#9 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This movie’s IMDB rating is a shame. 5.9/10? No, not in the least, does this movie deserve that. This is very good, a missing ten minute segment from actual greatness, and if the general reputation of the film is in line with that appalling rating, then that’s a travesty. I’ve seen it dismissed as melodrama, and while it does have melodramatic elements, it’s handled soberly and intelligently in a way that creates actual emotional connection. This is an absolute gem from Hawks’ thirties output. The key to it working, I think, is how the film manages its tone.
Set during World War I, the opening twenty minutes of the film is probably the best I’ve ever seen in a Hawks movie. Centered on Joan Crawford’s Ann Boyce, the daughter of an aristocrat who has fallen on such hard times that she has to sell the house to an American, she receives word that her father was killed in action on the same day that Gary Cooper’s Bogard has come to take possession of the house. Her quite, British, stiff upper lip attitude to the cacophony of tragedies ranging from the death of her father to the loss of her ancestral home and even to the departure of her brother, Ronnie, and childhood sweetheart, Claude, for active service in the navy. The quiet sadness that permeates every moment of this first twenty minutes, every interaction and line of dialogue, is palpable. Very little needs to actually be said in order to feel the sense of loss and dread that has descended upon this family as The Great War ravages through it.
Then, the movie makes its only real mistake. You see, this is the tale of a love triangle (the stuff of melodrama), and the film makes absolutely no effort to actually tell the story of Ann and Bogard falling in love. In one scene she’s fighting back tears as she tries to keep her composure after having just learned of her father’s death while showing Bogard around her father’s office, and the next scene Bogard waits for Ann to leave her house and they bicycle together for a bit before both confess their love for each other. There’s at least one scene missing here as Bogard tries to get close to this beautiful and sad woman while she realizes what he’s doing, the feelings in her own heart, and the obligation she has to Claude, with whom she has become engaged.
Anyway, Claude and Ronnie go to war in the navy, and Bogard feels a certain fervor to join in the fight, even as an American, and he joins the Royal Air Force before quickly being declared dead in the papers during a training flight. Heartbroken, Ann joins the army as a nurse and goes to France, posted near Claude. The three all end up meeting up in a way where Ann discovers that Bogard is alive, having joined the American pilots after the American involvement in the war, Bogard learns of Ann’s engagement to Claude, and Claude knows nothing of Bogard and Ann’s affection for each other. All Claude knows of Bogard is that he bought Ann’s house.
Up to this point, I was a bit wary of the movie. I had loved the first twenty minutes, but the jumpstart of the romance between Ann and Bogard had put me off a bit. I also couldn’t get the IMDB rating out of my head, knowing that the movie was going to turn south and become pure melodrama at some point. And then Bogard offered to take Claude up in his airplane on an actual bombing mission, and I realized it was never actually going to become melodrama. This was clear-eyed and almost vicious character drama, helped immeasurably by the quiet and straightforward tone of the film.
Bogard flies a bomber, and he’s lost his last three gunners at the front of the plane in only a couple of weeks. So, when Bogard offers to show Claude what the war is like in the air by putting him in the gunnery, he’s not offering a nice view, he’s offering what should be a death sentence to his rival for Ann’s heart. This doesn’t get played up, and I could even imagine some audience members missing it, but it’s definitely the only way to read the section of the film. With that in the back of our minds as an audience, the bombing run (using a lot of footage from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and Hawks’ own The Dawn Patrol) becomes all the more tense. Bogard is essentially trying to murder Claude, and Claude has no idea.
When Ronnie comes to the officer’s mess after Bogard lands the plane safely (with one unreleased bomb barely hanging on and barely clearing the ground so it doesn’t go off when they land), Ronnie knows instantly what’s happened and what Bogard had tried to do. He knows from Ann that she and Bogard have feelings for each other, but being a proper British gentleman, he doesn’t make a show. Instead, he invites the same danger to Bogard as Bogard had invited to Claude. He invites Bogard onto their boat the next day, and Bogard knows exactly what’s being offered of him, accepting. What makes this all work is how subtly it’s all played. If there were some big blowup, this would all instantly descend into melodrama, but by playing it all quietly and coolly, it remains quietly effective drama.
The trip out on the boat is similar. The boat carries a single torpedo that it releases a few dozen feet from an enemy ship before veering off to the side. The torpedo release mechanism isn’t ideal and often fails to actually drop the torpedo into the water, increasing the amount of time the boat is within firing range of the ships’ guns and small arms from the men on deck. As they do their run against a German vessel, a shell explodes nearby, blinding Claude. Bogard knows he has no chance against Claude now. Ann will follow through on her promise to Claude and care for the disabled man lovingly and fully for the rest of her life, so he volunteers for a suicide mission to bomb a destroyer in a key position that blocks a mole from a land invasion for the British. Claude learns of this through Ronnie (as well as Ann’s love for Bogard), and he decides that Ann can’t be left with a cripple for a husband. He convinces Ronnie to take their boat out and get to the targeted destroyer first, using their torpedo to do the work so that Bogard won’t have to.
Now, a quick note about action climaxes. Getting several different pieces together into the same place from different starting places is a challenge to write. Oftentimes writers rely on coincidence to get all of the pieces in place, but it’s far more satisfying for the audience when characters make affirmative choices that drive them to that spot. Here, at the climax of Today We Live, we have exactly the latter. Bogard makes his choice to fly the mission. Claude makes his choice to sacrifice himself instead. Ronnie makes his choice to help Claude. All three end up veering towards the same target at the same time. It’s not an artificial ticking clock, it’s one flying machine against a machine speeding over water.
In terms of the actual resolution, I think I might have gone a different direction than it actually chooses, but it handles the choice with tact, ending the film with a quiet moment with Ann in her family church.
I do not understand the negative appraisal of Today We Live. This is a wonderful film that may be missing some early elements to give it full emotional connection, but the rest of the movie is a surprisingly sober and quietly told story of love in a time of war. It’s about men competing over a woman in one of the most dangerous spheres of war humanity as ever seen. It’s really well acted, looks great, is well written, and directed pretty much perfectly by Hawks, managing to balance a delicate tone that holds everything together.