepared to tell Ruth. He wants to disappear so she’s not burdened with his disability; he’s even more dismayed to learn the presentation of his Navy Cross will take place back home. Because a “Marine doesn’t lean on nobody.”
The old conundrum is not a foreign one. Each one of us wants to be loved, but what if you come back and we are not the same person — disabled or maimed in some way — that our significant other fell in love with? Will they still take you back or loathe the very sight of you? The answer is not always obvious.
Ultimately, it is his solicitous caretaker Virginia (Rosemary DeCamp) and the moral support of his buddies, including Lee (Dane Clark), pushing him forward. In one private phone call, the nurse confirms her suspicions. Ruth fits into the unconditional love category. She’s not going down without a fight, even if it’s a battle over the heart and soul of her disconsolate husband.
We need not dwell on what happens next. The imagination can all but fill it in. A bit of deception, the warmest of welcomes home, and the long haul ahead, forged by two people together as one. Al Schmid would die in 1982 and receive burial in Arlington Cemetery, while his beloved wife would follow him there in 2002.
Predating the likes of Best Years of Our Lives and The Men, The Pride of The Marines digs into the trials of soldiers coming home from war. Garfield is the most capable man I can think of to bear the brunt of this trauma. He battles the demons with his usual grit.
When he’s not at the center of the drama, it falters a bit into the typical didacticism. All the boys with honest, real-life problems, nevertheless, feel like they’re being used to preach to the audience about the plight of the G.I. It’s real, but the heavy-handed roundtable instigated by Daves gets in the way of everything of interest.
The starry-eyed adulation Loretta showers upon him about his exploits in Guadalcanal is also peculiar to me. “You killed 200 Japs, didn’t you Al?” She sounds breathlessly incredulous at this gargantuan feat; it’s like a trophy. I couldn’t help feeling a bit queasy about the statistics in this domestic context. It just goes to show my conflicted nature as a Japanese-American (who lived a stint in Japan) trying to parse through the complexities of World War II.
What’s not difficult to comprehend is just how brilliant Garfield and Parker are as a couple and if they do a fine job, then their real-life counterparts are even more extraordinary. Because they weren’t picking up a salary from Warner Bros. They were out in the trenches in the real world, living life, and facing everything together.