Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Conflict of Interest

By Chris Herrington

JULY 27, 1998:  The World War II combat film is a genre that hasn’t been common since the spate of big-budget epics in the Seventies (Tora! Tora! Tora!, Midway, A Bridge Too Far). But it seems to be in the midst of a rebirth. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opens this weekend, and will be followed later this year by The Thin Red Line, Terence Malick’s (Badlands, Days of Heaven) long-awaited return to the director’s chair. Up until now World War II films have been more notable for their quantity than quality, but both the Spielberg and Malick films have the pedigree to change that. Mid-century’s global conflict hasn’t yet produced combat films as ecstatic or personal as Vietnam-era classics Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.

Yet, despite the paucity of great WWII combat films, it was the most cinema-centered war. The First World War came about while cinema was still in the toddler stages, so it was experienced on the homefront mostly through the printed word. Vietnam, by contrast, was graphically depicted on the evening news. World War II came at a time when television was just developing and the movies were at a peak. Thus, for those on the homefront, the war was experienced in theatres, through newsreels and Hollywood fiction films.

With production supervised by the Office of War Information(OWI), and with Hollywood understandably united behind the war effort anyway, combat films produced during the war were generally not fraught with emotional or ideological complication. Right and wrong were clearly defined, and most of the films adhered to a basic formula: a group of men from different backgrounds are brought together and in the heat of battle these men grow close, united against the onslaught of the enemy. These films are more compelling now as historical rather than aesthetic documents. With their stress on the bravery of the American soldier in combat, these films were propagandistic products whose depiction of the physical and psychological toll of combat was rarely realistic. They performed very specific functions in helping those on the homefront cope with the war: They defined and characterized the enemy, they gave an ideological justification for the conflict, and they gave people a model for dealing with wartime issues.

The first American combat film to come out of the war was Wake Island (1942), a true story of a small detachment of Marines holding out against multiple attacks by Japanese forces. This relatively dark film depicts a period of the war when there had been no U.S. victories, and, though bloodless (as all films made during the war were), its battle scenes are fairly graphic. Though it ends with the destruction of the American unit, Wake Island still leaves the audience on an optimistic note – a double-exposed shot of Old Glory waving and U.S. troops marching, accompanied by this voice-over that vows that the “blood and sweat and fury” of American forces will “exact just and terrible vengeance.”

Audiences got a taste of this vengeance with the films inspired by the first attacks on the Japanese mainland. Destination Tokyo (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) tell the story of this mission from two different perspectives. Destination Tokyo follows the submarine crew who laid the groundwork for the aerial attack of Tokyo, with Cary Grant as commander. The more factually based Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo follows the pilots making the attack, with Spencer Tracy as General Jimmy Doolittle, who planned and led the mission, and Van Johnson as Ted Lawson, the pilot on whose account the film is based.

Coming soon after Pearl Harbor, these films reinforced American conceptions of the Japanese and served as an outlet for anger over the perceived sneak attack. The films of the period dehumanized the enemy, constantly referring to them as “Japs,” and portraying them as back-stabbing liars, literally so in Destination Tokyo when a downed Japanese pilot stabs and kills an American G.I. who tries to pull him out of the water to safety. In Wake Island a Japanese plane backtracks to shoot down an American pilot falling to earth in his parachute. The anti-Japanese propaganda in Destination Tokyo is particularly pervasive. Grant relates a story of the deceased soldier giving his 5- year-old son a pair of roller skates, then continues, “That Jap got a present, too, when he was 5, except it was a dagger. His dad got him a dagger so he’d know what to be in life.” Later he informs his crew, “They don’t understand the love we have for our women – they don’t even have a word for it in their language.”

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, written by Dalton Trumbo, who would go on to pen the anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun, is less dogmatic, though perhaps more sentimental. It concentrates more on the homefront than other wartime combat films, and, in the form of Lawson’s pregnant wife, gave women viewers someone on whom to project their own concerns. When Lawson returns home without a leg, his wife acts as if there’s been no change, giving audiences an example of how to deal with such unavoidable outcomes of combat. Similarly, in Destination Tokyo, Grant’s homecoming is not complicated by his battle experiences. Films made during the war would repress those issues in ways that post-war coming home films, like The Best Years of Our Lives, would not.

Later combat films offered a more realistic view of the war. The Longest Day (1963), a three-hour account of the Allied invasion of Normandy, was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made, and set the standard for the recreation of battle scenes. With six directors, five screenwriters and “42 international stars,” the film gives a historically accurate portrait of the invasion that lets foreign characters speak their own language and treats all participants fairly. The film is, visually, quite stunning, though the formatting on most video versions is even more damaging than usual. And the dialogue, at times, detracts from the film’s hyper-realistic feel. Characters tend to speak with an understanding of the event’s place in history unlikely for those experiencing it as it happened.

Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) was a return to the more intimate style of earlier WWII films, following a small group of troops (four greenhorns and grizzled veteran Lee Marvin) from battle to battle. Fuller was 69 when he made the film and based it on his own wartime combat experiences. The film depicts both the macho camaraderie and horrible butchery of war with depth and a lack of sentimentality, and with Fuller’s trademark extremity. There’s an unforgettable shootout in an insane asylum in occupied France and childbirth in a German tank. After its many vignettes, the film ends at a German concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. This extraordinary final section is almost silent, and closes the film with a defense of what the brutality of that particular war may have been worth.

If Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line are to eclipse the World War II combat films that have come before them, then the challenge will be to combine the personal poetry of a film like The Big Red One with the historical sweep of a film like The Longest Day.


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