This summer is the 59th since our victory in the Second World War. Fortunately, the memory of the war remains strong and even is growing among some young people, keeping alive the "mystic chords of memory" that should help to bind a society together as one people. That is no small achievement in our ever forward-looking land, whose history is under unrelenting multicultural assault by the Left. This healthy symptom of our moral and social condition was strengthened by the dedication of the World War II memorial in May, in the moving presence of thousands of aging veterans, and the observance in June of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Both inspired an unusually retrospective, elegiac mood. Our people cannot be reminded enough of the true glory of our country's past, and the nobility of the principles for which our young men have shed so much blood. (At one of the veterans' presentations organized on the Mall by the Smithsonian, one girl in her twenties broke into tears as she emotionally told a panelistwho had just related his experience being shot down behind enemy lines in Italy"You are my heroes.") Many also need to be taught some basic facts that any self-respecting citizen should know and that should be common knowledge in a vital, healthy American society: a Gallup poll taken from May 21-23, 2004, found that 37 percent of Americans (53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds) could not correctly identify Germany as our enemy on D-Day.
Films, at their best, are uniquely suited by the vividness of their medium to give voice to the mystic chords of our nation's experience of World War IIespecially the unimaginable ordeals endured by average men and boys, and the valor that so many found inside their souls when put to the test. But there really are not many memorable Hollywood films about the war. Those made during the war tend to be morale-boosting action pictures for an audience that hardly was in the mood for profundity or realism. Those made in the decades after the war tended to be limited in any effort to plumb greater depths by prevailing restrictions of good taste in the treatment of violence. Filmmakers could not even dream of trying to portray the raw psychological and physical horrors of war until traditional restraints had begun to collapse in the '60s and '70sbut the Vietnam era was hardly the time for ambitious films about the "good war."
The value of the films made in wartime, which are the focus of this essay, is that they can capture the feel of the period in a way that is difficult to replicate later. The two films that do this most successfully are not about action in war, but about the homefront and the readjustment of combatants to civilian life. These films are "Since You Went Away" (1944) and one of the greatest of all films (the greatest in Bette Davis's opinion), "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946).
"Since You Went Away's" credits roll against a background of a burning fireplace. "This picture is dedicated to the unconquerable fortress...the American Home...1943" proclaims the opening title. For three hours (very long for a picture in those days) we are back in wartime. Although inevitably romanticized, the film nevertheless has many telling incidents and scenes that resonate across six decades: The feeling of togetherness, as when the grocer makes a delivery and asks Anne Hilton, the mother (Claudette Colbert), if, after the war, her husband (now in the Army) can help his son get a start in the advertising business, to which she cheerfully agrees. (The boy later is killed in a training accident). Separation heightens anxiety, as when Anne and her two daughters miss their rendezvous with their husband and father, who has a short furlough, at a hotel in another city; their (typically) overcrowded train was delayed because precedence had to be given to the many troop and supply trains, whose domination of rail traffic evidenced the immensity of the war effort. And fear shadows the romance of the older daughter, Jane (Jennifer Jones) with a young corporal, Joe (Robert Walker); their classic railway station departure scene ends with a black shadow enveloping the girl left standing, tearful, on the now empty platform.
At this point the film has turned darker and somber. Anne receives what no one wanted to get in those days, the knock at the front door announcing the dreaded telegram, which advises that her man is missing in action in the Pacific theater. A short time later she takes delivery of the telegram stating that Joe has been killed in action at Salerno, and has to break the news to Jane. Jane, whom the war has matured beyond her years, then becomes a nurse's aide and works at a hospital with wounded boys (as they were called then), who are suffering from what we now call "battle fatigue." Reflecting the new, healthier attitudes of wartime, the hospital scene gives the film the opportunity to include a recuperating black soldier, as it had noted a black officer bidding good-bye to his wife and children at the train station. The hospital psychiatrist is named Dr. Sigmund Gottlieb. (Seen perhaps as tokenism today, these were harbingers of positive change in attitudes at the time.) The film ends on a note of hope (as every movie had to in those daysand why not?), but it is rich in genuine feeling. This intelligent movie was produced and written by David O. Selznick four years after he had made "Gone With the Wind."
Like "Since You Went Away," "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) is valuable as something of a time capsule of the period. The deep focus cinematography of the great Gregg Toland (who did the same with "Citizen Kane" ) gives the film an especially realistic "look," as do the very long takes by director William Wyler; the much longer takes, without direct intervention by the director or editor, draw the viewer into the film in a particularly compelling manner.
