You don’t expect a big WWI film from a pantheon director like Howard Hawks to go missing. At least, not without good reason . . . like maybe it’s a stinker. Turns out, this is no stinker, but it does have plenty of reasons to have gone missing. Apparently, Darryl Zanuck @ 20th/Fox got Stateside distribution/remake rights to Raymond Bernard’s French WWI epic, WOODEN CROSSES/’31*, but mainly for it’s striking war footage. Enter Howard Hawks, charged with finding a story to match the cannibalized action stuff. Obviously, the general idea of men funneled to the front stayed in place, along with a magnificent set piece about the Germans laying a mine by tunneling under the French trenches. But the basic plot elements were pinched from two earlier Hawks war films: THE DAWN PATROL/’30 (flight commander must send waves of replacement off to die) and TODAY WE LIVE/’33 (girl makes rivals out of two war buds). It’s a handsome production, well structured and excitingly paced, even without any background music till the (literal) melodramatic finale. Yet the thing just sits there, refusing to come to life. Love interest June Lang is part of the problem, a sad-eyed nurse who likes Warner Baxter’s Captain, but loves Fredric March’s Lieutenant, she barely registers. But it’d still work if only the men in the case, Baxter & March (both excellent in their way), got their ‘bromance’ off the ground. The classic Hawks love story between two men (the phrase is his) always carried a homoerotic tinge. It’s perfectly balanced between John Wayne & Monty Clift in RED RIVER/’48; uncomfortably overheated between Dewey Martin & Kirk Douglas in THE BIG SKY/’52; and just plain missing between Baxter & March on this one. Only Gregory Ratoff, as the pipe-smoking Sergeant, captures the distinctive Hawksian tone . . . and he’s the comic relief!
DOUBLE-BILL: *Raymond Bernard is known Stateside largely for his 5-hour LES MISÉRABLES/’33, but WOODEN CROSSES/’31 is the better work. Both are out on Criterion DVD.