The other night I re-watched "The Proud and the Profane," a big, blowsy, fun, old-fashioned, bodice-ripper melodrama from 1956 starring William Holden, Deborah Kerr, Thelma Ritter and Dewey Martin. William Holden is Colin Black, a "half-breed" – what an ugly word – lieutenant colonel. Deborah Kerr is Lee Ashley, a war widow and Red Cross worker. They meet in New Caledonia in 1943, during World War II.
"The Proud and the Profane" is like a Douglas Sirk movie, although it was not directed by Sirk, but by George Seaton, more famous for lighter fare like "Miracle on 34th Street." In Douglas Sirk movies, passion wrestles with social convention. Just so here. Lee is all but virginal and Colin pursues her like a panting hound after a scared bunny. There is an unintentionally hilarious sequence where Lee and Colin begin a conversation in street clothes, continue in more casual attire, and finally conclude their conversation while wearing bathing suits. This is no doubt meant to symbolize their letting their guard down.
Another symbolic gesture is Colin's stick. He carries a stick that may be a riding crop, though he's never seen on a horse, or an arrow, symbolizing his Indian ancestry – I'm not sure. He beats the stick against his palm a lot. Okay, maybe it's just a phallic symbol.
Though it is not an artistically or intellectually ambitious film, it features one of the most arresting, provocative, and squirm-inducing scenes I've ever seen in any movie.
Lee is Little Miss Perfect: gorgeous, spotless, polite, above-it-all. You assume that her marriage to her late husband Howard Ashley, who died in the Battle of Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal, was a perfect marriage.
Towards the end of the film Lee goes to visit the cemetery for American soldiers who died fighting the Japanese. The cemetery is heartbreaking – it's a vast expanse of white crosses and stars of David under the tropical sun. You can't help but think of, shed a tear for, and be grateful to all the American GIs who sacrificed their lives so that we could enjoy all we do.
There is a solider hanging around the cemetery. His entire unit was killed at Bloody Ridge. He spends his days tending their graves and talking to them. He points to two graves. He says something like "There's Martini. There's Goldberg. They didn't like each other. They're getting along fine, now." As he speaks of these traumatic events, this soldier maintains a smile. It's eerie.
He doesn't know who Lee is. He thinks she's just a Red Cross worker. He speaks freely about Lee's late husband, Howard. He reveals that Howard was miserable in his marriage to Lee. Finally after he has said enough to completely turn Lee's life, heart, and guts upside down, he asks her name. She says, "Mrs. Howard Ashley." The soldier is gobsmacked. It's an amazing scene.
There's another surprisingly relevant aspect to this movie. "The Proud and the Profane" is based on a novel, "Magnificent Bastards." That title alludes to a thrust of the plot. Colin Black is not just a horndog chasing after super-pure Lee Ashley. He is a soldier, with all that that implies. He is passionate, brutal, direct. He reminds Lee that one has to express one's dark side to do what war demands: kill people and break things. The movie's job is to make virginal Lee appreciate earthy Colin, and vice versa.
In addition to these big themes, you get to watch two beautiful people chase each other around swaying palms and across sandy beaches. In fact Kerr lolls lustfully on a beach in a bathing suit in this film, just as she does in "From Here to Eternity." Holden's great beauty is marred by the heavy makeup he wears in order to look Indian. For me, a Golden Age film buff, the heavy makeup just adds to the film's corny appeal.
Dewey Martin plays the minor character Eddie Wodcik. Wodcik is a ghetto kid. He is impulsive, not very bright, not in control of his feelings, violent, ineffectual, tragic, and doomed. Eddie had grown up in a ghetto. He was an orphan. His sister died in a tenement fire. Lee looks like his sister so he becomes irresistibly drawn to her. He follows her around like a puppy and beats up anyone who insults her. When he sees that Colin has hurt Lee, he tries to stab Colin. He fails. Colin is the hero, after all. Colin hears Eddie sneaking up on him and trips him. Eddie later dies in combat.
Eddie had to be a Polak. The characteristics that the filmmaker wanted for this character mesh perfectly with the Polak stereotype.