In the beginning, three returning servicemen have hitched a ride home to "Boone City" (some of the film's exterior shots were filmed in Cincinnati) in the nose of a B-17, where they get a close-up look of "the good old USA." They are an Army sergeant returning to his life as a banker, Al (Fredric March, who won the best acting Oscar); a bombardier, Fred (Dana Andrews), who knows only that he's definitely not going back to his prewar job behind a soda fountain; and a sailor (Homer) wearing two hooks, having lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was hit by a kamikaze (Harold Russell, a non-professional actor who really had lost his hands, in a training accident).
The homecoming sequence is seen from the aircraft and then the back seat of their taxi: They spot all the quotidian places that spell "Home""good old Jackson High," the ball park, main street with its Woolworth's, a young mother pushing her baby's stroller, the roadside diner (Hamburgers at 5 cents!). Then the cab turns up Homer's block as he nervously counts the address numbers. His homecoming begins with Wyler's shot from inside the house's screen door, from which Homer's little sister, Louella, sights him standing on the walk. She calls out, "Mommy, Mommy. It's Homer. Homer's home"before dashing ecstatically outside and running into his arms, crying. Next, with the camera now looking out from inside the cab's door window, we see Homer's parents and girlfriend run out and embrace him. The scene, with only one close-up, dramatizing the experience of millions of American families, is sublime. Wyler also shoots Al's homecoming from a distance - his camera is at the end of the apartment hallway, down which Al eagerly steps until his outstretched arms reach out to his very surprised wife, Milly (Myrna Loy). Wyler's understatement makes both scenes memorable and timeless, as moving today as sixty years ago. Hugo Friedhofer wrote one of the absolute greatest musical scores - much of it consisting of rather halting variations on "Taps," thereby capturing the apprehension and anxiety that the men face on returning to civilian life from a nightmare world their loved ones can never understand. For Homer's homecoming, a chirping flute (representing Louella's excitement), breaks into a rich treatment of the reuniting theme as the whole family embraces on the lawn. The music sings of boundless joy and this is one of the great moments in film scoring.
After its extended homecoming scenes (almost one hour), "Best Years" then devotes its next two hours to the adjustments of the three men. Al, haunted by his memory of "the other guys," will never again be comfortable with his "nice fat job in a nice fat bank," and turns increasingly to alcohol. Fred finds that his skill and heroism dropping bombs count for nothing as he tries to escape from behind the old soda fountain. And Homer, riven with inner conflict, repeatedly spurns the entreaties of his boyhood sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). Written by Robert E. Sherwood (prominent playwright and FDR speechwriter) from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor, "Best Years" unerringly captures the American mood of 1945-46: We had whipped the Nazis and the Japanese, but we weren't boasting. Now it was time to get on with real life, which hopefully would be more bountiful than the Depression years. The film was a huge, huge hit and swept the Academy Awards, beating out "It's A Wonderful Life." To do fuller justice to this magnificent achievement requires a separate essay.
A British film that, like "Best Years," seems to capture the feel of the period, is "In Which We Serve" (1943). Starring, written and directed by Noel Coward (assisted by David Lean), it uses flashbacks of back home to tell us the story of the crew of H.M.S. Torrin, a destroyer sunk in the Battle of Crete in May 1941. It is based on the story of Lord Louis Mountbatten's destroyer, H.M.S. Kelly. A good film, it joins Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's superb drama, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943) and their "A Canterbury Tale" (1944) as the best portraits of wartime Britain. "Colonel Blimp," which Churchill tried to block from release, takes us across four decades of tumultuous change through the eyes of a fustian but endearing Edwardian officer of the old school (played by a wonderfully quintessential British actor, Roger Livesey). "A Canterbury Tale," an updated version of Chaucer, is a paen to the simple truths of rural England; it climaxes in a magnificent scene of the wartime pilgrims marching toward the enduring cathedral, still standing, undaunted, amidst the rubble of the modern age.
Of the actual U.S. wartime pictures, I would rank as among the best the story of the Doolittle raid, the first air attack on Japan in April 1942, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944). Although afflicted with dated, cloying sentimentality between the protagonist, Lt. Ted W. Lawson (Van Johnson) and his young wife (Phyllis Thaxter), the film reaches heights with the hurried takeoff of the Army B-25 Mitchell bombers from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet. (No Navy aircraft had the range to reach Japan and the takeoffs of the large B-25's required extensive training, which is shown in the film). This magnificent sequence takes us on through the raid itself, the crash-landing of the Lawson "ship" (the "Ruptured Duck") on the Chinese coast, and the rescue of the wounded crew (Lawson lost a leg) by Chinese guerrillas.
