Cooper plays a real-life hero in this Cecil B. DeMille contribution to the war effort. Cooper is Dr. Corydon M. Wassell, a missionary doctor in China, and, after the outbreak of hostilities, a naval doctor stationed in Java. In the Japanese overrun of that island, he is placed in charge of
evacuating the wounded. In the end, as the front is collapsing on all sides, he is told to leave the stretcher cases behind. He disobeys and takes nine badly wounded men across the island by train, fighting most of the way. He then forces his way aboard one of the last ships out, which barely
escapes a Japanese blockade that claims a Dutch passenger ship filled with refugees who are also rescued. When he arrives with the wounded in Australia, Cooper fully expects to be court-martialed, but instead he is awarded with the Navy Cross.
DeMille was listening to the radio on May 26, 1942, during one of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" when the President told the story of Dr. Wassell and his heroic act. As soon as Roosevelt finished DeMille got a phone call from his own publicity man, who asked if DeMille had
heard and told him it would be a great subject for a film. DeMille agreed and set to work. His men tracked down Wassell and got his cooperation in return for $50,000 against ten percent of the gross, all of it to go to the Navy Relief Fund. Then they ran down all the men whom Wassell had saved and
got their testimony. (One of the men, Melvin Francis, was actually signed to play himself in the film.) Novelist James Hilton (Lost Horizon) then was given the raw material to make a fictional narrative from which a script was then adapted, Hilton's narrative later emerging itself in book form.
The jungle scenes were shot largely in Mexico, with the Mexican army filling in for the Japanese. (DeMille had also demanded the services of the U.S. Navy, as well as those of Dr. Wassell, but Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told the imperious director, "You can have Dr. Wassell, but the navy is
rather busy nowadays.") While shooting some background footage in Mexico, second unit director Hal Rosson heard that a peasant had dislodged a rock with a plow. Steam started to erupt from the ground and within a couple of weeks there was a volcanic cone some two hundred feet high spewing lava and
rocks. DeMille immediately dispatched the crew to the scene and hastily wrote a volcanic eruption into the script, writing in his notebook, "It's an ill volcano that never does anybody any good." Rosson took his crew to within a half-mile of the crater, rocks crashing all around them, to get the
spectacular, if utterly extraneous, shots. Most of the criticism of the picture centered on the way DeMille had loaded the stirring, true story with every Hollywood cliche he could find, from a romance with a nurse to Javanese dancing girls. Cooper is as strong and laconic as ever, but he simply
has too much to do, proving his heroism and sheer perfection more than any real person could. Dr. Wassell called the film 98 percent documentary, but no doubt he was being kind. In fact he fought against the Hollywoodization of his life, but to no avail. The film was fairly successful at the box
office and DeMille and Wassell went on tour across the country drumming up support for the movie and the war effort. The film earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects.
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- Review: Cooper plays a real-life hero in this Cecil B. DeMille contribution to the war effort. Cooper is Dr. Corydon M. Wassell, a missionary doctor in China, and, after the outbreak of hostilities, a naval doctor stationed in Java. In the Japanese overrun of that… (more)