It’s 1906, The Philippines. After America took control of the region following the Spanish/American War of 1898. The indigenous people, the Moro, have long resisted outside forces and their reaction to the American occupiers is no different. Rather than go “full nuclear” in taking down the treat, the US military decide to send in a few officers and train up the locals to deal with the problem.
Things start relatively calmly as the locals begin their training. Then, a fanatical Muslim hacks down the camp commanding officer, inciting fear in the camp. What are the residents there supposed to do? It took several bullets to put down the Moro attacker. What happens if more follow the same path?
A reasonably dark start, but one that soon, unfortunately, degrades into whimsy. People get killed and there’s the sense of drama on occasion – a chase across a rope bridge in particular – but otherwise it’s a tonal mess. Is it a comedy, a drama about Christianity vs Islam, an expose on Western colonialism? All three of these things?
The inconsistencies don’t end with the tone. A woman shows up for a bit, serves no purpose, and then gets ready to leave again. It’s all about the soft focus, really.
It’s actually quite insensitive by modern standards. One scene sees Gary Cooper threatening to bury a devout Muslim inside a pig skin, as revenge for attacking American soldiers. While the scene is effective, it makes your skin crawl at the same time.
Then again, it’s 1939 depicting 1906, so it’s going to be insensitive to modern notions one way or another.
Then, you know, there’s an outbreak of cholera, resulting in a montage that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film. Mad scientists would delight in this sort of thing. There’s a plan to un-dam the river so that the camp can get fresh water again, but there’s a lot of indecision about whether this is viable. Turns out, with the Moro infesting the forest, it isn’t that great an idea.
Some class and verve is provided by David Niven. I mean, it has to have class – it’s David Niven. With that said, seeing him effortlessly manning a machine gun is one of the film’s highlights. In a close second is watching the Muslim attackers using catapults to fling themselves over the defending walls. Some of the catapulting… doesn’t work out. To unintentionally hilarious effect, I have to admit. An interesting tactic, but one that definitely looks ridiculous in practice.
Gary Cooper is our lead though, the camp doctor (not a camp doctor, the camp doctor). This is the first time I’ve seen him in a film, so I can’t say anything about his performances elsewhere yet. Here though he’s the only other genuine standout performer besides Niven, and clearly talented enough to carry much of the film. Without him I’m sure The Real Glory would be less notable in the annals of film history.
So an interesting film for its setting and historical context, not so interesting in terms of its execution.