Understood as a medical movie, Dark Victory might have been believable in 1939, but it is certainly farfetched today. Bette Davis play Judith Traherne, a young, rich woman with all the character flaws that might come from being rich: arrogant, spoiled, frivolous. Transcending all Judith’s character flaws, however, is her intensity. Actually, this intensity makes even her ordinary actions seem like vices. Just watching her walk across a room will wear you out. Having a conversation with her would be exhausting, even if you just let her do all the talking. By way of contrast, her boyfriend, Alec, played by Ronald Reagan, is cool and relaxed.
Judith suffers from headaches and double vision. Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), her secretary and friend, finally gets her to go to the doctor, and, not surprisingly, she is a bad patient. Despite her resistance, she is diagnosed as having a glioma, a growth in the brain. She consents to having surgery, but upon its completion, the prognosis is negative.
Negative, but preposterously precise: she will live less than a year, but she will have absolutely no symptoms until just a few hours before she dies, at which point her vision will begin to fail and things will become dark. The doctor says this is a rare case, which is an understatement, since it is so rare as to be nonexistent.
Well, they went to a lot of trouble to create this disease for this movie, so we know that something is up. Presumably, the point is to pose the question, what effect would the certainty of death have on someone once all the symptoms and suffering leading up to death had been eliminated? Judith will still be young, pretty, rich, and otherwise healthy. She has no accompanying complications, like still needing to work in order to pay the bills or worrying about who will care for her children, of which she has none. It is only death in all its purity that she must deal with.
Dr. Steele (George Brent), who performed the brain surgery, and Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), Judith’s family practitioner, agree not to tell Judith that she is going to die. We’ll skip over the ethical questions concerning their decision, made all the more suspect when Steele confides in Ann about Judith’s condition. Instead, we’ll consider only its dramatic function. After Steele and Judith fall in love and decide to get marry, she accidentally finds out about her negative prognosis. She becomes angry, accusing Ann of getting Steele to marry her out of pity.
As a result, the marriage between Steele and Judith is off, and she apparently descends into drunkenness and promiscuity, including affairs with married men. At least, that’s what the movie let’s us think for a while. She almost has an affair with Michael (Humphrey Bogart), her horse trainer, but then realizes that this is not how she wants to spend what is left of her life. That is not surprising. As much as we might enjoy such things, most people want more out of life than that. Similarly, at different points in the movie, the subjects of euthanasia and suicide are broached, but quickly dismissed. That too is not surprising, for most people regard deliberately ending a life of suffering, one’s own or that of another, as not being the answer either. Living just for the sake of pleasure seems as wrong to a lot of people as deliberately dying to end suffering. They are just the two sides of the pleasure principle, neither of which is enough for what we want out of life. At least, this is the attitude of the movie.
So, what is the answer? At first it would seem that the movie says we should live a life of deception and delusion. To begin with, the doctors and Ann lie to Judith about her condition, the idea being that she will be better off not knowing. Then, after Steele and Judith get married, they become deliberately oblivious to her illness, acting as though there is nothing wrong with her. Finally, just as Steele gets word of an invitation to attend an important meeting in New York regarding his work, Judith experiences a dimming of her vision and realizes she will soon die. But she deceives her husband, encouraging him to go on without her, which he does.
But this cannot be the answer. It is one thing to go on with your life without dwelling on the finality of death, but it is quite another thing live in perpetual denial. There is something almost desperate about their forced happiness. And it is untenable. When Michael casually refers to the prayers he has been saying for Judith, she flinches.
But before Steele leaves, she becomes realistic, speaks frankly about her fate, and says that she is prepared for the end. Still unaware that she can no longer see very well, Steele reluctantly leaves on his trip. Judith then tells Ann she wants to die alone, so that her husband will know that in the end she was not afraid. This is what we have been waiting for, courage and honesty in the face of death, and the peace that comes with resignation.
This movie is similar to The Hasty Heart (1949), set in a makeshift hospital in a jungle in Burma just after the end of World War II. Colonel Dunn, who appears to by the chief surgeon, tells the men that are still recovering from wounds or malaria that a new patient, a corporal that goes by the name “Lachie” (Richard Todd), will be arriving soon. On the last day of the war, a piece of shrapnel damaged one of his kidneys, which had to be removed. He has just about recovered from the surgery and appears to be well. Normally, he could get along with just one kidney for the rest of his life, but the doctors have discovered that the other one is defective. For the next few weeks, the kidney will do the work of two and then collapse. At that point uremic poisoning will set in and he will die.
