Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by I Was a Male War Bride‘s uniquely matter-of-fact feminism. Howard Hawks’ movies have some of the toughest, smartest, sexiest female characters in all of 20th century cinema. But even given Hawks’ frequent highlighting of bright, competent women, I Was a Male War Bride feels radical. If this film were made today, rather than in 1949, some would call it feminist propaganda. The opposite of reactionary, the film embraces social change, seeming to say, “Sure change is uncomfortable, but it’s not the end of the world. Get flexible boys, and remember what matters.”
Set in Europe at the end of World War II, War Bride is a romantic comedy detailing the travails of a dueling french captain (male) and an American lieutenant (female) forced to work together. The story is that of two journeys: a professional mission from army headquarters to Bad Nauheim (impeded by personal conflict, weather and technological challenges) and a personal mission from love towards marriage and togetherness, (impeded by army regulation and societal expectation). The title suggests a broad, slapstick farce, perhaps even a conservative one. But while the film has slapstick elements, it’s actually a lighthearted romantic comedy that wrestles thoughtfully with changing gender roles during the World War II era .
While many of Hawks’ films are crisp ensemble pieces, “War Bride” has just two real characters : Henry Rochard and Catherine Gates (Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan). It’s a film about a man and a woman navigating a romantic partnership in a changing world. Nothing else. It isn’t worried about the concerns of a whole community (not yet). Instead, it pares its focus down to the smallest possible social unit: the romantic partnership.
Sheridan is an absolutely modern woman here, even by today’s standards. An army lieutenant working in translation, she’s direct, capable, good-natured and inventive. She pilots a motorcycle and speaks multiple languages. She wears both skirts and pants with equal aplomb (though never an evening gown). Her army co-workers, male and female, treat her with evident respect (gender doesn’t seem to be an issue in this version of the army). And the best part is that she falls into none of the current tropes of the professional woman– she isn’t lonely, uptight, workaholic, or controlling. Instead she is warm, funny Ann Sheridan, whose big, sensual laugh punctuates the film. That laugh could serve as a Howard Hawks emblem- a sexy open-hearted guffaw in the face of each frustration and trial, reminding us of Hawks ethos: Do your duty but never take anything too seriously— not work, not romance, not regulations.
Cary Grant is equally likable and compelling. And he is the hinge of the piece, the character who must face the most discomfort and do the most changing. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor making this part so believable and so sympathetic. Cary Grant’s filmic masculinity is varied and fluid. He is libidinous, virile, blundering and boorish. He is also elegant, sly, sensitive and sheepish. He is, perhaps, a masculine version of the fluid eternal feminine, perfectly suited to a film that eventually suggests male identity need not be absolute. Grant’s masculinity can tolerate being humbled and changed without being denatured.
In the beginning of the film, Henry and Catherine aren’t a happy team. On past missions, Henry has behaved as an arrogant lothario, treating Catherine with old -world disdain, dismissing her ideas and mocking her competence, all while openly angling for a quick roll in the hay. In their final mission together, his arrogant position finally becomes untenable. Circumstances repeatedly force him into an inferior role, while establishing Catherine’s remarkable competence: The motor pool is out of jeeps and she is the one with a motorcycle permit; Henry’s stuck in the side car. They meet a road blockade, so she comes up with the plan to take a boat . The boat reaches a disastrous waterfall and she saves their lives. And so on.
But despite Catherine’s evidenced prowess, Henry dismisses her offers to help with his official task. In fact, he orders her to stay away. This being a movie, Henry hereupon happens into unexpected trouble and ends up in the local jail. Frustrated with his condescending behavior, Sheridan lets him stew in stir while completing his mission herself. But, importantly, she isn’t a jerk about it. When she realizes she’s usurped his last mission (he is about to complete his army service), she apologizes with real depth of feeling. And just as Catherine isn’t a jerk, it turns out Henry isn’t either. His humiliations in the face of her competence have taught him something. He slowly comes to see her as a whole person, not just sexy, but bright, useful and sensitive. His willingly releases his old world attitude and embraces the new world woman he’s come to admire. And because this is Cary Grant– lusty, playful, self-deprecating– we believe in his change of heart.
Most movies would end here, but Hawks isn’t done with poor Henry yet. Grant must face a whole new legion of frustrations and humiliations before he reaches his reward. The American army isn’t used to having foreign ex-military (male) and domestic current military (female) marry, and they don’t make it easy. Before even once spending the night in his new wife’s arms, Henry has Sisyphean tasks before him. He must fill out reams of paperwork, visit countless officials, endure three marriage ceremonies (church, civilian and an army ceremony), spend the night in a bathtub, spend another sleepless evening being rejected from every army hostel or public hotel in town because he doesn’t fit any recognized category ( neither civilian, nor armed forces, he’s a male “war bride”), argue with various army/navy personnel and, finally, impersonate a woman, all in order to be allowed to board a ship bound for home with his wife. And to be allowed a good night’s sleep, in a bed, with his wife.
In the first act, Henry has to let go of old pride and old rules in order to be with the woman he most desires. But even though he changes, there’s still the rest of civilization, the second act, to wrestle with. Cultures get rigid in the face of change, as we see personified in every grouchy soldier and unaccommodating hotel clerk that bar him from a good night’s sleep. But Henry soldiers on. He’s committed to his new partnership. And he’ll pay just about any price to see it through. It’s telling that his last humiliation involves dressing as a WAC to get on board ship. Henry makes a peculiar looking female, but the ruse gets him ship-board. And indicates how fluid his identity has become. A man who’ll dress as a woman to be with the woman he loves is a man prioritizing togetherness over social norms. And his sacrifice pays off.
He’s been stripped of sleep, uniform, rank, and some dignity, but not what’s essential. In the last scene, he’s caught impersonating a female soldier and is thrown in the brig. But when Sheridan shows up to get him released, he determines to stay put, in the brig, where he can be alone with his wife. Throwing the brig’s key through the port hole, he gives his wife a very hearty embrace. She responds with her lusty laugh. It’s clear what they’ll be doing for the duration of the journey. Changing gender roles haven’t upended his natural, primal instincts. The essence of his masculine identity is perfectly intact. And it’s Henry’s flexibility, his willingness to be humbled, that has delivered him.