Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
I like John Garfield, and I think it’s one of the real tragedies of classic Hollywood that he died so young. Had Garfield lived even into his 40s, we’d be talking about someone who won at least one and probably multiple Oscars. He was versatile and always compelling on screen. I didn’t know that Pride of the Marines was one of his films, so I was immediately interested when I discovered this fact.
It’s also worth noting that the genre of men returning home from war is one that crops up immediately after we finish fighting a war. The classic of the genre from the World War II era is The Best Years of Our Lives, but Pride of the Marines may well be the first. It was released a couple of weeks before VJ Day, meaning that this was a movie that concerns the plight of wounded men returning home from battle while the war was still going on.
We start in Philadelphia with Al Schmid (John Garfield), a confirmed bachelor who has a very high opinion of himself. He currently rooms with the Merchant family; Jim (John Ridgely), Ella May (Anne Doran), and their teenage daughter Loretta (Ann E. Todd), who has a little bit of a crush on the brash and manly Al. Ella May is always setting Al up on dates, hoping to disconfirm his bachelor status, and these have always been a failure until she invites Ruth Hartley (Eleanor Parker) to dinner. Al and Ruth don’t really hit it off, but Al is intrigued by her because she doesn’t take any crap from him or anyone else. Romance blooms slowly, and the two are suddenly an item. Things are going well until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and Al enlists in the Marine Corps.
Soon enough, Al finds himself on Guadalcanal manning a machine gun nest with Lee (Dane Clark) and Johnny (Anthony Caruso). On the night of a major attack, the three fight off waves of attacking Japanese soldiers. Johnny takes a bullet in the head, dying instantly. Lee takes a few rounds in the arm. For his part, Al is blinded by a grenade that goes off right in front of him. But he and Lee survive the attack, having killed an amazing 200 attacking troops.
Al’s blindness naturally leaves him bitter, particularly where it concerns Ruth. Now blind, and with an unsuccessful operation to restore his sight, perhaps permanently blind, Al had decided that he doesn’t want to return to Philadelphia because he doesn’t want to be a burden on Ruth. Without his sight, he knows that he will not be able to provide for her and doesn’t want to be an invalid who needs to be taken care of. He breaks off all communication with her through nurse Virginia Pfeiffer (Rosemary DeCamp). Virginia has other plans for Al, though. She contacts Ruth on her own and explains what has happened. Things come to a head when Al learns that he is to be awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism and that the ceremony is to take place in Philadelphia around his friends and family.
One of the most interesting aspects of Pride of the Marines is tha tit spends a good deal of time in the middle of the film discussing in a real (albeit simplistic) way the plight of wounded men returning from war and potentially not able to take care of themselves or their families. Many of the wounded men are despondent about their chances of getting a job or even using the G.I. Bill to obtain an education. Others talk up the value of the way the country should work when it comes to returning veterans and that they should be given the same fair shot that they were promised, thanks to being wounded on the battlefield.
It’s also interesting that Pride of the Marines discusses racism in some not-so-subtle ways. One of the wounded men complains that when he gets home, he expects his job to be taken by a Mexican. When it’s pointed out to him that a Mexican and fellow Marine is sitting behind him in a wheelchair, there is a uncomfortable silence for a moment until the soldier is dressed down for implying something nasty in the vicinity of a fellow Marine who was more seriously wounded. It also comes up that Lee is unsure of his chances when he gets home because he is Jewish.
Where Pride of the Marines falls down is in the fact that everything that happens is completely telegraphed and all of the performances—especially Garfield’s—are completely over the top. He’s kind of fun when he’s the brash factory worker trying to impress Ruth, but after this, he does a lot of shouting into the ether. Some of the conversations are stilted as well. The long discussion about what happens when the men go home looks like a set piece designed for the stage, and at moments almost slips into looking like an educational film made by the military.
It’s also really melodramatic. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the emotional reactions are intense and extreme. Sure, it’s an emotional situation, but this plays for the back rows of the audience. Compare Garfield’s histrionics with the quiet nobility of Harold Russell’s Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives, and Garfield’s scenery chewing becomes almost offensive.
Pride of the Marines has its strengths, but it’s not the sort of movie that needs to be watched a second time. Sadly, a big part of this is that John Garfield couldn’t keep things under control and actually becomes unsympathetic with the level of his reactions.
Why to watch Pride of the Marines: You should watch as many John Garfield performances as you can, even the lesser ones.
Why not to watch: There’s a lot of melodrama and telegraphed plot points.