What Price Glory? is an anti-war comedy, along the same lines as M*A*S*H. It’s a silent film, made by Fox in 1926, and re-released in 1927 using new technology to include sound effects and music. It was adapted from a successful but controversial 1924 play. The language and disrespect for military traditions both caused offense. The film version had no issues with language, except for people who could read lips and understand the generous profanities the actors used. There were complaints, but mouthed though unheard and untitled obscenities did not break any censorship rules. However, the disrespect for military traditions caused the film to be banned in Nova Scotia.
The story tells of two rowdy US Marines, who alternately fight together and with each other. Set in France, during World War I, both men are trying to win the affections of a French girl, improbably portrayed by Mexican star Delores Del Rio. Realistic battle scenes and the dynamic relationship between the two men contributed to the film’s success, and the two male leads continued their characters in a series of buddy comedies.
Anti-war films, and any films that showed the military in a negative light, or showed anything close to the realities of warfare, were usually banned in Canada during World War One. Under the War Measures Act, the federal government had the power to censor films, but in practice the understaffed federal military censors relied on, and received, the enthusiastic cooperation of provincial film censors. Following the war, as the grim realities sunk in, there was some opposition to the extensive censorship that had occurred, and support for anti-war sentiments. What Price Glory? could never have been shown during the war, but a decade later it was approved in every province – except Nova Scotia.
Film censor Colonel C. E. Bent, a veteran of the war, later explained why he condemned the film.
One of the reasons I gave for condemnation was ‘holding the discipline of the Army up to ridicule.’ Certain scenes between an Officer and a Sergeant showing them arguing and even fighting over a girl was, to my mind an insult to the Army in Peace or War. It certainly could never happen in our Army, they why should a picture be shown that would create a wrong impression on the minds of those who were not permitted to serve? The memory of the days of war, the wonderful discipline, the unparalleled examples of devotion to duty, the great comradeship, the sacrifice, is too real and far too sacred for me to allow it to be treated lightly.
The distributor appealed, and the appeal upheld the ban. The Casino Theatre in Halifax opposed the ban, and showed slides before other films advertising that What Price Glory? was banned, but only in Nova Scotia. This did not always have the desired effect. One patron wrote the Evening Mail to thank God for the Nova Scotia Censors, and praise them for ensuring that “Nova Scotia is holding herself just a little higher than her sister provinces.”
The Casino Theatre also arranged for a private showing in January of 1928, hoping publicity might overturn the ban. Following the showing, at least two local papers voiced support for the film, and the head of the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Canada wrote to Premier Rhodes to request the ban be overturned. The letter pointed out that while Colonel Bent may not have approved of the military portrayal in the film, the story concerned the US Military. “Applying British ideas and ideals to the story, there is something to be said against it, nevertheless the picture is frankly American and all other British Censor Boards have taken this view.”
Promoting the American nature of the military portrayal was a risky argument. Anti-American feeling was high in Canada, over trade issues and their late entry into the War. Censors in all provinces routinely cut “gratuitous displays of the American flag” and were particularly sensitive to American war films that ignored the contributions of Canadians. However, as one paper noted, the nationality of the soldiers was not unduly stressed in What Price Glory?
The Premier responded that while the Board may have erred in banning the film, he could not overturn their ruling. He noted that if he were to express such a lack of confidence in the Board, he would then have to either review all films personally, or hire a new Board. More seriously, he pointed out that the Board of Appeal had twice rejected the film, and that three of the seven appeal board members were appointed by the owner of the Casino Theatre.
The Association tried again, complaining that because only Nova Scotia banned the film, this was another example of burdensome “local prejudice.”
For example – A picture is put on the screen in which a Salvation Army lassie appears and immediately the Salvation Army raises a protest. Another picture presents a Boy Scout in a way that Boy Scouts do not appreciate, another protest is made to some local Censor Board. … we can only be successful in our business if Censorship in the eight provinces is based on general principles, rather than on local prejudice.
This was a doomed argument, since the provincial censors took pride in reflecting the concerns of their populations. The censors had decided in 1921 to move to a single national set of standards, based on the Ontario guidelines. However, in 1922, the censor for Alberta, mindful of the population mix there, suggested that banning all German films should be left up to the individual provinces. When the dust settled, the censors decided the provinces could not share standards, since “each province has a different class of people.” In recent decades there have been some sharing agreements, but Canada still has seven boards to approve and classify films, for the eleven provinces and territories that require it (the Yukon and Newfoundland do not).
The Secretary and the Chair of the Censor Board both wrote the Premier to insist that that ban stay in place, pointing out that, in addition to the offensive nature of the film, the distributor was probably hoping to capitalize on the publicity, and this should not be allowed. A couple of Legions sent telegrams insisting the ban stay in place. The North Sydney branch declared “We who know the price of glory do not want to see it prostituted before the public.” The Premier promised the Legion that he would uphold the decision of the Board of Censors.
Eventually the film was approved, and it now has a G rating. The Maritime Film Board ratings database shows the approval date as 1928, however this date was estimated in the 1980s, and may not be accurate. Board records are not archived, and the information about this film has been obtained from archival records of the Premier’s correspondence.
The film was remade in 1952, directed by John Ford and starring James Cagney, but an attempt to make it more humorous and less anti-war, in keeping with the tone of the times, resulted in a dull and unsuccessful film. The 1952 version has not been approved for showing in Nova Scotia, but it has probably never been submitted.
Colonel Bent of the Censor Board, members of the Legion, and some members of the public wanted to avoid saying anything bad about war, but there was also local support for an antiwar message. The labour oriented Halifax Citizen newspaper not only praised the film, but felt people should see it, and criticized past support for the war.