Friday, March 7, 2014

"Authentic heroes," instead of the "screen variety"

In 1940, more than half the adult US population went to the movies each week. In addition to a double feature and some short cartoons, they also got ten to twenty minutes of newsreels, which was one of the primary sources for Americans to see and hear the news in the days before television.  And then (as today!) the way current events were portrayed by the media was a very powerful way to influence public opinion.  This was never more evident than the famous 1935 German propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" by Leni Riefenstahl, which galvanized support behind Adolf Hitler.

And the movies made by Hollywood reflected - unofficially, for the most part - the stand taken by the United States.  Films like "How Green was My Valley" and "Mrs. Miniver" were decidedly pro-British.  Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris (which I received from Amazon Vine) is an account of the relationship between movies and the war effort during WWII.  It focuses on five famous Hollywood directors who put their lives and careers on hold and enlisted during the Second World War. Although mostly a bit too old for regular service, all were able to contribute their unique filmmaking talents. I'd heard of Frank Capra, John Ford, and John Huston, but William Wyler and George Stevens were new to me (in name at least - I'd heard of some of their films).

All the men were touched by their service in different ways. I loved Huston's comment that after "working with authentic heroes, I was in no mood to put up with the screen variety." His most notable wartime film was the mostly forgotten "Report From the Aleutians," which tried to play up the mostly non-existent action.  Capra spent his time fighting government bureaucracy trying to make the "Why We Fight" and "Know Your Enemy" series of films for soldiers.  Perhaps the most successful was Ford's "Battle of Midway," which for the first time showed audiences actual combat footage.  It also set the tone for future war movies, with choppy footage and cameras shaking after explosions (and yes, even critics back then found the sappy narration a bit over the top). But there was also the private film he had made and quietly sent to the families of the members of Torpedo Squadron Eight, all but one of which died in the battle.

For me, Wyler and Stevens became my favorites.  I enjoyed the accounts of Wyler's filming on bombing runs with the crew of the Memphis Belle (not to be confused with the 1990 film).  He even lost his hearing after spending an entire bombing run in the belly of a bomber (it returned partially in the following years).   Stevens believed it was important to prepare the public for life after the war, and was forever scarred by his painful yet crucial filming of the liberation of concentration camps.

And although this felt like an unusually long read (about 450 pages), I really enjoyed it and found myself constantly turning down page corners and marking interesting quotes and information. Whether it was Capra's efforts to increase the visibility of negroes in film two decades before the Civil Rights Movement or the wartime activities of other notables such a Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) who worked on the "Private SNAFU" cartoons or John Wayne who avoided military service, it's an interesting look at how American culture was influenced. Harris also follows up with their work after the war, such as the awards competition that pitted Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" against Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" (which won easily). Ironically, both films were efforts by the directors to put their own experiences into perspective and to deal with them in the only way they knew how.

But perhaps one of my favorite comments that illustrates the human side Harris captures in this excellent book is when Stevens filmed some Axis collaborators from the prison in Luxembourg. "When they march these prisoners through the streets," Stevens wrote, "a little boy about ten marches bravely in the front rank. Probably his father is the prisoner marching by his side."

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