All this is more believable than the disease in Dark Victory, but just barely. It seems a bit of a stretch that doctors in an army hospital in the jungle in Burma would be able to diagnose a kidney that is still functioning as being defective, and then give the prognosis that he will be free of symptoms for a few weeks and then die. However realistic all that may or may not be, it is clearly designed to serve the same function as in Dark Victory, to allow someone to face imminent death free of all symptoms or suffering.
Colonel Dunn has not told him, however, much in the way that the doctors in Dark Victory decide not tell Judith. And just as the doctors in Dark Victory told Ann about Judith’s prognosis, Dunn tells the men in the ward about Lachie, and he asks the men to keep the secret as well and to be extra nice to him. Once again, we have to wonder about the questionable ethics of not telling the patient that he is going to die, and then telling others who are not even related to him about his terminal disease. And just as Judith has no family when she is diagnosed with her disease, so too does Lachie have no family, “no ties.” Because of this, Dunn has decided not to let Lachie go back home to Scotland as he so dearly wants. Instead, Dunn has taken it upon himself to decide that Lachie will be better off if he is kept in this hospital, surrounded by men who have been ordered to be friends with him.
Lachie’s personality is every bit as intense as that of Judith. By way of contrast, Ronald Reagan, playing the role of “Yank,” is also in this movie, and here too he is cool and relaxed. Lachie hates the world and everyone that is in it. The explanation given for his misanthropy is the fact that he was born illegitimate. However, we have a hard time believing that this alone could make anyone as surly and hostile as he is. Had Yank been born illegitimate, we have the feeling he would have shrugged it off and made the best of it. In other words, Lachie’s personality is just one more contrivance, something made up for dramatic purposes only.
Patricia Neal plays a nurse, Sister Parker. She comes up with the idea of having a birthday party for Lachie, in which she and the men in the ward buy him a complete outfit consisting of a kilt and other stuff, all of which is rather expensive. Lachie is finally touched by their gesture of friendship. He begins to think he has been wrong about people. Soon after, he falls in love with Sister Parker, asking her to marry him. She says, “If it makes you happy to think of us being married, then that’s what I want too.” Now, you or I would have wondered why a nurse and other men in a ward, whom we had only know for a couple of weeks, would have spent so much money buying us gifts. And we would surely have balked at Parker’s answer to a proposal of marriage. But Lachie’s social skills are such that he suspects nothing.
Having gone this far with this deception, the only proper thing would be to see it through to the end. That is, when Lachie’s kidney begins to fail him, everyone should act surprised and sad. But no, just as Lachie has come to believe in friendship and love, Colonel Dunn tells him that he can go home after all. Moreover, because his is a special case, he gets priority and can even go home by plane. Why is he a special case, Lachie wants to know. Dunn says he has been ordered to give him the facts of the case, which is that he is going to die soon.
We may have had misgivings about the way the doctors handled Judith’s case, but at least Ann really was her friend, having been so before Judith was diagnosed, and Dr. Steele really did love her and want to marry her. But this handling of Lachie’s case is cruel. He sees immediately that the men were just pretending to be his friend and that Parker only pretended to want to marry him.
To make matters worse, after Dunn tells Lachie he is going to die, he doesn’t bother to tell the men whom he ordered to befriend Lachie that Lachie knows everything. He just walks past them, letting them make fools out of themselves by continuing to carry on the charade. Of course, when Parker finally tells them the cat’s out of the bag, they all protest that they only pretended at first, but now they really are his friends, and so forth and so on. When Lachie accuses Parker of accepting his proposal out of pity, she replies, “Surely there’s pity in every woman’s love.” Now, there’s a piece of sophistry for you.
Needless to say, through one more contrivance that we need not bother with here, Lachie is finally convinced that Parker and the men really are his friends, and he decides to stay. In the end, we are glad that he finally opens his heart, choosing to die among the only friends he has, just as we were glad in Dark Victory, when for the sake of those she loves, Judith chooses to die alone.