“This is the story of thirteen women. Only two of them, Captain Alice Marsh and Lieutenant Mary Smith, were members of the armed forces of the United States. The others were civilians, American women who – until that fateful day in December – knew no more of war than did you, or your nearest neighbor.”

(Image via eBay)
(Image via eBay)

With this narration, Cry ‘Havoc’ begins, bringing the viewer to the Bataan Peninsula, where Captain Marsh (Fay Bainter) and Lieutenant Smith (Margaret Sullavan) work at a military hospital in Marivèles. The hospital is horribly understaffed, in need of dozens more nurses. Instead, what they get is nine civilian refugees from manila including jack-of-all-trades Pat (Ann Sothern) and former burlesque dancer Grace (Joan Blondell), trucked in by kind young nurse Flo Norris (Marsha Hunt).

The women aren’t exactly well-suited to their new jobs at the hospital, but with no other options, the arrangement will have to do. The women move into an underground bunker and prepare to get to work. Meanwhile, Japanese forces are moving ever-closer to Marivèles, adding to the hardship of the hospital staff.

Cry ‘Havoc’ was directed by Richard Thorpe and written for the screen by Paul Osborn, based on Allan Kenward’s play Proof Through the Night.

This war film is a special one: its cast is almost completely made up of women (save for the injured soldiers they’re helping). They’re a varied bunch.

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There’s Smitty, who keeps up a tough front to hide her own struggles; Pat, an outspoken woman with a bad attitude but a secret soft side; Grace, a witty show girl at first overwhelmed by the experience, but persevering to be as much help as she can; Sue, a sensitive girl struck by tragedy her first night at the hospital, and her protective sister, Andra. These are just five of the thirteen, making for a pretty packed cast, but each woman gets a scene or two to shine.

The film offers a dark look at the experience of nurses working in military field hospitals during World War II. Quite grim, though I’m sure not as grim as the reality. The viewer feels every part of the experience — the heartbreak of watching young men die, the struggle of trying to help injured people with few supplies and even fewer staff, the fear of experiencing an air raid, the contemplative daydreaming of bombless moments. There are a few lighter scenes throughout, but overall Cry ‘Havoc’ offers a serious take, and effectively so.

Fans of war films should take this opportunity to see a woman-focused portrayal of the World War II experience, a tale of nurses not nearly as schmaltzy as the modern corn classic Pearl Harbor. (I love that film for reasons of nostalgia, but this one does a much better job of emphasizing the heroism of war nurses!) I watched Cry ‘Havoc’ from TCM, but it’s also available on DVD from the Warner Archive. The score: 4/5

Also recommended, for similar viewing (with less star power):
Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) – A story of a female war hero, Violette Szabo
Millions Like Us (1943) – A film about women working in a British munitions factory
Bomb Girls (2012 – 2014) – A period television series about a Canadian weapons factory