The film is based on the magazine stories and book by Lawson and Robert Considine, and was written by the later blacklisted Communist party member Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo's script is superb, giving almost poetic voice to the simple, direct aspirations of the men and their patriotism and camaraderienot warlike or boastful, but just doing a job that has to be done. When the badly wounded, frightened men have been brought to their first hiding place from the dark, rain-swept beach where they were found after the crash, they are told by an English-speaking Chinese: "All up and down the Chinese coast, my countrymen are seeking out your countrymen. We will bring you through." Later, when they are recuperating in a (somewhat) less dangerous hiding place, they are brought a gift by a humble, elderly Chinese. They are told that it has an inscription: "These are American heroes who bombed Japan. Wherever they go in China, they are to be treated with honor and respect." (How many younger Americans today know that Japan made brutal war in China for eight years, killing millions of civilians?) When Lawson is carried out on a stretcher to a new location, director Mervyn LeRoy's camera dollies in on the face of a small, older Chinese woman who had been helping care for him, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Another, earlier, scene that does depict wartime belligerence is Col. Doolittle's (Spencer Tracy) briefing of the pilots aboard the Hornet. The grit and resolution with which he announces (for the first time) the dangerous mission, reciting the targets as if through clenched teeth"Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya"this only four months after Pearl Harboris far removed from the bland, non-belligerent, at times almost apologetic, style of leadership we see today. (Can anyone conceive of an American leader today invoking a phrase like FDR's reference to our "righteous might" in his Pearl Harbor address?) Doolittle, who piloted the first bomber, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
What is remarkable about this film is the special effects of the bombing raid: The take-off in the rough seas, as the Hornet's crew cheer from the deck, the Ruptured Duck flying low just over the tips of the waves, passing over some Japanese fishing boats with their Rising Sun flag ("See that flag?" Lawson angrily comments), sighting Mount Fuji (the gunner sneering from ear to ear), then speeding over rice patties and farmland before approaching Tokyo Bay, flying higher over the densely packed city and dropping its bombs on the targets belowmany if not most viewers must think they are watching actual combat footage. But it's all the creation in the studio of MGM's special effects genius from the 1920's through the 1950's, A. Arnold Gillespie, the man responsible for "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and both the silent "Ben-Hur" (1926) and the 1959 remake, and for Cary Grant crawling down Mount Rushmore in "North by Northwest" (1959). His creation here is so compelling that it is used as the prelude in the 1976 film, "Midway" and undoubtedly was assumed by most viewers then to be authentic. (Japanese shock and outrage at the attack on the home islands only four months after Pearl Harboran idea hatched by President Rooseveltled directly to the decisive Battle of Midway in June 1942, in which our outnumbered forces sank all four enemy carriers and broke the back of its fleet. How many younger Americans know this, the crucial victory of the Pacific war and one of the great decisive battles of all time?)
Another memorable wartime battle film is a documentary, "Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress" (1944). This is not to be confused with the more recent drama of the same name. Filmed in color by William Wyler, the film's understated realism and narration make it a compelling experience. Wyler, who was born in Alsace and was in his early forties at the time, was one of a number of prominent directors who volunteered for war service. Now a man of wealth and fame, he risked his life to fly on bombing missions over enemy territory to show the cauldron our airmen were facing for all of us, watching safe at home. Wounded himself, Wyler's experience with the men who feared, suffered and died is quite evident in the devotion he poured into "Best Years," and in that film's purity of feeling. Two other important documentaries are "The Fighting Lady" (1944), a graphic account of the crew of an aircraft carrier, and John Ford's documentary, "The Battle of Midway" (1942). Ford, then in his late forties, volunteered and was on Midway when it was attacked; exposing himself to enemy fighters, he shot extensive footage on his own; a wound to his eye forced him to wear a patch for the rest of his life. These three films put to shame the recent, puerile "Pearl Harbor" (2001).
Those momentous years were filled with examples of sacrifice by Hollywood. Clark Gable, then in his early forties, volunteered and also flew on bombing missions over Nazi Germany, as a gunner. Among the other prominent directors who volunteered were Frank Capra, who made the acclaimed "Why We Fight" series of films, John Huston, and George Stevens, who oversaw much of the color combat photography taken in France and Germany in 1944-45, including the liberation of Dachau.
Many stars then in their thirties also volunteered and served in combat: James Stewart, frustrated by the public relations role he had been assigned, acquired the necessary training flying hours at his own expense and went on to command twenty combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. (He always carried with him the copy of the 91st Psalm his father had given him before he left for overseas). Earlier, among his PR assignments, in December 1941 Stewart hosted a radio program, "We Hold These Truths," celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Almost one-half the population, more than 60 million, then the biggest audience in radio history, listened in. At the end, Stewart reprised his great role as Senator Jefferson Smith from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), giving an impassioned plea for democracy, then introduced President Roosevelt. Another star, then in his later thirties, Robert Montgomery went over to France in 1940 and drove an ambulance at the front. Upon returning he joined the Navy, commanding a PT-boat in the Pacific and serving as operations officer on a destroyer at D-Day. (Montgomery subsequently was President Eisenhower's media coachprobably the first in the business). Along with many others, these men were the Pat Tillmans of their time.