#27 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford was really good with endings, I’m beginning to realize. It’s been obvious that his greatest strength up to this point in his career was bringing in a bunch of different narrative pieces into a singular set piece. The overall strength of the film really depended on the quality of what came before. Oftentimes the films are simply too short for the amount that goes in, but there’s a very nice balance to be found in Men Without Women. The opening is very loose, but we get a surprisingly focused situation through the final half of the film that ends really well.
The only existing copy of Men Without Women left is an international edition. Filmed for sound in English, the copy left uses English intertitles (I believe they were recreated decades later) while the original sound is either gone completely or heavily muffled and out of synch with the picture. I was thinking of how the British film system had decided to film two copies of Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder!, the German version being titled Mary (similar to the American and Spanish versions of the classic Dracula). It really seems like studios in the early talkie era really had no idea how to release films in markets with different languages. Subtitles would eventually come along, but until then, studios were going in all kinds of directions.
Anyway, the weird way this copy still exists doesn’t really negatively affect the film overall too much. It’s obvious that it was filmed for sound, and the worst part is when intertitles come up in conversations on film obviously directed for sound, breaking the flow of scenes in more pronounced ways than in naturally silent films.
Anyway, it’s the story of a naval crew on a submarine leaving port from China. The first fifteen minutes or so is the crew ending their shore leave. This is the sort of side-character loving stuff that Ford had become well-known for. There are sailors buying vases for their mothers back home, some looking for good times with prostitutes (this was pre-Code), and generally just getting really drunk (again, pre-Code). It’s lightly amusing stuff, but it obfuscates who this story is actually about. Our first clue to who the center of this story comes as the sub leaves dock and the captain of a battleship seems to recognize one of the sailors, the chief torpedoman Burke (Kenneth MacKenna). In addition, the character of Albert Price (Frank Albertson) from Salute appears, graduated as an ensign, as the newest member of the crew, coming aboard for his first voyage with the ship.
Something goes wrong very soon after they leave port. The engine room floods, killing everyone there and stalling the ship, keeping it from moving. There’s also damage to both torpedo tubes, and the men cannot get off the ship. The bulk of the film is the crew on the submarine’s bridge, left with Ensign Price as the senior officer, trying to buy time with their limited oxygen supply while the radio operator sends out S.O.S. messages. The crew grows increasingly frantic with Burke keeping hold of the oxygen tank, trying to slowly dose out the gas to elongate the crew’s ability to survive (I’m not entirely sure how doling it out in small bits would be great for survival, but sure). People go crazy, and one even needs to get shot.
The truth of Burke’s past begins to come out at the same time. It turns out that he was a British officer, a captain of a ship that got sunk on a secret mission that, the court marshal determined, was either his fault or the fault of Burke’s girl back home in England. He knows that he didn’t give up the information, it was probably her. However, because the crown sees him as killed in action, they laid the blame on him. He then took on a new identity of join the American navy. Concurrently, we hear about Ensign Price’s girl back home, and how he wants to go back to her.
Time goes on, and a destroyer receives their message and comes to rescue them. However, it is of course the ship captained by the man who could identify Burke’s past and take him back to England. The torpedo tube gets cleared, allowing the surviving men to be released from the sub one at a time, but one man will have to stay behind to shoot the second to last man out, doomed to stay and die with the ship. Ensign Price, as the commanding officer, decides that it must be him who stays behind, however, Burke can’t go up and not only face his own previous failings of not having gone down with his previous ship but also make it known that his girl back in England is a traitor. It’s the kind of perfect little encapsulation of events that the movie rather adeptly builds up to. This conflict of duties in two men bound by duty is really well executed.
The first half is loose and sometimes hard to follow. The second half is clear-eyed and comes to a great conclusion. The health of the existing print means that we’ll never see it as originally released in America, but I think it’s good enough on its own. It’s a solid story of men in the military, a favorite subject of Ford’s, and I think it ends up working quite well.